In 2016, we had been open for one intense and educational year as the only romance-focused bookstore in the country. After one year of building a community of romance-loving customers, it became abundantly clear to us that readers were looking for more racial diversity in their romance novels. But when we told publishers this, they were quick to tell us two things: “diverse” books didn’t sell well, and, at the same time, the problem wasn’t as big as we were making it out to be and they were “going to do better.”
At the time, there was already so much fantastic advocacy work being done by authors and readers of color to show publishers the market they were ignoring, and we wanted to find a way to contribute something new to the conversation. We had a hunch that hard data would prove that even as publishers promised over and over again that they were “working on it,” the numbers would not reflect that. We pledged to count the numbers of romance novels published by major publishers in the U.S. each year, and then count the number that were written by people of color. The “Ripped Bodice State of Racial Diversity in Romance” report was born.
2020 was the fifth year we collected this data, giving us an opportunity to carefully examine the authors publishers have signed and published over the past five years. We encourage you to view the full report (as well as those covering the previous four years) at therippedbodicela.com. Looking at the data, we see bright spots, but the overall trend is one of sluggish and inconsistent commitment by publishers to publishing more romance books by authors of color.
Kensington has consistently published the most books by authors of color over the past five years. In an interview with PW last year, commenting on the release of our fourth annual survey, Kensington assistant editor Norma Perez-Hernandez said that “the current numbers show we still have a long way to go.” It is noteworthy to us that the publisher with the strongest track record of publishing romances by diverse authors is able to publicly recognize the work they still have to do, while the vast majority of publishers—who publish a fraction of the number of works by people of color compared to Kensington—are so assiduously absent from this conversation.
On June 1, 2020, seven days after the death of George Floyd , HarperCollins tweeted: “We stand with all of our colleagues, authors, readers, and partners who experience racism and oppression. Black Stories Matter, Black Lives Matter.” Across five imprints, HarperCollins released more than 1,000 romance titles in 2020, and 8% of those books were written by authors of color. This year was the first time HarperCollins even acknowledged our requests to participate in the report, but the new v-p for diversity, equity and inclusion declined to participate on behalf of the company, so we once again collected the data by going through the company’s catalogs.
In 2020, only Carina, Forever Romance, Kensington, and St. Martin’s had at least 15% of their romance titles written by people of color. Berkley Books, the romance imprint of Penguin Random House, had a steady increase in racial diversity over four years, only to see a decrease in 2020. Christian romance publisher Bethany House hasn’t published a single romance written by a person of color in the past five years. Montlake Romance, which is owned by Amazon Publishing, is the only other publisher where the percentage of authors of color of its romances has been 5% or less every single year we have conducted the report.
The last 12 months has brought increased awareness to the work done by people of color to show the impact racism and white supremacy has had on all our institutions, including how they affect book publishing. It has been our experience that the publishing industry would prefer to have conversations about diversifying the romance market behind closed doors. But without public accountability, there has been very little incentive for publishers to change. We believe that when you love something, as we wholeheartedly love the romance genre, having devoted our lives to its success, it is your duty to improve it for those around you and the people who will come after you.
There has been some progress made in adding more diverse authors of romance books, and we remain hopeful more will be added—we can’t help but hope, after all, since romance is all about believing in a happily ever after. But public statements about being anti-racist will never be enough, especially when you look at the numbers and see that publishers are not backing up their statements with financial investments in authors of color. We invite you to review the data in this year’s diversity report and draw your own conclusions.
Bea and Leah Koch are the owners of The Ripped Bodice bookstore in Los Angeles.