(Disclaimer 1: this post is a general discussion of the romance industry. Personally, I’ve been lucky enough to work with an awesome agent and attentive editors and publishers, but many, many marginalized authors have not.)
(Disclaimer 2: I know that publishing is hard for white romance authors, too, and that they also face rejection and income issues. Please read with the knowledge that this discussion takes that into account, but is specifically concerned with how there is an even higher barrier to entry for marginalized authors.)
So, I told myself I didn’t want to write about diversity in romance anymore. I’m tired. As Bernie Mac would say, “My body weary.” But for the last few months, something has been rattling around in my brain and I need to get it out.
When we talk diversity in romance, a lot of the discussion focuses on representation, which is super important–I know all too well the joy of finding a character that reflects your life when reading your favorite fiction, and the pain of only seeing caricatures of yourself. There is also a lot of talk about getting mainstream authors to add more diversity to their books, which is also important but I think shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the fact that there are already LOADS of marginalized authors writing diverse romance (many of whom get ignored when they reach out to people specifically ask for diverse romance). I’ll save that discussion for another day. One thing that I think people shy away from is talking about the economic impact of non-diversity in romance publishing. Money.
I think this is, in part, because when money is mentioned, that’s when self-interest starts to rear its head. That’s when people start to think “Well, maybe people only want to make money off of this diversity stuff!” and start seeing discussions of diversity as some kind of scam or way to advance an agenda. I find this bizarre, because when feminists raise hell about women making less than men for the same job, no one thinks “Oh, she’s just trying to make money” in a derisive sense. Of course people want to be paid the same amount of money for doing the same job! But when you throw race, gender, sexuality, and religion into the mix, suddenly the “equal pay for everyone” ship loses some steam. Suddenly, doubts start to appear. Suddenly, people to start to wonder if maybe it’s not discrimination, but just “quality” that’s the problem. I’m sure all of those same people have wondered if feminists just weren’t working hard enough when they demanded equal pay though, right?
So, I’m going to try to break down the diversity problem from the economic side, try being the important part there. I’m not an economist and numbers generally make me want to dive into a cave. The hard numbers and charts and all that will take some time, but in the meantime I’ll be taking a general survey of the economic terrain for marginalized authors. In a series of posts over the next few months, I’ll be discussing some of the factors that create an adverse economic environment for marginalized authors. I’ll be doing interviews and examining previously collected information, such as Audra North’s Diversity in Romance data and the Lee and Low survey of diversity in publishing. I’ll also be examining concepts such as race/ethnicity-specific romance lines.
Basically, this will be a work in progress, changing as it goes. Some posts will focus on race/ethnicity. Some on LGBTQ issues. Some on the intersection of several marginalized groups. I won’t be able to cover everything, and really encourage people to comment with their insights, opinions, and experiences.
But to start, we’ll discuss a baseline issue that, while not quantifiable, is a major impediment for marginalized romance authors seeking to gain entry into the publishing world, and that is the QUALITY PROBLEM.
A few weeks back, a well-known agent (who may or may not be a robot, a theory floated after the bizarre situation I’m about to recount) took to Twitter to talk about diversity and how to increase the number of books by marginalized authors. A refrain started to emerge from her dozens of tweets, in which the quality of submissions from marginalized authors was lamented. It reached a point where one person even suggested that perhaps we should just rely on white/cis/ able-bodied people to write the stories of marginalized people because they can’t do it well enough themselves. Instead of telling this person that was completely out of the question, the agent responded in the same (robotic? hmmm) tone she used even with people who expressed their dismay, as if all of these things should have received the same consideration.
Now, I’m sure this agent meant well, which actually changes nothing in the grand scheme of things, but the entire hurtful conversation, which snaked through my Twitter timeline for days, was offensive and condescending, and—most of all?—wrong.
No one is asking for crappy books to be published solely because the author is from a marginalized group. But, and here is where I take a deep breath because I’m going to say something not so nice: in the weeks since that series of tweets, I’ve read a lot of traditionally published books, most of them by white authors, the group that is presented (intentionally or not!) as the group most capable of producing quality romance literature. Were these all amazing paragons of high-quality literature? No. A couple were wonderful and moving and gave me all the great romance feels. Most were okay. A few were straight-up terrible. I’m not saying this to shit on other authors. I hate having to even type this! Basically:
- Quality is subjective. Perhaps an editor read the books that I thought were terrible and thought they were great, simply because our tastes differ. BUT
- I’ve read SO MANY self-published books by marginalized romance authors that were leaps and bounds better than many of the books I read, or could have been with the nurturing a publisher and editor provide. Even the self-pubbed books by marginalized authors that I thought were terrible were on par or better than the trad-published books that I thought were terrible.
So, I have to ask: just what do people mean when they say marginalized authors are not producing quality books? I mean, the statement is ridiculous to begin with. I’m sure that crappy white authors outnumber marginalized authors by manifold in the slush piles of agents and editors, but I’ve never heard anyone make sweeping generalizations about the quality of work of white authors.
Quality is thus something that’s defined by particular agents and editors who have, unless they are aliens (as we have already seen, robots aren’t immune), grown up in a society that reinforces the fact that “quality” or “goodness” is not something you think of when you think of marginalized people. Is the review process for all books exactly the same? I’d have to say no, given my aforementioned reading experience.
Because this is important, I have to say that this is hard on all marginalized authors, but particularly black authors. Other minorities as seen as smart, but not saleable. Many people are taken aback when they realize black people read and write books. Whether we like it or not, society has preconditioned many readers, no matter the race, to read through books with their internal copy editor turned on (Is that *really* the right word to use in this sentence? Was this statement fact-checked?) in a way that they don’t with other authors. Things that are seen overlooked in other books are seen as evidence of inability to write in black authors, leading to an even larger “quality” road block.
Now to the point: when the people who are the gatekeepers for romance publishing view submissions from marginalized authors as “less than” from the jump, how are these authors expected to achieve economic equality with their peers? Every book by a black/Asian/gay/disabled romance author shouldn’t have to be above and beyond just to be gain consideration. Although I read some amazing, amazing, amazing books by marginalized authors, they are often self-published, while books that many would consider mediocre are published by top publishers, complete with advances and marketing pushes. All authors have to work hard, but we all know that self-publishing is more time intensive and requires a significant initial investment by the author. Thus, too much of the time, the current state of publishing leaves marginalized authors with the economic options of (a) accepting less money for their work by trad publishers than their white/cis/able-bodied counterparts or (b) having to self-publish within whatever means their current salary allows them.
The level of diversity in the current romance publishing landscape is changing, too fast for some and not fast enough for others, but even if things proceed beyond our wildest dreams in the coming months and years, it’s important to remember that in addition to being a more accurate reflection of the world around us, diversity in romance is also about economic parity.