The Romance Genre's Diversity Problem

editing_for_authors
Editing for authors: because every writer needs a good editor.

LJD

Super Member
Registered
Joined
Sep 12, 2010
Messages
4,220
Reaction score
513
Location
Toronto
Yesterday, The Ripped Bodice, a romance bookstore in LA, published a report on diversity in romance, which you can find here. (Also see: Entertainment Weekly and Smart Bitches Trashy Books.) They looked at different publishers, and which percentage of their books were published by PoC. Some findings:

For every 100 books published by the leading romance publishers in 2016, only 7.8 were by PoC.
50% of publishers surveyed had fewer than 5% of their books written by PoC.

This comes only three days after I was told not to use a Chinese surname for my new pen name, and also “If the characters just happen to be Chinese, but they’re still identifiable/relatable, that’s okay” (approx wording) which seems to imply that most of us Asians are unrelatable freaks . And this was by a well-respected editor.

I have long been suspicious that most publishers couldn't back up their "we're looking for diversity!" comments with numbers. Looks like I was justified in thinking that :(
 

LJD

Super Member
Registered
Joined
Sep 12, 2010
Messages
4,220
Reaction score
513
Location
Toronto
I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was caught off guard and couldn't manage to say anything in response.

I believe The Ripped Bodice plans to collect this data every year, so that should be interesting.
 

Proserpina

Registered
Joined
Aug 8, 2017
Messages
33
Reaction score
4
Location
Canada
If about 73% of the American population is white, that means all things equal, PoC *should* be writing about 27% of the romance books published, instead of just shy of 8%. Wow. I wonder how that compares to statistics elsewhere? And in other genres?
 
Last edited:

ElaineA

All about that action, boss.
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Jan 17, 2013
Messages
6,886
Reaction score
3,066
Location
The Seattle suburbs
Website
www.reneedominick.com
If about 73% of the American population is white, that means all things equal, PoC *should* be writing about 27% of the romance books published, instead of just shy of 8%. Wow. I wonder how that compares to statistics elsewhere? And in other genres?

That number, 73%, struck me as VERY high. When I looked at the estimated census data from the US Census Bureau, it does say that, but looking down the list, to White Alone, Not Latinx or Hispanic, it's 61%, which feels more like it. The reason this matters is Latinx/Hispanic representation in romance is scant, as well, so it's worth breaking those numbers out of the "White" category.

The Ripped Bodice has such a great reputation in Romancelandia, I think the fact that they undertook this will only help the momentum. They used information volunteered, and quite a few publishers didn't get involved. Perhaps next year more will. Perhaps next year, the existence of this information and the resulting added push to balance the scales, will result in better numbers. I'm also thinking this "awareness" (which, come on, as if publishing can't see the demographic shift of the reading public, grrr) is the front end of a curve. If the big publishers have books/authors in the pipeline, the numbers should increase as the excruciatingly slow process reveals what they have in queue. One hopes, anyway.
 

autumnleaf

practical experience, FTW
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Apr 29, 2010
Messages
1,133
Reaction score
213
Location
small rainy island
Would be interesting to know if this is a lack of PoC submitting versus a lack of submitted works by PoC being published, or a mixture of both. Either way it's a problem, but the solution would differ (how to encourage more PoC writers versus how to overcome publisher bias).
 

S. Eli

Custom User Title
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Jun 2, 2011
Messages
421
Reaction score
54
Location
Philadelphia
Would be interesting to know if this is a lack of PoC submitting versus a lack of submitted works by PoC being published, or a mixture of both. Either way it's a problem, but the solution would differ (how to encourage more PoC writers versus how to overcome publisher bias).

One of the much-discussed issues (which has a lot of points that I won't get too deep into) is that the people at the top not being poc makes poc submissions subconsciously un-relatable to them. This is a horrific simplification, but like, the op is an example. Seeing an Asian as a lead/as a romance writer is something poc can do easily, yet seems out there to the "people at the top" and must be justified/maneuvered around

once again, super simplified but yeah
 

LJD

Super Member
Registered
Joined
Sep 12, 2010
Messages
4,220
Reaction score
513
Location
Toronto
Would be interesting to know if this is a lack of PoC submitting versus a lack of submitted works by PoC being published, or a mixture of both. Either way it's a problem, but the solution would differ (how to encourage more PoC writers versus how to overcome publisher bias).

