Wednesday, January 08, 2020

RWA Shunned by Avon and Harlequin etc

The decline of RWA's influence on romance publishing was further underlined today by an announcement by Avon:

In support of inclusive publishing, @avonbooks will not invest in a promotional sponsorship nor have a presence at the @romancewriters  national conference. We are working with @authormsbev to redirect the Beverly Jenkins Diverse Voices sponsorship & create new mentorship opportunities for #ownvoices authors.
Beverley Jenkins tweeted her "sincere thanks to
@avonbooks for its advocacy and support of inclusion and #ownvoices. *APPLAUSE*" and in particular "@avonbooks Sr Head of Publicity @pamjaffee and my editor @ErikaTsang for taking the ball, running it downfield, and carrying it over the goal line. #beastmode."

Avon was not the only publisher to announce its withdrawal from the conference, as Courtney Milan pointed out in her response

Avon and Harlequin are both part of the same company (HarperCollins). As reported by RomanceSparksJoy, Craig Swinwood, CEO of HarperCollins Canada & Harlequin has written to the RWA Board of Directors:
He states that
As a leading global publisher of romance fiction that is committed to diversity and inclusion, we at Harlequin believe it is important that all authors feel included, respected and heard. Recently reported actions by RWA leadership have therefore led us to decide not to sponsor or attend the RWA2020 national conference. We will reevaluate our participation in 2021 as the organization works with its members to address concerns that have been raised.
We will continue to support Harlequin authors and we are currently looking at additional ways to reach out to both our authors and to the romance writing community in the coming year. [A statement and a pdf of the letter were posted to their website]
Entangled followed suit slightly later in the day, writing to RWA to tell them that
Recent actions call into question the inclusivity of your organization. Until the organization upholds its responsibility to represent all members in a fair manner, our publishing house cannot endorse RWA, nor participate in any of the organization's national events.
They were followed by Berkley, who tweeted that "Our involvement with RWA has always been focused on supporting and celebrating our authors. In light of this, and our commitment to diverse and inclusive publishing, we will not attend the RWA national conference this year."

In addition, Sourcebooks Casablanca wrote to their authors, telling them that
As a publishing company with the guiding mission that books change lives, we believe that authors’ voices are of paramount importance and any form of exclusion is unacceptable. A robust and diverse professional organization that supports all authors is useful to the romance community, particularly at the local level. Diversity, equality, and inclusion are fundamental to the solution. As a company, Sourcebooks will not support RWA’s national conference this year. Our editors will honor existing commitments to local chapters that are welcoming to all authors. We commit to using the time, energy, and resources we would have supplied to the national conference on furthering diversity, equality, and inclusion efforts.
--Dominique Raccah Publisher and CEO

Sulheika Snyder and Courtney Milan emphasised the importance of the final sentence in that email, noting that a promise to commit resources is particularly significant:

Earlier today, when only Avon and Harlequin's announcements had been made Angela James noted that although
it's admirable that the publishers are speaking up on behalf of DEI [Diversity, Equity, Inclusion] and taking a stance about what's happening [...] I think what authors should be asking next is: what will you be doing in terms of using some of those saved resources? Will publishers' next steps be to work out a plan to really commit to their marginalized authors by utilizing some of the not insignificant resources that would have gone to the conference on behalf of marginalized authors and their books? *THIS* would show true commitment.I'd be looking at the publisher who takes the lead on this and puts their money where their DEI statement is. That's what's needed now. So far no publisher has really done this. Now is an excellent opportunity because resources have suddenly freed up.

It will also be interesting to see if forthcoming "State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing Reports" (by The Ripped Bodice) show an increase in diversity. Last year's report was disappointing in what it had to say.

