It was inspiring to watch the authors picking up trophies at the RT Book Reviews awards ceremony in Dallas. Many were successful middle-aged women who’d started writing romances as a second career, supportive husbands cheering them on. But—as reflects the publishing business overall—it was a fairly white group, and when Rebekah Weatherspoon took the stage, she told the crowd, “It means a lot to be a black woman up here.”
Weatherspoon was being honored for her self-published erotic romance novella FIT, the intro to a trilogy following several kinksters bouncing around an L.A. gym; they’re charming, lighthearted BDSM romances that read like kin to one of Victoria Dahl’s fun-and-funny contemporaries. The protagonists are a diverse crew, starting with an Asian-American production assistant and a personal trainer resembling Chris Hemsworth. (Weatherspoon believes that Hemsworth should be allowed to let his goofiness show in more rom-coms, a sentiment I cosign heartily.)
The tagline of Weatherspoon’s website: “Where the Happily Ever Afters Are Always in Color.” She’s also the proprietor of WOC in Romance, launched recently as an effort to signal boost for her fellow authors. She was inspired by #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #WeNeedDiverseRomance, two Twitter campaigns fostering conversations online about the overwhelming white heterosexuality of publishing in general and this genre specifically. “I want to be able to establish it as something where someone is new to romance and they say, ‘Oh, I want to find a book written by a woman of color’—go there,” Weatherspoon told me in an interview the morning after her win. (We were, of course, sitting under an enormous banner emblazoned with abs.)
Multicultural romance is not new. Arabesque broke ground upon its founding in 1994; eventually the label was acquired by Harlequin, who made it the basis of their Kimani line, launched in 2006. (Featuring “sophisticated, soulful and sensual African-American and multicultural heroes and heroines who develop fulfilling relationships as they lead lives full of drama, glamour and passion,” goes the official description.) Looking at the genre more broadly, Brenda Jackson, Nalini Singh, and Beverly Jenkins (whose latest got a big promo poster at the RT Avon Books mixer) are certainly among romance’s stars. An important figure in the history of the business is Vivian Stephens, an African American woman who co-founded Romance Writers of America and helped establish stateside plotlines in her roles at Dell’s Candlelight Ecstasy and Harlequin’s American line. Hell, Zane was a founding mother of the erotic romance boom.
And according to a 2014 Publisher’s Weekly assessment, those multicultural lines do a brisk business:
Of the brick-and-mortar retailers doing a good job of stocking multicultural romances, big-box stores win the praise of several publishers. “Walmart and Target are the driving force in African-American book sales,” Kensington’s Zacharius says. “They have dedicated space for this genre, which has proven to be the most effective way to draw attention to these books.”
Johanna Castillo, v-p and senior editor at Atria, noted that those same stores are also increasing their assortments in Latina/Latino categories. “In recent years, Walmart has expanded not only their demand for diverse books, but also books in Spanish,” she says.
And too, the technological upending of the book business has made it easier than ever to get your stuff out there without having to sweet talk an enormous, risk-averse publisher. Piper Huguley appeared on an RT panel titled “The Right to Write,” about diversity in the genre. She writes historical romance, generally with African-American protagonists. “A lot of people told me not to do that, but here I am!” she told the crowd. Huguley, who teaches at Spellman, self-published her first book, which is about a schoolteacher who comes to community of freed slaves during Reconstruction. Her new series, which follows a family of sisters during the Great Migration, is available through the digital indie publisher Samhain.
Alyssa Cole’s post-apocalyptic Radio Silence, which has been getting great reviews, was published through Harlequin’s Carina Press, which was launched explicitly to play in the faster-moving digital market. Alisha Rai is another self-published up-and-comer. Courtney Milan’s self-published Trade Me features an Asian heroine, and the sequel will include a trans heroine; one of her historicals, The Heiress Effect, has a secondary love story between a young woman with epilepsy and an Indian man studying law at Cambridge. Riptide Publishing specializes in LGBTQ works, as does Boldstroke Books.
