An Open Letter to Harlequin

September 5, 2013 Opinion 42

1949 Harlequin novel. His Wife the Doctor by Joseph McCord. A blond white woman with 40s style hair and dress wears a stethoscope and carries a clipboard in a hospital ward. A shadow of man wearing a suit and a fedora stands in the doorway.
Dear Harlequin,

We need to talk.

I’m a big, big fan of yours. Since 2009, I’ve read over 150 of your books. Because disability restricts my ability to read paper books, I’d guess that 90% of those were ebooks that I paid for, since the library here stocks few ebooks. I probably have just as many of your books sitting on my TBR, purchased and waiting for me to read them. When I want a contemporary romance, you’re my go-to publisher. The shorter length suits straight contemporary that doesn’t need 90k words to fit paranormal world-building or a suspense plot, and you have a strong track record of offering heroines from all walks of life, from virginal ingenue to cynical motorcycle mechanic to a doctor in the 1940s. Believe me when I say I want you to succeed.

But there’s something I need to talk to you about. Something that’s starting to come between us and fracture this relationship I’ve built with you: your lack of stories about and by people of color.

Your books are almost uniformly white. And not just white, but non-hispanic white. I pull up my ebook library, which is, as I said above, mostly Harlequin contemporary romance, and nothing jumps out at me and begs to be read. All I see is a sea of white faces in pastel cardigans. When I go to your site, a similar fatigue sets in, and I go away empty-handed. It seems your characters are free to do just about anything, but they’re only allowed to be one thing: white. It’s making it hard to keep loving you.

Last night I went through all of your September 2013 releases and did some counting. Did you know that out of 89 books, only six featured people of color? Only the two Desires written by Brenda Jackson and the four Kimani books included black characters. No books featured Asian, Latino or American Indian characters. That’s a measly 6%. That doesn’t come close to the ethnic distribution of the US or Canada (37 and 19% non-white, respectively).

The eerie racial and cultural homogeneity of your books strikes me as odd. I think you and others think this whiteness represents a neutral default that everyone can impose themselves onto. But where some see a default, I see erasure. I see a purposely created fantasy where privileged readers can go and take up and enjoy privilege without having any less privileged people around to make them feel guilty about themselves.

For example, let’s talk about your American Romance line. While I understand that the line’s name comes from a time when you were a Canadian company re-issuing British novels and you wanted to highlight your new American-set original works, the fact is that you have a line called “American” that is 100% white when America is only 63% non-hispanic white. What’s up with that? Why does no one at your office have a problem with the naked white nativism of a uniformly white line named for an extremely diverse country? How do you justify this?

Then there’s your Historical line. Jeannie Lin’s China-set novels are a good first step, but why stop there? Remember when you turned Nora Roberts down, saying you already had your American writer? Are you turning down manuscripts for stories set in Jazz Age Harlem or Shogun Japan because you’ve got your POC author already? If not, what are you doing to encourage multicultural submissions?

Let me tell you what I’d like to see. I’d like to see you reboot American Romance and turn it into a line where truly American stories can be found. I want to read Blazes with black heroes and heroines and Superromances with Asian heroes and heroines. I want more Historicals outside of England, and outside of colonialist empires. Give me more South Asian set Romances and Romantic Suspense set in the Southwest. Stop holding Maisey Yates’ The Highest Price to Pay from publication in the US. (Seriously. So many of my friends have that wishlisted. Give. It. To. Us.) I need a wider variety of characters and settings.

Six out of 89 books isn’t enough. Fiction needs windows as well as mirrors, and I’m just about sick of looking at myself. I know you can do better. I hope you do, and soon.

Much love,

Ridley

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Ridley

An ice hockey fan from north of Boston and the genre's most beloved troll, Ridley enjoys reading contemporary and historical romance, as well as the odd erotica novel. As someone who uses a wheelchair, she takes a particular interest in disability themes.

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42 Responses to “An Open Letter to Harlequin”

  1. Emmy Neal

    THIS! Exactly this. I ADORE my Harlequins, but their Kimani Line…. Why do blacks have to be segregated from the romance community??? I want to see more than billionaire Italians on my bookshelf!!

