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Why Are Romance Novels So White?

Mentorship programs, new imprints and social media have created more opportunities for writers of colour, but a massive scandal in the industry illustrates just how much more work still needs to be done.

An illustration of a Black man and woman in an embrace

(Illustration: Katie Carey)

Do you remember your first romance novel? Did you dog-ear the spicy bits? Read it furtively under the covers with a wonky flashlight? (I may be speaking from experience.) Now answer this: Were the main characters white? Did you notice?

Nigerian-Canadian author Jane Igharo read her first romance—Some Nerve by Jane Heller—in elementary school and was hooked; not just by the romance but by the (white) heroine’s journey. “What I loved most was the main character’s growth,” she recalls. “Yes, it was a love story. But it was also a story about a woman picking up the pieces and facing her fears. I was obsessed.” That obsession paid off. Igharo’s debut romance novel, Ties That Tether—about a Nigerian-Canadian woman who falls in love with a white man, to her mother’s disapproval—comes out in September by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

But being a Black Canadian romance author isn’t the norm—so much so that I had trouble finding others to interview for this piece. This isn’t to negate the efforts of Black romance writers who publish under pseudonyms or don’t make their Canadian identity known. Nor is it meant to erase the accomplishments of any marginalized romance writer. The truth is that until recently, the book publishing industry—a $1.1-billion-a-year business in Canada, and a US$25.8-billion one south of the border—rarely included love stories about people of colour.

It doesn’t help that the industry itself is overwhelmingly white, from the editorial assistants reading the slush pile—the scores of submissions publishers receive from hopeful authors—to the agents, editors, marketers, booksellers and publishers in charge. According to the 2018 Canadian Book Publishing Diversity Baseline Survey, 82 percent of the publishing workforce identified as white.

Igharo had written two books in different genres that didn’t find a publisher, before—inspired by memories of her preteen obsession—she turned to romance. “The main character in my second book was a Black woman. When I sent a query for this book to a seasoned agent—a white male—he told me he was interested in looking at my work because, and I quote, ‘Diverse stories are really in right now.’ Obviously, I chose not to send it to him,” she says.

As eye-rollingly privileged as that comment was, thankfully diversity is in. BookNet Canada, which supports the Canadian publishing industry’s supply chain, released its “Demand for Diversity” survey in 2019. The purpose was to gauge the interest of Canadian readers in books by diverse authors—defined as Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC), as well as those who are LGBTQ+, disabled or differently abled, and religious minorities. Of the 500 people surveyed, 61 percent of “underrepresented” readers and 40 percent of “well-represented” readers said they were “very interested” or “interested” in reading books by BIPOC authors. And over the past six years, diverse stories have seen success across all mediums, from Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat and Insecure on TV, to blockbusters like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians (also a bestselling trilogy), to romance novels like Jasmine Guillory’s The Proposal (which featured an African-American heroine and Mexican-American love interest, and was described as one of Canadian bookseller Indigo’s all-time favourite rom-coms) and Casey McQuiston’s Red, White & Royal Blue (the gay romance was an instant New York Times and USA Today bestseller last summer). Audiences want to see their realities represented, but they also want to see themselves represented in ways they haven’t before, like, say, as superheroes.

Overall, the number of novels starring diverse folks falling in love is increasing—albeit infinitesimally. While current numbers in Canada are unavailable, American data is easier to find. Los Angeles–based bookseller The Ripped Bodice, the only store in the U.S. exclusively selling romance novels, released its annual report, “The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing,” in March. For the past four years, the staff have asked publishers to release data on how many books they have published by diverse authors. (Even though some of the biggest houses politely decline or simply ignore the request, the team usually manages to hunt down the data themselves.) They found that for every 100 books published by the leading romance publishers in 2019, only 8.3 were by writers of colour. Over four years, there has been a 0.4 percent increase in the number of romances published by writers of colour. So yes, infinitesimal, but the good news is that seven of the top 10 books sold in 2019 at The Ripped Bodice were written by diverse authors.