Weatherspoon herself got into romance through Twilight fandom; fellow readers introduced her to the genre. “Which was great,” she said. “I was like—I found my people!” Her fanfics were good enough that she was encouraged to start writing her own stories, which led to several lesbian romances for Boldstroke Books. She started the FIT Trilogy when she decided to try self-publishing as a kind of experiment. “I didn’t know it was going to get scooped up by as many people as it did,” she said.
But there’s a persistent sense that multicultural lines and indie offerings are siloed, cordoned off, and that it’s hard for anybody with diverse characters to break into the broader, “mainstream” romance market and thereby attract the widest possible array of readers. In your local Barnes and Noble, categories are sold in a specific Harlequin section, which means Kimani gets sold off to the side. Some titles get channeled off into, say, the African-American lit corner. “I think a lot of readers go to the romance section,” said moderator Laura Castoro, “and if the romance section isn’t diverse,” then it’s hard to capture those readers. (This is also true for LGBTQ romance, despite the thriving popularity of the m/m subgenre.) “Women of color in romance, we have to kind of wait our turn, and we’re often pushed to the side and shelved to the side or not shelved at all,” Weatherspoon said. She’s had conversations where people look her dead in the eye and insist that women of color don’t write romance. “It’s like—okay, but you know me. And you know so-and-so. And you know so-and-so.”
“It’s like they have a mental block,” she added.
Nor is the Internet a magic bullet that, given enough time, will work its bullety magic. The publishing business overall is ever-more obsessed with blockbusters and less and less comfortable with anything seen as different or “risky.” And as Sonali Dev told me when I spoke to her about her book A Bollywood Affair: “White has come to mean neutrality, and everybody can relate to that.” On the flip side, she said, her book actually stood out when she was shopping it around and that was a benefit, but the challenge was there, too. She also sat on the “Right to Write” panel, where she assessed the “multicultural” label like so: “They’ve given us a table now. And multicultural is our table. And I’m really happy they’ve given us that table!” Of course, “what we want is one big table for everyone. But one step at a time.”
And yet, despite the stereotype of the romance reader—the media, the public and popular culture generally seem to think we’re all the Fifty Shades-toting Midwestern mother of three with a Kate Gosselin haircut, which is a gross oversimplification but never mind, don’t get me started or we’ll be here all damn day—the buyers aren’t a monolith, either. “A lot of white authors are being heavily supported by readers of color,” pointed out Weatherspoon. “Outlander’s out now, and I’m in a whole gigantic group on Tumblr—all black women. Huge group, all black women. And we’re not having race debates—we’re just enjoying the show and enjoying the books.”
There’s another prevailing misconception about romance: that it’s the same book over and over and over again. But the genre actually runs on specificity of experience; it’s a field that encompasses everything from the sweetest, churchy-est stories to the wildest kinks. It’s ridiculous how much territory romance covers. Creating relatable characters is a matter of writing ability, not faces—though readers have a part to play as well, by remaining just as welcoming to protagonists of varied races and sexualities as Regency rakes and were-bears.
And traditionally, much of the innovation in romance has been bottom up. Ambitious readers try writing something a little different; an editor or two takes a chance; fellow readers respond enthusiastically; two years later, you’ve got a new trope or subgenre. The American contemporary romance genre barely existed until women like Janet Dailey got tired of reading the same shy-girl-meets-dark-mysterious-man Mills & Boons. Cowboys didn’t just spontaneously materialize on Harlequin covers in a Toronto warehouse overnight. Heroines with a sense of their right to sexual pleasure didn’t simply sweep in like a rainstorm. “I understand that publishing is definitely a business, but there’s books flopping all over the place,” Weatherspoon said. That’s just the nature of the beast. “Other people are going to flop, so why not give someone a chance to succeed?”
In the meantime, romance readers can read broadly—and campaign for their favorites. (Not exactly a hardship!) As for publishers, Weatherspoon has one tantalizing word: Empire. “All-black cast, mostly, and everybody’s watching it. Everybody.” Who wouldn’t want to spot romance’s Empire?
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