Readers of all ethnicities devour romance novels, but the books on offer haven’t always reflected that reality. Here, we look at how publishers and authors are meeting the growing demand for multicultural romance.

Once a bastion of blonde, blue-eyed heroines and tall, dark (but not too dark) heroes, romance novels are increasingly featuring people of color on their covers and in their pages. “I think the genre has evolved as society has evolved,” says novelist Lori Bryant-Woolridge, who edited Can’t Help the Way That I Feel: Sultry Stories of African American Love, Lust and Fantasy (Cleis, 2010). “Once publishers realized that there was a market for it, the genre began to grow.”

Changes in the industry, too, have allowed more space for new voices. Author Shelly Ellis, whose next release is Best She Ever Had (Kensington/Dafina, Jan. 2015), credits the emergence of e-books and self-publishing. “The number of multicultural romances you could find on bookshelves was limited because not all publishers were—or are—offering these types of romances,” she says. “But once authors could start uploading their own stories onto Smashwords, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble, it blew the door wide open.”

Those stories, Bryant-Woolridge says, are finding an avid audience. “Black women, in particular, are hungry to see themselves portrayed in a positive, loving light,” she explains. “Multicultural romances also allow the growing biracial population representation and validation.”

To understand where the market for multicultural romance novels is headed, it’s important to look at where it came from.

Talking About an Evolution

In the 1970s, self-publishers and micropresses began releasing romance novels featuring African-Americans. But it wasn’t until 1980, when Dell Candlelight published Rosalind Welles’s Entwined Destinies, that a mainstream publisher issued an African-American romance by a black author. Harlequin published its first African-American romance in 1984: Sandra Kitt’s Adam and Eva. Such titles were relatively rare until the early 1990s, when the success of Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale (Viking, 1992) woke up the publishing world.

“For many, many years, African-American, Latino, and Asian women didn’t see themselves reflected in the novels they read,” Ellis says. “It wasn’t until the early ’90s that it started to change. Now we have Brenda Jackson, Beverly Jenkins, Caridad Piñeiro, Jeannie Lin, Nalini Singh, and many, many others. The voices have gotten much more diverse, and I think readers of all cultural backgrounds really appreciate that.”

Kensington was the first mainstream romance publisher to add a dedicated multicultural imprint, launching the Arabesque line of African-American romances in 1994. “All of the books were written by women of color,” says Steven Zacharius, president and CEO of Kensington Publishing Corp. “We quickly geared up to publishing four titles in mass market per month and helped launch the careers of authors such as Rochelle Alers, Felicia Mason, Kim Roby, Gwynne Forster, Donna Hill, and Shirley Hailstock.”

Five years later, Kensington sold the line to Black Entertainment Television and continued to run the publishing operation for BET for another five years. During that time, Kensington debuted Dafina Books, a line of African-American women’s fiction. Once the noncompete period with BET expired in 2005, Zacharius says, the company ventured back into African-American romance.

“Dafina Books launched the careers of romance writers Zuri Day and Deborah Fletcher Mello, as well as Wahida Clark, Mary Monroe, Mary B. Morrison, Kimberla Lawson Roby, and Carl Weber, who write fiction with strong romantic elements,” says Selena James, executive editor of Dafina. In 2006, Dafina expanded its program to include books for teens.

Meanwhile, Harlequin acquired Arabesque in 2005 and formed the Kimani Press imprint, which also includes Kimani Arabesque and Kimani Romance. All three highlight African-American heroines; Kimani writers include Pamela Yaye, Lisa Marie Perry, and Sherelle Green.

“I distinctly remember walking into a bookstore about 12 years ago and shuffling through piles of romances trying to find an Arabesque novel,” Green says. “I finally found one, and I remember reading it in two days and anxiously going to another bookstore soon after to see if I could find the next great multicultural romance. Authors such as Francis Ray, Beverly Jenkins, Rochelle Alers, Donna Hill, and Brenda Jackson gave readers of different cultural backgrounds and ethnic groups an opportunity to read about a loving and successful relationship with characters who were relatable to them. Those books defied the ‘literary norm’ by including characters who were educated, sexy, and sophisticated.”

Clearly, the market for such titles is there. “Our books have changed as our society has changed,” says Tara Gavin, senior executive editor at Harlequin. “Harlequin Kimani Romance is the only African-American category romance imprint in the marketplace, with four original releases each month. Harlequin Kimani Arabesque consists of single-title, mass-market paperbacks that have a longer word count, and though still focused on the romance, also have a more single-title flexibility.” (For more on the state of category romance, see “Category Romance Moves Online.”)