In Canada, a new generation of romance writers are bringing more diverse stories to life. Farah Heron’s Toronto-set Muslim romance, The Chai Factor, was one of Chatelaine’s hottest romances of 2019, and Uzma Jalaluddin’s 2018 Muslim retelling of Pride and Prejudice, Ayesha At Last, has been optioned by Pascal Pictures—the same powerhouse production company behind Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. Ojibway author Maggie Blackbird writes Indigenous romance set in northwestern Ontario, and Toronto-based Jackie Lau has self-published an impressive number of #Asianromcoms (her hashtag, a good one). South of the border, legendary bestselling authors Beverly Jenkins and Brenda Jackson have been writing Black romance since the 1990s; more recently, contemporary romances by American authors, such as the aforementioned Guillory, Alyssa Cole and Helen Hoang, have been fuelling think pieces and morning television spots on how the romance genre is changing. But that isn’t to say the book is closed when it comes to systemic racism in the industry. Case in point: the implosion of the largest writers’ association in the world, Romance Writers of America (RWA).

Systemic racism is a persistent storyline

What happened to RWA is complex; and while the complete breakdown of a genre writers’ association seems niche, the reasons behind it say a lot about the barriers that writers of colour continue to face in the industry. How did an organization that was started by romance editor Vivian Stephens—a Black woman who gathered a group of like-minded writers determined to battle racism in romance—end up battling an author of colour?

Here’s the gist: In August 2019, USA Today bestselling author Courtney Milan, who identifies as hapa (partially of Pacific Islander or Asian descent), participated in a Twitter discussion about a white editor at a small publishing house with an alleged history of problematic behaviour (such as liking tweets that questioned whether white supremacy exists). The discussion then moved on to a 20-year-old romance novel, written by a different editor at the same publishing house, that contained racist Chinese stereotypes. Milan’s tweet about this book, and the language she used in it (she referred to the book as a “f-cking racist mess”), spurred the publisher and the writer to file complaints with the RWA board. The women, both white, accused Milan of causing them to lose revenue; the board, without confirming the truth of the “lost revenue” claim, asked Milan to step down from her position as chair of RWA’s ethics committee, suspended her from being a member for one year and banned her from holding any RWA leadership position for life. Adding to the controversy is the fact that Milan won a 2019 RWA service award for her efforts in making the organization less racist and more inclusive. You can’t make this stuff up.

The news about Milan went public on December 23, 2019, and “Romancelandia,” the unofficial name for the inclusive world of romance writers, rushed to Milan’s defence using the hashtag #IStandWithCourtney. Some of the most popular romance authors in the world, including juggernaut Nora Roberts—who has sold over 400 million books—publicly called out RWA for its treatment of Milan. Agents, editors and former RWA presidents published several open letters in support, members dropped out in droves and chapter presidents resigned in solidarity. The very next day, the board reversed Milan’s suspension and banishment. The New York Times and USA Today reported the story. Eventually, one of the complainants admitted to exaggerating her claim. RWA was forever changed—ultimately, one hopes, for the better—and a new, diverse board was elected in March.

Heron had been president of the Toronto Romance Writers chapter of RWA for a year when she made the choice to resign as a result of what happened to Milan. “The reason I decided to step up [in the first place] was that I was afraid someone who wasn’t committed to diversity initiatives would take the role,” she says. Resigning was a tough decision, but one that Heron doesn’t regret. “I think a lot of us felt very betrayed by what happened to Courtney,” she says. “For authors of colour who have been in RWA for the last couple of years, a lot of us looked up to her and the way she was bringing these issues to the forefront.”

The next chapter

While RWA rebuilds, there are an increasing number of avenues for diverse authors to find a literary agent, editor or publisher. Pitch Wars, founded by bestselling YA novelist Brenda Drake in 2012, is a mentorship program for unpublished authors and helps break down some of the barriers to getting published. Using the hashtag #PitMad on Twitter, writers with completed manuscripts pitch their books to published writers/agents/editors, who, in turn, offer advice, editing and support. Pitch Wars happens quarterly and it works—Igharo used it to find a published author who helped her polish her manuscript for Ties That Tether. After sending it to agents, she received interest the next day. One month later, she had a book deal.

