Tuesday, April 03, 2018

RWA, RITAs and Race

On 30 March the RWA posted the following (as part of a slightly longer statement):
We’ve only recently started collecting demographic information on our members, and that is on a voluntary basis. But from what we could determine, the statistics for black author RITA finalists from 2000 to 2017 are:
  • The number of finalist books by black authors is less than half of 1% of the total number of finalist books
  • No black romance author has ever won a RITA
We understand there are questions about which authors enter and what percentage of entrants are black authors. We will attempt to gather that information in the future to answer these questions but, in the meantime, it is impossible to deny that this is a serious issue and that it needs to be addressed.
I don't know precisely what prompted this statement. It seems quite likely it had been in preparation for some time, but the demographics of this year's RITA finalists had caused concern after "RWA announced the finalists for the 2018 RITA and Golden Heart awards on March 21" (RWA). Courtney Milan, who is a Director-at-Large on the current RWA Board of Directors, has noted that
If we lived in a society with real representation, of the 88 works that were RITA finalists this year, we would expect that 12 of them were black, 5 were Asian, 1 was Native, and 16 were Hispanic (with some percentage of those being nonwhite Hispanics.) [...] By my count, this year 4 of our finalists are Hispanic and 2 are Asian (Four Hispanic because I’m going by finaling works, not authors, and Alexis Daria and Priscilla Oliveras has works that double finaled as best first book.)
One of the ironies of this is that RWA came into existence because of an African-American editor, Vivian Stephens:
In 1979, editor Vivian Stephens and a group of romance writers met at a writers conference at the University of Houston. At the time, writers groups largely ignore the romance genre, and these women recognized the value of an organization dedicated to the needs of romance writers in the rapidly growing American romance fiction market. (RWA)
And yet, the RWA has often felt like an extremely unwelcoming place to people of colour. For instance,
Did you know that women of color who attend RWA often have what is in effect a buddy system? So they’re not left alone? Did you know that every year, Black women who sit down at lunch tables see white women stand up and move to not sit with them? That black women with twenty books to their name get called “aspiring authors”? That these things happen under the nose of white authors who don’t say anything because it would be “mean”? (Courtney Milan)
That black author with twenty books to her name was Kianna Alexander:
And the person who said it to me was an editor at a major publishing house, who simply looked at me and assumed I was "aspiring" rather than multi-published.
Publishers are clearly part of the problem. The lack of diversity in romance publishing was highlighted in The Ripped Bodice's 2016 report on the issue. In 2017 they repeated their analysis of romance publishing and their
study highlights just how glaring of an issue racial discrimination continues to be. This is an urgent issue. The downward trend in the industry as a whole this year shows that simply noting and discussing the problem is not enough. We need action. [...]
Do not mistake this data as evidence that books written by authors of color do not exist. The books ARE out there. They are being self-published due to publishers' historic and current attitudes towards non white authors.
As Courtney Milan indicates, the net effect of all discriminatory attitudes and barriers to inclusion is to create
a tale of two RWAs. [...] It’s not just about people. It’s about the entire system of power. [...] In 2016, more black women were RITA finalists than in any of those other years before. One of those black women was , who finaled with a book that was released by Harlequin Kimani. Harlequin tends to celebrate its RITA-finaling authors—they’re very proud of the fact that their series authors write wonderful books that capture hearts, and they should be. Those authors are often given pride of place at their publisher signings. Phyllis Bourne, who was attending RWA, was not invited to sign her RITA finalist book at their signing. She wasn’t invited to sign at all. She reminded them she had a RITA finalist (was, IIRC, the only black Harlequin finalist?), and they just snubbed her. [...]
Like I said, this is a tale of two RWAs—one in which every woman of color was aware that a large number of black authors faced an existential threat to their career, and one where most white woman had no idea. [...] WOC wanted Phyllis to win. We really did. And yeah, we understood it might not happen, but man, publishing is full of disappointments. You get up and you keep going. But there was ONE book in that category that...um, let’s say, I didn’t hear a lot of WOC they wanted it to win. This was a book (written by a white author) where the heroine was Native. She had a family history of alcoholism and poverty (because of course she did) and the hero was a white savior, and... it’s really not about that book. [...] It was hurtful that we knew some of our fellow authors who served as judges had read these books and didn’t notice that they were deeply racially problematic at best. But it’s not like racially problematic books hadn’t finaled before. You just hope they don’t win. It’s one thing if five judges randomly chosen don’t notice it. But five final round judges, hand-picked, would have to like it for it to win. You know which book won. And—by the way, this is important—Harlequin also published this book.
This, and more details and examples, can be found here, on Courtney Milan's thread. Seressia Glass adds more detail about the hurtful comments directed at her at that conference and each one matters because, as she states, "microaggressions add up." A pattern of microaggressions makes clear who is an "outsider" and whose work is not likely to be valued; the targets of microaggressions react accordingly. Beverly Jenkins, who is celebrated for her historical romances about African-Americans, for example,
never received a RITA until the LTA [Lifetime Achievement Award] last year because I never entered. Back in the 90s, I knew my chances of being a finalist were zero to nil, so why put myself through that. When I gave keynote in 2016 there was a record number of POC and queer finalists. Was this due to the judges? The numbers submitted? I was hoping it was a trend, then last year? Nope. Back to “normal”. This year “normal” too.
Sasha Devlin notes that:
Romance is always talking about how empowering the genre is for women, how welcoming, rah rah sisterhood & yet the truth is for many of us it's a gauntlet. Every event, con, meeting is a chance for Who Might Be Racist? Who Will Back Me Up?
To summarise, this is an issue which affects many different areas of publishing. It affects: how people are treated in person; which authors receive contracts from publishers and which do not; it is about the contents of the books which are and aren't published; it is about readers and the books they do (or don't) find problematic. On that last point, here's an example of a Harlequin romance, published in March 2017, which as pointed out here by azteclady has "so many things wrong with it" yet it nonetheless received a favourable, B review at All About Romance, whose reviewer would "recommend this book to adventurous readers looking to try something new." And here's a 2007 RITA-winner published by Jove which I critiqued at the time for its racist stereotypes: the reviewer at the Historical Novel Society noticed the "helpful peasants, and villains who only lack a mustache to twirl to complete their stereotypical portrait" but nonetheless concluded that "this is still a fast, fun read."

