I was not at this year’s RT, so I can’t speak to the precise dynamics that occurred this year. However, in the past, authors who did not have returnable print books (that is, most authors published by digital-first houses and self-published authors) had a SEPARATE signing on an entirely different day. That signing was poorly attended by the public because it was held in the afternoon on a weekday. Not many readers can get off work to attend a book signing in the middle of a workday. This meant most of the people who attended that signing were conference attendees.
I believe that RT moved that signing to coincide with the “traditional” Saturday book signing precisely to give digital-first and self-published authors an experience that more closely mirrored what the print-published authors got in the past: a signing attended by local readers. What they didn’t do was to “mix together” the two groups of authors. There were essentially still two signings, as there had been in the past, but at the same day and time. This caused major headaches (separate rooms, different lines for different types of book purchases, authors having to decide whether to sign print or digital if they had both, etc.), but I don’t believe it was done with the intention of making some authors feel like second-class citizens. In fact, I think it was done with the express intent of making the authors more “equal.”
What’s most ironic is how spectacularly that effort failed. When there were actually two signings and the digital-first/self-published authors really DID have a second-class experience, there was nothing LIKE this firestorm of controversy surrounding the two different signings. Seriously.
While it’s obvious from the backlash that RT handled the organization of this event poorly, the notion that some authors were relegated to a smaller room because the conference organizers had some sort of agenda against said authors is simply nonsensical. Facts that have been pointed to as proof of this agenda include:
1) Smaller table space for digital-first/self-pub authors than for print authors (which was probably done so more total authors could be accommodated and based on the assumption that the authors selling only print and not digital books would have more physical books on hand and therefore require more table space)
2) Digital-first/self-pub authors being referred to as “aspiring authors” (which seems to have happened once when an announcer apparently misspoke; I can find nothing to support the assertion that digital-first/self-pub authors were given name badges that said “Aspiring Author” instead of “Published Author”)
3) A door to the digital room was apparently closed at some point (an accident? which door? people who were there have told me there was always an open corridor between the two rooms, so I have no idea what actually happened, but I doubt any deliberate effort to cut off the digital room)
The bottom line, as far as I’m concerned is this: RT attempted to do what used to be two separate signings at the same time and, because they were accustomed to treating them as separate events, kept them as such because that’s what they were accustomed to. The result was chaos, as large events which are not well thought out are wont to be. But no one had any intent to slight anyone. That’s simply imputing far much more “planning” than the outcome suggests.