Yesterday, Dear Author posted an anonymous guest post on the subject of cultural appropriation. In it, the writer lamented the dearth of non-white protagonists in romance, and the tendency for those stories which do feature unusual locations (India, the Middle East, etc.) to have white protagonists, too. A long, interesting thread of comments has ensued (last time I looked, there were 250+ comments), including one from author Jade Lee, whose Blaze historical, The Concubine, was set in ancient China and featured Chinese protagonists but which, despite positive reviews, failed to sell as well as Harlequin would have liked. Jade will continue to write for Harlequin, but going forward, her books will feature white protagonists and her historicals will be set in Regency England.
So, given everything that’s already been said in the thread at Dear Author, what could I possibly have to add? Only this: the lack of diversity in romance/publishing1 isn’t limited to the race/ethnicity of the main characters. It’s also evident in other facets of the sorts of books that get picked up for publication.
I’m going to give a concrete example here. I have a proposal out with an editor for a book that’s set in Prohibition Era Chicago. I like to say it’s Dashiell Hammett meets Lora Leigh. I think it’s a great premise for a book and the writing is solid. But I’m also a realist. There isn’t much of a market for Prohibition Era romantic suspense. In fact, there probably isn’t a market for it at all. This means that, for the publisher to pick up my book for publication is a big risk. Bigger than, say, buying a wonderfully well-written Regency era romance by another author. And believe me, there are plenty of wonderfully well-written Regencies out there for publishers to choose from. My proposal isn’t competing for publishing space with OTHER Prohibition Era romances, but with other historical romances set in periods and places that are tried and true, that publishers KNOW have an opportunity to sell well.
Now, many people, when I mention this book, say, “Oh, I’d LOVE to read that. It sounds great. It’s so different.” But, that’s the rub. No matter how great it might be, different isn’t good when it means the publisher isn’t sure the book can sell. Jade mentioned that Harlequin put a significant marketing effort behind The Concubine, but it just wasn’t enough to propel readers to step outside their comfort zone and buy it. (I’m sorry I didn’t buy it, although the reason wasn’t because of the setting or race of the characters, but because I don’t buy/read category romances. In retrospect, I wish I’d stepped outside my comfort zone for that book.)
My agent and I discussed this book and another project I’m working on yesterday and agreed that we probably won’t pursue taking it out elsewhere because the new project is simply more marketable. It has a time and place setting that publishers like (Victorian England), a paranormal element that’s hot and popular, and an interesting high concept. That’s what publishers are looking for right now, so that’s what I’m trying to write–books that will sell.
Quite honestly, that means being “different” and pushing the boundaries just isn’t on my agenda. As a writer, I want to write books people will read. That means writing books publishers will buy, publish, and promote. And in this day and age, that means books that fit within the defined categories that already exist. Sure, there’s always going to be that ONE writer who sells the “really different” book and kicks off a whole new subgenre. But the reality is, that writer probably won’t be me. It probably won’t even be you if you’re a debut or midlist author looking for a slot in this environment. Probably, the breakout, different book is going to come from a well established author who’s already hit the lists a time or two and has a bankable name for the publisher to hang its marketing hat on.
The rest of us have to be different in very small, very careful ways if we want to sell. We have to come up with a “big” premise that publishers believe they can “lead” with (publishers don’t want to buy midlist books anymore; they want incipient bestsellers).
So, bottom line, if anything, the homogenization of romance is going to become more pronounced over time rather than less so. Established authors who have made a stab at increasing diversity are being asked to write “safer” books for their new contrats. (Jade Lee isn’t the only published author I’ve heard of who’s been asked to do this. It’s perfectly understandable, too. If a publisher has an author they believe has great talent, they will want her to write a book that has the best opportunity to sell to a lot of readers. Why “waste” her abilitites on books with a “niche” market?) New authors are going to be bought because their books “fit” into the already defined categories with broad sales potential. And the midlist authors, whose books might be the most likely to be “different” because the sales expectations aren’t huge, will be slowly winnowed away.
But the thing is, it’s not the job of publishers to fix the culture or educate the populace. Their job is to publish books that entertain enough readers to produce a profit for the publishing house. If readers really WANTED these different books in large numbers, I believe we’d be getting them. The fact that publishers have taken risks on books that don’t fit the defined categories and they generally don’t do well is evidence to me that most readers want historicals featuring white Regency era England lords and ladies and paranormals featuring vampires/werewolves/demons, and so on.
If that ISN’T what you want as a reader…stop buying them. You can’t buy the books that aren’t there, but if you stop buying the ones that are (perhaps taking your dollars to epublishers or small presses that do offer the kinds of stories you want), perhaps that will induce the same scramble in the NY publishing industry that happened a few years back when they realized erotic romance was a market they could make money on. Maybe the same efforts will be made to sign authors from epublishing who write outside the box again.
In the meantime, we’re going to keep getting what we’re buying. And yes, I’m guilty, because I’m buying (and writing) those homogenized romances.
1When I say publishing in this post, please think “mainstream, print, NY publishing.” There is room for a great deal more diversity in epublishing, but let’s face it, the majority of book readers are still print readers, and saying there’s diversity in ebooks if you’ll only go find them is like saying there’s diversity in TV if only you’ll get expanded cable. Not everyone wants to go there.