  2. Sarah M. Anderson

    Hi Ridley,

    Thanks for this blog. I think this is a really important thing that needs to be discussed–color can exist outside of Kimani and outside of Brenda Jackson.

    I would like to point out that authors like myself and Kathleen Eagle do write Native American romances for Harlequin category lines. Kathleen has written both single-title and category for Harlequin imprints featuring N.A. Indians.

    This September, I have a Harlequin Desire out, Bringing Home the Bachelor, that features a Lakota Indian heroine, Jenny Wawasuck, and partially takes place on her reservation. About half of my books feature a Native American hero/heroine. But because she’s not on the cover (and when these character *do* make the cover, they often either look vaguely Hispanic or just have black hair, like the first book in the series, Straddling the Line, did) I can see how it’s easy to miss.

    So we’re working on broadening the horizons of Harlequin, but even then–getting that on a cover is a challenge.

    Best,
    Sarah

  3. Evangeline

    This is a three-pronged situation that isn’t solely on Harlequin’s shoulders. Authors must write a book that fits a particular line and the fantasy it promises, Harlequin must make sure it packages the book to assure readers they’ll get their desired fantasy, and readers must buy (and/or answer Harlequin’s periodical surveys) to tell Harlequin what they want to read.

    It’s freaking hard to write a category romance. I’ve been hustling off and on for a few years to break into the historical line, and it’s only now that I feel confident enough in catching the rhythm of the line–and this is despite reading lots of them for study and entertainment purposes. I’ll also point out the elephant in the room: literature is overwhelmingly white from kids books to adult fare, and even if you’re a POC, it can be difficult to shake off the subconscious acceptance that white=blank canvas on which everyone can project their fantasies.

    Yes, this does prove that diversity is desperately needed, but these subconscious biases must be rooted and plucked out before we can even get to the first step of the issue (and the poking at this bias is why we get the whole “you’re forcing me to read…”, “I don’t see color”, and “it’s racist to have quotas” nonsense). So you’ll get a lot of rah rahs about this post, and many will wring their hands over their homogeneous reading habits, but the bias still remains and drives how readers approach buying new romance, how editors approach new manuscripts, and how authors will approach the concept of diversity in their work–and that of their colleagues’s–even if they’re a POC (how many will submit MSS to So You Think You Can Write? How many will have POC protagonists? How many black authors will submit to non-Kimani imprints?).

  4. Ridley

    @Sarah M. Anderson: Thanks for stopping by to point this out. I had, in fact, paused over your book. Wawasuck sounded like it could’ve been a NA last name, so I read the blurb and looked it up on Goodreads. When nothing indicated she was NA, not even a shelf name, I took the conservative route and marked it white. I had a similar pause with a Sarah Morgan book, trying to decide whether sheikh romances with made-up countries counted as POC (I went with no.)

    I’m not sure what the answer is to this lack of visibility. Clear representations on the cover would help, but as @bardsong pointed out to me on Twitter last night, covers don’t help blind readers like her. (At least they don’t when few people enter meaningful alt text describing pictures online, but that’s another discussion.) I’d like it mentioned in blurbs, but then that runs the risk of “othering” if whiteness is assumed and never named. Ideally, retailers and publishers would attach relevant tags/metadata that identify these themes for readers in an easily searchable manner. But I’m not holding my breath.

  5. Ridley

    @Evangeline:

    How many black authors will submit to non-Kimani imprints?

    I asked Twitter about what would happen if a black author submitted a manuscript with a black couple to a non-Kimani line. The consensus was that they’d be encouraged to resubmit it to Kimani.

    Harlequin didn’t answer my question, so I can’t say for sure that that’s how it is, but that’s pretty weak if it’s the case.

  6. Selma

    Everyone else has said smart things about the issue, but one relatively trivial thing that really sticks out to me is the oddness of the “American Romance” line, which is all about “small towns and cowboys”, being so overwhelmingly white. Maybe it’s because my family lived briefly in New Mexico, but when I think of agriculture, I think of Hispanic people. I mean, they constitute the majority of farm workers in the US, and a rapidly growing percentage of farm operators in the US are Hispanic.