Romance novels by or about people of color are not unique to dedicated imprints. Dutton, Eric Jerome Dickey’s longtime publisher, is releasing his One Night in April 2015. Forthcoming African-American romance titles from St. Martin’s include Hunger’s Mate by A.C. Arthur (Jan. 2015) and The Moon Tells Secrets by Savanna Welles (Mar. 2015).

Smaller presses, too, are embracing ethnic diversity. “We publish about a dozen or more titles per year with African-American and/or Latino characters,” says Latoya Smith, an editor with Samhain. And that number will only grow, she says. “We’ve received requests from our readers to add more multicultural titles to our list, and are looking to publish as many as four titles per week in this area. I believe [the popularity of these titles] is a reflection of what’s happening in the world.” The Fusion line from digital-first publisher Ellora’s Cave is dedicated to interracial and multicultural romances, and fellow digital publishers Totally Bound, Evernight Publishing, and Loose Id also embrace multicultural submissions.

Brenda Knight, publisher of Cleis Press and Viva Editions, notes that about 10% of her romance list (the company publishes a wide range of titles, ranging from LGBTQ studies to erotica) focuses on African-American and Latino/Latina characters. She cited recent Cleis titles, including the romance and erotica anthology Can’t Get Enough, edited by Tenille Brown, and the collection Love Between Men, edited by Shane Allison.

Retail Support

As with all of publishing, the retail landscape for romance is changing rapidly. Of the brick-and-mortar retailers doing a good job of stocking multicultural romances, big-box stores win the praise of several publishers. “Walmart and Target are the driving force in African-American book sales,” Kensington’s Zacharius says. “They have dedicated space for this genre, which has proven to be the most effective way to draw attention to these books.”

Johanna Castillo, v-p and senior editor at Atria, noted that those same stores are also increasing their assortments in Latina/Latino categories. “In recent years, Walmart has expanded not only their demand for diverse books, but also books in Spanish,” she says. Books written by Latino authors used to be popular [only] in areas where most Latinos live, such as Miami, Chicago, L.A., Phoenix, and San Antonio, Tex. However, in the last few years, the readership has grown across other areas, mainly because of the increasing demand for books to serve this readership from accounts such as Walmart and Target.”

She also mentions the influence of smaller retailers. “La Casa Azul bookstore in Harlem supports Latino writers and has wonderful cultural events that attract Latino readers,” Castillo says.

Harlequin’s Gavin says that even within the tumultuous publishing market, African-American romance fiction has remained stable, and digital sales are on the rise. “As a niche, the books are more readily accessible in digital format,” she says. Adds Samhain’s Smith, “Amazon and Barnes & Noble do a particularly good job in this subgenre. For Amazon, it’s about the pricing and easy accessibility. For B&N, they run special events and promotions in the stores located in areas with high African-American/Latino populations.”

But, for as far as multicultural romance has come, it needs to continue marching forward. “I think [publishers] are still being hugely shortsighted by not marketing the work of black authors to white readers,” says Bryant-Woolridge. “The interest in the subject is there across color lines, but the white audience is missing out on a lot of great writing, while black authors and their publishers are missing out on sales. Sadly, our work, no matter the subject, is usually relegated to the street lit genre.”

Color Stories

While romance novels geared toward African-American women have several dedicated imprints, other demographics aren’t quite as well-represented in standalone lines. In most cases, books featuring characters of other ethnicities are folded into the main romance lines of each publisher.

Kensington founded Encanto, a bilingual (English/Spanish) romance line, in 1999, but shuttered it two years later. Still, says Kensington editor Mercedes Fernandez, the publisher “has always been aware of the presence and opportunity the Latino and multicultural market presents, and this is a trend that is only going to continue to increase. Romance readers aren’t going to demand that the books they love to read feature a realistic, authentic, and diverse cast of characters—they are going to expect this, because it reflects the world they are living in.”

It’s up to editors, publishers, and other industry insiders, Fernandez says, to ensure that romances represent this diversity across all genres. “I’ve primarily built my list on multicultural fiction, romance, and young adult,” she explains. “I’m actively seeking inclusive works of women’s contemporary fiction and romance that feature a rich multicultural cast of characters, a strong narrative, and great concepts.” She pointed to Just a Taste by Shannyn Schroeder (Kensington/Lyrical, Jan. 2015), which features a Mexican-American heroine.

