At the Back Fence Issue #209
October 15, 2005
From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:
Racism in Romance? (Laurie Likes Books)
Years ago when I was a manager at the City of Dallas, we all went through what was fairly new at the time: Multi-Cultural Training. By the time I’d joined the city’s government through a management training program for MPA’s in 1986, it had been thoroughly professionalized. In some of the “line” departments (Public Works, Streets & Sanitation), many a Bubba filled a mid-level management slot, but in departments such as mine, more and more management positions were going to Young Turks like me, and because the City was already dedicated to diversity, friendships grew quite naturally, regardless of a person’s color. In my own department most middle managers were substantially older than I was, and I had the most in common with other YUPPIE/BUPPIEs. But what I took away from the Multi-Cultural Training was that Multi-Cultural was, by definition, about more than one culture and the difficulties and joys involved in different ethnic cultures coming together.
This was my mindset when the very first Multi-Cultural Romance hit my desk for review at AAR. My assumption was that a Multi-Cultural Romance either featured a mixing of races or offered teaching tools in the same way that Beverly Jenkin’s wonderful historicals did.
I should have remembered about assumptions: they make an ass of u and me. “Multi-Cultural” was not defined in the world of romance novels as I had assumed. Instead, it was a synonym for African American Romance. Being the naive sort that I am, I wondered why it was necessary to create a sub-genre based on color. Why not just include romances featuring AA characters as written by AA authors in existing lines and imprints? That would surely be better than what had happed in the past, when black authors wrote historicals set in England featuring all-white casts of characters. If there are enough people who want to read about SEALS, small-town sheriffs, and werewolves, surely there would be enough people to read about AA characters. After all, when I go shopping with a black friend, we don’t hit the mall and go our separate ways…we go together. And when we go out for a meal, we don’t go to “Black” or “White” restaurants either. So in the world of Romance, who, after all, did I have more in common with: my AA friends; the daughter of a lehman and former serf freed along with her mother by the hero’s father during the Middle Ages (Madeline Hunter’s By Possession); the gorgeous convent-raised princess from a fictional European nation (Castles by Julie Garwood, my favorite romance novel) who falls in love in Regency England with the second son of an aristocrat (which means, of course, that he’s both in business and a spy); or shoe-obsessed, blondly vain vampire (MaryJanice Davidson and her Betsy books)? Then too, my response would be pretty much the same if Denzel Washington or George Clooney knocked on my door…well, it would be if I weren’t married.
That’s why we don’t have a Book Type for MC Romance. If a book written by a black author features black characters and is a romantic suspense novel, we call it Romantic Suspense. If it’s a Contemporary Romances, that’s what we call it. Because I believe that a disservice is done to all readers, and all writers, if certain categories of books are segregated from others. Who do I blame for this? Are the publishers simply following market demands, or are assumptions made that lead to foregone conclusions?
I put the blame squarely in the lap of publishers. Because not only did they apparently make the initial assumption that only AA’s will read a romance featuring AA characters (and who’s the ass there?), but their lack of promoting mid-list authors as a rule only makes things worse. And if publishers believe, as do some of the AA authors I spoke to in preparation for this column, that white readers won’t and don’t read books by AA authors because whites believe AA authors are inferior as writers to white authors, then I guess the game is over before it’s even begun.
If they don’t, well, then, there’s still the fact that when a lead author writes a book, big bucks are spent promoting it; authors at the highest level get not only magazine ads and bookstore displays, they get radio and TV advertising. But mid-list authors seem to be pretty much on their own, which means that many a talented author will languish in the mid-list unless something catapults here out of it. Obviously that happens, but how many of your favorite authors never made it out of the mid-list? I’ll go one further…one of mine never did, but lost her contracts in the end, even though a group of some of her out of print books in our recent AAR Aid auctions to benefit victims of Hurricane Katrina went for a very high dollar amount.
When the publisher is a smaller publisher, with fewer dollars at their disposal to begin with than the behemoth publishing conglomerates, the problem is magnified. Keep that in mind as we track the creation and growth of the Arabesque imprint.
Beyond that, we all know you can’t judge a book by its cover, but because so much book-buying is done as a result of browsing, what would happen if not only were there no distinction made on the spines of books, what if generic covers were given to all romances? I know that when I receive books, they are often in galley form…no cover, no information other than the title and author. What if the playing field were evened for all readers, if all Contemporaries looked alike and were shelved together, if, instead of people on the cover there were landscapes or icons?