Tule joined the exodus, posting that
Due to recent events that have highlighted the lack of inclusivity within the RWA organization, Tule Publishing will not be attending the 2020 national RWA conference. Tule remains committed to supporting inclusivity and diversity, and will continue to use our resources to encourage and empower all authors.
And into 9 January for me, but still 8 January in the US, a statement from Kensington Books:
Addressing himself to the RWA Board of Directors, Steven Zacharius said
We are extremely distressed by the recent events concerning RWA and the magnitude of the problems that persist in the organization. Kensington continues to be a leading advocate for increased diversity and inclusion in publishing. As an industry, it is clear we have a great deal of work to do. We are committed to supporting our authors, however, we cannot support RWA or the national conference until you are fulfilling your mission to your members.
In addition to the point about the need for publishers to back up their statements with real commitments, Rebekah Weatherspoon posted a reminder that "some of the racist incidents we've talked about at previous conferences were at the hands of publishers."

I vaguely recollected a relevant incident involving a publisher and, thanks to Olivia Waite, I was able to track down the details. Cheris Hodges had them on her blog (archived version here). They involved Pocket Books (now part of Gallery, which is itself part of Simon & Schuster):
During the Spotlight on Pocket at the 2015 RWA Conference, an attendee asked Executive Editor Lauren McKenna, “Are you working at all on diversifying your author list?” When McKenna requested clarification, the attendee observed that it seemed most of Pocket’s authors were white. McKenna then responded:
“Right now, we [Pocket] don’t have an African-American line. Our sister imprint—because we are all Simon & Schuster—we are just two different imprints that we spoke about today within Simon & Schuster.
“Our sister imprint, Atria, has an entire two lines dedicated to African-American titles, and they really do corner that market. We find doing just one in a larger list, it tends to lose its focus and it really doesn't get the attention and time it deserves, so it also requires a different marketing and publicity plan.
“So we leave that, whenever we get something strong like that in, in a multicultural topic or author, we can defer to our sister imprint who really does focus on publicizing those titles, marketing those titles, getting placement in stores.
“So no. I hear you. We also have a Latino line as well, with Atria. So we do do it, just not within Pocket and Gallery.” (Archived post from the RWA website)
The implication was that Pocket Books would continue to solely publish romances by white authors and as Cheris Hodges observed, you weren't likely to find romances published by the Atria imprint: "Atria is a very diverse line. [...] You can find women's fiction, erotic, urban fiction, urban fantasy and non fiction under Atria. But I'm still looking for romance." Pocket Books claimed at the time that the editor had "misrepresented" them. Given this history, one would have hoped that Pocket, Gallery and/or Simon & Schuster would have been quick to show that they take a firm stance against racism. However, I've yet to see any statement from them. I will add details if they appear.

On the 9th of January more publishers followed suit. City Owl Press tweeted that it could not support the RWA "as it currently stands"


St Martin's Publishing Group stated that it
believes in being a champion for our authors and in the very necessary work to make publishing more diverse and inclusive. Therefore, in light of recent developments, St. Martin's Press will not be participating in the RWA national conference through attendance or through promotional opportunities.

On 8 January the number of agents who have signed an open letter to the RWA, had risen to 57, up even from the day before, when the Gallt & Zacker Literary Agency posted about 54 romance agents who'd signed:
In their letter to the RWA Board of Directors they said:
We are writing to you as literary agents who represent the best interests of our romance clients. As believers in the mission of Romance Writers of America, we could not stand idly by while it is threatened.
Romance Writers of America is meant to be a haven for all romance writers, and given the conversations of at least the past few years, a place where we’ve been making progress in becoming even more inclusive of marginalized creatives. In light of recent events, that mission has been compromised and we want to see it rectified.
RWA continues to reiterate its stance on inclusion, yet words ring hollow without appropriate actions. In support of our authors, the undersigned agents will not attend any RWA event until new leadership is installed at the national level, and an independent audit on the process is conducted in regards to the complaint against Courtney Milan.
We will reevaluate our attendance at these conferences once new leadership is in place.

Also on 8 January, Donna Alward, elected to the RWA Board in 2019 and the organisation's secretary, announced her resignation, saying (among other things) that "my duty of obedience and my duty of loyalty are at odds, and when I can no longer keep my fiduciary duty, it's time for me to resign." It is reported that Renee Ryan has also resigned from the Board
and the day's updated RWA Board page no longer lists her as a Director. RWA has confirmed that Renee Ryan, Donna Alward and also Barbara Wallace have resigned, with Ryan's resignation effective as of 8am.