    A couple links just in case anyone is as interested in agriculture as I am :P

    http://www.doleta.gov/agworker/report/ch1.cfm

    http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2007/Online_Highlights/Fact_Sheets/Demographics/hispanic.pdf

  7. Alicia

    Great letter, Ridley. I’ve had many of the same thoughts, especially some that mirror what you said about the American Romance line (though I did just read an NA American Romance). I’ve been somewhat surprised by the diversity I’ve read in the Special Edition line, which isn’t much at all but the fact that there is any is kind of surprising. There doesn’t appear to be any ever in my favorites: Superromance and Romantic Suspense.

    Of course, the thing that drives me absolutely crazy is the segregated line for black characters. Only recently with the Brenda Jackson Desire titles you mentioned have I seen black characters outside of Kimani. I do love Harlequin and I read a ton of their books but that makes me so uncomfortable. Six out of 89 (and four segregated) is not okay.

  8. Sarah M. Anderson

    Ridley,

    Yes–the risk of otherness is HUGE. I feel that’s part of what bothers me about Kimani–they are marked as different and separate, whereas Brenda Jackson is a Desire who happens to have a black man on the cover.

    Highlighting race/etc. on the cover risks marginalizing it–“Oh, another black/Asian/Indian/American Indian story” but not highlighting it runs the risk of missing people who actively search for those kinds of stories. There’s no right answer here.

    Thanks again for the great discussion!
    Sarah

  9. Farrah Rochon

    Thank you for this post, Ridley. It’s a discussion that has been brought up many times in the past, but based on those numbers you quoted, it definitely needs to continue. I’ve made my feelings known about the way the Kimani line is marketed, shelved and treated differently from the other Harlequin lines, and I’m sure other authors have as well. Maybe if more readers start to voice their concern over the lack of diversity in what Harlequin is offering things will change.

  10. Liz Mc2

    I think Sarah’s and Evangeline’s points feed into each other in interesting ways. Sometimes I’ve been surprised (and pleased) to find a non-white protagonist in a Harlequin I’m reading. There’s nothing on the cover or blurb to help me seek that out. Which is frustrating, but on the other hand, there’s the problem of othering ['this is DIFFERENT"] and the fact that some readers might avoid books if the race of the protagonists is overtly signalled, but discover they enjoy the book if they stumble on it.

    I think that problem relates very much to the unconscious biases of readers, authors, and editors. How do we deal with those? Well, I personally am trying to be more conscious about my own biases and stop saying I want diversity but only picking up books (especially historicals) with white protagonists. But I think that because romance is so often a self-consciously escapist and fantasy genre, these biases can be harder to confront. Many readers read romance precisely for the “comfort zone” and don’t want to be pushed out of it. Even though category romance is often NOT fluffy/escapist/formulaic, it is probably the area of the genre that’s most perceived that way (e.g. the “promise” of Harlequin’s lines that must be fulfilled).

    Compare this to children’s/YA, which, yes, still has plenty of problems when it comes to diversity, but where the professional community is openly confronting these issues and in many cases actively seeking improvement. But I think it’s more likely to happen there because children’s lit is still seen as partly didactic, and it’s often bought by people who have that aim. So teachers and librarians will consciously choose books that introduce child readers to diverse races/cultures. I don’t mean to idealize the situation, because there are still a LOT of issues. But I think the different context and different conceptions of the “purpose” of reading really make a difference. Where is the push to confront biases/expand diversity in romance going to come from, especially if readers are by and large reluctant? I feel like I’m getting more and more pessimistic on this subject.

    I’m still on my first cup of coffee so I’m not sure this makes any sense.

  11. Roslyn Holcomb

    @Ridley: You’re not “encouraged” to resubmit to Kimani, you’re automatically sent to Kimani. At least my submissions have been, even when I point out that the stories don’t suit Kimani’s guidelines.