And yet I understand the other side as well…in some of our earlier ATBF discussions on covers, I came to realize that while many of us don’t like the traditional clinch cover, when you look at a clinch cover, you know what you’ll be getting. You can wander into a bookstore, see one of those clinches from across the room, and know that’s where the romances are. So if your market is AA readers, it makes sense to target “AA Romances” accordingly. Last month mainstream AA author Tayari Jones weighed in with her thoughts on the shelving of AA books in Maud Newton’s well-known literary blog: “Ultimately, I am in favor of the color-blind shelving of books. As I said before, literature is universal. However, keep the Colored Section where it is. Let us call for the overthrow of racism, prejudice, and even indifference that makes such sections necessary. I know that placement is said to be everything in the bookstore game, but do we really believe that the reason so few writers of color reach that “mainstream” audience is that their books are not displayed in the “literature” section? Let us steer our attention away from Borders’ shelving practices and take a longer look at ourselves.”
It was announced last week that Harlequin had purchased the Arabesque imprint from BET. My view is that Harlequin would like to be the Microsoft of Women’s Publishing, so I understand this move. But how Harlequin handles this new asset raises some questions that will provide a perfect opportunity for us to discuss the readership of African American Romance.
Arabesque was an imprint begun for Kensington books by Monica Harris in 1994. During her interview for the job of historical romance editor, she mentioned her research on the publishing history of black romance novels. As serendipity would have it, Kensington was kicking around the idea of a “black romance novel” imprint and hired Harris as Arabesque’s first editor. In 1998 Arabesque was sold to BET, in part to help generate material for BET movies. Since that time thirteen BET movies have been made from Arabesque releases. Eighty-six Arabesque titles will be published in 2005.
Several days ago, I asked for input, both at AAR and on a couple of reading/writing lists, for input. Everyone was invited to participate, but I hoped to hear from African American authors and readers specifically, as well as reviewers previously or currently reviewing at AAR. I asked whether or not Harlequin plans to and/or should incorporate Arabesque books into existing lines (suspenseful titles into the Harlequin Intrigue line, for instance, and family-oriented titles as part of Silhouette Special Edition) and imprints (HQN, MIRA), or will/should keep Arabesque intact as its own imprint?
I’m sure there are regional differences, yet here in Dallas, my local library stocks an entirely different set of books in Romance than the libraries I visit in more “urban” areas. At the large Half Priced Books superstore here in Dallas – and there are HPB’s in many states – Arabesque books are shelved separately from other contemporary romances. Granted, so are each of the Harlequin and Silhouette lines, but the Arabesque line isn’t a series line – it’s an imprint just as Avon is an imprint for HarperCollins.
Your own community may reflect a different reality than mine, but my local grocery store and drug store doesn’t shelve any Arabesque titles, which hits on a point I made earlier. If AA titles are marketed solely to African Americans, were wider marketing attempts attempted or unsuccessful? And if unsuccessful, was it because distributors felt Arabesque titles were “too hard a sell” or because, after not selling well, stores and distributors decided not to carry them?
Obviously we live in a time of hundreds of cable channels, each aimed at a certain audience. Genre fiction, by definition, does something of the same, and yet within romance, why are most romances written by African Americans, featuring African American characters, less available for me to find? (As his recent death reminds us, after all, it’s not as though August Wilson was a great AA playwright…he was a great American playwright.) If many of those buying romances do so through browsing, how will African American romance authors break through to a wider audience if their books cannot be browsed at the local grocery store or drug store, which is where many paperbacks are sold (as opposed to actual bookstore sales)? Then too, there’s Harlequin’s history of publishing and marketing series lines…through subscription sales and because retail stores buy lines rather than individual authors, if AA authors were incorporated into existing series lines, would those authors experience greater sales right off the bat? Or does Harlequin fear that what is perceived as an old-fashioned (1950s, pre Civil Rights Act) readership would balk at the idea? At times I fear that publishers cling to negative stereotypes associated with reading romance, which may create self-fulfilling prophecies. After all, if we’re a bunch of small-town hicks who think the world was better when there were poll taxes, we’d never deign to pick up a book that didn’t feature folks just like us.