It probably has something to do with all the shit that's happened this week, but this comment angers me a bit.

I am a PoC and I follow lots of PoC romance writers online. We are not in short supply. Many turn to self-publishing because of the crap they get from trade publishers about their "different" characters not being relatable, poor marketing, etc. If there's a lack of PoC submitting, it may be because they know the odds are stacked so heavily against them, right? Because they've heard all the stories, like the one I gave in my original post, which happened just this week. There are some stories that, frankly, I see no point in submitting to a publisher.

PoC keep discussing these problems over and over and over. We've been doing it for YEARS. And it is nice to finally have numbers to defend ourselves, because our own words and experiences never seem to be enough. And yet many people--not just you--just answer by saying you need even MORE numbers.

The report gives a breakdown by publisher. Some are <2%. I cannot believe that HQN simply had zero submissions from PoC writers.
 
Last edited:

LJD

Super Member
Registered
Joined
Sep 12, 2010
Messages
4,220
Reaction score
513
Location
Toronto
One of the much-discussed issues (which has a lot of points that I won't get too deep into) is that the people at the top not being poc makes poc submissions subconsciously un-relatable to them. This is a horrific simplification, but like, the op is an example. Seeing an Asian as a lead/as a romance writer is something poc can do easily, yet seems out there to the "people at the top" and must be justified/maneuvered around

Yes. One part of the solution is to have editors and people in positions of power at publishers who are PoC. This is important.
 

LJD

Super Member
Registered
Joined
Sep 12, 2010
Messages
4,220
Reaction score
513
Location
Toronto
I suspect that Kensington's numbers (they are the highest at 19.8%) are due at least in part to Esi Sogah.

Also, hopefully if there were more PoC working at publishers, fewer books that sound like total travesties (eg. The Continent, American Heart) would be bought because someone would point out the problems beforehand...
 

yoghurtelf

yoghurt elf say wheeee!
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Dec 13, 2010
Messages
1,025
Reaction score
114
Location
Perth, Australia
I can't believe that editor said that!! Woah! That's horrendous!

I'd love to see more variety in romances - and I definitely think it's up to the people at the top of the chain to make that happen.
 

thethinker42

Abnormal Romance Author
Kind Benefactor
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Dec 30, 2006
Messages
20,704
Reaction score
2,618
Location
Bangor, Maine
Website
www.gallagherwitt.com
One issue that I've heard more than once in these discussions is POC authors being told "We've already published a [insert race] romance this year." Never mind that the romance in question was probably written by a white author. There's a finite number of slots (or one slot) for a romance about POC, and it's not necessarily going to an author who is POC.

During one discussion at a convention, a publisher complained that (for example) LGBT and African American romances simply don't sell as well, so they can't invest as much money in them, particularly in putting print books into major bookstores. I asked if they were aware that Barnes & Noble doesn't shelve African American or LGBT romance in the romance section, and that in fact LGBT romances get tucked away in the Cultural Studies or Self-Help sections, which aren't even in the fiction section of the store. I've been to stores where the African American fiction is similarly shelved in a place where no one looking for a romance (or even a novel) will ever stumble across them. She didn't have an answer, and I've never gotten an answer out of anyone at B&N either.

So between the books being shelved in no man's land and POC authors having to fight white authors for the handful of spots available for books about POC... honestly it's a wonder we even see as many diverse books as we do. The industry has some serious work to do here.
 

yoghurtelf

yoghurt elf say wheeee!
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Dec 13, 2010
Messages
1,025
Reaction score
114
Location
Perth, Australia
I asked if they were aware that Barnes & Noble doesn't shelve African American or LGBT romance in the romance section, and that in fact LGBT romances get tucked away in the Cultural Studies or Self-Help sections, which aren't even in the fiction section of the store. I've been to stores where the African American fiction is similarly shelved in a place where no one looking for a romance (or even a novel) will ever stumble across them. She didn't have an answer, and I've never gotten an answer out of anyone at B&N either.

That is just so weird! I once bought a rock star romance simply because I was "researching" while writing my own rockstar romance - it happened to have a PoC as the heroine, but did that make me blink? Nope, I enjoyed the book! I will say that I also bought a YA romance largely based on the fact that the female protag was Native America - I thought it was really cool that the author had focused on such a character since it's definitely not common (from what I've seen in) in romances in general and YA either.
 