  12. Anon

    I’m an author of color. The first time I met Hqn editors in 2008 when I had two books to submit to the Blaze line, they encouraged me to submit to Kimani instead. Now here’s the sticking point – the characters were white. They assumed from looking at me that the characters would be like me.

    Nothing in my dealings with editors has led me to believe that they’re broadening the lines. One meeting I had with an editor talked all about how they were so open because Brenda Jackson was going to do a Blaze and had done Desires.

    Some books have snuck in with little mention of color, Mia Zachary’s books for one.

    I grew up on Harlequin. I started reading them in the 1970s and only broke away from them about five years ago. Epublishing has opened up the world to more diversity and I’ve ridden the wave.

    The last time I met with Harlequin editors was in August, and trust me, nothing has changed (despite their cries of frustration that authors are submitting to all sorts of other publishers and not considering them).

  13. Roslyn Holcomb

    @Evangeline: I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve been submitting to non-Kimani lines since I wrote my first book eleven years ago. In fact, I deliberately wrote that first book to Harlequin guidelines. I was turned down (Not surprising, I still had a lot to learn). I’ve been turned down roughly every year since then. I deliberately try to write a category each year just for the challenge of it, and you’re right, it is hard. My most recent book started out as a category, in fact. Presumably they don’t like my writing, I don’t know, but so far we’re ten for ten. I know my books aren’t right for Kimani and I plan to try to write a Kimani when I get a chance, but I think several of them are right for Harlequin, but clearly they think otherwise.

  14. Fiona McGier

    While it would be totally lovely to have the Harlequin “juggernaut” of promotion behind any book, I love the freedom that indie publishers offer. They provide editors and cover artists, and get the book out. I still have to do most of the promotional lifting, as I would if I was self-pubbed, but I have a more professional finished product. Plus the knowledge that others who produce books for a living thought I wrote a good story.

    And the cover artists at indie pubs ask the author for input as to what to include. I always specify what race/color my heroine and hero are, so that the cover accurately reflects the inter-racial romances that most of my books are.
    To me, having people from differing cultures fall in love adds a bit of “Romeo and Juliet” appeal, because they have to prove to their families that their love is real…because other family members are usually an integral part of my stories.

    My husband has observed that judging from our kids who are in their early twenties, and their friends, color/race/sexual orientation biases appear to be fading quickly. Within a generation, they’ve become irrelevant. One can only hope.

  15. Meoskop

    @Evangeline: Nothing can change until something changes?

    I think Harlequin is uniquely positioned to open the doors to change. Yes, people read in their comfort zones when they read for comfort. But they also tend to trust what they trust. You might not be interested in ethiopian cuisine. You would never go to an ethiopian restaurant. A chef you trust tells you he’s got a great new dish and he’s really excited about it? Maybe you try it. Suddenly you find yourself craving ethiopian flavors. Reading is no different or the vampire and steampunk crazes would never have happened.

  16. Selma

    @Meoskop That’s an excellent point about Harlequin’s unique position. A huge number of readers trust Harlequin as a brand name in a way that I don’t think they trust any other publisher. Readers don’t buy books because they say “Penguin” on the spine, but they’ll auto-buy Harlequin lines. That means that Harlequin could push the norm boundaries from a position of relative safety.

  17. Evangeline

    @Roslyn Holcomb: Sheesh. I don’t doubt their are many more stories of black authors being herded towards Kimani, even when the book was tailored to Blaze or Special Edition.

    @Meoskop: As a writer, the production of a book is not idea–>manuscript–>submission. When I have an idea, I immediately brainstorm where I can submit the completed manuscript, which in turn influences how long the novel is going to be. If I target the MS to Harlequin, I must fit the plot into whichever imprint I am targeting. Then I must assess the market–what’s on shelves right now, what’s selling well, and what editors say they’re looking for (and many times I also assess how the publisher packages and markets books similar to my own). I go through this to determine whether the end of 3-6 months it takes to complete the production of my book will result in remuneration for my efforts.

