Friday, March 24, 2017

The white, heteronormative world of romance awards

Earlier this week, Romance Writers of America (RWA) announced their annual list of finalists for the RITA Award, which recognizes excellence in published romance writing. In 2017, the award is to be given in twelve different sub-genres, as well as an award for best first book. Out of curiosity, I checked out the Goodreads listing for each book, to see if I could tell from the book covers and descriptions how many finalists* featured protagonists of color. While book descriptions rarely specified the race or ethnicity of characters within, white characters were the norm on the covers of this year's RITA finalists. Out of the 85 distinct finalists, only 4 feature protagonists of color, with 3 of the 4 featuring POC falling for a white lover. An equally low number of books were written by authors of color: 4 (or perhaps 5 or 6; I was unsure of the race of several authors).

4 books depicted same-sex romances. 3 of those books featured white gay male characters, the fourth a lesbian couple, one white, one Indian-American.


85 Finalists
85 x 2 protagonists per book = 170 protagonists
5 protagonists of color = 2.9%

85 Finalists
4 (or perhaps 6) authors of color =  4% (or perhaps 7%)

85 Finalists
85 x 2 protagonists per book = 170 protagonists
8 non-heterosexual protagonists = 4%


US Census 2014 

White                                                                 77.5%
     Non-Hispanic White                                    62.2%
     (Hispanic White)                                          15.3%
African-American                                             13.2%
Indian and Alaska Native                                   1.2%
Asian                                                                   5.4%
Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander      0.2%
Two or More Races                                            2.5%



Williams Institute Demographic Study on Sexual Orientation

Americans identifying as lesbian or gay:         1.7%
Americans identifying as bisexual:                  1.8%
Americans identifying as transsexual:              0.3%



What's wrong with this picture? And what is RWA going to do about it?

The Cooperative Children's Book Center at the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been tracking the number of children's books written and/or illustrated by African Americans since 1985, and since 1994, similar numbers for other ethnic and racial groups. Isn't it about time someone (RWA?) starts to do the same for romance?


* I used the term "nominees" here in my original post, which is incorrect; the RWA does not nominate books for the RITA award.

34 comments:

  1. RWA (the sponsor of the RITA) maintains a strong institutional bias toward traditional publishing, which, in turn, suffers from a diversity problem. Entering the RITA requires a paperback version of the book. They do not accept ebook only entries. Just a cursory glance at the nominees shows that--despite up to 80% of romance sales being e-books and a high percentage of those sales being indie only--the RITA list is mostly trad pubbed authors (I think I counted 3 self-pubbed on the list). Many indie authors don't even participate in RWA and many more are questioning the value of the organization to them, given the changes in the romance world since the advent of KDP (Marie Force has an excellent recent blog post on this--she's one of the nominees this year so she's got to rejoin to be eligible). I think the RITA reflects the state of trad publishing today, not the state of the romance genre itself. RWA has attempted to make some incremental changes but, the honest truth is, that it, and therefore the RITA too, are fast fading into irrelevance in our brave new world of publishing.

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    1. Corrie:

      Interesting points. I know that RWA is contemplating moving to an all-ebook submission process, or at least allowing either ebook or print submissions. We shall see what happens on that front next year.

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    2. Quick correction to the post above: there are sixteen books on the RITA nominee list that are either self-published or published by the author's own publishing company (including Marie Force). Another four are from small presses that have no relationship with a Big 5 Trad publisher (and two of those presses, Tule and Evil Eye, were started by authors who publish other authors). Eight are from Amazon imprints, which rarely receive print or even e-distribution outside Amazon itself.

      So it seems rather...illogical...to claim a Big 5 bias and to assert the RITAs reflect trad publishing only.

