Ripped Bodice’s Racial Diversity in Romance Report Reveals Grim Numbers

From Book Riot:

Romance publishing has a serious diversity problem and we now have the data to prove it. Readers of the genre know the challenge that finding traditionally published romances by authors of color can be. However, up to this point, there hasn’t been actual data on the issue. Enter the lovely ladies of The Ripped Bodice, the only romance specialty store in the country. Bea and Leah Koch crunched the numbers and published their first “The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing” report, based on 2016 new releases. It’s pretty startling stuff. The report looks at racial disparities in mainstream romance publishing and is accompanied by some pretty rad infographics to show readers just how completely horrifying their results were.

The Koch sisters say that they became “increasingly aware” of the problem of racial disparity in romance publishing through their interactions with customers of The Ripped Bodice. People were coming into the store looking for books by authors of color that were traditionally published, but Bea and Leah were running low on suggestions.

“We have found it difficult to continue the conversation about diversity in romance without hard data,” says 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,” says Bea Koch. “We thought they would be bad, [but] we didn’t think they would be this bad.”

Twenty publishers were invited to participate in the process. More than half of those invited actively engaged in the process and contributed statistics and information on racial diversity for the study.

. . . .

“While many groups are still woefully underrepresented in the romance genre, including people with disabilities, marginalized religious groups, and members of the LGBTQ community, we had to start somewhere. This is a difficult subject to discuss, but racial discrimination is one of the largest barriers to equality in any professional industry. Publishing is not immune.”

. . . .

“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. 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.”

Link to the rest at Book Riot

PG says the traditional romance publishing industry is already collapsing because more and more romance authors have learned they can give up their day jobs and/or earn a better living by self-publishing.

And none of the indie publishing platforms discriminate against authors on the basis of race.

50 thoughts on “Ripped Bodice’s Racial Diversity in Romance Report Reveals Grim Numbers”

  1. I thought data guy had a slide that showed that books by and for people of color were some sort of ‘hidden indie category’ or something – can someone dig that up?

      • Yeah. It’s a niche market trads didn’t bother with. 0.4% of the overall market if I’m not mistaken. Someone check my math.

        12,000,000 units sold from the above graph versus 2.7 billion overall units sold in the US in 2016. If we believe the numbers. That 2.7 billion might be the overall market, not just the online sales market. So maybe if you include physical sales it’s a bit higher? Pushing toward 0.6% maybe?

        I’m happy things have opened up for everyone. You think my stuff, female superhero books, would have gotten picked up by the trad system? Nay.

        • Indeed, diversity is the exact opposite of what big publishing wants. Taken to it’s logical extreme, the best thing they could have would be ONE book that everyone buys no matter what. That is what they miss about Harry Potter.

      • @ Librarian

        Looking at that slide, the Trad Pub pricing is nearly 5 times that of the other publishing venue prices. No wonder Trad Pub accounts for only 4 percent of African-American book sales.

        And that stat probably reflects the outrageous pricing disparity for ALL books.

        • True. They don’t just price higher for African American fiction. They price all their books high. You can see it in other slides in the report

  2. Not being the sharpest too in the shed, I have always wondered how people know the race/religion/sexual orientation of an author by reading a manuscript.

    If an author’s name is Terry Jones, I can;t be sure if he/she is a he or a she let alone whether or nor said person is a homosexual african american jew.

    Of course that might be cause I don;t care what color someone is, who they pray to or who they sleep with… I’m funny like that

  3. Hardly a new issue. I won’t name the Harlequin senior editor, but a couple decades plus back, in my romance glomming days, I had asked about minority characters. I was told, “They don’t sell.” End of story. Not interested. Those at that conference who wrote minority characters (black and Latino) were told to change them to white if they wanted to sell, or at least one of the couple white (say a Latino guy with a white gal was fine, or, especially in Western Historicals, a Native American with a white was okay.)

    As a biracial Latina, that didn’t sit well.

    I like that romance is going increasingly indie. Authors who want to write minority can do so, and test those waters to see if, indeed, they won’t sell (which, if still true, kind of says racism is alive and well, honestly).

    Note: I know of one author in my writing group doing mighty well selling books with black couples.

    • A quick amazon search for “african american romance” gives (as you would expect) plenty of hits. None of them are “traditionally published.” I did notice a non-traditional publisher in the first page of results – “leo sulivan presents”

      It’s obviously a good-sized market, and I would bet the big5 have no idea at all it’s there.