    Submitting to Harlequin usually means 12-18 months or more before your book even hits book shelves if your book is acquired and sent through extensive revisions and edits. Maisey Yates blogged about her journey in April, and it took 20 months from submission to The Call. That’s 20 months where you’re basically waiting on pins and needles–and not making any money, unless you happen to write a single title book that is submitted via agent to the Big Five, you self-publish some pieces, or you submit something to an e-publisher. But since we’re just dealing with Harlequin, we’ll stick to an author whose only goal is to write for a Harlequin category line.

    On the other side of the equation is the publisher (Harlequin), who is running numbers and assessing the market on an even wider scale than my own. They have more data at their fingertips and are beholden to shareholders (Torstar). So yes, while there are biases and wrongheaded views of the market, this isn’t something that can change because–from the perspective of a major company–a few people desire more diversity and to not have every black romance writer pushed to Kimani. Also, when every other market in romance seems to be selling gangbusters without any diversity–hello New Adult, Fifty Shades of Grey knock-offs, and non-Harlequin category romance–Harlequin isn’t going to take a sharp left when everyone else is marching to the right. Especially when Torstar blamed poor quarterly profits on Fifty Shades of Grey!

    Readers can write letters and buy more romances with POC, but the solution lies in the hands of romance writers, the RWA, and even RT. Ridley tweeted something along these lines regarding the RWA’s responsibility to foster and encourage diversity in romance a few weeks (months?) ago, and I agreed then and agree now. How many non-POC authors are reaching across the table to POC authors for collaboration, cross-promo, recommendations, etc? Is the RWA making its presence known to all aspiring romance authors, or is its existence still a bit word-of-mouth? Does RT regularly feature authors of color on its covers or in prominent columns? If none of this happens–if no real push for diversity happens with the people who provide the content for publishers and readers, the status quo will remain.

  18. Laura Vivanco

    It’s not just Jeannie Lin in the historicals.

    Marguerite Kaye’s The Lady Who Broke the Rules (December 2012) is a Regency-set historical with a hero who is African American and used to be a slave.

    Louise Allen’s January 2013 Forbidden Jewel of India had as its heroine “Anusha Laurens [...] The daughter of an Indian princess and an English peer.” There’s a sequel which features her son, who’s a quarter Indian.

    Lynna Banning’s Smoke River Bride (July 2013) is a Western with a half Chinese heroine.

    I don’t think I’ve missed any other recent historicals that would fit the bill, but I may have done. I don’t know the other lines so well but I did notice that in the Mills & Boon Modern Tempted line this month Riya Lakhani’s A Date with a Bollywood Star is out as an eBook and I think will be coming out in one of the Harlequin lines.

    Shoma Narayanan is being published in the Harlequin KISS line: Monsoon Wedding Fever (November 2012), Secrets & Saris (June 2013), The One She Was Warned About (November 2013).

    Vicki Essex’s Back to the Good Fortune Diner was published in the Superromance line in January 2013.

    It’s maybe not a lot, but it makes me think that Harlequin are open to protagonists from a variety of races but given that they got quite a bit of negative feedback from readers about Maisey Yates’ The Highest Price to Pay, they’re probably monitoring sales and feedback to see how well books with non-White characters are received by readers.

    Another aspect of this that occurred to me was that Carina is part of Harlequin too. Do they do better with regards to diversity? I had a very quick look and for September I found
    Lethal Pursuit by Kaylea Cross (heroine Lieutenant Maya Lopez)
    Love Letters Volume 5 various authors and stories (one heroine is called Sofia Morales)
    The Volatile Amazon by Sandy James (heroine Sarita Neeraj)
    Warrior of the Nile by Veronica Scott (is set in ancient Egypt)
    Ice Red by Jael Wye (hero Cesare Chan)

    Maybe Carina’s readership are generally more adventurous than the readership for many of Harlequin’s print imprints/lines?

  19. Tina

    Ha! I ranted about this very thing on the IR romance board on Goodreads. To say I am disappointed in Harlequin not being an diverse as they could be is an understatement. And no, segregation is not diversity. It is too bad because Harlequin is uniquely positioned to be an agent of just such a change. They are synonymous with romance and if any entity could have helped usher in wider acceptance of ‘otherness’ in romance it could have been them.