Again, regional differences where you live may reflect a different reality, and if they do, let’s hear about them. I’d like to hear your experience in finding – and reading – Arabesque books, because, quite frankly, other than a handful of very successful romance authors whose books are marketed quite widely (including Donna Hill and Kayla Perrin), if you are an African American romance author writing genre Romance, your publisher may well be Arabesque.
We tried to pin things down with Arabesque’s publisher since 1998, Linda Gill, who will be moving from BET to Harlequin along with Arabesque. We also asked what’s been heard through the grapevine. Current Harlequin author Karen Templeton knows that Harlequin plans an AA series line as well as a single title AA women’s fiction line but is unsure how this particular acquisition will fit in. Monica Jackson, with seven Arabesque titles to her credit, adds that Harlequin recently began to acquire some black authors in its major lines/imprints and plans to publish them alongside the others while also signing most of those authors for a separate AA line.
Both Templeton and Jackson have heard that when black authors’ books are sold alongside white titles (not as a separate imprint, but as part of a larger imprint), those black authors sell fewer books than the white authors. If this is true, Jackson says, than the large publishers are simply following the money and market dictates, adding further, “The majority culture as a whole demands black title segregation and niche marketing. Black romance is obviously treated far differently than whites by the majority romance community. Why would this be the case unless books by black authors were assumed to be inherently different, possibly inferior?”
Jackson believes that “black romance authors can only write for black readers,” something she finds true in most mainstream fiction as well. On the other hand, Templeton has heard that black authors have gained more sales parity, at least in the last year or so, and not all anecdotal evidence backs up Jackson’s belief.
Robin Uncapher, who lives in Montgomery County, Maryland, says that in her area, stores like Borders shelve some of the biggest names in African American Romance in a number of areas simultaneously. An AA author such as Kayla Perrin, is often shelved with African American fiction, in Romance, and General Fiction or Literary Fiction. She believes that this has to do with the huge success of authors like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Terry McMillan and that their success has led to an assumption on the part of bookstore owners and librarians that African American Romances with attractive hardcovers or trade bindings are a literary step above clinch cover romances. She adds, “Montgomery County is not a place where romance gets a lot of respect, so the fact that certain African American Romances are seen as more than Romance is probably a good thing marketing-wise.” But series novels tend to get the short shift in Bethesda with fewer and fewer supermarkets carrying them, and while Arabesque is an imprint and not a series, they are seen as such in many a retail outlet. Where Robin resides, Arabesque releases are shelved in the Romance Fiction area and never in the AA areas of her local bookstores, where the AA section is saved for books that look more literary.
Which goes back to one of my initial questions: Which came first: the chicken or the egg? Are AA authors more likely to draw a larger readership if their books are “separate but equal,” to use the outdated and racist legal parlance, or, if they got a big push from Harlequin in terms of marketing, could they draw a bigger readership from an entire community? When Kensington started Arabesque, I’m sure part of the problem was that Kensington itself has a rep for being a “second-tier” publisher, and while BET is a big presence in the AA community, it’s not a publishing company with decades of history publishing books under its belt.
You’ve now read my views on the issue…it’s time to turn the floor over to the viewpoints of others, beginning with a short Q&A with Arabesque’s publisher, Linda Gill, who has twenty years of media experience, fifteen of those with BET. Next up is Monica Jackson. Her December release from Dafina Books (a Kensington imprint), Mr. Right Now, is built on a very innovative paranormal premise. I enjoyed it very much, particularly the rapid-fire dialogue, which reminded me of MaryJanice Davidson. The book reads incredibly quickly, and is filled with some wonderful secondary characters. It is both sexy and filled with observational humor from a unique perspective that totally fits her lead character. We’ll also hear from author Wayne Jordan, whose first Arabesque will be published next month, followed by brief comments from a couple of AAR reviewers. We’ll wrap up from readers who responded to my call for input, including black British blogger Karen Scott. By no means does this give a full view of the subject, but it does provide a variety of viewpoints, and since (according to Gill), we are the first to have contacted her about the sale, it’s also timely.
Q&A With Linda Gill
Was Arabesque then, and now, an imprint or a series line? What were your goals for Arabesque then, and now, and have they changed?