    • If the books with minority in a role of main characters are not selling as much as the ones with characters that represent majority, why would that be racist? Is it racist that people when are given a choice would buy a book with characters they can identify easier if they use race as identifier?

      • You utterly miss the point.

        A lot of people didn’t have the choice. There were no books published with people to identify with for those who weren’t white.

        The reason other-than-white books weren’t selling was that there weren’t any other-than-white books to sell. Because they were never published.

        And racism is why.

        What you choose to read is not important. That you have a choice is.

        • Tina, I agree with: “What you choose to read is not important. That you have a choice is.”

          But if you look above Martika wrote and I quote: “Authors who want to write minority can do so, and test those waters to see if, indeed, they won’t sell (which, if still true, kind of says racism is alive and well, honestly).”
          Which has nothing to do with people not having a choice in the past or that books were not published or that there weren’t any other than white books to sell.
          So it looks like it’s you who had utterly missed the point.

      • Why racist? Because it means that white readers won’t buy books with minority characters; whereas we minority folks have been reading white characters without an issue. If it’s a romance and a good story, why would someone NOT read a story with characters who aren’t white? I have Latina, Asian, and black friends who read romances with white characters. It’s not even an issue. It’s not an impediment. But when an editor says, “Minorities don’t sell,” that means it doesn’t sell to WHITE readers (the majority), and racism has to be considered part of the reason why. It at least has to be on the table.

        If readers who are modern American or fat or old can identify with young and slender or historical characters, why can’t they identify and enjoy a story with other characters not exactly like them, ie, minority?

        • I found the notion that somebody (that be white, black, Latina, Asian) is racists because they prefer to buy books about the characters whose characteristic (race included) they can identify easier ridiculous, especially since is evident from your comment that only applies for white, not other races. Which is a clear case of double standards.

          I would agree with you about the racist thing if readers refused to read a book they would otherwise appeal to them solely on the basis of author’s race.

          • Then you didn’t understand my point. Minority folks (Asian, Latino, Black) have long been able to read and enjoy the romances with white couples or white heroines. The issue wasn’t that we could not read or enjoy that. The problem was being told that minority characters would not sell to white readers. If minority readers can enjoy white characters –and we have bought and supported romance publishers for decades–why can’t white readers widely read and enjoy minority characters in romance, as per that at-that-time very well-known senior editor? (Though I heard it from others, too, ie writers and editors).

            The race of the author is not the question. Unless there’s a photo or heavily ethnic name, who the hell would know in a bookstore what race a writer is–especially in the age before blogs/author profiles on Amazon/etc?

            The issue was why did the white readers not cross over like the minority readers did? I never ever stopped to think, “Gee, this author is white and this couple is white, so I won’t buy this romance, cause I can’t identify with this character.”

            One can’t help one’s preferences in general: I prefer SF and romance and mystery/thrillers to Westerns, historical novels, and psychological women’s fiction. That’s a preference. But I don’t say, “Well, unless the author or character is Latina, forget about it. I can’t get into that white person’s head.”

            I think it’s something to discuss and consider. And yeah, sorry, I do think part of it is racism. I’ve not had my white friends have their family members refused to be served in a store (my sister, who at that time had an income equivalent to 350K, so it was hardly like she was coming in looking ‘hood dangerous), or in a restaurant (my brother, who is as clean-cut a family man as you can find), or who had a mother of a boyfriend refuse to let her in the house cause she was a “dirty Cuban.” (Yep, that happened to me, and considering the mom was Jewish and that group has suffered horrible discrimination through the ages, one would think she would have been a little less prejudiced.)

            Plus, yeah, getting called spic by random strangers driving by, in one case, with a Confederate flag, when all I was doing was walking along the sidewalk.

            It’s very hard for me to discount racism when an editor says something like THAT right to the face of a small group of women who included two Latinas, one Asian-American, and one black. “No minority characters. They don’t sell to middle America.”

            • I might be doing you injustice and, I’m certainty not getting your point, since your comments sound more like whining to me. All I hear is:
              If authors can’t survive by writing about minority characters = racism.
              Because minority readers read about majority characters, majority have to read about minority characters, anything else is racism.
              Editors doesn’t want to take on stories with minority characters = those racists readers.

              The thing is, I’m not American and if I apply your reasoning to the situation here, where because only local authors’ literal works get published and local genre fiction is not-existent, readers here heavily depend on translated works and English books. So according to your comment, stories written by local authors in English should be bought by English speaking readers, since our country’s population is reading English books. It sounds ridiculous. The same argument, for me, also sounds ridiculous when it’s applied to China, Japan, Brazil, Spain, etc. For me, your reasoning also dilutes the world racism.