  20. Ros

    The more I think about what happened with the Yates book, the angrier it makes me. So what if there was negative feedback from some people? So what if sales were poor? Harlequin’s big enough to suck up one poorly selling book if they are committed to diversity in their romances. But by pulling the book from the US catalogue altogether, they not only don’t give that one a chance, they close the door down for other IR romances which might have sold brilliantly. Why does the first black Presents hero have to be a bestseller? Why not stick with the programme and see if in five or ten years time you’ve doubled your readership by having a more diverse range of characters? Why not take a few risks just because it’s the right thing to do?

  21. willaful

    Good points, Ros. It’s even quite possible that the controversy would work in the book’s favor — as Ridley mentions, a bunch of us have it on our wishlists! But yeah, change starts to happen when some brave souls stand up and take a chance. But it’s always seems to be the people with the most who lose who wind up doing it.

  22. Liz Mc2

    Maisey Yates’ book not being published in North America makes me mad too. But you guys know that you can order e-books from the Mills & Boon UK site, right? That doesn’t make it OK to decide not to publish it here (or just make it available at their e-book store, like the Treasury books! how much could that cost them??), but we CAN buy and read it.

  23. Jami Gold

    Cover images are such a tricky thing. I’ve been to two RWA National Conferences, and at both of them, I’ve seen readers at the free book signings (Hello! Free books!) stop at every table *except* the ones with POC on the cover. *sigh*

    Many romance readers like their comfortable tropes. That leaves authors and publishers who *want* to show diversity in the position of not white-washing their covers or blurbs but also not setting off readers’ default “oh that’s not for me” response, like Meoskop mentioned.

    I don’t have an answer for that. I write POC sometimes, but I don’t know what my cover images will be. I’d love to not put people at all and just avoid the knee-jerk judgement, but cover images of people are expected for a story to look like the romance genre, so… Yeah. :) Great post and discussion!

  24. Evangeline

    The latest Marilyn Pappano, Copper Lake Encounter (Harlequin Romantic Suspense – August 2013), is an interracial romance between a black man and a white woman–he’s right there on the cover too. Pappano has written a few MC/IR romances for Harlequin RS in the past. So perhaps this issue isn’t that Harlequin isn’t open to diversity, but that authors typically do not break into any category line with POC protagonists or an IR romance, and that black authors are automatically pushed into Kimani Romance.

  25. meoskop

    @Jami Gold: I have long been a fan of tossing out the couple cover. For a short time in the 90’s it looked like it might happen, but we’re firmly back in Fabio land I think.

  26. Kaetrin

    Great letter Ridley. I’m another who has the Maisey Yates on my wishlist. (Although I might go and check out the UK site now and see how I go).

  27. Farrah Rochon

    Jami, you make a very good point. I’ve sat at the free Harlequin book signing and had people pass up a free book, or get one and tell me that it’s for their friend or co-worker. Harlequin is in a position to make great strides in diversifying romance, but they’re in this business to make money, not change the world. When readers shy away from books with POC on the covers, it doesn’t give Harlequin or any other publisher incentive to change.

    Brenda Jackson first hit the NY Times list with a cover that did not feature any people on it (IRRESTIBLE FORCES). Harlequin did not put people back on her covers until this year. She has had at least a dozen Desires and Kimani books that only featured scenes. It makes me wonder how many other books featuring POC would do better if there were no people on the covers.

  28. Jami Gold

    @Farrah Rochon: That’s interesting about Brenda Jackson’s covers–I didn’t know that.

    Some of my stories are likely to be self-published eventually, so I’ve been debating this cover issue for a while. I want it to look like a romance but I’ve never been fond of the clinch pose, POC characters or no. :)

    @Meoskop, Oh I’d love to get away from Fabio land. LOL!

    One of my POC heroes has long dreadlocks. Er, yeah, not sure how that would go over on a cover, no matter how much he looks like Jason Momoa. ;)

  29. Laura Vivanco

    Loreth Anne White’s Seducing the Mercenary (2007) was a Silhouette Romantic Suspense whose hero is black and is shown on the cover wearing his dreadlocks.