There's a lot to fix:
I mean fix the presumptions of quality. Fix the presumptions of "I can't relate to 'those' characters." Fix the perspective that you can't help.  (Adrienne Michel - another current RWA Director-at-Large)
We can all play our part in bringing about change. I wish RWA well as it attempts to address this deep-seated, systemic issue.


  1. There are so many more threads I could add, but here's a few more egregious comments/examples of how publishing as an industry does things wrong in this area:

    "In 2015, the editorial director of Pocket Books announced at RWA’s national conference that they did not acquire books by black or Latina authors." (Courtney Milan)

    Some years before, as Barbara Ferrer recounts:

    that same ED acquired my first (RITA-winning) book and did so specifically because I was Latina. Of course, there were also some instances during the publication process that also makes this statement not at all surprising. Such as wanting to title ADIÓS "Light My Fuego." (No lie—I think there's still a cached Amazon page with that title.) When I protested—vehemently—as to why that was an awful title, I was labeled "problematic." Why did they want such a dreadful title, you ask? Because they specifically wanted a title with a Spanish word in it. As if the book couldn't stand on its own otherwise. Then there was the part where they insisted I take a "more Latina-sounding name." (Yes, those exact words were used.) As if Barbara Ferrer wasn't Latina enough. So I used my middle name, which led to its own issues years later. But my favorite part was when I received my author copies of the book & learned that all of my meticulously chosen Spanish colloquialisms had been replaced—post-galleys & proofs—with high school textbook Spanish phrases. When I called my agent & editor (the same ED as mentioned in the RT) absolutely devastated, my editor cavalierly blew it off with a "What does it really matter? It's still Spanish, isn't it?"