BET Books was launched in 1998 with the acquisition of the Arabesque imprint from Kensington. Celebrating more than ten years of exceptional romance, passion and intrigue, Arabesque continues to be the leading imprint of African-American romance by African-American authors. Our objective remains the same: to affirm positive, loving relationships between strong African-American heroes and heroines. Our target audience is the African-American reader but romance is universal and we hope that all readers discover the wonderful stories by Arabesque authors.
How will Arabesque be changed – if at all – with the sale to Harlequin? Will it continue to be distinct, and AA Romance only?
Arabesque will move forward under the new ownership of Harlequin with its guidelines and objectives unchanged. Arabesque will deliver exceptional stories that resonate with the African American reader with references they will readily recognize and appreciate, such as Spelman College, Howard University, the Schomburg Center, and communities such as Oak Bluffs and Idlewild, just to name a few. The hero and heroine will overcome major obstacles that are traditional for romance novels, such as trust, to reach a satisfying conclusion and a positive loving romance that leaves the reader wanting more!
How important a part of BET was Arabesque? Obviously movies of the week were drawn from Arabesque books, but as far as the corporate entity that is BET and even the larger corporation, Viacom, where did Arabesque fit in?
Arabesque was fortunate to have thirteen of the novels made into made-for-television movies for the BET network, brining to life wonderful stories by Donna Hill, Carmen Green and others. BET is one of 32 main properties at Viacom, and BET Books is a division of BET.
BET and Viacom have decided to move in a different direction with its publishing business and we look forward to building upon all of our efforts with Harlequin as the largest women’s fiction publisher.
Kensington is the one remaining print publisher of romance that is not part of a huge publishing conglomerate, and with BET, you were basically blazing a trail. How different do you think it will be at Harlequin, which has a long, long history in romance publishing, with arms across the world? How important a part of Harlequin would you like it to be, and are your goals shared with Harlequin?
The benefit of going to Harlequin is that we get to bring laser beam focus to our publishing efforts to ensure that we get the widest distribution possible for authors since Harlequin is so renowned for romance but also have taken a leadership position in women’s fiction and non-fiction. We hope Arabesque grows with them.
As far as marketing Arabesque books, is there/has there been and/or will there be an attempt to market them beyond the AA market. If there has been an attempt, was it successful, and if not, why not? I ask this because where I live, in Dallas, Texas, my local grocery store, for instance, stocks single titles and series titles, but no Arabesque titles.
Arabesque titles are available wherever books are sold. We have a number of authors in the Dallas and Houston areas, and this market has been strong for Arabesque sales. We are sold by all the major chains and discount stores including Barnes & Noble, Waldenbooks, Wal-Mart, and exceptional independent stores such as Black Images Book Bazaar in Dallas – a cultural icon, celebrating over 25 years of business.
Arabesque titles often receive special placement in stores, such as at cash registers, where they are available for purchase by all readers.
How do you think racism affects AA Romance as it is read by romance readers? Is it a realistic goal to have all romance read by all readers? Is that pie in the sky or something that just isn’t all that important – ie, the focus is on building the market within the AA community?
It is my hope that working with Harlequin and our key customers that we can extend our distribution to include outlets that may not have traditionally carried titles of African American interest. We want everyone to have access to these wonderful works of literature. My hope is to work through Harlequin with key accounts and distributors to include these titles in a broad variety of places because African Americans purchase not only where they live, but where they work, as well as other destination points of interest.
What It’s Like (Monica Jackson)
Laurie writes: “I put the blame squarely in the lap of publishers. Because not only did they apparently make the initial assumption that only AA’s will read a romance featuring AA characters (and who’s the ass there?), but their lack of promoting mid-list authors as a rule only makes things worse. And if publishers believe, as some of the AA authors I spoke to in preparation for this column, that white readers won’t and don’t read books by AA authors because whites believe AA authors are inferior as writers to white authors, then I guess the game is over before it’s even begun.”
We’ve all heard both white and black romance readers say they don’t read black romance, and I believe those readers do believe that black authors are inherently inferior to white ones. Publishers are into mainly making money, no? They knew that black readers have been reading white romances for years. After Terry McMillan’s success in the early nineties with Waiting to Exhale, that’s when they got the notion that blacks would eagerly read popular fiction (Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and other literary types have always been available in print. But romance and Jackie Collins type books featuring black characters were the novelty).
