Romance Fiction, or Diversity in the Publishing Industry

Helen HoangI’ve been waffling a bit about whether to write about this or not, because I guess it’s not exactly a leisurely topic, except… I actually do read about the lack of diversity in the publishing industry in my leisure time, and I’m wagering I’m not the only one, so yes, I do believe this is for your leisure!

(I’ll try my best to avoid throwing words like “hegemony” and “heteronormativity” around, in the interests of keeping this leisurely.)

Here’s a brief excerpt from a romance novel:

Michael was mint chocolate chip for her. She could try other flavors, but he’d always be her favorite.

(Helen Hoang, The Kiss Quotient)

Quick: what race/ethnicity is Michael? How about her?

Did you assume they were both white?* So Michael is Vietnamese and Swedish, and the female character is unspecified (I think – I’m going off a comment on Goodreads) with Asperger’s. And when it’s unspecified, we generally default to thinking of white (cis/able-bodied/straight) as the norm – the female character’s Asperger’s is defined in the novel. So let’s talk about whiteness in the romance fiction industry, below the cut.

Toni Morrison*What am I referring to when I say “white”? My own take on this is that it’s a bit of a slippery definition, and one of the reasons for this is illuminated in Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness in the Literary Imagination, where Morrison notes that it is in the othering of non-whites that whiteness construes its own identity – it’s a concept that is defined almost entirely by what it is not (you can see how that strategy of figuring out who’s white and who isn’t is immediately problematic, considering you’d need to know first who’s white in order to Other non-whites). Whiteness also depends on where you are as well as what time period we’re talking about, and it’s inextricable from power & privilege. It can be more complicated than we usually give it credit for whenever we talk about whiteness and let the word “white” be shorthand for something we’d rather not define. For our purposes, we’ll go with the definition of those North Americans who are of Anglo-Saxon European descent.

Do read Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark though – when I read it for the first time, I remember thinking that it made a lot of sense, and pointed out things that I must have known, since I didn’t feel like Morrison was saying something completely new to me, but that I had perhaps not understood as articulately as Morrison writes about it.

Alyssa ColeIf it feels like I’ve traveled a great distance from the title of this post and you’re starting to wonder if the title was actually just clickbait, let me circle back to romance fiction, because that’s what got me interested in writing this post to begin with (though you’ll find that I’ll be digressing a bit here and there and everywhere, this post will center mainly on the romance fiction publishing industry, and focus on the lack of diversity on the part of the authors rather than in terms of the content of what is published).

I think the articles that got me thinking more and more about racial diversity in the publishing industry were Publishers Weekly’s rallying cry and RA for All’s Call to Action to Conduct a Diversity Audit of library collections. And as I dug a little bit deeper, I found that just about every article 1) was written in the past couple of years or so – very recent; and 2) referenced The Ripped Bodice’s diversity report on the romance publishing industry.

The Ripped Bodice is “the only exclusively romance bookstore in the United States” according to their website, and as of 2017, they’ve started publishing yearly diversity reports about the state of diversity in the romance publishing industry (so the report in 2017 was for 2016). So far, we’ve got 2016 and 2017’s reports, and let me tell you: they’re depressing. Taking a look at the 2017 report, which is scathing by the way, I’m flabbergasted just reading the excuses offered by publishers for why there’s such a dearth of authors of colour being published (all the below excuses in quotes are taken from the 2017 report, though the report gives fuller responses destroying these excuses, so please take a look at it):

