Romance So White

An annual report highlights Romancelandia’s continued racial-diversity problems

Do you read racially diverse romance? Whether the answer is an unqualified “YES!” or a quietly questioning “…no?”, it might interest you to know that The Ripped Bodice has recently published its 2019 State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing Study, and the results are less than rosy.

The Ripped Bodice, a romance bookstore based in Culver City, has been conducting its own unscientific study for the past four years (2016-2019), and doing its best to shine a light on the romance publishing industry’s problems concerning race and ethnicity. Although the genre supports a wide variety of women’s voices, both in the books it publishes and in the behind-the-scenes work of editing, publishing, and marketing those books, it still lags behind in terms of “own voices” racial representation (books written by and about people of color) and in the number of authors of color it chooses to employ. Notably, gatekeepers at most of the big romance houses are visibly very, very white.

If you followed the Christmastime implosion of the Romance Writers of America (RWA) last year, which continues to have rippling effects throughout the community, you probably already know that the group—North America’s largest trade organization professionally representing romance writers, exclusively—has a diversity problem. The group’s board of directors resigned, along with a large portion of the membership, leaving romance writers in the lurch, making it even more important for independent groups like The Ripped Bodice, the only romance-focused bookstore in the United States, run by sisters Bea and Leah Koch, to continue to shine a light upon Romancelandia’s most problematic diversity issues.

As the report notes, “After four years of data collection, the numbers speak for themselves. They provide a clear picture of who is and isn’t being published, which publishers are showing tangible improvements and which publishers are putting out statements that are not backed up by their numbers.”

Beginning with a list of the bookstore’s own bestsellers for 2019, which includes a fairly diverse roster of authors (including Helen Hoang, who has two titles on the list), they also make a point of mentioning that they’ve removed Dreamspinner Books from the report this year for its nonpayment of authors.

As for the numerical breakdowns, the results are sobering. Kensington ranks as the romance publisher with the highest percentage of books published by people of color in 2019, but claiming the top slot with only a record of publishing 27.5% AOC is hardly a mantle to celebrate, despite being one of the publishers who opted to provide their own data to the report’s authors for analysis. The worst offenders, Bethany House and Tule Publishing, published zero people of color  in 2019. Newcomer NineStar Press and old standby Simon & Schuster didn’t fare much better, publishing 2.2% and 2.3% by authors of color, respectively. Curiously, both Bethany House and Tule self-reported these abysmal figures, while Simon & Schuster simply ignored the report authors’ attempts to communicate.

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On the positive side, several of the publishers tracked show slow year-over-year improvements, with Avon Romance moving from 2.8% in 2016 up to 8.8% in 2019, Berkley moving from 3.9% in 2016 up to 17% in 2019, Carina Press jumping from 5.4% in 2016 up to 20.7% in 2019 (after backsliding down to 2.4 and 2.5% in 2017 and 2018), and Kensington showing increasing improvement from 12.7% in 2016 up to its chart-topping 27.5% in 2019.

Bethany House (which bills itself as “the pioneer and leader in Christian fiction”) has published zero authors of color for each of the four years the Ripped Bodice has produced this survey, suggesting that this is an outlet committed to upholding their own glaring lack of diversity, with no plans for improvement. Similarly, despite Tule House’s brief uptick to two percent in 2018, the publisher has since slid back down to zero (in line with their 2016 and 2017 goose eggs), suggesting this publisher has no real interest in improvement.

While these numbers may not provide the whole story of diversity in romance publishing, they do provide quite a bit of context for authors of color’s complaints about the industry. When nine out of 18 total houses are publishing less than five percent authors of any race or ethnicity aside from Caucasian, one has to ponder the message this sends to authors writing romance. Indeed, when the genre’s heaviest hitters (Harlequin Series and HQN) are only clocking in with figures of 5.5% and 2.9%, this paints quite a dismal picture for authors of color overall. Graphs included on the final page of the report make it clear that Simon & Schuster is on a downward trend regarding diversity, despite its claims to the contrary, while Penguin Randomhouse is on the upswing with its Berkley, Ballantine, Bantam and Loveswept imprints.

Some of the questions I find myself asking, particularly after scrolling through long lists of all-white authors on sites like the Tule Publishing Authors page, are: How much responsibility do individual or collective groups of authors have for pushing their publishers to do better? Why is it that romance writers can imagine all manner of paranormal couplings, yet some still seem to find the concept of happy interracial or non-white relationships to be mythological at best? When will the Big Five take the stories of authors of colors seriously, and what does it take for them to finally break the glass ceiling in Romancelandia?

Laura Roberts

Laura Roberts is the founding editor of Black Heart Magazine. She currently lives in Sacramento, California with her artist husband and their literary kitties.

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