In 2017, Heron took part in a different Twitter pitch event, #DVPit, which was specifically created to find new works in all genres by underrepresented authors. She found her agent this way; together they sold The Chai Factor to HarperCollins Canada. (Heron then paid her #DVPit success forward by serving as a Pitch Wars mentor in 2018 and 2019.)

Publishers are also creating new opportunities exclusively for diverse writers. In 2019, Avon Books—which represents WOC authors such as Mia Sosa, Alisha Rai and Talia Hibbert—announced the Beverly Jenkins Diverse Voices Sponsorship, and held an open call for underrepresented writers, signing two authors to new book deals in February.

Harlequin, arguably the most recognizable name in the romance game, puts out 120 new books a month across several categories, with strong representation from WOC authors like Reese Ryan, Therese Beharrie and Jayci Lee. In 2019, it started a mentorship program called Romance Includes You, which solely seeks out traditionally marginalized authors.

Harlequin has also been publishing LGBTQ+ romances under Carina Press for nearly a decade. This summer, it will launch a new romance line, Carina Adores, featuring LGBTQ+ characters at the centre of contemporary love stories that are exclusively trope-based—think “enemies-to-lovers,” or “there’s only one bed!”—rather than on focussing solely on issues related to sexual preference. “Where were all the feel-good stories that centred on LGBTQ+ protagonists, without relying on identities or sexuality for conflict?” asks Dianne Moggy, vice-president of editorial at Harlequin. “We wanted to present love stories that take place in a world where love is truly love and the particular variety of that love isn’t the central focus.”

Outside of traditional publishing, self-publishing has long been a popular avenue for writers of colour. “You learn a lot about bookselling and reader habits that don’t fall in line with what big publishers like to think about readers and bookselling,” says African-American author Rebekah Weatherspoon, who has published books both on her own and with a conventional publisher. Her self-published 2018 novel, Rafe, about a hot, tattooed male nanny working for a single doctor, was called “a perfect book to read over and over and again” by the New York Times. “[With self-publishing] you are responsible for everything from getting your cover made to finding a good editor, but the payoff is great. You get the bulk of the profits and you have the freedom to write whatever you like,” she says. While Weatherspoon welcomes the publishing industry’s growing interest in diversity, she has some advice for the gatekeepers. “I think they need to pay more attention to fandom communities who make it clear that they want diverse stories.” (The online world of fandom, and fan fiction—stories inspired by celebrities and pop culture characters—has a long-standing place in the romance canon.)

User-generated content platforms, where anyone can post their writing and get feedback from other writers and book lovers, are another way for diverse talent to build an audience. The fan-fiction romance series After, by Anna Todd—inspired by boy band One Direction—is one of the most-read stories of all-time on Wattpad, a Toronto-based company that has been called the “YouTube of ebooks.” It was eventually published in print by Gallery Books, a Simon & Schuster imprint, and became a People’s Choice Award–winning movie in 2019. Also in 2019, Wattpad moved into traditional publishing with the launch of Wattpad Books. “There are millions of diverse storytellers on Wattpad, and we now have a direct way to bring them to bookshelves,” says Dani Zacarias, the company’s head of content and creator development.

Romance novels have been linked with escape since Pamela, Or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson—arguably the first modern romance novel—captured women’s hearts in 1740. But when you are excluded from that escape, it hurts. For hundreds of years, marginalized people have purchased, borrowed, read and loved romance novels starring lovers who don’t look like them—but who feel like them. That’s what romance novels give us: human connection. Real change takes time, but the hilarious, charming and emotional romances being released by writers of colour give me hope. We are all existing in a world brought together, as of late, by isolation. Yes, there is sadness and fear, but we can also escape to a happy ending. One where the lovers look just like us.

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