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    3. So, there are 16 self-pubbed out of 80+ finalists--that's 20% indie. I think we can agree that the actual percentage of indie romances is more than 20% of the romance market. My point is this-- because of the limitations of the RITA contest--2000 entries, self-nomination, and only paper books (which many indies don't do)--the RITA is NOT reflective of the romances published today. And, yes, I'd say that having 80% of the books trad pubbed does reflect a remaining and ongoing bias toward trad publishing within RWA, which in turn, makes the organization increasingly irrelevant to indie authors.

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    4. Harlequin as well as Kensington publish a number of African American authors, to the point they have another line, and some write for lines not designated for them. My point - POC are traditionally published. Your lack of exposure does not mean it does not exist. What you read is not indicative of what is available to read.

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    5. My hope is that RWA will move to include electronic submissions. FYI my book is ebook only and I received permission from my publisher to create print copies solely for the contest. These were created by myself at my own expense, so I definitely think it could be a barrier for entry. For me it was worth investing in, but it adds to cost.

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    6. I am fully aware that Harlequin and Kensington have African American authors AND have read multiple authors by both lines. Your final sentence encapsulates my point, K.D. King. The RITAs are not reflective of what is available to read in the romance market today due to the barriers to entry in the contest.

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  2. It's a shame you don't have demographic information that would apply to inter-species relationships--seriously. Aren't humans falling in love with vampires or were-bears the paranormal equivalent of interracial romances?
    As for inter-human love, I'd be interested to learn what the ratios are in terms of entries vs. finalists. If the same percentages are ENTERED, then the finalist situation is hardly something RWA and/or its judges can be blamed for. My pile had 25% interspecies, and the rest (non paranormal) were heterosexual white/white stories.
    As for the trad/indie ratio, I do believe that there are a fairly high number of indie books entered. Three or four of the eight I read were indie. It's quite possible that there's a bias between traditionally published books and indie books among judges.
    It's a complicated situation. I wonder if we can get the entry info from RWA?

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    1. Yes, Teri Anne, I agree it would be helpful to know if the ratios of books entered in the RITA contest reflect the same skew towards whiteness, or if the skew comes in via the judging.

      It would also be interesting to know the percentages of entrants who published indie vs. those who published traditionally, through a trade or mass market publisher. There were more indie books than trad books in my judging packet this year, so I assumed a similar split in the overall submission pool. But that may be an incorrect assumption.

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    2. "Aren't humans falling in love with vampires or were-bears the paranormal equivalent of interracial romances?"

      No, they aren't the same thing. Interracial romances feature a human falling in love with another human, but the protagonists are of different ethnic/racial backgrounds. In paranormal romance, you've described a person falling in love with an animal. One is a real possibility, one is not. Not the same.

      A book is automatically deemed an interracial romance if the protagonists meet the above definition, no matter the sub-genre of the book: historical, paranormal, contemporary, etc.
      Paranormal romance sub-genre is a wide umbrella, under which human/animal relationships can be housed, but that one relationship pairing doesn't define it. For example, a paranormal romance can include two humans in a world where there is magic.

      To take an author's concern that a genre's subjects reflect the diverse world we live in and equate it to fantasy world relationships where one of the parties isn't human was pretty insulting, even if that wasn't your intention.

      As someone who writes contemporary romances where the couples are interracial AND who is in an interracial marriage, that sentence didn't sit well with me and I wanted to explain why.

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    3. Well said, Tracey. The fact that POC are being compared to animals speaks volumes.

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    4. The fact that she was even comfortable comparing HUMAN BEINGS of color to ANIMALS and typing that out and hitting PUBLISH, speaks even louder. AND, those shapeshifters have a race in human form. Those vampires associate and look a race. So she wants credit for writing a white vampire and a white shapeshifter and wondering why it's not interracial. *sigh* Well said Tracey. Thank you for being a voice of reason, when none was present. Thank you for showing humanity, when ours was disregarded and questioned.

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    5. Teri, an inter-species relationship cannot and should not be compared to an interracial relationship, especially in light of the horrible history we in America have had with POC not being considered fully human. That comparison is quite reprehensible, even if that was not your intention.