BET put good money into promotion of its list, more so than I see other publishers doing. Their lead authors received more as usual though. I received television spots, radio spots, ads in black glossies such as Essence, a glossy where ad space isn’t cheap, ads in Romantic Times, lots of flyers, postcards and other promotional materials. Other than RT, this promo was targeted toward the black consumer, though.
It’s true that the publishers created this market, when they could have merely incorporated more authors of color into their established woman fiction and romance imprints. But readers define the market. If a black romance broke out to majority readers, there would have been a stampede to make books by black authors more available to the white dollar. But the fact is the white dollar has never been spent on black popular fiction with any great significance. The reader’s dollars are what ultimately leads the publishers. An illustration of just that fact is visable when you compare these two covers for SF writer Octavia Butler. The picture to your left is this novel’s first edition…to the right is a subsequent edition of the same book, after the author had gained some measure of success.
It’s exciting when a writer gets The Call from an editor. In many ways the call is only the beginning of an angsty rollercoaster for any novelist. But if you’re a black, you have a special ride reserved just for you.
Writing romance while black means you get a sub-genre of your very own – no matter what the content of your novel. Your special niche is already measured and the boundaries are set on your readership. Your marketing will likely be different than the white author in your chapter, even where your books are shelved in some bookstores. If you decided to attend book signings and other events with your white colleagues, the difference of your reception and audience will be thrown into stark relief.
Because since you’re black, you’re a romance writer that the majority of romance readers will never read. Your readership is defined and limited to only black romance readers by a variety of circumstances outside your control, so your opportunities are far smaller than any white romance writer from the moment you were published, regardless of your talent and determination.
How many white writers think about being white as they write their novels? Do they write with special white flavor and have to be sure and add white cultural tidbits less they be accused of not being authentic? Most writers generally don’t put race first and foremost when writing a character unless it’s an integral part of the plot. In a romance the integral part of the plot is the romantic relationship. Both black and white writers write about and for human beings.
I’ve written many words on why black racial separation is so prevalent in romance. My favorite theory is that it’s the nature of the romance genre. Romance is fantasy-based. Readers are notoriously picky about their settings and having sympathetic characters that they can relate to them. Also, majority romance readers have plenty of romance novels to choose. There’s no shortage of books, so why should a reader take the trouble to venture outside their comfort zone and spend money on something that may not appeal? No black romance author gets major buzz in the majority romance community compared with the buzz, awards and recognition white authors receive, so where do they start?
These are a few of the reasons, but figuring out how to address the issue of segregation in romance and thinking about how to go about changing it, is a daunting task. Race is an uncomfortable and taboo subject to discuss on nearly any level by almost anybody, black or white. Desegregating any institution in this country has always been a monumental struggle.
Tayari Jones asks: “So what’s a writer to do? Of course I want to be universal. . . since my publisher decided to acknowledge the fact of my race for this book, I was able to use their resources to reach the audience that probably loves me best. And if I were even luckier, there would be no choice to make.”
In some ways it’s easier having such a racially based specialized market mapped out. There might not be as much competition, and there are many publishers vying for niche market supremacy, so there are lots of places to attempt to sell one’s work, although with a major merger, it’s becoming less. It’s more convenient for readers of black fiction and nonfiction to have all the books they prefer in one section so they can browse them readily. In many ways it’s more comfortable for the author because there’s less competition with white authors. They have their big market, but we have our own turf.
So, agents, editors, and publishers push black authors into writing black books to fit this niche. Is black book segregation a reality of the market or a self-fulfilling prophecy? Am I so inherently different – my thought process so far apart from whites – that they couldn’t be possibly be interested in reading anything I write? If I go by what I observe in, I’d have to say that is what many whites believe.
“I had lunch with this one editor, she took me to this fancy restaurant, and she told me I had to make a decision whether or not I was writing for black people or white people.” – Danyel Smith
With the proliferation of black lines and black fiction, it appears that both publishers and readers are invested in segregation from black books and authors. But corporations care mostly about money. Why can’t our books be simply books? Why must we be black authors instead of merely authors?
