Friday, March 23, 2018

The slightly less white, not-quite-so-heteronormative world of the RITA awards

Earlier this week, Romance Writers of America® (RWA) announced their annual list of finalists for the RITA Award, which the organization bestows in recognition of excellence in published romance writing. In 2018, as in 2017, the award will be given in twelve different sub-genre categories, as well as an award for best first book.

Last year, after the 2017 RITA list (for books published in 2016) was announced, I wrote about the predominance of white authors amongst the finalists, as well as the predominance of white and heterosexual protagonists in their books. Out of the 85 distinct finalists (several books were up for best first book and best book in another sub-genre), four featured protagonists of color (with 3 of the 4 featuring a protagonist of color falling for a white partner); 4 books featured same-sex protagonists; 4-6 were written by authors of color.

This year, for the first time, the RITA contest was not restricted to authors with print books; in fact, no print books were allowed to be submitted. Instead, authors and/or publishers were required to submit pdf copies of books for judges to read and score.

Did this shift change the demographics of the winner pool? It did as far as the independent publisher/traditional publisher divide, with a whopping 22 self-published authors as named finalists, far more than had ever finalled before. Almost every sub-genre category (except for Young Adult and Long Historical) included at least one self-published title.

But did the shift change the demographics of the winner pool in terms of race and sexual orientation of the authors? Or their books' protagonists?

Given the report from The Ripped Bodice on "The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing" released earlier this year, which found that fewer romances by authors of color had been published by leading romance publishers in 2017 than in 2016 (6.2% in 2017, down from 7.8% in 2016), I was guessing the answer would be "no." But the answer turned out to be a small but noticeable "yes."


Of course, many books, and most author bios, don't explicitly state a protagonist or author's race. So my calculations below are based on the following:

• In cases where I've read the book, I knew the race of the protagonists, either by being told directly in the narrative, or from context clues in the book

• In cases where I had not read the book, I examined book covers, book descriptions, Goodreads book reviews, and character names for hints about protagonists' racial or ethnic backgrounds, and made my best guess. Major room for error here, so if you see any mistakes below, please let me know!

• Similarly, for authors with whom I was familiar, and/or who had discussed their own racial backgrounds in public, I went with self-represented racial identities. I had to rely on author photographs and guess for the rest. Again, room for error (and correction) here.


Overall Statistics:


# of finalists
    2017: 78
    2016: 85

# of authors of color
    2017: 5-6
    2016: 4-6

% of authors of color
    2017: 6-7.7%
    2016: 4-7%

# of protagonists of color
    2017: 13*                                                     
    2016:   5

% of protagonists of color
    2017: 8.3%*                                             
    2016: 2.9%

# of queer protagonists
    2017: 12     
    2016:  8

% of queer protagonists
    2017: 7.6%                                               
    2016: 4%

Individual Sub-Genre Numbers:

Contemporary Romance Long
# of finalists: 7
# of authors of color: 2 (or 3?)
# of protagonists of color: 1
# of queer protagonists: 0

Contemporary Romance: Mid-Length
# of finalists: 9
# of authors of color: 1
# of protagonists of color: 2
# of queer protagonists: 2

Contemporary Romance: Short
# of finalists: 7
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 1? (he's a sheikh)
# of queer protagonists: 0

Erotic Romance:
# of finalists: 5
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 1
# of queer protagonists: 0

Historical Romance: Long
# of finalists: 5
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 0
# of queer protagonists: 0

Historical Romance: Short
# of finalists: 7
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 3 (1 is from Spain)
# of queer protagonists: 0

Mainstream Fiction with a Central Romance:
# of finalists: 4
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 0
# of queer protagonists: 2

Paranormal Romance:
# of finalists: 8
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 1? (several are fantasy worlds, so I couldn't really tell just by looking at the blurbs)
# of queer protagonists: 4

Romance Novella:
# of finalists: 8
# of authors of color: 1
# of protagonists of color: 1
# of queer protagonists: 2

Romance with Religious/Spiritual Elements:
# of finalists: 5
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 0
# of queer protagonists: 0

Romantic Suspense:
# of finalists: 9
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 1*
# of queer protagonists: 2

Young Adult Romance:
# of finalists: 4
# of authors of color: 1
# of protagonists of color: 1?
# of queer protagonists: 0



I'd be interested to see how the demographics of the RWA membership, and in particular, the demographics of the judges, compares to the demographics of the U.S. as a whole, and how those demographics compare to the percentages in the finalists selected by judges. Last year, RWA stated that it was going to poll its membership about demographic issues, but to date I don't believe any such information has been made public. I hope that it will, and soon.

Because this year's RITA finalist figures suggest that in terms of sexuality, the awards are quite representative of gay male experience, an improvement to celebrate. But though they are less racially imbalanced than last year's, they are still not at all close to reflecting the demographics of the country as a whole. And they do not represent female queer experience at all.

U.S. LGBT population: 3.8%

RITA Finalists with queer male characters: 7.6%


U.S. Census Data on race/ethnicity (2016)

White: 61.3%
POC:  40.9%

RITA Finalists by race/ethnicity:

White: 92.3%
POC:     7.7%



* Update 3/27/18: Author HelenKay Dimon wrote to let me know that the protagonist of The Fixer is biracial (white/Japanese parents). I've updated the overall figures, and changed the numbers in the Romantic Suspense category, accordingly.


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