    I wonder if maybe the romantic suspense lines are/were more likely to feature non-White characters. Robyn Amos’s Hero at Large (2000) was a Silhouette Intimate Moments. Neither character looks very dark on the cover but that probably does reflect the description of the hero, who’s described as “light-skinned” (15). The heroine, though, has “mahogany cheeks” (27) and I think that means she should be darker? But then again, they both look like they’ve been caught in a spotlight, which presumably could make them look lighter against a black backdrop. The harsh lighting, by the way, seemed to feature in other books in the same mini-series. The UK cover, though, showed a cityscape rather than people.

    Carmen Green’s another author who later moved to Kimani, but was previously published by Harlequin elsewhere. Her The Husband She Couldn’t Forget (Silhouette Special Edition, 2009) shows the black hero and heroine on both the US and UK covers (2011 in the Cherish line in the UK).

  30. Jill Sorenson

    Yates mentioned on twitter the other day that her IR romance, Highest Price to Pay, will be available in the US.

    I’ve always thought Harlequin did better with diversity than other publishers, but maybe it seems that way because they release so many books. Cindy Dees wrote a black hero/Latina heroine recently. I can’t think of another NY pub that has released a book like that or Yates’.

    I’ve had issues with covers not reflecting the characters and I’ve complained about it. I want to see POC on book covers. The problem isn’t just that white readers might pass on these books, but POC don’t necessarily pick them up, either. They’ve read stereotyped characters and been burned before. My impression is that the majority of authors writing diverse characters (outside of Kimani) are white, like me. We need to do a better job & Harlequin needs more POC authors. The suggestion that we cross-market is a good one. I haven’t done that.

    I went to a booksigning at RT in LA & sat next to Kerrilyn Sparks, who writes vampire romances. She had lots of Latina fans visit her, maybe 100. I sat there with my Latina heroine book and wondered if those readers would be interested in books like mine, if they knew of them.

  31. Roslyn Holcomb

    “My impression is that the majority of authors writing diverse characters (outside of Kimani) are white, like me.”

    Jill, do you mean in the categories or in romance in general? While that may be true of Harlequin, it’s certainly not true ofromance in general. There are dozens of romances released by authors of color every month. And the notion that white authors are less likely to write stereotypical characters is almost hysterically funny.

    I’m torn on the cover issue, it’s something I struggled with when I began self-publishing. OTOH as a romance reader for forty years now I remember longing to see myself reflected in those clinch covers. For more than half of my reading life black women on covers simply didn’t exist. So I understand where my readers are coming from when they demand them and I want to make my readers happy. OTOH, I know from experience that non black readers are less likely to pick up a book with a black person on the cover. So, for me it’s a bird in the hand issue; do I risk losing loyal fans on the offchance that a nonblack reader might buy my book? I decided it wasn’t worth it. That Iwould focus my attention on the readers that ARE. Interested, because really, there’s no reason why nonblack readers would pick up one of my books.

    Bottom line is, most nonblack readers have no interest in reading romances (please note, I’m specifying black here because that is what I write, I know there are other ethnicities in romance, but I think it’s best they speak to their own experiences). It comes back to the empathy gap sociologists are just now discovering and most black folk have known about all along. For many readers the ability to see themselves as the characters is crucial. Many nonblack folks find this to be impossible, even if the black character is exactly like them as they are in most romances; middle class, well educated professionals.

    These people will claim that they read black characters all the time, and they do, in what I call Oprah books. Pathology porn. Black women being raped and brutalized? Yes please. Black women being loved and adored? We can’t relate. And that is why I stopped having this conversation and am only doing so now because I like and respect Ridley. She’s not doing this for clicks. I believe she sincerely wants more diverse romances, and she has enough respect for multicultural authors to resist the bullsit notion of white authors “saving” multicultural romance,

  32. Jami Gold

    @Laura Vivanco: Good point! Yes, genre (or more accurately, romance subgenre) most likely plays a part in what’s “accepted” in cover images.