Jan74

Kind Benefactor
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Feb 10, 2017
Messages
1,072
Reaction score
134
Location
Canada
One issue that I've heard more than once in these discussions is POC authors being told "We've already published a [insert race] romance this year." Never mind that the romance in question was probably written by a white author. There's a finite number of slots (or one slot) for a romance about POC, and it's not necessarily going to an author who is POC.

During one discussion at a convention, a publisher complained that (for example) LGBT and African American romances simply don't sell as well, so they can't invest as much money in them, particularly in putting print books into major bookstores. I asked if they were aware that Barnes & Noble doesn't shelve African American or LGBT romance in the romance section, and that in fact LGBT romances get tucked away in the Cultural Studies or Self-Help sections, which aren't even in the fiction section of the store. I've been to stores where the African American fiction is similarly shelved in a place where no one looking for a romance (or even a novel) will ever stumble across them. She didn't have an answer, and I've never gotten an answer out of anyone at B&N either.

So between the books being shelved in no man's land and POC authors having to fight white authors for the handful of spots available for books about POC... honestly it's a wonder we even see as many diverse books as we do. The industry has some serious work to do here.

Wow, that's sad that they shelve the books in no man's land :(

What about, and I hope this is not taken offensively to anyone who is of colour, but why can't the bookstores do what some libraries do and that is have a display table front and center that is PoC romances written by PoC? A showcase of such. Do the major publishing houses have any pull over B & N or Chapters? If they do and they realize that minorities are not selling well then present them front and center so they do sell.

I don't think this is rocket science, if the industry really wanted to correct this then they could easily correct it by showcasing PoC novels.

For instance our library will have round display tables set up, in February it was "red cover books" so a variety of genres and authors were showcased because their covers were red. Another table is "Canadian authors" another is "Aboriginals" etc. I love that they do this.
 

JDlugosz

Super Member
Registered
Joined
Sep 22, 2017
Messages
273
Reaction score
14
“If the characters just happen to be Chinese, but they’re still identifiable/relatable, that’s okay” (approx wording) which seems to imply that most of us Asians are unrelatable freaks . And this was by a well-respected editor.

I find that hard to fathom in this age of trivial worldwide communications. Same editor probably would not have given the Broadway play Hamilton a chance, either. I recall an interview where Lin-Manuel Miranda said that suspension of disbelief should be easy because it represents what Americans are now.

I'm increasingly of the opinion that traditional publishers are becoming irrelevant.

IAC, I prefer "exotic" to freakish. In fact, I married a woman from 昆明.

Happy moon-cake day! (last week) See, without some ethnic diversity in fiction, you would not get exposed to the customs and holidays of other groups. In an otherwise generic story, having a character bring around elaborately decorated pastries in even nicer boxes (I've had people who admit that they just want the box) is a nice bit of realism, even if you don't make a big deal of it.
 

BenPanced

THE BLUEBERRY QUEEN OF HADES
Kind Benefactor
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Nov 5, 2006
Messages
17,463
Reaction score
3,685
Location
dunking doughnuts at Dunkin' Donuts
One issue that I've heard more than once in these discussions is POC authors being told "We've already published a [insert race] romance this year." Never mind that the romance in question was probably written by a white author. There's a finite number of slots (or one slot) for a romance about POC, and it's not necessarily going to an author who is POC.

During one discussion at a convention, a publisher complained that (for example) LGBT and African American romances simply don't sell as well, so they can't invest as much money in them, particularly in putting print books into major bookstores. I asked if they were aware that Barnes & Noble doesn't shelve African American or LGBT romance in the romance section, and that in fact LGBT romances get tucked away in the Cultural Studies or Self-Help sections, which aren't even in the fiction section of the store. I've been to stores where the African American fiction is similarly shelved in a place where no one looking for a romance (or even a novel) will ever stumble across them. She didn't have an answer, and I've never gotten an answer out of anyone at B&N either.

So between the books being shelved in no man's land and POC authors having to fight white authors for the handful of spots available for books about POC... honestly it's a wonder we even see as many diverse books as we do. The industry has some serious work to do here.

POC woman writes romance with POC characters = niche market that might not sell well. Pasadena.

White woman writes romance with POC characters = diverse cast with possible mainstream appeal. RUN THAT SUCKER AT 6:00!
 

