It’s been a good year for romance publishing: print unit sales for the first nine months of 2023 were up 16.5% compared with the same period in 2022, according to Circana BookScan, and authors including Hannah Grace, Colleen Hoover, and Ana Huang dominate the paperback bestseller lists. At the same time, there’s a feeling of industry constriction, with staff cutbacks, increasingly cautious acquisition strategies, and the phasing out of mass market paperbacks, which used to be the backbone of the genre. These ups and downs in the romance market are exacerbated for Black authors.
“There’s never been a better time to get your story told, no matter what the story is, but trying to break through is harder now,” says Vanessa Riley, author of A Duke, the Lady, and a Baby, among other titles. “Social media is the great democratization—everybody can get on the mic and say something—but who pays attention is another battle.”
The result, says contemporary romance author Kennedy Ryan, is troubling: “We have some of the best Black and brown writers ever in romance writing right now, and the fact that they are not at the top of every list and they are not on the tip of everybody’s tongue is an outrage. What makes me hopeful is that even amid all of that we have so many Black and brown readers raising their voices. I have to believe that quality is going to be recognized.”
Ryan, a preacher’s daughter, found her first image of love in her parents. “Hearing their stories, seeing the strength of their marriage, was my introduction to what a healthy relationship looks like,” she says. As a teen in the ’80s whose reading life predated Black historical romance queen Beverly Jenkins’s debut in 1994, Ryan read books by white romance authors: by middle school, she was bringing home bodice rippers by Joanna Lindsey and Kathleen Woodiwiss. Her mother was horrified, but Ryan was in love.
In 2019, she became the first Black author to win one of the top awards in romance: the Rita Award for best long-form contemporary romance from the Romance Writers of America, for her self-published novel Long Shot. She used her platform to help call attention to the historical and ongoing sidelining of Black romance authors. (RWA retired the Ritas in 2020 after a 38-year run.)
Berkley executive editor Esi Sogah is likewise an early fan of the genre and started borrowing her mother’s romance novels at age 11. After graduate school, Sogah completed the Columbia publishing course then spent 16 years at Morrow, Avon, and Kensington, working with a range of authors including Jenkins and other romance luminaries such as Alyssa Cole. She joined Berkley in 2022, and her inaugural slate includes Etta Easton’s debut, The Kiss Countdown (Apr. 2024); it’s “trope-tastic and gives you all the feelings,” Sogah says. Also due out in April, Myah Ariel’s When I Think of You is a buzzy debut second-chance romance between former college sweethearts: she’s a struggling film school grad, he’s the son of a hotshot director and is making a movie inspired by his parents’ interracial romance in the Jim Crow South.
When Sogah started in publishing, she says, apart from a few authors like Jenkins, there was little room for Black authors at major romance imprints. “You weren’t on the Avon list,” she notes. “You weren’t on Pocket. You were at their Black imprint. It became very clear to me very quickly that Black writers writing Black characters were not seen in the industry as writing romance.”
This pattern also held true at bookstores, says Taj McCoy, a romance author and an agent with Rees Literary. “Twenty, 25 years ago, we had this whole other section that was off in a corner somewhere that you had to go looking for,” she says. “It was all of the genres together, not just Black romance.”
Discoverability remains a challenge, though the venue has shifted from bookstores to BookTok. “The algorithms don’t work for us the same way” as they do for white authors, McCoy says, suggesting TikTok tends to elevate white social influencers amplifying the work of white creators.“This big focus on BookTok and what can go viral makes me a little worried in terms of Black authors and authors of color being given space and being recognized.”
Along similar lines, dark romance—which explores forbidden fantasies, extreme, obsessive love, and morally gray themes—is one of the driving trends in romance today. But while romance readers lap up such stories when they star white characters, Ryan says, Black romances that touch on taboos are often dismissed as trauma narratives. “We should also be able to talk about difficult things with the freedom that my white counterparts have.”
Many Black writers have found creative freedom in self-publishing, which is why Ryan, for one, remains a hybrid author, publishing both traditionally and independently. Chencia C. Higgins is another. A self-published author since 2016, they’d heard from other Black writers about how their publishers had altered stories to be more palatable to a white reader. “I want no part of that,” they say. “I write love stories about Black women being loved out loud. Everybody’s unambiguously Black. And the story feels familiar to people who look like me.”
Happily, after a friend convinced them to pitch Harlequin’s then-new Carina Adores imprint, they had a positive experience with their traditionally published debut, the 2022 queer contemporary D’vaughn and Kris Plan a Wedding. Though they have no plans to abandon self-publishing, Higgins’s next book with Carina Adores, the friends-to-lovers romance A Little Kissing Between Friends, will be out in May.
Love is in the air
Despite continued frustrations with the industry, Black authors and editors have great expectations for 2024 and beyond. Riley’s work continues to expand the horizons of historical romance: her latest Regency, A Gamble at Sunset, is due out from Zebra in May. It launches the Betting Against the Duke series, which, Riley says, “is inspired by people who are real but have lived different lives than what people assume”—in this case, a 19th-century family of wealthy Black sisters whose father made his money in coal match wits with a Duke related to the African godson of Peter the Great.
Contemporary romance star Tia Williams, whose Seven Days in June was a Reese’s Book Club selection, dips into the historical—the Harlem Renaissance—along with a bit of magic in A Love Song for Ricki Wilde (Grand Central, Feb. 2024). Stories that wed romance with speculative elements are having a moment: in February, Harper Voyager will publish the romantasy Lore of the Wilds by debut author Analeigh Sbrana, who mined her Black and Irish heritage to create an enchanted world.
At science fiction and fantasy–focused Tor Publishing Group, Monique Patterson is at the helm of Bramble, a new imprint for romantic stories. Patterson has a long history of championing Black authors, including speculative fiction writers. In her more than two decades at St. Martin’s, most recently as v-p and editorial director, she worked with authors including L.A. Banks (the Vampire Huntress Legend series) and L. Penelope (Earthsinger Chronicles). She recently acquired a work from Naima Simone (the Rose Bend series), a “reimagining of fairy tales mixed with mafia romance” slated for fall 2025. In the meantime, the imprint, which launched in September, will release its first Black romance, the contemporary Curvy Girl Summer by Danielle Allen, in June.
Also on tap, at Mira, is the rom-com The Good Ones Are Taken (Apr. 2024), a sequel to McCoy’s Savvy Sheldon Feels Good as Hell. As an agent, McCoy’s clients include Karmen Lee, whose traditionally published debut, the sapphic romance The 7-10 Split, launches a contemporary series for Harlequin in May. Ryan’s next release, This Could Be Us (Forever, Mar. 2024), is the second novel in her contemporary Skyland series, which she kicked off with Before I Let Go. A critical and commercial hit, the book has sold 80,000 print copies per BookScan; appeared on numerous 2022 “best of” lists, including PW’s; and is in development at Peacock with a team led by John Legend.
The editors and authors PW spoke with are determined to ensure that Black authors will continue to find their readers. “There are a lot of new romance readers who don’t come with all those expectations,” Sogah says, “who didn’t read their mom’s books at 11 years old, who don’t follow those unwritten rules.” With these new readerships, Black authors “are able to do a lot more now that they were be able to do even 10 years ago.”
Carole V. Bell is a Jamaican-born writer, critic, and communication researcher specializing in media, politics, and identity.
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