Romance publishing has a problem — and no, it’s not how to mend all those ripped bodices.
According to a report from The Ripped Bodice, the only romance specialty bookstore in the United States, for every 100 books published by leading romance publishers in 2016 only 7.8 were written by people of color.
Even worse, 50 percent of the publishers surveyed in the report had fewer than five percent of books authored by people of color. Out of 20 publishers surveyed, only three had at least 10 percent of their books written by people of color. This study focuses on traditional publishers and doesn’t account for self-publishing and other non-traditional models which make up a significant chunk of romance writing.
Of particular concern is the suggestion, as revealed by the study, that publishers are not reflecting their readership base with any kind of parity. According to Pew Research, black women with college degrees are more likely to read a book than any other group. Since romance readers are approximately 84 percent female, this suggests there is a large swath of the population who don’t see themselves represented in authors or protagonists.
The authors of the report, Leah and Bea Koch, who own The Ripped Bodice, said they were inspired to conduct a study because they often found themselves short of options when customers come in looking for traditionally published books by authors of color. So, they decided to investigate what the numbers actually looked like.
“We have found it difficult to continue the conversation about diversity in romance without hard data,” said report co-author Leah Koch. “For many years the common refrain from publishers has been ‘we’re working on it.’ Every year we will track industry growth and see if that promise rings true.”
“Honestly we were shocked at how abysmal the numbers are,” said Bea Koch. “We thought they would be bad, we didn’t think they would be this bad.”
The report includes 20 major romance publishers, all of whom were invited to participate and contribute statistics and information to the study. More than half engaged directly in the study, and for those who opted out, the Koch sisters gathered title data from publisher and distributor websites and catalogues. They then researched the authors of those titles to determine what percentage could be considered people of color.
“We were pleased with the amount of publisher cooperation for our first year,” Leah said. “It’s tough to open your company up to scrutiny and we’re grateful for the publishers that felt that this project was important enough to do so. Of course we hope that participation will increase in the years to come.”
The Koch sisters plan to conduct a yearly study to track improvement (or lack thereof) over time. They also took care to explain in the release of their findings that though this study is focused on racial diversity, they don’t intend to imply that is the only type of diversity they hope to see merit attention. “Race is not the only type of diversity we want to see increased in romance publishing, however racial discrimination is one of the largest barriers to equality in any professional industry and publishing is not immune,” said Leah. They also include a detailed breakdown of how they identified authors as people of color.
They are aware the study may generate pushback, particularly since romance is a genre that already struggles to get the literary world to take it seriously. But the Koch sisters feel the best way to push for positive change is to generate conversation around it in the first place. “It’s too important. We have to start with laying out the facts. This is the genre we love and have devoted our lives to. We all need to do better,” Bea said. Leah added, “The traditional romance publishing industry is going to collapse if it doesn’t start hiring authors that reflect the current U.S. population. We’re hopeful that by contributing this data to the discussion, we will start to see real change.”
View their study and corresponding graphics above and below.