EmSalah29

Registered
Joined
Sep 4, 2017
Messages
35
Reaction score
1
Location
London
I attended the WriteNow event run by Penguin Random House last year and the whole point of the WriteNow event was to help with diversity within the publishing industry. A really amazing Asian writer mentioned at the event that he conducted a similar survey, but with all genres and looking at books written by POC writers across major publishing houses. He found that 2016 had some of the lowest numbers ever and one of the biggest publishing companies (a name that he could not mention) had not published a single book written by a POC writer. How crazy is that?

And I definitely agree that part of the problem is that we don't have enough representation within publishing companies and within literary agencies as well. And there is this belief that POC writers just don't sell as well as 'white' writer does. We need publishers and agents to let go of this misconception. Nalini Singh, who is of Indian descent, is one of the biggest paranormal romance writers in the world and a lot of the characters in her book are POC. And again there is this misconception that POC readers will read about 'white' characters and some how relate to them, but 'white' readers read about POC characters and just find them too unrelatable. How does that make any sense? I really hope the industry starts to change and change soon.
 

LJD

Super Member
Registered
Joined
Sep 12, 2010
Messages
4,220
Reaction score
513
Location
Toronto
And again there is this misconception that POC readers will read about 'white' characters and some how relate to them, but 'white' readers read about POC characters and just find them too unrelatable. How does that make any sense? I really hope the industry starts to change and change soon.

I'm not sure I'd call it a misconception. Unfortunately, it does seem to be the case for a number of readers, and it is not uncommon for PoC writers to be told their characters are unrelatable by publishers, etc. Which is why we need more PoC working at publishers.

It may be easier for white readers to relate to PoC written by white writers...who are writing with a "white gaze." Their representation of PoC may be more comfortable and palatable for white readers.
 

LJD

Super Member
Registered
Joined
Sep 12, 2010
Messages
4,220
Reaction score
513
Location
Toronto
IAC, I prefer "exotic" to freakish. In fact, I married a woman from 昆明.

To be fair, the editor didn't actually say "freak" or "freakish"...that was my, uh, interpretation.

"Exotic" is very problematic, and I never use it.
 

yoghurtelf

yoghurt elf say wheeee!
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Dec 13, 2010
Messages
1,025
Reaction score
114
Location
Perth, Australia
It may be easier for white readers to relate to PoC written by white writers...who are writing with a "white gaze." Their representation of PoC may be more comfortable and palatable for white readers.

I want to preface this by saying I'm obviously not an authority because I am totally white and have never experienced racism. And if I am misunderstanding anything or going off on a tangent then please let me know.

Re: your quote above, you are right that when it comes to issues of racism etc, white readers will "relate" more to white characters, at least in terms of them not having to endure racism and so on. Do you feel that PoC readers can relate to white characters, if the reader has endured racism but the white character never has, and is just going through life oblivious to that sort of thing? This is me just focusing on the racism aspect too, not other aspects of general bigotry that I as a woman could relate to in a character I'm reading about, regardless of their colour.

From my POV as one of the whitest white people you can get (e.g. Scottish/Irish heritage etc.), when it comes to reading books with PoC (or watching movies/docos that include those POVs) I may not be able to "relate to" racism experienced by the characters or people (except as a thinking, feeling, compassionate human being who cares about other human beings) because I haven't gone through what those people have. But I expect that I will be able to relate on some level, e.g. if it's a romance I can relate to the romantic woes, or if it's got family drama I should be able to relate on some level there. So I don't get why editors/publishers wouldn't see that as well (but I agree that evidently they don't). Just because a character is a PoC doesn't mean *any* reader shouldn't be able to relate to what they go through at least on some level (even if not the racism side of things).

Last night I watched a doco about transgender people in New York from the 60s and 70s through the 90s/2000s and what sort of stuff they went through and are still going through - I can't relate to them because I'm not trans but that didn't mean the story didn't make me get teary and angry about all that they've endured and how marginalised they are. But I absolutely agree that I would not be able to relate to what they have gone through.
 