Percival Everett, a literary black author, wrote, “To tell the truth, I simply am tired of people connected with publishing and art in this culture being so amazed that anyone not white can create a work that race is all they can see. I will not waste my energy discussing this kind of insidious racism, but will say only that this brand, often practiced by those who in all things else would consider themselves liberal, progressive and intellectual, makes one appreciate the overt brand of bigotry practiced by the likes of the late Strom Thurmond.”
Agents, publishers and editors along with readers buy into similar reasoning that a black author is only fit to write for blacks, and can’t be presented along with the other books. Are America and Americans still truly that backward?
It seems so. We might need to turn the pages back to these words:
“This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.” – Martin Luther King
And some day, maybe books will be judged by their contents rather than the color of their author’s skins.
Racism in Romance? (Wayne Jordan)
The announcement by Harlequin that it had purchased the assets of BET Books was a welcome surprise to me. Firstly, I was realistic enough to realize that from a financial point of view the resources available to Harlequin far outweighed BET’s and the financial gains in relation to contract, distribution etc would more likely be better. And on a slightly more personal note, I’ve always wanted to write for Harlequin. Why? Because for years, Harlequin has been the symbol of excellence in romance writing, and like many aspiring and published authors, publication by Harlequin has always been a symbol of achievement. However, entering through the proverbial back door, does not lessen the important of this achievement, but only makes me more determined to introduce to the Harlequin readers ship story of excellence written by African-American authors. By purchasing BET Books, Harlequin is finally acknowledging that a radical change in its acquisition policies is necessary. Let me say, that I’m not naive enough to believe that this may be the foremost reason.
I’m followed the discussion over the years about the segregation of romance and the “racist” attitudes of white romance readers. Ironically, here on the island of Barbados where 95% of the population is black, “white” romances have sold better that “black” romances. I have a friend who still believes that “white” romances are superior to romances written by black authors. Fortunately, she is in the minority. Thought the sales situation is still the same, things are changing. Two years ago, the Arabesque novels moved slowly from the shelves; today, releases by favorite authors are of the shelves in a few days.
I’ve always believed that change is inevitable, but significant change rarely takes place overnight. A long history of racism and warped mentality stifles individuals from accepting change and recognizing that society and its habits cannot remain static. As black romance authors, we must stop sulking and moaning about the injustices done to us, and do every thing in our power to promotion our work. And I don’t mean promotion that needs money. I mean the day to day interaction with readers and fans, I find lacking in our circles of authors. There are several authors who have discussion lists and interact with readers, but this is the minority. The visibility of the majority of black authors lacks the consistence of white authors. I belong to several discussion groups, both black and white, and the level of participation by white authors far outweighs the participation of the black authors. Participation on RWA general lists and PAN lists by black authors is rare, unless the questions of race and injustices done to us are the topics of discussion. I, too, recognized my own contribution to this lack of visibility.
I’m a daily visitor to the eharlequin forum and interact with many of the authors. Very rarely do any of the black authors who write for Harlequin/Silhouette visit the forums, but there are many black (and white) readers aching for interaction with them. Hopefully, this will increase when the “change” over takes place and new boards are created for discussion of the former BET lines (Arabesque, Sepia and New Spirit).
However, for change to take place, we must all be open to change. Without it, our societies will remains stagnant and bogged down by racist attitudes that serve to retard the development of a word of peace and harmony.
AAR Reviewers Weigh In
Though books by AA authors have been reviewed by many members of our review staff, I sought out the input of two of our past/current AA reviewers. The first because I knew from prior discussions that his views on the topic were strong, the second because she’s reviewed more books by AA authors than anyone else on our staff.
First up is Anthony Langford, who reviewed at AAR off and on for a period of several years. A terrific reviewer, but a very independent sort who reviewed from his own stash of books rather than being assigned books by AAR, he’s only read two AA romances, both of which were historicals (one that he reviewed for us at AAR). Just as many a reader is influenced by what she/he hears along the grapevine, Anthony shied away from Arabesque books because of bad buzz among his circle of reading friends. But this isn’t any great loss to him because: “All books should be treated the same regardless of ‘color’. That makes sense and it’s probably how it should be. A romance is a romance is a romance – no matter what race the lovers. It’s certainly something I don’t take into account when I read a romance.”
