May is Asian Pacific American Heritage month in the United States – commemorating both Japanese immigration and the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad – as well as Jewish American Heritage month – recognizing diverse Jewish contributions to American culture. The month also includes the celebration of Cinco de Mayo – though I’m guessing a fair number of folks are a little hazy about what they’re actually celebrating there – and even a World Day for Cultural Diversity. All of which made me think that maybe this would be a good time to talk a little about diversity in romance writing/publishing.
First, let’s start with some numbers.
It’s probably no surprise to anyone that, according to recent demographics posted over on the Romance Writers of America website, 82% of romance readers are female, or that 73% are white/Caucasian, but it may be more surprising to realize that 27% of readers are people of color (PoC).
Think about the books you’ve read recently. Were 27% of the characters PoC? How about the authors? What about the individuals featured on the book covers?
If your reading has been anything like mine, those answers are probably all “no” or “not so much.”
For the past several years there has been an increased emphasis on diversity in romance fiction – at writing conferences, on writing blogs, and in the mainstream media. The focus was generally aimed at getting writers to include more diverse characters in their stories. One probably predictable result was an uptick in stories that had characters described as being of varying ethnicities but who sounded, acted, reacted, and generally moved through their stories as if their ethnicity was completely irrelevant. Certainly there were authors do did a great job diversifying their cast of characters, but I encountered far more who missed the mark.
Okay, so what about writers of color?
It would seem logical to assume that one of the results of the increased emphasis on diversity would at least be an increase in the number of diverse writers. After all, who better to realistically portray a diverse character than a diverse writer, right?
Uh, apparently not.
According to the latest “State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing Report” from The Ripped Bodice bookstore, only a little over 6% of books published by leading romance publishers in 2017 were written by PoC, down more than 1% from the prior year. That seems odd, since a whopping 60% of the Top 10 Bestsellers at The Ripped Bodice were written by PoC. There seems to be a demand for diverse stories, by diverse authors, so where’s the disconnect?
What’s going on in publishing?
One big reason there are not more books by PoC is not because they are not being written, but rather because traditional publishers are not choosing to publish them. Some of those authors/books reach readers via self-publishing, but others do not. Now, to be fair, some publishers like Crimson Romance, Sourcebooks, Gallery, and HQN showed good improvement from 2016 to 2017. At the top of the list, 29.3% of the books published by Crimson Romance were by PoC. That’s good news, but not for long. Simon & Schuster, the parent of Crimson said it would be closing the imprint citing “changing consumer reading habits and the continual evolution of the marketplace,” just as Harlequin did with its African American romance imprint Kimani last year.
Say what now?
It is particularly perplexing since back in 2014 a Pew study indicated that one of the most significant book-buying demographics was college-educated black women. In an industry with total sales well over a billion dollars, you’d think romance publishers would be doing more to support that significant demographic, not less.
The diversity disconnect is more of a reflection on how society treats PoC, rather than something unique to the romance industry. When doing some research for this post I was appalled to come across examples from authors of color who were asked to make their non-white characters white, so their stories would be easier to sell or to change the ethnic images on their book covers to white images.
It probably doesn’t help that those that work in the publishing industry are predominately white. If you don’t have diversity in the people making decisions on which books to publish and how to position/market them, then it’s not unexpected to wind up with a status quo that remains stubbornly white, despite the changing demographics of our society as a whole.
A bit of positivity
There are some bright spots for diverse writers. In 2016, for example, the short-list for the prestigious PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for debut fiction was filled entirely by writers of color, one of whom went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. In the children’s book market, a 2017 study showed that 22% of children’s books were written by, illustrated by, or about PoC, up from a historical average of 10%. Perhaps the children that read those stories will continue the trend by growing up to write stories of their own.
I’ll be posting more about diversity in romance publishing over the next few weeks, including a post from the perspective of a diverse romance reader, as well as some reading recommendations.
In the meantime, what are your thoughts on the subject? Have you made changes over the years in either your reading or your writing to include more diversity?