Earlier this week, a NYT Bestselling Author tweeted out a troubling story that has fans of romance novels fired up.
NYT Bestselling author, Courtney Milan, recounted a disturbing encounter another black writer experienced at the 2016 Romance Writers of America (RWA) Conference. Prefixing the thread, Milan warns that she has received backlash in the past for merely alluding to the issue publicly and expects future troubles for being more forth coming now.
According to Milan’s tweets, during a record year for black RITA finalists, author Phyllis Bourne, who finaled with her novel “Heated Moments” published under Harlequin (HQN) Kimani (a line that features stories written by, but not necessarily about, black people) was snubbed by her publishing house. While in the past Harlequin, known best for its huge selection of romance novels, has celebrated its RITA finalists by prominently featuring them at their publisher-hosted signings–not only was Bourne not featured, she wasn’t even invited to sign her finalist book as previous finalists have in the past.
She was snubbed. She was also the only black Harlequin RITA finalist.
Bourne’s experience didn’t end there—while Milan continues her thread detailing some behind the scene issues, Bourne’s encounter with an editor at the event is truly shocking.
“An editor for Harlequin approached an award-winning black author and told her, to her face, that she didn’t want her books, but wanted her to help her develop a guide for white authors writing diversely.”
That editor was Angela James, Harlequin’s Editorial Director. James issued an apology for her words at the event but encounters such as these speak to a larger, well-known issue within publishing that isn’t being addressed well enough.
The lack of diversity.
HQN has had similar diversity lacking issues present itself in the past In 2013, an online petition surfaced urging the publisher to delay the release of their book “The Continent” by Keira Drake to address the troubling depictions of people of color. Depictions described as “Magic Black people, Ninja Asians, and uneducated, ruthless Natives who get drunk and try to rape the precious white girl.”
Racial mishaps are not limited to HQN. Last month, Riptide editor Sarah Lyons resigned after an email she sent to author Cole McCade (who also writes as Xen Sanders) was published in which she told him: “We don’t mind POC but I will warn you – and you have NO idea how much I hate having to say this – we won’t put them on the cover, because we like the book to, you know, sell :-).”
While recent blockbuster titles like “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas and “Children of Blood and Bone” by Tomi Adeyemi have made big leaps toward ensuring black women are fully represented in fiction (as writers and characters) those kind of successes have not yet received the supportive systems needed to permeate the romance genre.
A 2017 diversity in romance study done by Ripped Bodice, a bookstore that exclusively sells romance novels, shows that 80% of surveyed publishers had less than 10% of their books authored by people of color. The study, which analyzed 3,762 books, showed that for every 100 titles published in 2017 only 6.2 of them were authored by people of color, down from 2016’s number of 7.8.
While numbers show that some publishers have made increases within the last year alone, in general, the issue is worsening.
These lackluster numbers become even more dire with the announcement that HQN will be shuttering their Kimani line at the end of this year. Milan’s tweets show a growing fear back in 2016 that this conclusion was in the works, telling of a conference call held between HQN and authors from several lines (excluding Kimani) where HQN told their authors they need to write more diversely. No such request was made to the authors under Kimani.
I spoke with current Kimani author Kianna Alexander, who shared that after last year’s announcement only a few authors have been invited to write for the publisher’s other lines.
“Some authors were invited to write for other lines, but many of us were simply told the line was closing and given a “good luck with your next endeavors” type of message. It felt rather dismissive. If I want to write for another line, I have to start from scratch with the submission process at that line, even though I have an agent and have sold them 9 books.”
While Alexander described a less than welcoming atmosphere at RWA for black writers and an unusual encounter with an editor who assumed she was an “aspiring author” (though she has twenty published titles); she hasn’t experienced any individual instances of bias while at HQN. That said, she does feel that the Kimani line and its authors do not receive the same or adequate support as the publisher’s other lines, listing the prevalence of advertising in magazines such as Romantic Times and Woman’s World etc.., online marketing campaigns and their social media following as areas in which they failed.
“Considering that social media is mostly free, why wouldn’t they put more effort into promoting us there? Ad campaigns they run all over the web, including their own website, rarely featured Kimani titles. Our line was also notoriously understaffed, with only two full time Kimani editors (one being an assistant) and maybe one or two more editors borrowed from other lines.”
So how do we fix this? What can we do as consumers to encourage publishers to be more aggressive in soliciting and promoting works from more authors of color in this genre and other ignored genres?
The most obvious choice is to speak on it. Share this story and others like it that highlight the issues of racial disparity within publishing on social media. Tweet at Harlequin (@HarlequinBooks) and other publishers who are failing readers and their writers, hashtag #DiverseRomance and #AOC (Authors of Color). And support! Support publications who deliver diverse books, support the authors you love–purchase their books, leave them reviews, talk about their work on social media. Alexander says it best:
“Black readers have to show up for us. BUY our books when you can. There seems to be a tendency to buy one copy and share it with a bunch of people. If you can’t purchase, ask the local library to purchase some copies, most branches have a form either on paper or online for patron requests. Also, when you read a book you love REVIEW it on Amazon/Goodreads or wherever you bought it. Amazon reviews probably hold the most weight. And when black authors host events, attend them. Show your support in person by buying books, taking selfies with authors, posting and chatting the events and authors up on social media. Write to publishing houses and demand more of our books. It doesn’t have to be a long letter or post. Go on Twitter and tag the house and air your grievances or make suggestions there. They will act because they hate bad publicity and they want reader dollars. Demand what you want. These things will cost more time than money but will be so appreciated and go so far in helping Black authors.”
And maybe don’t support works that will prove to be detrimental against the fight for more diversity.
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Editor in Chief, Often found reading a book, writing down story ideas, or in the comments section telling folks to "read the actual article".