    Barbara Ferrer's Adiós to My Old Life was published by MTV Books (an imprint of Pocket) in 2006. The author's name on the cover is given as Caridad Ferrer.

  2. And this comment from Marjorie Liu:

    I loved writing romance, but it's no accident that's where I was asked to write under a "white" name; asked to make POC characters white; or where I first heard a POC author referred to as "ethnically tainted".

  3. Another, this time from Laura Jardine/Jackie Lau:

    My publisher canceled my series before the only book with a POC hero or heroine. tbh, by that point, I wasn't upset. I was kind of glad it was over, even though I'd already written the book. During my final phone call with my editor, who had always been supportive, I told her about my plans to start a new pen name and write romantic comedies with Chinese-Canadian characters. First, she told me not to use a Chinese surname. Second, she wasn't exactly enthusiastic about my plan to write Chinese characters and said something like, "If the characters just happen to be Chinese, but they’re still identifiable/relatable, that’s okay.” As if...most Chinese people are unrelatable freaks and white people can't relate to their issues? IDK. I was too shocked to reply. I'm sure she didn't *mean* to be insulting, but...umm...yeah. This was the week @TheRippedBodice's diversity report came out last year, btw. That report cemented my decision to self-publish. [...] I'd spent years submitting to publishers...and occasionally being published. But I felt like there was no place for me and what I wanted to write, and it was just too discouraging to keep at it.

  4. I'm not surprised at many of these stories, because I have experienced on occasion some similar ones, but leave the table because a black woman sits there? That is sick, and scary.

  5. My impression as an outsider who has been reading blog posts, tweets etc about romance publishing for years now, is that the culture in romance publishing can be quite two-faced because on the one hand there's pressure for everyone to be "nice" (along the lines of "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all") but although that can sometimes be a way of trying to keep relationships positive and mutually supportive, it can also suppress discussion of things which need to be addressed. And as this week's discussions show, there's a lot which needs to be addressed.

    Leaving a table without saying anything is the kind of passive-aggressive plausibly-deniable behaviour which fits into that superficially "nice" context.

  6. What this week has also shown (and again, this has also been evident in the past) is that there's also a lot of genuine supportiveness among authors and authors who've been hurt/treated badly who are nonetheless willing to put in a lot of time and effort to change things for the better.

  7. Here's something about readers and coverart, by USA Today Bestselling author Naima Simone, regarding her two most recent releases:

    The first book, Scoring with the Wrong Twin, had released in January, and the second, Scoring Off the Field, in early March [...] In the two months since book 1 had released, I’d sold 561 copies. In the nearly two weeks since book 2 had released, I’d sold 3,052 copies. Both books had received the same advertising budget, the same number of ads on the same platforms such as Facebook, Amazon and Instagram, the same promotional push. [...] There was really one main difference between the promotional and marketing package of the books…

    The first book had an African-American hero on it, and the second book cover had a white hero. (Bookends Literary Agency)

    She concedes that there may be other factors at work related to the particular storylines, and a commentator noted that:

    "There are some other statements I’ve heard that I also think about: The second book in a series always does better, and then helps sell the first book. Finally, the color red is hotter than blue and then attracts more. [The cover with the African-American hero was blue, the other cover was red]

    Still, back to those numbers, and such a discrepancy." (Louisa Bacio)

    It is an extremely large discrepancy. And so Simone concluded that while there might be some contributory reasons for it which weren't about the race of the cover models, they

    "still couldn’t account for the fact that book 1 only sold 1/6 of the sales of book 2.

    Finally, I had to look at the most obvious—and according to Occam’s razor—probably the most likely explanation. Book 1 didn’t sell as well because of the black man on the cover."