              You also seem to be ignoring the fact that there are enormous markets with stories about not-white main characters, one just needs to look outside of prominently white societies. I for one, I’m fan of Koren dramas, Chinese movies and Japanese anime, novellas and mangas, and I have no trouble in finding stories with Asian protagonists. Which I’m sure is a case for Latina characters too. I don’t know about black though, since I’m not familiar with African fiction markets, but I do know that a few Nigerian authors are publishing their stories via Amazon.

              I would also like to add then when looking for stories to read, I never focus on the race of the characters, but on who they are and how well their characterization and journey appeals to me. I also rarely register the race of the characters, except if it’s in your face thing. Maybe that’s the reason I don’t get your point.

    • “I like that romance is going increasingly indie. Authors who want to write minority can do so, and test those waters to see if, indeed, they won’t sell (which, if still true, kind of says racism is alive and well, honestly).”

      Not really. Romance is a genre that invites the reader to put herself in the place of the MC. I’d imagine the larger portion of the time, that means a female reader and the female MC. I don’t know the statistics about demographic breakdown of romance readers, but my guess is a majority of them are white women. While many romance readers don’t mentally put themselves in the place of the main character, I would guess that it’s a larger percentage than do so in other genres, and if they do so, it’s easier for them to do so when the female MC has as many things in common with them as possible. So, if it’s normal for non-white readers to want more non-white MCs so that they can better identify with the MCs and put themselves into the story (and it is totally normal), then it’s just as normal for white readers to want the same.

      I agree that you could argue there’s systemic racism in the big publishers who just refuse to publish non-white romances and ignore the non-white portion of the market (and while they’re at it, the portion of the market that doesn’t need to put themselves into the skin of the MC to enjoy the story). (I don’t think that’s racist so much as them trying to pander to the lowest common denominator, which big businesses tend to do, unfortunately. But I guess you could argue it.)

      But you seem to have implied that it’s racist for white readers to prefer stories with characters who share their ethnic background, the better to relate to those characters, but not racist for non-whites to prefer non-white characters for the exact same reason.

      I, like others here, am very glad that indie publishing has opened up opportunities for authors to reach markets (like those who want non-white romance) that traditional publishers have decided are too small to cater to. But that doesn’t mean that if people choose not to read those books because they don’t appeal to them as much as other books, they’re racist.

      (For the record, I’m not one of the readers who has to put myself in the shoes of the female MC to enjoy a romance. Even still, I’m not immune to the draw of, “Oh, she has my hair color and is my height and shares one of my hobbies!” Such simple things probably shouldn’t increase my interest in continuing through a book, but inexplicably it does.)

      • +10. My thoughts exactly when it comes to the Romance genre. I think it’s less important in other genres, especially books that do not take place in our contemporary society, like Sci-Fi or Fantasy. Heck, I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy when I was a teenager and never connected that the characters were supposed to be “red-brown-skinned” (I found that out much later when the mini-series came out and it caught flak for whitewashing).

      • I’ve read probably more than 1000 romances, and few of them had black or Latina mc’s. And I enjoyed them. The fact they were female was enough for me to enter that character’s mind and feelings. I never thought, “Oh, I can’t read this and identify, cause she has red hair and milky white skin.” I just enjoyed the romance.

      • ~~But you seem to have implied that it’s racist for white readers to prefer stories with characters who share their ethnic background, the better to relate to those characters, but not racist for non-whites to prefer non-white characters for the exact same reason.~~

        I totally understand liking people “like us” in romances–be it Christian, gay, white, black, etc. But I see city folks reading a lot of small town or prairie romances. I see old women reading romances with young ones. I see black writers writing white romance characters and reading them. I don’t think blacks or Latinos or Asians are saying: I only want to read romances with folks like me.

        I think what’s being said is why was there so little romance with folks like me, though we were, in aggregate, 30% or more of the population?

        I don’t give a fig what color the romance heroine is. I look more for archetypes/settings/premises. But I did get irked that that editor pretty much NIXED minority couples as unsellable. And if unsellable, then someone refuses to read people not like them, and it’s not minorities refusing to. We were buying those Sihouettes and Harlequins and Avons and etc. We loved the romances, even if they weren’t “like us.” So, unless that New YOrker, Los Angeleno, Miamian, Chicagoan, etc, think they are just like a highlander gal or a Regency lady or a prairie frontier schoolmarm, this isn’t just about “someone just like me.”