  1. “These books don’t sell”… except according to The Ripped Bodice’s sales, 60% of the 2017 bestsellers were by authors of colour, so… no. I’m not saying that The Ripped Bodice is the only data to go by as far as bestselling romance fiction, as there are many other venues (including regular bookstores and online stores), but it does happen to be an exclusively romance fiction bookstore. In theory you could argue that customers who go to The Ripped Bodice self-select and are different from the the general population of romance fiction consumers (in the United States), but… I’m going to put the onus on you to show me that.
    • Also. Consumers can only read what has already been published, and if the publishing industry narrowly selects what it’s going to publish, that might make it awfully difficult for people who might be looking for something different from the established hegemonic structure to find something that speaks to them and their experiences. Which would mean that while no one’s calling the publishers offering this sad excuse liars, there just might be – MAYBE? – a deeper and more systematic issue with the entire structure of the romance fiction publishing industry. Oh, and, is this statement an assumption that white readers (I’m making an assumption that this is the imagined target audience? Though this doesn’t make too much sense either, depending on which year’s report on reading you study**) won’t be interested in reading anything written by an author of colour? I find this an odd view to hold, so I’m kind of just putting it out there for consideration and not actually seriously considering that this might be what is implied in that statement – hoping that I don’t have to address this would be more accurate – because honestly?
      • While chatting with a coworker, they mentioned also that perhaps when authors of colour write romance fiction, it might get categorized as something else and be published simply as general Adult Fiction, which I found an interesting point. I’m not familiar enough with the racial distribution of authors across different genre fictions to say anything on the topic, but it’s definitely something to consider or look into! Perhaps some genres are more receptive to racial diversity than others.
  2. “There are only so many seats at the table”. Excuse me? There’s an underlying assumption here that only certain people are allowed at the table regardless of how many seats there are.
  3. “We only care about the quality of the books”. Can we… unpack that sentence and its implications?
    • Let’s talk about the quality problem. I’m sad that Alyssa Cole (author of An Extraordinary Union) has yet to publish a second installment of what looks to be a multi-part post as this was published in 2016, but Cole does a good job addressing the endless loop that puts already marginalized authors in a disadvantaged position in comparison to their white counterparts, which contributes to a further perceived “quality gap”
      • Cole also has very cool page on the romance fiction industry on an international scale as well: Romancing the Globe. Check it out!

Here’s another depressing statistic from the report:

For every 100 books published by the leading romance publishers in 2017, only 6.2 were written by people of color. Down from 7.8 in 2016.

I’m not sure if I need to explain why this is an issue, when only 76.6% of the population of the U.S. identified as “white alone” according to the  U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts. Which means that 23.4% of the U.S. population does not identify as “white alone”, as compared to the 6.2% of published romance books written by authors of colour. In case this is not immediately mind-boggling enough: that’s a 17.2% gap between the population and the publishing industry. 17.2%! Worse, that number actually went down from 2016.

Another article that got me feeling strongly enough to research more into this issue again was an article from BuzzFeed: Meet the Black Women Who Are Building a Better Romance Industry, which talks about how Kensington Publishing (which published Alyssa Cole’s An Extraordinary Union) is targeting this lack of diversity – this huge gap – and trying to change things around in the romance publishing industry. If we take a look at the diversity report from The Ripped Bodice, we’ll see that Kensington Publishing  hasn’t really changed from 2016 to 2017 (down 0.1%), though they’re already the second-highest percentage at 12.6% in 2017 (they were number 1 in 2016). Crimson Romance, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, is leading at 29.3%, up 17% from last year. Aside from these two publishers, there are 2 other publishers that score above 10% in this report: Gallery (12.2%) and Sourcebooks (11.6%). The remaining 16 (!) publishers all fall below 10%. Can I just say that this is dismal?*** I wanted to search up all the romance fiction we own by each of these publishers and then put in a table with the numbers of authors of colour v.s. white authors that we own in our collection, as a fun look at the disparity based on those percentages from the report, but unfortunately many of these publishers do more than just romance fiction, and we have no way of narrowing it down in our search.

(I would like to do a quick shout-out to a bookstore I was recently introduced to in Toronto that really focuses on bringing other cultural narratives to the fore: A Different Booklist. In their own words: “From the South to the North, from Africa to the Caribbean, from Asia to South America, we bring you literary gems from Canada’s cultural mosaic”. They are also a cultural centre: see The People’s Residence.)

On a slightly more optimistic note, the topic of subversion and romance fiction, there was an article on  Buzzfeed, Who Gets a Happily Ever After in 2018?****, which discusses how romance fiction can actually be more powerful and subversive than you might typically think, which is heartening. If you search up “patriarchy” on that article, it’ll take you to an interesting couple of paragraphs talking about Maya Rodale’s (author of Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained) view on romance novels and what purpose they serve as far as challenging the patriarchy.

“Romance has been hugely revolutionary and feminist from the beginning, because it empowers women by giving them the space to tell their own stories, to talk to one another” (Maya Rodale, qtd in Who Gets a Happily Ever After in 2018?).