  8. And on the topic of readers and their behaviours, here's Alyssa Cole on

    Life as a Black historical romance author: just got a message saying "I was unable to suspend my disbelief about how your characters met" and asking me to take time to explain my historical research. I wonder if this person emails Regency authors and says they were unable to suspend their disbelief about a Duke marrying a serving girl, or a wallflower who shot him. Asking me to use my valuable time to show "show my work" because my heroine is Black (look, you know they wouldn't have cared if she was white) is really something, especially when I provided a bibliography and Author's Note.

  9. Another story from Kianna Alexander:

    Back in 2011, I was at a chapter meeting for my local (very Caucasian) RWA chapter. Editor from a large NY house was there, excitedly talking about a relaunch of a line.

    Now mind you I am one of maybe three Black faces in a room of like 75 to 100. Anyway, she is going on and on about how they're so geeked to be acquiring new voices across subgenres. I'm like, time to shoot my shot then. So I raise my hand. I was toward the back so it took her a minute to see me. When she called on me I stood. "So, is (publisher redacted) open to African American historical romance?

    Y'all. Her face.

    It. Went. TOTALLY. BLANK.

    I mean, vacant eyes, thousand-yard stare blank. Blank like the screen when the computer crashes. It occurred to me in those long, silent seconds that this woman had NEVER CONSIDERED such stories existed/could be written.

    Finally, she rebooted. A very subtle, professional smile covers over her face and she opens her mouth, I'm waiting for something profound. After all, it's been like two minutes since I asked my question. She says, in a very flat tone, "I suppose we could."

  10. Another story about books in the same series, by the same author, getting a very different reception, presumably due to the cover model, this time by Alana Albertson:

    A tale of two books!

    1. I am a biracial Mexican-American author. @courtneymilan thank you for giving me the courage to post this

    2. Book #1 in this series, Invincible, featuring a white male and a Mexican American female on the cover, made $17,000 and has received two bookbubs. It has 391 reviews and 4.2 stars out of 5 star average.

    3. Book #2 in this series, Invaluable, featuring an African American male and a white female on the cover, has made only $1300 dollars. It only received an international only bookbub. It has 331 reviews and 4.4 stars out 5 average.

    4. I did the exact same marketing for both books. Invaluable is by far the better book.

  11. At 10:12pm on 4 April @HarlequinBooks responded briefly on Twitter:

    We wanted to let you know that we value the discussion about diversity in publishing that is taking place here and want to share our response.

    Lack of diverse stories and diverse authors is a real issue in publishing; one that we are working to address.

    We are broadening our publishing to include more diverse content and voices, and we are excited about our upcoming books.

    In the meantime, we continue to be open to feedback from our authors and readers.

  12. Jamie Wesley expresses scepticism about that response because:

    As Courtney Milan tweeted a few days ago, Harlequin held conference calls with their mostly white authors and said they heard this diversity thing was the newest trend and why don’t these authors start doing that. What Courtney didn’t say was there was an author of color on the call who tried to metaphorically raise her hand and point out the bullshit. She was quickly silenced. When I first heard about this, my immediate thought was Harlequin isn’t at all serious about diversity. If they were, they would have called up the authors of color who write for their non-Kimani lines and apologized for never once encouraging them to write about people who look like them or being curious enough to ask why they never tried to do so. They never tried because all they had to do was look at Harlequin’s history. With a few exceptions, they have never been interested in publishing stories about minorities. These authors knew this, so they did what they had to do get published. Maybe the authors would have been interested. Maybe they wouldn’t have. But you should at least ask the question. But you didn’t. Nor did you hit up your Kimani authors. Because you don’t actually give a damn about diversity.

  13. Responding specifically to Harlequin's statement that "Lack of diverse stories and diverse authors is a real issue in publishing," Suleika Snyder argues that:

    there's not a lack of diverse authors or diverse stories. It's a lack of seeing what exists in front of you. WE are not what's lacking. How are we going to put faith in your ability to do better when an incredibly short statement misses the point?