TaKiesha Smith, an AAR reviewer since 2003, reads a fair amount of AA fiction – romance and otherwise – and believes that segregation of African American romance is wrong. TaKiesha lives in the Midwest, and AA books where she shops are shelved either in mainstream AA fiction or in a small AA romance section within the AA fiction section. She argues that: “This makes the books harder to find and an unfair segregation.” Further, she says, “When new paperbacks are shelved at the front of the stores the new AA romances don’t get the same treatment unless of course it is one of a few big authors like Donna Hill or Beverly Jenkins. The lesser known authors get an unfair shake on this front.”
TaKiesha asks, “If Erotica and SF can share the shelves, why can’t AA books?” She hopes that because of Harlequin’s power in the publishing industry, some of the segregative practices will change. The buy-out is a good thing and will help black romance authors in general, but also, more specifically, she believes, because of the better editing and promotion black romance authors will get.
She describes her particular experience with Arabesque: “When they first came out I subscribed to them but after the novelty of reading black romance wore off, I canceled. Now I buy them in the store but my selections are much more author-based then publisher. I will probably read one or two of their selections a month [with four to six titles published monthly, she’s buying something between 17% and 33% of their releases], depending on the authors.” But if, as TaKiesha thinks, Arabesque books are “formula-driven, like Harlequins,” and that “small press publishers like Indigo and Kingston tend to let the authors have their own voice and style,” that isn’t likely to change with the move from BET to Harlequin.
One last thing before leaving the topic of AAR reviews of books by AA authors, romances by AA authors, and Arabesque; so far the only AA author to qualify for Buried Treasure status (all positive reviews) is Eric Jerome Dickey (with two Desert Isle Keeper reviews for Signet-published books to his credit), although authors Adrienne Byrd, Margaret Johnson-Hodge, Brenda Jackson, Eva Rutland, and Tamara Sneed have also earned DIK status. Johnson-Hodge, Jackson, and Sneed’s DIK’s were published by St. Martin’s, Byrd’s publisher was Harper, and Rutland’s DIK was published by MIRA. As for Arabesque review grades, here are some of the authors to have earned positive ones: Donna Hill, Francis Ray, Angela Winters, Geri Guillaume, Dara Girard, Martha King-Gamble, and Sandra Kitt (who also has two DIK’s released by other publishers under her belt). We hope that as a result of this column, there will both be more interest in our reviewing romances by African American authors, and that we will receive more books by AA Romance authors to review.
Is It Really All Black & White? (Karen Scott)
Here in England, we don’t have the problem of white readers not reading books by black romance authors. You may ask why this is, and the answer is really quite simple. Procuring black romance books in my country is akin to England winning the World Cup, it doesn’t happen very often. Which is why, we don’t have the angst over here that black American authors seem to.
I’ve been told in no uncertain terms that white people simply don’t buy AA romance. I’m not one to take things at face value, but apparently the sales figures are there to prove that this is so.
However, being the Pollyanna-type personality that I am, I find it extremely hard to believe that this is purely a matter of racial divide, so with this in mind, I thought it would be prudent, to look at this from all the different angles, before delivering my final verdict. I want to know if this issue is truly as black and white as it first appears to be.
In a world where rapper, Fifty Cent, appeals to as many, if not more, white folks, than black folks, how is it possible that black American authors are struggling to get white people to read what they write?
It was suggested a while ago that perhaps the fantasy element, which obviously goes hand-in-hand with most romance books, is one of the main reasons why many white women will not read books featuring black, or inter-racial lead characters. Apparently white women don’t want the distraction of having a black-skinned hero or heroine marring their fantasy of the perfect relationship. To me this just doesn’t make sense, because if this supposition is correct, then how would you explain the popularity of books featuring Middle Eastern men (sheiks), especially when you consider current world events.
Then again, the answer may well lie within this morass of speculation and assumption. Could the lack of readership indeed be attributed to the fact that people of Middle Eastern descent are usually light skinned, and so are maybe not regarded as all that different from white people, thus keeping the fantasy intact?
Hmmm. I certainly hope that this isn’t the case. But who knows?
