Friday, October 07, 2022

Links: Events, Data, Publishing, Race, Social Reform and Accolades for Romance

First the events:

Saturday 15 October - Rare Books Specialist Rebecca Romney will be leading a class on romance book collecting. It's free and online and more details can be found here.

Saturday 5 November - Hosted by the Center for Black Diaspora at DePaul University, academics and romance authors Katrina Jackson and Elysabeth Grace will discuss writing Black historical romance. This event is also free and online and more details can be found here.


Romance scholars have been commenting for a while that there's not been all that much research into the publishing side of romance. One obvious reason is that it's a lot easier to get hold of the books, or the opinions of readers online, than it is to access insider data about publishing. A recent article by Melanie Walsh in Public Books shows that this is a problem affecting scholars wishing to study all genres. Walsh

went looking for book sales data, only to find that most of it is proprietary and purposefully locked away. What I learned was that the single most influential data in the publishing industry—which, every day, determines book contracts and authors’ lives—is basically inaccessible to anyone beyond the industry. And I learned that this is a big problem. [...]

All the major publishing houses now rely on BookScan data, as do many other publishing professionals and authors. But, as I found to my surprise, pretty much everybody else is explicitly banned from using BookScan data, including academics. The toxic combination of this data’s power in the industry and its secretive inaccessibility to those beyond the industry reveals a broader problem. If we want to understand the contemporary literary world, we need better book data. And we need this data to be free, open, and interoperable.

This data which academics can't access is suspected of being used in ways which reinforce patterns within publishing:

it is likely that books end up much more racially homogenous—that is, white—as a result of BookScan data, too. For example, in McGrath’s pioneering research on “comp” titles (the books that agents and editors claim are “comparable” to a pitched book), she found that 96 percent of the most frequently used comps were written by white authors. Because one of the most important features of a good comp title is a promising sales history, it is likely that comp titles and BookScan data work together to reinforce conservative white hegemony in the industry.

Definitely worth a read, and there are details there about how some academics are trying to find alternative sources of data about books and share "free cultural data with anybody who wants to reuse and recombine it to better understand contemporary literature, music, art, and more." Here's a link to the article.

Some of the people who have been working on romance publishing (as well as other areas of publishing) are Beth Driscoll, Kim Wilkins and Lisa Fletcher. Driscoll and Wilkins have an article in The Conversation and they relate that

In the world of romance fiction, Claire Parnell’s research has shown the multiple ways in which the algorithms, moderation processes and site designs of Amazon and Wattpad work against writers of colour. For example, they make use of image-recognition systems that flag romance covers with dark-skinned models as “adult content” and remove them from search results. They can also override the author’s chosen metadata to move books into niche categories where fewer readers will find them, such as “African American romance” rather than the general “romance fiction”. 

Claire Parnell's paper, "Independent Authors’ Dependence on Big Tech: Categorization and Governance of Authors Of Color on Amazon" (2021) can be found online (and freely available) from AoIR Selected Papers of Internet Research: 

Driscoll and Wilkins begin, though, with some accolades for the romance genre:

romance fiction is ... the most innovative and uncontrollable of all genres. It is the genre least able to be contained by established models of how the publishing industry works, or how readers and writers behave.

Contemporary romance fiction is challenging the prevailing wisdom about how books come into being and find their readers.

albeit one might, as Azteclady did, feel surprise at some elements of this:

Similarly, I suspect there are people who would disagree with Jenny Hamilton's assessment, given in a piece on the Tor website, that

the romance genre is particularly well suited to tell stories of social reform. [...] YA novels and even epic fantasy series are limited in the number of characters the author can expect you to keep track of, which makes Chosen Ones an attractive option for toppling unjust systems of power. In aggregate, though, that leaves us with a body of literature that valorizes the individual at the expense of the collective—what Ada Palmer and Jo Walton termed “the Protagonist Problem.”

Romance works differently.

I'm happy to see positive opinions of romance appearing outside romance circles, and if they spark detailed debates, all the better!

I'll end with one more article about romance, this time in Bustle, where Natalia Perez-Gonzalez demonstrates that romance's engagement with "social reform" isn't limited to the pages of the novels:

It’s not uncommon for the romance community to organize. In the past, authors have raised funds to help victims of the Uvalde shooting, to support Stacey Abrams in turning Georgia blue, and to aid communities during the Australia wildfires.

And, as the article discusses in detail, most recently romance authors have been turning their attention to reproductive rights.


  1. I was going to comment on the Bookscan thing (Black and other authors of color, and their agents, also are denied access to the numbers, therefore, they can't argue for better advance, better royalties, better marketing, better cover, better *anything*--even when their books make it to Best Seller lists for weeks on end (see The Hate You Give), Black and other authors of color are told, in so many words, that publishers already have their 'Black author' and that's that.)

    I did not expect to see me quote ::fist pump::

  2. I didn't know about all the other people who aren't allowed to access Bookscan! I had seen a thread on Twitter a few weeks/months ago, though, about "comps" and how they tended to discriminate against Black authors.

    You had a comment on Twitter about the Bustle article I could have included too but I didn't :-)

    1. I'm still wondering--but it's a fact I'm just a curmudgeon.