        • “And if unsellable, then someone refuses to read people not like them, and it’s not minorities refusing to.”

          You’re assuming hostile intent where a simple matter of taste and preference is more likely. It’s not that white people are “refusing to read people not like them”. If the color of a character’s skin or their ethnic heritage is so important that publishers should be more diverse about it, then it’s something that some percentage of readers (in this case, perhaps a majority of romance readers) will have a preference about when choosing what to spend their time and money on. Choosing to buy book A does not constitute a refusal to buy book B, merely a preference for book A. An individual reader has no obligation whatsoever (including an ethical or moral obligation) to buy/read a certain number of books that fall outside of their preferences simply for the sake of expanding their horizons because it’s good for them or good for society. (Most adults are happy to have left that behind when they left school.)

          The problem with calling everything racist, including judging and condemning the reading preferences of strangers, is that it muddies the waters and makes it harder to see and address issues of *real* racism.

          • Also, Mirtika, you need to look at percentages of what’s offered. It’s a bit chicken-and-egg.

            Say there are 100 books that a romance reader has to choose from when deciding what to read next. 90 of them have white protagonists, and 10 have non-white protagonists.

            Most readers will not put the color/ethnicity of the protagonist as their first priority when choosing what to read. They’re going to look at character types, tropes, what the hook is, and a lot of other factors having to do with the actual story. Say only 10 of the 100 books have the right combination of those factors to be interesting to the reader (and that’s assuming price/availability is equal).

            Assuming an equal distribution among the white/non-white divide, that means the reader is now choosing between one book with non-white characters and 9 books with what characters. And there are going to be other factors in play when choosing 1 out of 10 books. The odds are 90% in favor of the reader choosing one of the books that has white characters, even if the reader is totally disregarding the character’s ethnicity as a factor in their choice.

            So, in large part, even among white readers who have no preference whatsoever about the ethnicity of the characters, they’re still mostly going to read books with white characters because that’s what most books out there are. You’re basically asking them to go out of their way to read books with non-white characters (and there are definitely some white readers who do that). Most don’t see any need to do that, so they don’t.

            *Not* going out of your way to show preference to (or avoid) a certain race does not constitute racism.

    • @ Mirtika

      And, of course, the gender of the non-white partner is important, too. White guy/minority gal OK. The obverse, not so OK (at least to Trad Pub).

      • Actually, a Latino guy or an American Indian guy was okay with a white gal. 😀 I did enjoy those Kathleen Eagle romances with Lakota heroes and white heroines. (It mirrored the author’s own life, her husband being an AI.)

        I have a pal who writes mixed couples, as that is her experience. And she and I both find Asian men very attractive, so she also writes Asian heroes. 🙂 In fact, her books tend to be pretty diverse in terms of characters, whether romance or fantasy.

        • “I have a pal who writes mixed couples, as that is her experience. And she and I both find Asian men very attractive, so she also writes Asian heroes. In fact, her books tend to be pretty diverse in terms of characters, whether romance or fantasy.”

          I don’t follow this. Above, you seemed quite upset that a romance reader could have a preference about which heroine they’re reading/identifying, with but yet you state your own preference for Asian males.
          I think the word racism is thrown around way too quickly sometimes.

          • No, I find Asian men attractive. And black men attractive. And Latino men attractive. And White men attractive.And American Indian men attractive. But you just do not see hardly ANY Asian men as romance leads on books. So, it would be really nice to see some. 😀

            Most of the hundreds of romance books in my library have..tada..white folks. 99% I acquired them mostly in the 80s through end of 90s. That’s what you could find. I have ONE with an Asian romantic partner, and he wasn’t even featured on the cover.

            I can identify with any race female character. What? Can’t you get into any race character? Does it have to be your own to enjoy the story? Shoot, I can identify with a male character. Depends on his personality. I’m not going to identify with Hannibal Lecter.

            And while racism can be thrown around carelessly, sometimes people are afraid to just admit that’s what might be going on.

  4. People were coming into the store looking for books by authors of color that were traditionally published…

    Customers really specified that the authors should be traditionally published? Or is it just that the store doesn’t carry indies?

  5. I’m curious how complete a list they’re using. As in, Zane has her own imprint, Strebor Books, which is part of Simon and Schuster via Atria. I don’t see any of that in the article, though I guess it could be buried in there somewhere or other.

  6. The Ripped Bodice? Isn’t that a derogatory term for romance novels? Way to troll your potential audience.

    • Yep.