At Atria, Castillo also sees a mandate for multicultural romance titles. “We’re actively seeking manuscripts with diverse characters because, as is true in TV and movies, not having enough Latino and African-American characters in novels doesn’t reflect the diversity of American readers,” she says. Atria published the new adult novel Desert Heat by Elizabeth Reyes, which features mostly Latino characters, earlier this year.

Diverse Books for Diverse Readers

“Readers desperately want diversity in romance novels,” says Suzanne Brockmann, whose Troubleshooters and Reluctant Heroes military romances for Ballantine feature gay and straight characters of various ethnicities. “We read romance for two basic reasons: one, to see a reflection of ourselves in stories of hope and redemption, and two, to escape from our own lives—to walk a mile or a thousand in someone else’s shoes. People of color make up a huge portion of the romance-reading population.”

Too few romances, she says, feature people of color on the covers. “And too many publishers have a misguided belief that only black readers want to read books with African-American characters,” she says. “And that’s just not true. Frankly, I’m perplexed by the idea that having more pigment in a character’s skin—or in the skin of the author writing the book—means that those love stories should be segregated into a separate subgenre.”

Brockmann notes that the landscape has changed dramatically since she wrote her first book starring African-American characters.

“I wrote Harvard’s Education in 1997,” she says. “It was a category romance in the Silhouette Intimate Moments line, and it was the 885th book printed in that line, but only the second that featured black characters. Think about those numbers for a minute. This wasn’t 1957. It was 1997. At that time, I couldn’t find any romances in my local stores that featured people who weren’t white like me. When I pitched the book, I was told it simply wouldn’t sell.” The opposite turned out to be true: after its 1998 publication, Harvard’s Education sold out its initial print run and went on to become one of Brockmann’s bestselling category romances.

Laura Kaye (Hard to Come By, Avon Impulse, Nov.) also writes stories featuring characters of backgrounds different from her own. “My interest in incorporating diversity in romance stems in part from my pre-romance career as a historian of early America with a specialization in issues of race and class,” she says. “But it’s the stories I’m trying to tell that lead me to incorporate diverse characters. I can’t tell stories involving military characters or set a series in a city like Baltimore, with its 60%-plus African-American population, and not include a diverse cast of characters. It’s about authenticity.”

She’s been gratified by the reader response to her Hard Ink series, which includes a mix of white, African-American, and Latino characters; Hard to Hold On To featured an African-American hero on the cover. “Readers supported this hero and book as wholeheartedly as they had the others in the series,” she says. “African-American readers offered comments about how nice it was to see someone like themselves reflected on the cover and given the lead role of romantic hero, so clearly there’s an interest and a feeling that it doesn’t happen frequently enough with mainstream titles.”

No matter how well-intentioned a writer may be, of course, the question arises: can white authors accurately portray the life experiences of people of other races? Everyone queried for this article said yes, with the caveat that as with any other unfamiliar topic, intensive research is necessary. “One doesn’t have to be the same ethnicity as a character to portray them accurately, but in order for it to read authentically, the author must be intimately familiar with whatever culture is being described,” says Lutishia Lovely (The Perfect Deception, Kensington/Dafina, Dec.). (See “Why I Write” by Zuri Day, Lovely’s alter ego.)

Author Bryant-Woolridge, who is black and Asian, adds, “It’s natural to write what you know. It’s also important to write what other folks don’t know, whether they be black or white. I write white characters all the time, but the difference is that most black people live a dual life, with one foot in white culture and one foot in black culture. Our experiences and understanding of white folks are usually deeper and more well-rounded than the reverse. It’s simply a matter of lifelong exposure.”

For Lisa Marie Perry (Just for Christmas Night, Harlequin Kimani Romance, Dec.), when an author steps outside of her comfort zone, it opens up the opportunity for dialogue. “Plenty of writers fear writing stereotypes or getting it wrong,” she says. “They feel they should have racial or cultural authority—but this works against what multicultural romance is and stifles its potential to grow. It’s not an especially progressive way to look at this brand of fiction. It’s something that should be openly discussed, because somewhere exists a disconnect that’s depriving readers of richly told fiction.”

Julie Naughton is a senior editor at WWD and a reviewer for PW.

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