March 5, 2018
Tall, dark, and handsome — but not too dark, ok?
by Susan Rella
Romance writing has done the impossible. Hard to say how this even happened, but… it’s gotten whiter.
This is from the second of two annual studies done by the Ripped Bodice, our fair nation’s only all-romance specialty bookstore. As we wrote back in October, only 7.8 romance books out of 100 published in 2016 were written by women of color. What’s more, the same report showed that half of the publishers studied had lists by authors of whom fewer than five percent were people of color. And as other studies (like this one by Pew, reported on by Philip Bump in a 2014 piece in The Atlantic) have shown, college-educated black women are the demographic likeliest to read a book.
The 2016 study was so abysmal that even those who conducted it, sisters Leah and Bea Koch (owners of the Ripped Bodice), were struck dumb. As Bea told Entertainment Weekly’s Maureen Lee Lenker, “We thought [the numbers] would be bad, we didn’t think they would be this bad.” Nothing could be a clearer call-to-arms for publishers to get some non-white talent on their roster.
In 2017, the number of romance books written by non-whites dropped to 6.2 out of 100.
Another statistic makes that one look even worse: there were 5.5 percent more romance books published in 2017 then in 2016. And, as Lenker writes this month in Entertainment Weekly, reporting on the Ripped Bodice’s newest study, “half of the publishers surveyed showed no improvement or had decreased the number of books written by authors of color” since last year. (Linker’s piece is great, and features some helpful infographics.)
If you’re about to come at me with some bullshit “Free Market!” argument—telling me that if readers wanted more diversity in literature, they’d be buying more diverse literature and thus publishers would be signing on more diverse literature—then I’m going to have to ask you to sit back down. We already told you that black women do the most reading. This year, the Ripped Bodice added a great bit of insight into their reporting: A full sixty percent of their bestsellers for 2017 were written by authors of color. This is in downtown Culver City, an area of LA that’s sixty-five percent white.
Of course, the other half of this story is that fifty percent of publishers did show improvement — and that’s great. Lenker pointed out that one publisher, Crimson Romance (acquired in November 2016 by Simon & Schuster), added seventeen percent more non-white authors from 2016 to 2017. But for Random House to go down from 1.8 percent to .01 percent, and for romance powerhouse Harlequin to drop 1.7 percent from 2016… these are trends in the wrong direction.
Hopefully this will all be discussed at this year’s Romance Writers of America Conference in July. I’ll even give you a starting point: carry yourself to the bed, in your strong, rugged arms. Give yourself that lusty look — the one you’ve recognized so many times before, but never felt this powerfully, this deep in your loins. Welcome that undeniable flutter in your abdomen, resonating with each stammering heartbeat, every shallow breath. And see if you can’t fall in love with diversity, please and thank you.
Susan Rella is the managing editor at Melville House, and a former bookseller.