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    6. Thank you Tracey, Chanta, K.D., and Tina for pointing out the problems with and hurtfulness of equating interracial romance with paranormal interspecies romance. From Teri Anne's frequent comments to previous posts on the blog, I'm guessing it was not her intent to be rude or insulting. But the dehumanizing impact of that sentence for readers and writers of color needs to be acknowledged. I'm sorry I left it to other commenters to do the engaging that I should have done myself earlier.

      -- Jackie H.

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  3. You would need to know the percentage of POC as compared to white (causian) and then you could make a comparison. There may be more or less people of color (or nationality) writing and publishing. You can't compare apples to oranges. Just my humble opinion, before you make assumptions, you need to have the correct facts to evaluate the percentages, agree?
    All you've done here is say how many POC made the list, not what percentage of the whole you're evaluating.

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    1. Yes, Lynn, you're right, we currently don't have enough information to make firm conclusions. Which is why I end this post by urging RWA to start compiling information on the race of characters and authors publishing romance. Then we could start to have a more informed conversation about the issue of race in romance publishing.

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  4. Yeah, I think we need more information. For example, in my package of 8, two were M/M romances and one of those two had an interracial couple. Most of mine were indie, too. I think the winners don't necessarily reflect the makeup of the submissions.

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    1. If that is true (the winners don't necessarily reflect the makeup of the submissions), then there is another interesting conversation to be had: is there bias in the judging? If so, how can that be prevented?

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    2. Honest question here: what part should craft play into the judging? Because while I didn't judge the RITAs this year, I heard a lot of complaints about the quality of the books. So yes, based on admittedly highly subjective standards, I would assume there is a bias toward well-crafted books. But is it the same bias as this blog post posits?

      Now, whether people of color receive the same opportunities to be trad published and are on the same level playing field when it comes to access to craft education, indie publishing resources, time to write, etc, is an issue of which the RITAs may be a telling symptom. But the disease goes much deeper.

      I am very happy Beverly Jenkins is receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award this year, however.

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    3. JMarne are you juxtaposing the writings of people of color with quality writing? That is insulting. Extremely insulting, and mentioning the one author of color you know doesn't smooth it over. It's the equivalent of the "I'm not racist, I have a black friend." BS. Of course there is a bias towards well crafted books. Duh. That's like saying water is wet. Assuming lack of diversity is directly related to people writing crappy books, says that 1. you don't read books by authors of color 2. you assume books by authors of color are crap...not "well-crafted." 3. Is very telling on your thoughts on POC. And let's be clear, I have read books with POC being stereotyped to level that is beyond disrespectful and out right demeaning to a whole race of people. But they were authored by white women and went go on to win awards. So yeah...quality.

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    4. I agree, K.D., that it is insulting to conflate discussions of racial bias and discussions of writing quality. As you write, of course there is a bias in contest judging towards well-crafted books. But I did not intend for this blog post to imply that racial bias is in any way linked to issues of writing quality.

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    5. K.D.: You're right. I am horrified at myself for writing that. I can only apologize, even though it's not enough and never will. That's not what I consciously meant, but now I see it and...there are no words except I am genuinely sorry and I will learn from this.

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  5. 1. Interspecies is not interracial. Are their human forms coded white or poc?
    2. The Ritas reflect a microcosm of those who entered, not the romance industry as a whole.
    3. Many POC authors self publish and are not members of RWA. Many POC authors who are members don't enter the contests. They enter the Emma Awards or the BRAB Awards, and several others.
    4. The contest is capped at 2k entries and is first come, first served.

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    1. Seressia:
      Thanks for stopping by the blog and adding your thoughts. Coding paranormal characters as white or of color is a question that definitely needs to be asked of interspecies romances when issues of race/ethnicity are being discussed.

