I had a different topic that I was going to post on today, but then I saw the latest survey results from the Ripped Bodice bookstore on the state of diversity in romance publishing and I got derailed.
For the past several years there has been an increased emphasis on diversity in romance fiction at writing conferences, on writing blogs (we had a series of posts on it last year), and in the mainstream media. The issue was even brought front and center by several of the awardees at the most recent RWA conference I attended.
Early diversity efforts focused on getting writers to include more diverse characters in their stories. One 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, or alternatively, they were portrayed in very stereotypical ways. Certainly there were and are authors do do a great job including/portraying diverse characters, but there is still more progress to be made.
Recent efforts have been focused on getting more diverse individuals writing and publishing stories and to increase the visibility of all of the great diverse authors and books out there waiting to be read.
Naturally, with all of that I expected this year’s Ripped Bodice survey to show that there had been a big improvement in the state of diversity in romance from 2017 to 2018.
Sadly, I was wrong.
First, let’s start with some numbers.
In 2017 the Romance Writers of America commissioned “The Romance Book Buyer”, a study about romance readers. It’s probably no surprise to anyone that, according to the study, 82% of romance readers are female, or that 86% are heterosexual/straight, or that 73% are white/Caucasian. But that means 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 very many.”
According to the recent“State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing Report” from The Ripped Bodice bookstore, 7.7% of books by leading romance publishers in 2018 were written by PoC, that’s up 1.5% from 2017, but it’s still lower than the 7.8% that were published in 2016. That seems odd, since a whopping 80% of the 2018 Top 10 Bestsellers at The Ripped Bodice were written by PoC – an increase from 60% in 2017.
There seems to be a demand for diverse stories, by diverse authors, as well as a population of diverse readers, so where’s the disconnect?
What’s going on in publishing?
Although the lack in books by PoC continues to be more of a reflection of what is being published, rather than what is being written, there were some positive changes in 2018. Some publishers showed good improvement in their percentage of books from PoC from 2017 to 2018.
- Berkley increased from 7% to 10%
- Entangled Publishing increased from 4% to 13.3%
- Kensington increased from 12.6% to 22.8%
Unfortunately the numbers for some publishers, like St. Martin’s Press, Gallery, and Sourcebooks moved in the other direction, and the Crimson Romance imprint, which was at the top of the list last year with 29.3%, was eliminated altogether by its parent Simon & Schuster, citing “changing consumer reading habits and the continual evolution of the marketplace.”
It probably doesn’t help that, despite a slight increase in diverse hiring, those that work in the publishing industry continue to be predominately non-diverse. 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 that you’ll wind up with a status quo that remains stubbornly white, despite the changing demographics of our society as a whole.
So, what progress has been made?
During the 2018 RWA Conference there was a Diversity Summit attended industry professionals, RWA staff/Board members, members of RWA’s Diversity Committee, and other leaders within the organization who represent marginalized populations. According to the RWA website, the purpose was to “share ideas, identify roadblocks, and reaffirm a commitment to fostering a romance genre that represents the wide array of authors and readers that love it.”
A lot of information came out of the summit. If you are an RWA member, you can read the entire report on the RWA website, but let me summarize some of the highlights:
- Some publishers reported an increase in their outreach to underrepresented authors within RWA chapters as well as efforts to fill more of their intern positions with diverse candidates.
- Many authors agreed that publishers should have a higher percentage of diverse romances on their lists and, more importantly, that they need to invest in appropriate and effective marketing to set them up for success
- There was general agreement that books should be promoted to appeal to a wide spectrum of readers, rather than just being positioned as “diverse romances”, and that bookstores and libraries should train their staff on how to recommend romances in a way that speaks to this universality
The bottom line of the Summit was, “only through combined effort of publishers, buyers, vendors, RWA, authors, and readers can we truly make a difference in growing a diverse market.” I hope this leads to some real progress in the industry and that next year’s report on the state of racial diversity in romance publishing shows a big improvement.