This description of romance fiction actually reminds me a bit of Nüshu, a now dead script invented & used exclusively by women in a region of China during the late Imperial period. “There is some debate as to whether Nüshu was borne of oppression from men and deliberately kept secret from them, or whether the men of that region simply were not interested in the affairs of women, but in any case, there have been very few men who became literate in the script” (ScriptSource). It kind of sounds like romance novels as described by Maya Rodale. Perhaps I’m stretching it a bit far. Or perhaps this points to an even deeper underlying issue than just the publishing industry. But that’s another post, for another day.

Given all the above, what can we as library staff & customers do? We can Read in Colour, and make sure to include diverse books and other items in our displays or whenever we do Reader’s Advisory. We can register for courses such as LibraryJournal’s Diversity and Cultural Competency Training: Collections and RA whenever they come up so that we are better prepared to serve our incredibly diverse communities. There are so many opportunities to include authors of colour, to include diverse books and content, and it all just takes maybe 5-10 minutes extra to do a quick search for some diverse authors or content to include in your display, or to recommend to a friend or a customer. So what’s holding you back?


**This is a bit of a sidenote, in part because I feel that it relates to another post I’ve been working on about information literacy. This Pew report on Reading in America 2013 (published 2014) was cited once or twice in my research for this post, and interestingly enough, I actually feel like it’s been misrepresented – for example, in NYTimes’ In Love with Romance Novels, but Not Their Lack of Diversity, where the author of the article describes the Pew study as “indicat[ing] that one of the most significant book-buying demographics is college-educated black women” (Rosman, 2017 – note the years). I’m not trying to detract from the argument that there definitely needs to be more books written by people of colour and about people of colour, but I’ve also been thinking a lot about information literacy, so this is an interesting little bit for two reasons:

  1. The reading snapshot Rosman’s statement refers to (I think) is actually about the % of American adults 18+ who had read at least one book in 2013 (print, e-book, audiobook), where black people, college-educated people, and women had the highest percentages in the table. Which doesn’t mean that they are the highest demographic to purchase books. Nor does it mean that black, college-educated women read more books than any other demographic.
  2. Second, there have been more recent reports about reading books in 2015 and 2016 that were published by Pew Research, and the numbers have changed.
    • In 2015, those most likely to have read a book in the past year were women, white non-hispanic, between the ages of 18-29, and had college education or higher.
    • In 2016, again, women, white non-hispanic, 18-29, and college & college+ had the highest percentages of having read a book within the past year.
    • I don’t know why there’s the sudden drop in percentage as far as black readers are concerned in these reports, but I’m wondering if it has something to do with the 2015 & 2016 reports specifically noting that whoever identifies as white or black have to also be non-hispanic?

***Here’s another depressingly overwhelmingly white report on diversity within the publishing industry: Lee and Low Books’ 2015 Diversity Baseline Report. They also have a number of other articles on The Diversity Gap, whether that be for children’s books in 2018 or a 2017 followup to the baseline report that includes some details about their own staff. There’s also a reading list of top 10 responses to the diversity baseline report. Also see NPR’s article on how Diversity in Book Publishing Isn’t Just About Writers – Marketing Matters, Too.

****In Who Gets a Happily Ever After in 2018?, the author of the article states that “Straight, cis, beautiful, upper-class couples are at the center of most romance novels, especially those from major publishers. (The Ripped Bodice put out a damning report on this topic.)”, and this is really an aside here, but the damning report is not about the diversity featured in the contents of the books so much as diversity in the authors being published. Here’s one that really resonated from this article though: “White authors who write white, straight, cis couples and say, I’m keeping my politics out of my work, hardly are”.

About Karen

Karen (she/hers) is a Culinary Literacies Specialist at the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre library. When not in the kitchen, she can be found knitting, reading, and repeating.  |  Meet the team

2 thoughts on “Romance Fiction, or Diversity in the Publishing Industry

  1. This post is excellent! I can’t say I’ve ever given much thought to this genre, but now it’s glaringly obvious to me how non-diverse it is. It reminds me of the way the sci-fi genre used to be (and kind of still is), where the “norm” was a straight white male author, and anyone else was held in lesser regard. This has changed slowly over the years, and we now see authors like NK Jemisin winning the big awards! Of course, there is still backlash against female/POC writers in this genre, but it seems to be moving toward inclusiveness. So if publishers really try, we can probably make similar strides in the romance genre! Everything comes down to marketability, so if the numbers are behind POC buyers there really is no reason at all not to open the doors to new voices.

