Romance Writers of America president Damon Suede has resigned from the position after two weeks in the office following recall petitions filed by numerous chapters of the RWA seeking his removal. RWA executive director Carol Ritter has also tendered her resignation after assuming the role in November. The news comes shortly after a number of book publishers, including imprints at all of the Big Five publishing houses, distanced themselves from the Romance Writers of America as a controversy over bias and a lack of transparency continues to roil the country's foremost writers association for romance writers.
The board of directors will not fill the presidency immediately, opting instead to to work "transparently with its membership" to "determine an appropriate recruitment and selection process," the RWA said in a statement. Ritter will stay on as executive director over the coming months "to support a smooth transition to new staff leadership," and the board will appoint an interim executive director upon her departure and launch a search committee to find a permanent replacement.
"We know we have a lot more work to do to restore the trust we have lost—and we are going to do whatever it takes to get there so that we can focus on the mission of this organization: to promote the professional and common business interests of romance writers," the RWA said in a statement this morning announcing the resignations. "Our goal is to ensure the successful future of this association so it can be an even stronger, better and more inclusive professional home and advocate for romance authors."
As of this morning, publishers including Avon, Berkley Romance, Entangled, HarperCollins Canada and Harlequin, Kensington, St. Martin's, Gallery Books, and Tule Publishing have all pulled support from the RWA and the national conference, and a tweet citing an email allegedly sent by Sourcebooks says that that house will also not support the conference. The statements all cite increasing diversity and/or inclusion in publishing as a priority, as well as condemning recent events at the RWA.
"We are extremely distressed by the recent events concerning RWA and the magnitude of the problems that persist in the organization," Steven Zacharius, president and CEO of Kensington, wrote in a letter to the RWA board of directors. "We are committed to supporting our authors, however, we cannot support RWA or the national conference until you are fulfilling your mission to your members."
In a letter also issued to the RWA board, Harlequin and HC Canada noted that, while it will not sponsor or attend the RWA2020 national conference, the publishers "will reevaluate our participation in 2021 as the organization works with its members to address concerns that have been raised." The statement added: "We will continue to support Harlequin authors and we are currently looking at additional ways to reach out to both our authors and to the romance writing community in the coming year."
Avon, in addition to pulling its "promotional sponsorship" and "presence at the Romance Writers of America national conference," added that they "are working with Beverly Jenkins to redirect the Beverly Jenkins Diverse Voices sponsorship and create new mentorship opportunities for #ownvoices authors."
A representative of the RWA told PW that, in spite of the turmoil, "our 2020 conference is moving forward as scheduled, and we believe it will be a critical moment for our members to come together to discuss the important issues around diversity, equity and inclusion that have surfaced in recent weeks," noting that while the organization is "disappointed to lose some sponsors and participants for this year," it hopes "to regain their support in the months and years ahead."
The representative added: "While these are not new issues for our community, we are at an inflection point and are committed to providing a transparent forum for our members and our partners to confront these issues so we can move forward as a stronger, more diverse organization. We held a town hall to hear from our members at last year’s conference and plan to expand on that dialogue this year with additional programming as we work to build RWA into a stronger, more inclusive organization for all our members."
This news comes shortly after the announcement that Donna Alward had resigned as RWA secretary, and that RWA board members Barbara Wallace and Renee Ryan had also resigned. That news followed the announcement, earlier this week, that the RWA will postpone the 2020 RITA Contest until next year, scuttling U.S.'s top prize for romance fiction this year.
The RITAs were canceled following nearly a month of chaos at the RWA surrounding a rapidly-expanding controversy concerning the sanctioning of author Courtney Milan, a Chinese-American novelist and then chairperson of the RWA's ethics committee who criticized a novel by white author Kathryn Lynn Davis, which featured Asian-American characters, as a "racist mess" on Twitter. In addition, Suzan Tisdale, another RWA member, was criticized by Milan for keeping Sue Grimshaw on staff at her publishing company despite an alleged history of racist comments in her capacity as romance buyer for Borders. Those charges led to a formal ethics complaint, resulting in the censuring of Milan, the suspension of her membership for one year, and a lifetime ban from holding a leadership position with the organization, despite an exception in the RWA's ethics code that excludes social media posts.
Milan's removal has torn the RWA apart. Many of the group's rank and file took to Twitter accused its board of racism, homophobia, and lack of transparency and tweeted their support for Milan, and bestselling author Nora Roberts has written of her support for Milan as well. Within a day, the board had rescinded its vote censuring and penalizing Milan "pending a legal opinion." In the wake of the uproar, more than a dozen of the organization's board members and top brass had resigned, including former president Carolyn Jewel. Until today, the RWA, under the auspices of Suede, continued to appoint board members to replace them. Whether or not that will continue without a president around to name new board members remains uncertain.
As a result of the turmoil, a number of RWA members have joined the Romance Alliance, a group formed in an effort to create an alternative to the RWA. In a newsletter sent to members and subscribers, the group wrote: "We WANT the people who write what RWA's practices ignored. We WANT diverse personalities and perspectives. We WELCOME the chance to succeed where RWA has systematically failed so many. And we WELCOME any input or suggestions as to how we can achieve our mission better and more meaningfully to YOU."
The Romance Alliance is careful, however, not to imply that it hopes to replace the RWA. "From the beginning we focused on 'can there be an alternative organization for those who feel excluded from RWA?," author Sue London said. "Because there are a lot of us who joined and left RWA for various reasons."
Correction: This story has been updated to include the charges of both Kathryn Lynn Davis and Susan Tisdale against Courtney Milan, one of which was misrepresented in an earlier iteration of this article.