A new report published by romance bookstore The Ripped Bodice shows that romance publishing in 2017 was less diverse than in 2016. The 2016 report showed that romance has a major diversity problem, with only 7.8 percent of romance novels published in that year written by authors of color. Now, that number stands at 6.2 percent, which means that romance publishing got a lot less diverse in 2017.
As I pointed out when I covered The Ripped Bodice's 2016 Diversity Report in Oct. 2017, women of color represent a huge portion of romance's market, but have next to no representation within the industry:
"As Entertainment Weekly points out, the dearth of Own Voices romance fiction does a real disservice to black women, the most educated demographic in the U.S. today. According to Pew Research Center, college-educated black women are more likely than any other demographic to have read a book in the last year. Additionally, the 2014 Nielsen Romance Buyer Survey found that 84 percent of romance novel-buyers are women. This means that women of color make up a large chunk of romance readership, but fewer than one in 10 of the books they pick up will be written by a person of color."
The Ripped Bodice began as a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2015, and sister-owners Leah and Bea Koch have worked hard to promote diversity in the romance industry. The 2017 Diversity Report knocks down three excuses publishers and stores use to avoid buying, printing, and stocking romance novels written by women of color:
- That romance novels by authors of color don't sell: 60 percent of The Ripped Bodice's best sellers in 2017 were written by women of color.
- That there are a limited number of romance novels published each year: 5.5 percent more romance novels were published in 2017 than in 2016, so "[c]learly there is plenty of room to pull up more chairs [to the table] as long as the people sitting in those chairs are white."
- That publishing is merit-based, so only the best books get published: This mindset not only assumes that everyone has equal chances of being noticed by agents and publishers, and that those agents and publishers do not have biases of their own, but also that "books by people of color do not meet the standards defined by the taste of white readers."
In 2016, only three of the 20 romance publishers included in The Ripped Bodice's report had catalogs in which more than 10 percent of books were written by authors of color. That number has jumped to four romance publishers, but only two of them, Crimson Romance and Kensington, remained consistent over both years. After making poor showings in the 2016 Diversity Report, Sourcebooks and Gallery jumped from 2.9 and 5.5 percent diverse representation to 11.6 and 12.2 percent, respectively. Unfortunately, this means that one of 2016's most diverse romance publishers, Forever, dropped dramatically, from 17.5 down to 5.3 percent.
All told, half of the publishers The Ribbed Bodice examined had as many or fewer books by writers of color in their 2017 catalogs than in 2016, and 80 percent still had less than 10 percent diverse representation. Tule Publishing continues to have no books by authors of color in its catalog, and Random House's 1.8 percent in 2016 dropped to 0.01 percent in 2017. On a bright note, HQN rose from 0 percent diversity in 2016 to 4.2 percent in 2017.
The Kochs say that they "weren't entirely surprised" by the radical changes in representation from last year: "I think we're going to see a lot of fluctuation year to year over the next few years so we weren't entirely surprised but of course we're disappointed. It is unacceptable to move backwards when the industry is already so behind as it is. We can only hope that publishers will prioritize diversifying their author lists going forward."
As the 2017 Diversity Report notes, authors of color are publishing more romance novels than this survey shows, thanks to the power of independent publishing. But just because non-white authors have alternate methods of publishing their work, that does not mean that the lack of diversity in traditional publishing outlets is OK. Separate is not equal, and in 2017, everyone should expect better from the media they love.