    I love what you said about it being a language for women. It reminds me of how when the popular novel was first introduced to the public (in the 1700s I think?), they were dismissed as silly because women liked them, which meant women got to read all the novels! Joke’s on you, men.

    Lastly I’ll single out the quote “White authors who write white, straight, cis couples and say, I’m keeping my politics out of my work, hardly are”. I’ll pose a question to you, not as a challenge but out of curiosity: do we want cis/straight/white authors to write something other than their own experiences? I think it could get dicey (misinformed, fetishistic, etc.). Not to say that they can’t include aspects of “otherness” in their works, but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth when authors regularly adopt a different racial/sexual voice of as the core of their work (I’m thinking of someone specific here). Of course to the point of your post, the ideal solution is to give voice to the actual POC/queer/people who are, in any way, “other” writers. The #OwnVoices campaign focuses on this, and it’s great!

    1. I also didn’t think too much about it until I happened upon those articles. It never really struck me that romance fiction of all categories would be so steeped in politics (well, the personal is political and all that), but it makes sense considering who has the leisure to write and the resources they have available to them, especially when it comes to what is often viewed as a frivolous genre – even before we start to think about which authors get published. It’s definitely heartening to hear that the sci-fi genre has stepped up its game! Do you think it’s in part to do with the rise in popularity of Afrofuturism? Or perhaps it’s the other way around, and it’s only by allowing diversity to flourish within sci-fi that Afrofuturism was able to reach the wider audience in the same way that other sci-fi novels did – and we are subsequently able to actually see the demand for it. (So take that, excuse #1: “These books don’t sell”!) Like you mentioned, it also has a lot to do with marketing and how well these books are being pushed towards consumers, which is another area that I suspect is not being given the same amount of effort as that for established/white authors, which I think also applies to libraries, though this is not a statement that’s backed by any data – perhaps it would be safer to say that I believe library staff are also in positions where falling back onto established white authors as recommendations is easy to do. And this isn’t necessarily a conscious decision either, as I’m sure many times it’s a passive recommendation process whereby established authors get recommended to customers more often because the staff just know about them off the top of their head.

      Ooooh that’s a really good question! And yes, #OwnVoices is wonderful – I can’t believe I forgot to mention it! But back to the question. Cis/straight/abled/white authors writing about experiences other than their own of course comes with the very real possibility that the issues you bring up might arise and have to be dealt with. Let me rephrase that, actually: these issues unfortunately already happen when some authors writing outside of their own experiences and knowledge make assumptions, misrepresent/stereotype the diverse cast of characters they include in their stories, and/or capitalize on fetishizing and othering people who fall outside of that norm. That being said, I have hope that there are also authors who are willing to do extensive research and include those within the communities they are writing about in their process – by using sensitivity readers, for example, though I believe there’s a debate around that as well – such that the result is a respectful and well-informed work featuring/about what the author hasn’t personally experienced or doesn’t personally identify as. It’s a similar challenge to what I hear some of my cis/straight/white friends positing to themselves in their position as allies in certain movements (e.g. BLM, LGBTQ+; or even in learning about Canada’s relationship with its indigenous community and figuring out how to best support the causes they support), where there is the consideration of how best to be an ally so that white heteronormativity isn’t crushing everything outside of itself underfoot by speaking in their stead and perpetuating the damage (not to mention the white man as saviour trope), even if their intentions are good.

      But the thing is, if the fear of writing diverse content prevents authors from trying to engage with diversity and extending their empathy to people in situations different from their own (because to write respectfully based on other people’s experiences requires that empathy, I think), then that itself presents a threat to diversity in the publishing industry too (and not just in the publishing industry either). Because then we run the risk of failing to engage at all in the discussion, and in doing so we uphold the status quo. (I’m saying “we” because even though I’m not white and I’m not a writer, I feel we all have a responsibility to engage in the discussion.) And now I think I’m starting to get into white fragility territory, which would be another post entirely! Perhaps after I read White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo.

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