    I write paranormal romance, where creatures with wings or fangs or fur are accepted on the cover. I should hope a darker skin color or dreadlocked hair wouldn’t freak people out. But it’s sad that I have to wonder about it at all.

  33. Jill Sorenson

    Roslyn,

    I meant Harlequin category romance. I was saying that white authors are more likely to write stereotypical characters of color, not less. With better representations and more authors of color, Hqn can build a reputation that encourages more *readers* of color to buy their books.

  34. Gwen Hayes

    I’m so glad people are talking about this. As a reader and as an industry professional, I believe that dialogue is the thing that will turn the tide.

    I would throw myself in traffic for some characters of color submissions in the the historical category length line at Entangled. I sent a newsletter out about it in June, and I’m assuming the reason that my box isn’t full is that it takes authors time to write books.

    I agree with Evangeline, though, I’m not sure that Harlequin can shelf what it isn’t getting in submissions anymore than I can. And the way to get authors to write those books and for publishers to publish those books is to continue to let publishers know you want them. Open letters are good, direct ones would be good too. Because they need to know there is a market for them in order to acquire them.

    All genres of books, TV, movies, comic books….all of them need an infusion of diversity.

  35. Kaia Alderson

    Jill,

    St Martin’s Press published the late L.A. Banks’s Vampire Huntress series. African-American heroine/ Latino hero. The secondary couples represent a very diverse melting pot of cultures. Even though I think the series is officially labeled as Horror, the romance between Damali and Carlos is the heart of the first few books in the series. These books are a must read for anyone interested in doing multicultural right.

    Gwen, your initial call was the kick in the butt I needed to finally launch my blog about African-American historical romance. I had been talking about it for years. And the manuscript submissions are coming. I have some in the works and I’m harassing everyone who even mentions that she’s thinking about writing an MC historical.

  36. Belle Calhoune

    Hi Ridley,
    I enjoyed your post. Thank you for writing it. I agree that there needs to be more diversity in romance…not just Harlequin, but throughout the industry. I can’t remember the last time I saw a historical romance (with the exception of Bev Jenkins) with people of color on the cover in a book store. As a new writer for Harlequin Love Inspired I am happy to report that my next book (Forever Hero Hero) will feature an African American hero and heroine. My first book “Reunited with the Sheriff” featured a Caucasian couple. At no point did my Editor (Emily Rodmell) or I ever discuss the color of the characters. For me, I enjoy the fact that Love Inspired proceeded with my book the same way they did with the first one. The story is the most important aspect. I am hopeful that my couple will be featured on the cover, but I don’t know for sure whether it will be actual people or landscape. As a person of color I strive to write all stories, regardless of skin color. And I hope and pray readers embrace my characters no matter what skin they inhabit. On another note, I submitted a few years ago to Kimani and was told that my story (set in a small town in the south) was not “aspirational” enough for the Kimani readers and that they liked stories about billionaires and bling. Honestly, I was horrified. I knew that I was a good writer and I knew it wasn’t possible that all readers liked to read the exact same thing. So, I realized that my small town stories might never find a home there. Thankfully, I did find a home at Love Inspired. While I know Harlequin has a long way to go in terms of diversity, I’m happy that my line is open to all the possibilities.

  37. Elizabeth K. Mahon

    The Maisey Yates book was released in December in a 2-1 volume, so that Harlequin could put the white couple from the first book on the cover. I applaud them however, for at least publishing it. I’ve just started reading it, and it’s fantastic.

  1. Linkspam, 9/6/13 Edition — Radish Reviews

    […] An Open Letter to Harlequin Ridley surveys Harlequin’s September offerings for POC characters and comes up with some damn depressing numbers. In light of the discussion around diversity in speculative fiction, this is important–this is pervasive throughout publishing. […]

  2. BookTalk Nation — Blog

    […] about this lack of diversity broke out online last year when a blogger for the website Love in the Margins posted “An Open Letter to Harlequin” (coincidentally, Kristan’s publisher) decrying “the […]