      “Trash novels.” “Bodice Rippers.” One can only roll one’s eyes at that sort of genre category snobbery. I have a degree in English Lit, concentration in Victorian era fiction, and I have read many mighty fine modern romance novels. There’s craft there, along with cracking good storytelling. And it makes you feel good when it’s over with a HEA (which cannot be underrated, imo, for stress relief and encouragement).

      I don’t see the same sort of nasty terminology for other genre fiction these days, barring weird porn genres; although in my youth, sci-fi got ribbed, which made no sense at all to me, given how smartly written so many were and are.

  7. Kensington’s 19.8% looks good in comparison with the other publishers, but are we talking about submissions coming from the US, from many English markets such as the UK, Canada, and Australia as well, or from the whole world? Without that, I can’t figure out whether Kensington is right where a non-discriminating publisher should be, or if it still has further to go.

  8. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading Thomas Sowell it’s to look past the numbers and ask if there might be other explanations. So I’m thinking that if other ethnics are writing romances, those romances will be there in kindle books, so the numbers should be there.

    I did a couple of quick Amazon searches. The first number is the number of books returned for the search term, then the number of kindle books
    Romance – 1,329,884 – 483,030
    African American Romance – 31,778 – 26,878
    Hispanic Romance – 1,888 – 1,399
    gay romance – 86,206 – 34,128

    What these number say to me is that the majority of these ethnic romances are indeed self published. That of course isn’t the whole story. We all know the writing in a significant percent of self published books are not up to professional standards, so how many of these books might have made the cut were there no bias in the industry? (That’s a semi-rhetorical question because I have no answer.)

    Even so, the number of African American, Hispanic, and gay romances is a sliver of the overall picture.

    Given that I don’t believe it’s the job of white authors to even the scales (people write what they know plus there’s that nasty cultural appropriation charge to consider), one might assume that the authors of these books belongs to the same ethnic group as the characters.

    So now the question becomes: is there a reason these books are so poorly represented that might NOT include the bias of the publishers? I’m inclined to think that the numbers support that thought because if it were ONLY the publishers’ bias, I would expect to see much larger numbers of ebooks in these categories. (Not saying the bias doesn’t exist. Just saying it looks like it’s not the whole story.)

    • You mean you can’t just look at societal demographics, compare to an outcome, and assume racism? Lol, I know I’m joking but bad stats and science drive me nuts.

      To even consider an unfair discrimination issue you need to know the submission/publication breakdown of a company. Societal demographics are irrelevant. You wouldn’t expect 50/50 gender split in lesbian romance, for example.

      I’m glad self pubbing is out there. Let the market decide. Give everyone a chance.

      • I think societal demographics are relevant.

        Using lesbian romances as a yardstick is a false equivalency. The issue isn’t “are lesbian authors being published?” The issue is “are lesbian romances being published?” Like any statistical analysis you have to be sure you’re comparing apples to apples.

        Frex: Poor schools in the inner cities (which tends to serve predominately black students) affects how well they understand proper English which tends to put any submission that comes from someone with that educational breakdown at a disadvantage that has nothing to do with publishers’ racial bias and everything to do with a bias toward quality of writing.

  9. It’s a Catch-22. If your characters reflect the real world around us (that includes people of color, LGBT, people with physical challenges and yes, even white people) then people who look like that buy more books.

    If you don’t reflect the real world around you, less people buy books and sales go down. It’s simple economics and business.

    This is why indie books are so important because indie authors can take those risks that corporations aren’t willing to take under the guise of “we have challenges finding authentic voices”.

    This is another reason why television, which is starting to be more inclusive, has seen better ratings the last few years because it has reflected the real demographics of the population better.

    • Agree, and will add that the writing of those characters has gotten better. I’m hoping we are past the ‘token’ phase. I only follow SF/F, so am not commenting generally.

      • I took ratings to mean critic’s and audience score, you might be thinking of more people watching?

        TV viewership has gone down, media is fracturing.

        Also, I guess it’s it’s hard to argue inclusion drives ratings. It might, but isn’t that really difficult to know? The biggest show is Game of Thrones right? Or maybe Big Bang Theory? Neither are really racially diverse, though the diversity of characters is what keeps them interesting.

        • When I say TV, I also mean Netflix, Hulu, etc. Viewership has grown it’s just not all on cable and broadcast television. Same shows but on diverse platforms.

        • Yes, I was thinking of more people watching rather than the critics, but the idea that television is reflecting the true demographics of the population better is also untrue. It would be far more accurate to state that television is reflecting the true demographics of Hollywood rather than the population as a whole.

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