Given the speed of events on 8 January, the Washington Post's article must have been outdated by the time it was published.

On 9 January the RWA announced the resignation of its President, Damon Suede, and Executive Director Carol Ritter. The announcement expresses gratitude for their activities. Here's just part of the statement:
Damon has offered his resignation, effective immediately, and the Board has accepted it.  Damon, who has served on the RWA Board of Directors since 2015, as President-Elect from September 2019 through late December 2019, and then as President for the past two weeks, has been a passionate advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion issues for his entire life.  We thank Damon for his service and wish him all the best in the future.  
The Board of Directors has made a decision to not immediately fill the office of President while the Board – working transparently with its membership – determines an appropriate recruitment and selection process. 
The Board also has accepted the resignation of RWA Executive Director Carol Ritter, who has decided to step down from the role she assumed in November.  Carol, who has been a steady senior member of RWA management for well over a decade, has offered to stay on over the coming months to support a smooth transition to new staff leadership; the Board has accepted this offer.  Carol has been instrumental in keeping the operations of RWA running and we are deeply grateful to her for the commitment and leadership she has brought to our association.
As LaQuette points out, the resignations were made under pressure, particularly in the case of Suede, since the petition against him organised by CIMRWA (the Cultural, Interracial, and Multicultural Chapter of Romance Writers of America) had "enough signatures to force a recall election."

Moreover, Farah Heron felt that "praising Damon and Carol without mentioning the board members that left before them is gas-lighting us about what happened in the last two weeks."

In an article in Publishers' Weekly
A representative of the RWA told PW that, in spite of the turmoil, "our 2020 conference is moving forward as scheduled, and we believe it will be a critical moment for our members to come together to discuss the important issues around diversity, equity and inclusion that have surfaced in recent weeks," noting that while the organization is "disappointed to lose some sponsors and participants for this year," it hopes "to regain their support in the months and years ahead."
As Alisha Rai observed, "Damon and Carol leaving are the first positive things RWA has done (been forced to do) over the past few weeks, and that’s to be cheered, but a couple people didn’t bring this organization to the brink of collapse. There is a rot inside RWA. This is when the real work starts." Also, it's probably worth emphasizing that Carol Ritter will be remaining in place for the moment to ensure a "smooth transition."

It therefore remains unclear how many members will wish to pay to attend a conference before there is evidence the "real work" has begun and will bear fruit, with no awards ceremony and few agents and publishers present, in order to have discussions of the kind suggested by the RWA, particularly given the nature of many of the discussions of these issues on the RWA forums, which Beverly Jenkins characterizes as "hate filled":
It is unconscionable to expect members who have already suffered discrimination to pay to attend an event at which they would be expected to perform emotional and intellectual labour while exposed to microagressions and worse from other members.
The most comprehensive, chronological listing of events I've seen is this one, by Claire Ryan. It includes many details I have not covered here.

This article at Vox by examines the implications of what has happened, going back to events in August 2019 and also pointing out parallels within other writing organisations. [Archived version here.]

Somewhat less detailed, but giving a broad overview of the context, and analysis of the significance of recent events, is Jennifer Prokop's article of 15 January for Kirkus Reviews. [Archived version here.]

In her 15 January article for Jezebel [Archived version here] Kelly Faircloth highlight the central conflict:
RWA, an organization founded almost 40 years ago by a black woman, has frequently been an unfriendly place for marginalized writers, and attempts to change that have been met with pushback that now threatens to destroy the institution itself. Romance novels, at their most fundamental level, are about protagonists being seen clearly and loved—and this is a story about who gets to be seen and valued in the romance genre, and whose pain matters.
On Twitter Faircloth added "This is not a niche story -- this story is a microcosm of America in 2020."



  1. Replies
    1. Thank you, AZ, for helping to keep me up-to-date with events as they appear on Twitter!