On a day when the term silo was heard many times relative to the experiences of publishers and authors in the romance space, transparency was a welcome word—and it came from Malle Vallik, Editorial Director with Harlequin Books, in commentary about working well with market-savvy authors.
Vallik was joined by Grand Central Publishing’s Leah Hultenschmidt, Editorial Director of the Forever and Forever Yours imprints; by Deb Werksman, Editorial Director of Sourcebooks’ Casablanca division; and by Kensington Publishing CEO and President Steven Zacharius. “Romance Publishers Talk Shop” was a panel in Nielsen’s Romance Book Summit.
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No issue drew as much attention or debate during the day as the question of diversity in a genre that, according to Nielsen research, is heavily white and female—as is US publishing overall—both in its writers and readers.
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The question of needed multiculturalism in publishing isn’t limited to social considerations, of course: it’s also a key point around business interests.
As McLean reminded delegates at the conference, Nielsen’s The Multicultural Edge report indicated in March 2015 that between 2000 and 2014, some 92 percent of growth in the US population was generated by multicultural consumers.
More focus: 21 of the most densely populated 25 counties in the United States have populations with multicultural majorities.
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- The share of female romance buyers who report their sexual orientation to be heterosexual or straight: 85 percent
- The share of male romance buyers who report their sexual orientation to be heterosexual or straight: 88 percent
- Male (61 percent) and younger readers surveyed said it’s important that characters in romance reflect diverse ethnic backgrounds
- Non-white respondents who said it’s somewhat or very important that characters reflect diverse backgrounds: 78 percent
Needless to say, publishers in the romance sector today are acutely aware of the issues reflected in such findings. And publishing houses are frequently criticized by authors for rejecting or ghettoizing multicultural work into special, under-supported imprints. Retailers hear the same criticism for categorizing and displaying multicultural romance as “social studies” or as ethnicity-specific work, as in cases of African-American romance sold in “Black Studies” sections where romance readers won’t find it.
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Harlequin’s Vallik, she said, is in charge of directing “author engagement,” something she described as “a unique position that exists solely because of the indie world out there. My job is to develop and execute on strategy to show authors why they want to publish with a traditional publisher. Also to transform Harlequin to think differently about that entire world.
“We do an author survey. Three years ago about 75 percent of our authors—and we have around 700 authors—published exclusively with us and 25 percent with somebody else, as well. We just did another survey in February” and found that the authors were publishing some 50 percent of their work with others. So that’s a huge change.” And a lot of it represents hybrid publishing, she said, meaning publishing both with the trade and in self-publishing.
To capitalize on what she says are the creativity and energy that hybrid authors can provide, “We’re really open when you want to do something else. How do we schedule it together? Are there any marketing opportunities we can do together?” Mallik said she runs workshops on ways authors and publishers can coordinate their resources. She agreed with Sourcebooks’ Werksman that publishers aren’t always as good about explaining how things work to authors as they need to be.
“Some things, even our own editors don’t understand, and that’s part of our changing landscape: making sure our staff knows, and how do we talk about it with authors?—part of our transparency issue, being upfront about the marketplace and what the changes are.”
Hultenschmidt from Grand Central agreed, applauding Mallik’s use of the term transparency. She talked of a dashboard that her program provides to authors after a title is out for eight weeks to brief them on where and how many copies are selling, which accounts are buying, and other details. “They’re able to use that if something is taking off,” she said. “We can often leverage that to keep it going well. Having that kind of immediate reaction” helps authors know how the company might be adjusting marketing.
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By way of demonstrating the kinds of obstacles publishers, like authors, can run into, she mentioned “a very popular author” with Harlequin who had a new book releasing with a cover “which we loved, showing black characters. And it was when it started going to the accounts that we got some pushback.” Retailers, she said, were asking “whether it couldn’t be an ‘iconic’ cover, instead?”
“And our answer was, ‘No. This is the cover and it suits the book.’ But the point is that sometimes, even when we’re yes-yes…there are other obstacles to get through, too,” in order to place more diverse material within consumers’ reach. “It can be the accounts and distribution channels” that present the barriers, she said, “not just the publishers.”
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“I can see this going two different ways,” she said, getting close to a question that dogs a lot of publishing efforts today among writers who say multicultural work is placed in imprint “ghettos.” On one hand, she said, “you can push to the mainstream audience, branding and building it for a mainstream story—the accounts will have no trouble with that. Or—and this works better on the digital side—you can have a smaller audience that might be more niche.”