When Romance Writers of America announced its 2018 finalists for the Rita Awards on March 21, author Piper Huguley’s frustration mounted. Unable to stay silent about African-American authors yet again being left absent from the list for the romance genre’s most prestigious award, she tweeted: “If a Black person ever won a Rita it would be national news.”
Conversations about the romance publishing industry’s lack of diversity have bubbled up repeatedly over the years. But this time they hit a boiling point, helped in large part by Huguley and by Courtney Milan, a 2017 Rita award winner for the self-published novella Her Every Wish.
In a series of tweets to her more than 25,000 followers several days later, Milan laid bare the mistreatment and discrimination often endured by writers of color within RWA and the broader romance world. She alleged, for instance, that Harlequin snubbed author Phyllis Bourne by not inviting her to a publisher signing, as is customary, after her book Heated Moments was named a 2016 Rita finalist.
“I do not see how we can move forward as an organization if the white women who make up the bulk of the membership remain unaware of just how badly WOC are being hurt,” Milan wrote in one post.
Tweets and blog posts from other authors of color quickly followed—many of them testimonials, but also calls for action and promises of continued pressure to ensure change. Enough, they say, is enough.
Harlequin declined to be interviewed for this story, but Loriana Sacilotto, executive v-p, global publishing and strategy, said in a statement, “In the past we have had authors with books in May, June, and July at the RWA signing because we have inventory of their books. Going forward we will include our Rita-nominated authors at the RWA signing.”
Milan and Bourne also declined to be interviewed, but PW spoke with many authors, editors, publishers, agents, and others about romance publishing’s lack of diversity, how to address the resulting discrimination faced by writers of color, and the short shrift often given to books whose main characters are not white.
Dee Davis, president of RWA’s board, says the idea that anyone has ever felt unwelcome within RWA’s ranks “makes me sick to my stomach,” but she acknowledges that authors of color have experienced mistreatment. “Members can tell stories of what other members did that would have you in tears. We certainly have a problem and we need to figure out what to do.”
Most remedies, Davis says, aren’t going to solve the problem instantly. “Nothing is going to get fixed overnight,” she says. “We’re potentially going to screw it up, and then we’re going to go back and try to fix it again.”
Social Media Muscle
Efforts are already underway at RWA. As it did for the first time in 2017, the organization will hold a diversity summit for publishing executives and representatives from key retailers at its upcoming national conference in July, and will discuss the findings of an RWA-commissioned NPD BookScan survey of romance readers across ethnicity, age, and sexual orientation. RWA, Davis says, has begun looking at how best to study the demographics of its membership. Regarding the Rita contest and its judging, she also promises that, starting in July, “there will be some new rules in place.”
Some writers expressed optimism, saying RWA’s leadership and a few industry movers seem ready to effect change. “I give the board credit for taking this on,” says veteran author Beverly Jenkins. “This is not an easy subject to deal with.” Still, frustration, among Jenkins and others, remains prevalent.
LaQuette, an African-American author of erotic, multicultural romances who is under contract with Dreamspinner Press, puts it bluntly: “White Romancelandia needs to come to grips with some very uncomfortable truths about themselves.” She and other writers of color are helping rip off the blinders.
For instance, when one author suggested creating a “diversity romance” Rita category for works by authors of color, LaQuette quickly flagged the idea as segregationist. “What we need is true and genuine inclusion,” she says. As she wrote in a series of tweets, “Black is not a separate category [because] black people are people and therefore experience the same issues in love, relationships, and romance that white people do.”
Social media has been a megaphone amplifying the voices of authors of color and highlighting the breadth of the problem in a way that is proving hard for RWA, publishing houses, and others in the industry to ignore.
A day after LaQuette, who won RWA–NYC’s 2016 Golden Apple Award for author of the year, raised the alarm about the “diversity romance” suggestion, RWA made clear it was not considering such categories. “That would defeat RWA’s goal of inclusiveness for all members,” the organization said via Twitter.
That’s perhaps the biggest difference between the industry landscape now and 20 years ago, when Brenda Jackson—the first African-American author to publish under Harlequin’s Silhouette Desire line—was still making her name and fighting discrimination to win book deals. She recalls having a publisher tell her it would buy her book if she made her characters white; Jackson refused. In another instance, an editor commented to Jackson and others at an RWA workshop that she felt works by black authors were inferior to those by white authors.
Social media, Jackson notes, gives authors today a very public way to fight back. “You will get called out,” she says. “These young people, they will galvanize on social media, they will put your picture out there.”
