October 11, 2017

Romance novels have a diversity problem

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LA’s The Ripped Bodice, the only bookstore in the US that exclusively focuses on romance novels, recently published a study on the state of racial diversity in romance publishing. And it’s not great.

As Maureen Lee Lenker reports over at Entertainment Weekly, the sisters who own Ripped Bodice, Leah and Bea Koch, studied data provided by publishers and culled from 2016 catalogs. They found that of the romance novels released by twenty different publishers last year, fewer than ten percent were written by authors of color. Further, half the publishers included in the report had lists of which less than five percent had been written by authors of color. Only three of the twenty publishers who provided statistics had at least ten percent of their books written by people of color.

These numbers are upsetting. And they look even worse in light of this 2013 study from the Pew Research Center, which some have interpreted as indicating college-educated black women are the likeliest demographic group in America to have read a book in the past year. This suggests there may be many women reading romance novels in which their own experiences are not well represented.

In fact, the Koch sisters said they were inspired to conduct the study after finding themselves unable to recommend books by authors of color to their customers — because there weren’t many in existence to recommend. As Bea Koch told Lenker, “Honestly we were shocked at how abysmal the numbers are. We thought they would be bad, we didn’t think they would be this bad.”

There’s no denying the facts. The lack of diversity in publishing is and has been a major problem for many years, but it’s only been relatively recently that publishers are being called out for it. This study from the Ripped Bodice, a cornerstone of the romance community, represents an attempt to hold publishers accountable for their actions. The Kochs plan to conduct the same audit study every year, which should encourage these publishers to do better. As the report says, “For many years the common refrain from publishers has been ‘we’re working on it.’ Every year we will track industry growth and see if that promise rings true.”

Romance publishers represent a genre that’s still fighting to be taken seriously by the rest of the literary world. They should understand a thing or two about marginalization, and step up to assume leadership of the effort for diverse publishing.  In the meantime, you can head over to Bustle for a list of suggested romance novels by authors of color to get you started.

 

 

Stephanie DeLuca is the director of publicity at Melville House.

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