LJD

Super Member
Registered
Joined
Sep 12, 2010
Messages
4,220
Reaction score
513
Location
Toronto
Re: your quote above, you are right that when it comes to issues of racism etc, white readers will "relate" more to white characters, at least in terms of them not having to endure racism and so on. Do you feel that PoC readers can relate to white characters, if the reader has endured racism but the white character never has, and is just going through life oblivious to that sort of thing? This is me just focusing on the racism aspect too, not other aspects of general bigotry that I as a woman could relate to in a character I'm reading about, regardless of their colour.

PoC are expected to relate to white people from the time we are children. We are not given a choice. As a child, I never expected to read a book about someone with my background. It wasn't an option.

Also, racism has had very little effect on my life to be honest, at least in part because: 1) I live in a very diverse Canadian city, and 2) I am ambiguous-looking and have a "white" name...so some people might assume I am white. At this point, it has more effect on me in publishing than any other aspect of my life.

There is so much more to being PoC that has nothing to do with bigotry, and I don't write much about racism in my stories. I just wrote a book with a Chinese-Canadian hero and heroine, and racism was barely mentioned, except as it related to the hero's family history. (His family had been in Canada for over a 100 years and had to deal with head tax, exclusion act, etc.) But it was really a romantic comedy about mental illness.

Actually, I think part of the problem is that some white people expect books about PoC to be about oppression (and the PoC ultimately being saved from oppression by a "white savior"). They don't like to think about us having normal lives. Books about PoC are sometimes expected to be "misery porn," which is gross. On the other hand, pointing out micro-aggressions in day-to-day life might be uncomfortable for some white readers who may do such things themselves. Similarly, books that challenge stereotypes might also be uncomfortable for white readers who--perhaps subconsciously--believe those stereotypes. They don't want their world view challenged.


From my POV as one of the whitest white people you can get (e.g. Scottish/Irish heritage etc.), when it comes to reading books with PoC (or watching movies/docos that include those POVs) I may not be able to "relate to" racism experienced by the characters or people (except as a thinking, feeling, compassionate human being who cares about other human beings) because I haven't gone through what those people have. But I expect that I will be able to relate on some level, e.g. if it's a romance I can relate to the romantic woes, or if it's got family drama I should be able to relate on some level there. So I don't get why editors/publishers wouldn't see that as well (but I agree that evidently they don't). Just because a character is a PoC doesn't mean *any* reader shouldn't be able to relate to what they go through at least on some level (even if not the racism side of things).

Last night I watched a doco about transgender people in New York from the 60s and 70s through the 90s/2000s and what sort of stuff they went through and are still going through - I can't relate to them because I'm not trans but that didn't mean the story didn't make me get teary and angry about all that they've endured and how marginalised they are. But I absolutely agree that I would not be able to relate to what they have gone through.

The fact that people can't relate is a little baffling to me because works of fiction typically deal with basic human emotions. In many cases, I think people decide they can't relate beforehand and go into things with pre-conceived notions. I don't fully understand it.
 

ebbrown

Easily Amused
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Jan 11, 2013
Messages
741
Reaction score
63
Location
South Jersey
Website
www.ebbrown.net
The fact that people can't relate is a little baffling to me because works of fiction typically deal with basic human emotions. In many cases, I think people decide they can't relate beforehand and go into things with pre-conceived notions. I don't fully understand it.

Yes, I think many people do go into books with pre-conceived notions. This past week I noticed a review where the reader was disappointed the hero was NA, but then she got over it and "liked the story anyway". I cringed.

It's never occurred to me to not pick up a book because it featured PoC. I've always wanted to read anything I can get my hands on, and looked at the library as my own personal way to travel the world and experience things I'd never come across IRL. To me, that's the beauty of the written word.

Sad that PoC exclusion is still so blatant in our industry. I think there are a lot of amazing books out there by and about PoC; real change needs to happen at the top before it can trickle down and mesh with the voices that are out there.
 

yoghurtelf

yoghurt elf say wheeee!
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Dec 13, 2010
Messages
1,025
Reaction score
114
Location
Perth, Australia
I didn't word that quite right - I can relate as a fellow human being, but not from the angle of being in their shoes in my own life. But reading or viewing their stories gives me the chance to walk in their shoes.

I don't expect oppression from those stories either, though I have seen it mentioned as you say in relation to a family's ancestors or history. The one with the Native American MC featured racism. While in nother romance I read, the saviour was also a PoC, but still a man, so that's problematic in it's own way. ;)
 

A large christmas tree with lights outdoors in the snow, with a snowman, houses, and children