Though authors of color have long talked about the need for diversity at all levels in the romance world, the efforts to bring that discussion into the mainstream have gained urgency amid the current social and political climate. “Anyone who doesn’t think things have changed—that race relations haven’t changed—under Trump, they’ve got their head in the sand,” Jackson says. “Racism, whether they want to acknowledge it or not, is being emboldened by the present administration.”
But many in the romance world say they also feel energized. The Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, as well as the #NeverAgain gun control movement, are inspirations, they say, to speak out about the injustices authors of color face.
That includes being ignored at book signings and conferences, where authors of color say many attendees avoid eye contact or visiting their tables. Author L. Penelope says she once sat down at an event only to have the rest of the women at the table leave their seats. She decided to talk about it, she says, because she saw another author’s account of the same thing happening to them.
“There’s been a lot of bitterness from black authors,” says Penelope, whose debut novel, Song of Blood & Stone, won the 2016 self-publishing e-book award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and was then picked up by St. Martin’s Press. “The Trump era has put a lot of pressure on our hearts and souls. The environment has come to a point where it was just waiting to explode.”
A.C. Arthur, an African-American author whose next book is the self-published Dane (July), recently posted a slew of tweets recounting her experiences, including the “snubs and comments” she says she has learned to expect whenever she is the only black author at a book signing with dozens of other romance writers. “I thought about not saying anything,” says Arthur, who has won multiple awards at Romance Slam Jam, an annual conference that recognizes authors who write multicultural characters. She worried how her speaking out might affect the books she is currently submitting to publishers. “But I just kept thinking, what happens if I don’t?”
This attitude toward writers of color extends to their characters, several authors say, because, like Jackson, they’ve been asked or advised to change their character’s race to white to make them more “relatable.” When Alana Albertson was writing Invaluable, the second book in her self-published Trident Code series, she says that author friends and a prospective cover artist suggested it would be easier if she made her lead character, a professional football player turned Navy SEAL, white.
“I was thinking, ‘Should I do it? Should I just go through and rewrite this character as a white guy?’ ” Albertson says. She couldn’t. The book, which had a black man on the cover, didn’t sell well. (See “Mirrors and Windows.”)
Naima Simone—whose next book, WAGS #3, is due from Entangled Publishing in July—had a similar experience with poor sales of a book whose cover featured a black man, and finds the relatable argument abhorrent and “ridiculous.” “You can relate to billionaires, rock stars, hockey players, werewolves, shifters, but you can’t relate to a black person?” she asks. “All that says to me is you don’t want to.”
Jenkins, the 2017 recipient of RWA’s Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award, explains why she has no patience for this line of thinking: “Don’t come to me with that bullshit about you can’t relate. When I was growing up, there were very few black authors. If I had limited my reading by race, I would not be here.”
Many, including Huguley, whose A Virtuous Ruby (Samhain, 2015) received the Romance Slam Jam’s 2016 Emma Award for best book cover, lay much of the blame on publishers. “They are rigid to the notion of what it takes to diversify,” she says. “That is, bringing more authors of color—let me just say it, more black authors—across the board from Harlequin on down.”
Call to Action
Harlequin—perhaps the publisher most often called out by authors—and others have vowed that they are committed to diversity, but authors of color say they want action, not words. “There are so many publishers giving us statements,” says Arthur, who notes she’s more optimistic than doubtful that change will come. “You just need to do it, you need to show us that you are really committed.”
Harlequin announced in 2017 that Kimani Romance, which features authors of color and multicultural story lines, was among five lines that it planned to shutter, and many Kimani authors say they were cut loose rather than moved to other imprints. Arthur is one of them; her 20th Kimani title, One Perfect Moment, is set to publish in August, before the line closes in December. “It would have been nice if we’d been offered an invitation to speak to the other lines,” she says, but instead, she adds, “I’m going over to their submittal portal just like any new author would do, and they rejected me.”
In a statement to PW, Sacilotto at Harlequin responded, “All the Kimani authors have been invited to submit to Harlequin lines, and, as current Harlequin authors, they will be given priority review when they do submit.”
Amid the continuing issues, some authors say they feel at least a little hope. RWA’s leadership, they say, is engaging in the conversation and has pledged to seek change.
“I’m counting on them to make this happen,” says Robin Covington, a Native American author. “I believe that they want this conversation to continue and things to come out of it.”
More broadly, authors say they’ve seen encouraging signs via social media, where people are asking about and sharing recommendations for works by authors of color.
“We’re going to get this fixed, because there are too many women who want to get this fixed,” Jenkins says. “I’m encouraged by the women on Twitter who are asking, ‘Who are the women of color I should read?’ I’m encouraged by the people who are going to Rebekah Weatherspoon’s site, Women of Color in Romance.” (See “Love Connections.”)