      The RITAS definitely represent a microcosm of the romance writing community, and many writers of color self publish and/or are not members of RWA and don't enter its contest. But an award that draws 2000 entries is a large enough sample, I think, to present interesting data, if RWA were to track entries by race/ethnicity of authors. Which is what, in part, my post was intending to suggest as a step RWA might take to encourage diversity.

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  6. I'm sorry but Teri, you're joking, right? I'm sure you realize those species you speak of aren't real but people of color are. I'm sorry, I can't stop laughing at this.

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  8. I think I'm a bit confused as to the intent of this article. RWA has been around for quite some time. Why are you just now talking about 2017 Ritas. What about the 2016? The 2015? It's like you just discovered something that has existed for some time. I understand that is a thing, but did you look at all of RWA from its co-founding by a black woman to today? Did you get in contact with RWA to see what they have been doing? Did you even compare last year to this year? Or is this just a "want a cookie" article with no work behind it? Again, I'm confused by the purpose especially with the "look what I just found this year." with no looking at it historically or even trying to figure out the why. I'm confused about the point of this article.

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    1. K.D.:

      My intent with this blog post was to point out the lack of racial diversity in this year's RITA finalists, and to suggest one possible way for the organization to begin to address this ongoing problem: by tracking the race/ethnicity of romance authors, as the children's book community has been doing since the 1980s.

      I am a member of RWA, and president of a local chapter, so I am aware of the organization's recent diversity efforts (see the following post, with the response from RWA's President, if you are interested in the specifics).

      I haven't tracked the RITA finalists over the years. That would be a larger project than I could have undertaken for a short blog post. But it would definitely be worth further study.

      I'm not asking for a cookie; I'm raising an issue and offering a suggestion that might help, which I hope RWA will consider pursuing.

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  10. Okay, so I've had another day to reflect on this and have a few more things to say:

    I am VERY tired of the conflation of quality and POC writing. The topic is so old it went to high school with Moses and it needs to be retired.

    If you want to discuss bias, that's fine. We can do that. I am a WOC and a 20-year RWA member. I was a first-time Rita finalist last year. Was my writing suddenly better because my characters in that book were blonde, or was it that because they were the accepted default, people could "relate" enough to see "the content of the character, not the color of their skin"?

    Last year was a record year of POC writers being GH/Rita finalists. It was the most diverse slate of finalists ever. That would have been a better place to start this post as you could use it to possibly depict a trend.

    The Ritas don't determine the best books in romance publishing. They determine the best books submitted for that contest. Just because you don't see a wealth of POC or LGBTQ books/writers represented in the finalists doesn't mean that they aren't out there. And it sure as hell doesn't mean that they are of less quality.

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    1. Thanks, Seressia, for reflecting more on the issues raised here, and returning to share your thoughts on them.

      I agree that it is time for people to stop conflating issues of quality and issues of race. It is far more comfortable for white people like me to say "oh, you person of color, in the past you haven't had as many opportunities for education as I have, so your writing probably isn't good because of that, and I feel bad about it" rather than saying "POC aren't winning awards because of institutional or judging racism." But it's time to stop hiding behind that pity party excuse. The example of your own experience with the RITA awards—that your book with white characters was deemed worthy, while your earlier books with characters of color weren't—is one of many examples of why RWA needs not only to encourage diversity, but also to confront historical and current biases.

      Studying the RITA and GH awards over time in relation the race of authors who final is a worthy project. It was not the project I undertook in this short blog post, though. I wanted to call attention to the fact that despite the organization's ongoing diversity efforts, its awards at this moment in time do not yet reflect the makeup of our country's citizens. And to offer one suggestion for a way to help move the organization forward in its diversity efforts.

      My intention in this post was not to suggest that writers of color or of sexualities other than hetero do not exist, or their books are of lesser quality. My apologies if that is the impact the post had on you.

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  11. An interesting article on issues of diversity in the children's book world:
    http://www.hbook.com/2017/03/choosing-books/horn-book-magazine/the-ccbcs-diversity-statistics-a-conversation-with-kathleen-t-horning/#_

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