So, what are your current thoughts on the subject? Did you make any changes last year in either your reading or your writing to include more diversity? Do you have any recommendations to add to our virtual “Diverse-To-Be-Read” list?
I haven’t read a lot of books lately, period, and to be perfectly fair, the few fiction books I have read have not been diverse; the Crazy Rich Asians series is probably more than 90 percent POC, or more, and the book I’m reading by Stacey Abrams (penname: Selena Montgomery) is also mostly POC.
I think the real triumph is that there are more books written by people of color (and international people), and that they are readily available through online booksellers. People who want diversity can find diversity, and have it within a week of ordering. ]
I’ve got to say, I’m loving the Crazy Rich Asians series. The story is frothy and fun, and full of scandal and intrigue, but it also has a serious heart to it. I love Amy Tan’s books, too, but her stories are often from the refugee’s perspective. It’s really weird to realize all these things about class and the haves/have-nots go beyond color barriers. If you like Sophie Kinsella, I think you’ll like Kevin Kwan, too.
It’s going to have to be an organic change, I think. People can tell when diversity has been forced. But if we feed ourselves with good stories from around the world, our own writing will probably take on shades and tones from that. Or so we can hope, anyway.
Sounds like I need to add the Crazy Rich Asians series to my TBR list. Thanks, Michaeline.
My bit has been to make a conscious effort to buy and read and review books by diverse authors and/or with diverse characters and I will continue to do this.
I also make a conscious effort to include diverse characters in my books, but I have to admit that as a cisgenered, Caucasian Baby Boomer, it makes me nervous because it feels like a minefield. I saw a news story yesterday about a gay writer of color who works as a professional sensitivity reader whose debut novel was summarily pulled from publication because of complaints about the setting of his gay romance against–I think it was the Bosnian conflict? If he can’t do it right, what chance do I have?
Yes, it does definitely feel like a minefield sometimes. Disappointing to hear about the writer’s book you mentioned being pulled. Sometimes it seems like readers want “some realism” in their stories, but not “too much.” There seems to be a very fine-line to balance there. I guess one can only try. Someone is going to be offended no matter what, it seems.
Does the Ripped Bodice’s report include self-published/indie authors, or only traditionally published authors? I only ask because perhaps there is more representation than what they report (I’m not saying it’s ENOUGH, only that unless someone counts EVERY book that has diverse characters, rather than those trad published, the number might be low).
I’m with Jeanne, though. Wanting to include characters that aren’t like me, but afraid to at the same time. I probably will, and I’ll probably get knocked for it. But I’ve also spoken to lots of moms at my kids’ school who are PoC or gay/lesbian and all have indicated a willingness to read my books to help me “get it right.” So there’s that.
Justine, the numbers are based on traditional publishing, and some of the numbers come directly from the publishers. It would be interesting to see similar statistics from the self-publishing perspective. I would expect that channel to show more representation, but have no facts to back that up.
I have made a conscious effort to read more diverse authors. I haven’t been disappointed at all. The Kiss Quotient was good (Korean characters). And of course, it’s no hardship to read Brenda Jackson and Beverly Jenkins. Courtney Milan has diverse characters in some of her stories.
And I agree with Justine – indie/self-pubbed might up the numbers of diverse authors.
Last year I realized just how non-diverse my reading has been, and I’ve been making some effort to fix that. Walter Mosley’s “Devil in a Blue Dress” and “A Rage in Harlem” by Chester Himes (both well worth the time) were the first PoC-authors I’ve added into my mix in far too many years. Ben Aaronovitch is cishet white male, but his “Rivers of London” series are ethnically diverse, and the ethnicity of the characters matters for plot (and voice). GL Carriger (Gail’s nom de plume for A Certain Type Of Book) appears to tick one of the diversity boxes, and her two San Andreas Shifters books are quite diverse. And diverting.
Don’t forget the Louise Penny’s books you read – she’s pretty good at realistically incorporating diverse characters, at least in some of the books in the series.