Monique Patterson, editorial director at St. Martin’s Paperbacks and executive editor at St. Martin’s Press, has some thoughts about how her segment of the romance world can do more to support diversity. “It’s not just about realizing, ‘Oh, we don’t have X amount of authors of color, let’s go out and [sign] a bunch of them,’ ” she says. “You have to look at the whole organization and how you’re thinking and operating. On a much more simple level, we as editors—honestly, we just need to start reading and then acquiring more widely.”
Liz Pelletier, cofounder and publisher at Entangled, says she has been trying to make improvements since the Ripped Bodice, the only all-romance bookstore in the U.S., published its first diversity report in 2017. The study found that Entangled ranked fourth among romance publishers in terms of number of books by authors of color, behind Kensington, Forever and Forever Yours, and Crimson Romance, which Simon & Schuster has since shuttered.
Pelletier says she contacted all the agents Entangled has worked with, asking them to submit works with diverse characters and by diverse authors. She received one submission in response, and several notes saying diverse authors were in demand and their books already in negotiations. Another email encouraged her to reach out to Kimani authors; she has already contacted several.
“If Kimani authors are looking for a home, I’d love to talk to them,” Pelletier says, adding that she’ll be looking for more authors when she attends June’s Romance Slam Jam.
Deb Werksman, editorial director at Sourcebooks Casablanca, is doing the same. The publisher, which showed an improved ranking in Ripped Bodice’s second diversity report, released in March, reached out to the Cultural, Interracial, Multicultural Special Interest Chapter of RWA—and later all other RWA chapters—about meeting with own-voices authors to take pitches one-on-one at the recent RT Booklovers Convention, as well as at RWA’s annual national conference in July.
Werksman said the meetings Sourcebooks Casablanca had at the RT convention resulted in one proposal that’s headed for acquisition, with more expected soon. “There’s an urgency here,” she says, “and we feel that new things need to be done.”
At Kensington, executive editor Selena James says, “submissions pretty much come to us by reputation, because we’ve been doing this for a very long time.” James’s responsibilities include the Dafina imprint, which publishes works by and about African-Americans and launched in 2000. The latest industry-wide discussion about diversity, she says, “doesn’t change our conversation, because we’re already in the game.” She adds, “It’s what I do every day, so it’s hard for me to see it as a challenge.”
Still, James says, Kensington recognizes that authors of color face challenges in getting their work into readers’ hands, and that they are pushing the industry for more support. “We know our authors are having those conversations online that have to do with the discoverability of their books, and finding and maintaining a readership. That’s the business of books. Discoverability is the hardest thing for any area of publishing, no matter what genre.”
James says she thinks Kensington is on the right track but adds that there’s room for improvement across the industry, as authors have been pointing out. “It’s tough, but it’s a good conversation,” she says. “Not every publisher can publish every book, so you have to choose how you’re going to approach it. That’s not something that changes overnight.”
Though authors of color applaud such steps and hope for lasting change, many remain wary of traditional publishing after years of being disenfranchised or relegated to designated “diversity” imprints. Those lines may have once served to create a place for works by authors of color, but today, many say, they unnecessarily segregate those books from mainstream romance.
The rise of self-publishing, meanwhile, has given authors of color other options. “I don’t have to wait for some publisher,” says Covington, who publishes series books with Entangled and also self-publishes. Her novella One Little Kiss was nominated for a Rita in 2016. “If I get five rejections, I just say, ‘Okay, I’m going to self-publish it and then let the readers decide.’ ”
Savannah J. Frierson has self-published most of the dozen-plus books she’s written, including her most recent romance, 2017’s The Sight: City of Sin. She calls the move to self-publishing a “necessary disruption” that should serve as a wake-up call to traditional publishers. “We are trying to tell you guys there’s a whole heap of people with a whole heap of money who are willing to spend it,” Frierson, who is black, says. “There is nothing this audience doesn’t want to read, especially if it’s featuring them getting a happy ending, being loved, and loving people.”
Piper Huguley expects indie authors to keep gaining ground, and says she isn’t optimistic about the future of traditional publishing unless it learns to treat authors of color and their books the same as everyone else. “I think it’s extremely fortunate that there is self-publishing so that voices like mine can get out there in some way,” she says. “But frankly, the industry is ignoring us at its own peril.”
Below, more on the subject of romance publishing.
How does a romance novel featuring characters of color put its best face forward?
Authors Rebekah Weatherspoon, Harper Miller, and Adriana Herrera are bringing romance writers of color, and their readers, together online.
Erin Ailworth is a biracial Mexican-American journalist in Houston and a former v-p of print for the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.