Your Community: Diversity in romance

Julia Westhoff - May 26, 2018 10:00 am

Johnson County librarian Beth Atwater has observed a diversity problem in romance literature: there’s not enough. She and her colleagues are out to do something about it.

Updating the Genre
In June, Atwater will present a joint session at the annual Romance Slam Jam conference with the fiction buyers from Kansas City KS Public Library, Mid-Continent Public Library, and Kansas City MO Public Library. Joining Atwater at the podium will be Carmen Hannon-Patton, KCK Public Library; Pat Bogue, Mid-Continent; and Alice Pierson, KCMO Public Library. Their conversation will cover how libraries can actively diversify their own collections to better serve readers who on average consume more than 89,000 pages per year. Atwater has assembled a reading list of diverse titles at Johnson County Library.

Celebrating Diversity
Romance Slam Jam is an annual conference of authors, sellers and fans of diverse romance. It has hosted as many as 300+ readers and writers, now in its 23rd year. According to its website, RSJ was born out of a necessity presented by the systemic exclusion by the publishing industry of black authors from acquisitions, mainstream distribution and industry awards. Responding to gatekeepers who once said, “People won’t buy black romance,” RSJ set out to break barriers to entry. The gathering supports and celebrates authors of romantic and women’s fiction featuring black, multicultural and interracial protagonists.

Encouraging New Voices
A recent study published by brick-and-mortar retailer The Ripped Bodice, whose sole inventory is Romance genre, tells the tale. While more than 23% of romance readers self-identify as people of color, just over 6% of titles published – it’s a $1.08 billion industry commanding 34% of the entire US fiction-publishing market – have characters or authors of color. The Ripped Bodice reports that many of its top-selling titles are by authors of color. 92% of all romance readers buy and enjoy print books, so the industry must be thriving, right?

Which doesn’t explain why two major publishers have recently closed their imprints that include diverse romance. One of them, Kimani Romance, the diversity imprint of Harlequin Romance, closed in 2017 after HarperCollins purchased Harlequin. The other, Crimson Romance, a division of Simon & Schuster, also pulled its sponsorship of the annual Romance Slam Jam just weeks before the annual conference in Kansas City. This last-minute cancellation of a major sponsor is definitely a blow, but the conference is carrying on, and Librarians like Atwater are working to help library users find the titles they love. Learn more here.

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