The packaging of the book, could be another problematic area. I would wager that a white person is probably less likely to pick up a romance book that has a stereotypical black person (ie. braided hair, ethnically identifiable mode of dress etc.), on the front cover. So what would the answer to this quandary be? Avoid presenting black characters on the front cover of the book? A lot of African American authors may consider having anything other than black characters on the covers of their books, as selling out, so I’m not sure if this is something that AA writers would compromise on.
Another possible reason for the lack of white readers, that one must consider, maybe something as simple as white people assuming that most AA romance books are there to tweak one’s social conscience, rather than just telling a story about two people falling in love. Laurie confessed that when the first multi-cultural romance first hit her desk, she expected it to be a teaching tool, one that would endeavour to educate hapless white people, so that they could better understand black culture.
Perhaps she is not alone in this? Perhaps other white readers feel, that by picking up a romance book featuring black characters or written by a black author, they are actually signing themselves up for a history lesson that they would rather forget? Or indeed a message that they would rather not hear.
Having ruminated and cogitated for a few days on this subject, I’ve come to the conclusion, that all of the above points have played their part in ensuring that white readers continue to avoid books written by, and featuring African Americans, but as far as I’m concerned, the main problem starts with lack of marketing and promotion and ends with lack of marketing and promotion.
There are both white and black authors out there, who are currently languishing in mid-list mediocrity, but I simply refuse to believe that all of them are there because their work isn’t good enough.
In agreement with Laurie, it is my assertion that most of the blame can be laid at the door of the publishers who, if LLB is to be believed, do not promote mid-list authors to the same extent as they do lead authors, and in fact, in a lot of cases, authors are actually asked to promote their own books, which is very unfortunate, because few authors have the resources to launch a full scale campaign.
Buzz and hype will always help sell books, it’s as simple as that. No buzz and hype = no sales. Promotion and marketing is so powerful, that in the past, I’ve seen distinctly average books elevated to the top of the best seller lists, just because the author happened to be a marketing genius.
Harlequin buying Arabesque books on reflection, should be a good thing, but it really depends on what they intend to do with them. Personally, I would like to see HQN make a huge song and dance about the procurement of this line, and really drive these books into the radar of the white folks out there, who may or may not, know about their existence.
It’s the least they can do as far as I’m concerned.
If no obvious attempts are made to market this new acquisition, then I suspect that it will not be long before people start questioning what Harlequin’s real motives were, for buying the line in the first place. I wait with bated breath to see what the future brings.
With regards to the shelving issue, I’ve never really understood the need for the segregation of books based on colour. I don’t think that it particularly helps either the author or the reader. In my opinion, all this does is to create a divide between what are essentially, the same genre of book.
Shelving romance books written by black authors in a different sector, has far reaching implications. In the short term, it may be easier for the readers who are specifically looking for AA books, to find, but surely it’s the genre that loses out in the end? If this practice is to continue, how can we expect the relationship between black authors and white readers to end happily ever after?
Senetra Weighs In (Senetra Herndon)
The black population of my town, Anderson, Indiana, has a population of about 50 thousand and is roughly 15% black, 80% white and 2.1% Hispanic and growing.
The thing about Anderson is that a lot of people read romance, but more read Christian fiction, like Janette Oke and Karen Kingsbury. And the largely untapped black Christian fiction market is huge but I don’t think it’s as big as it is going to get.
When I lived in Detroit, Arabesque titles were easy to find, but the black population is large. So I think a lot of availability will depend on the size of the black population.
My local library stocks all of the Arabesque titles each month and most of the BET fiction books and a lot of black authors from Striver’s Row and Strebor Books. I know that one grocery store (four in the chain) stocked Arabesque books, but I don’t think the other three did. Target never did and Meijer did but eventually stopped. I don’t shop at Wal-Mart so I can’t say if they carry them there. Kmart’s book section is practically non-existent, they only stock the Harl/Silh titles, Christian fiction and best sellers. I never see any books that are not lead authors at drugstores anymore, they now stock about 15 titles. The Half-Price Books separates them into a category just as they do with the Harlequins. Sometimes I wonder if it is because of the length because they are about as long as a Special Edition or SuperRomance. I actually like that they are separate because then I don’t have to hunt for them by author because they are all together.
I haven’t bought many Arabesque titles lately because I haven’t bought as many books in general due to money and interest. When I do find one that sounds interesting I get it from the library if I’ve never read the author before. If I have read the author I and I like their work, I buy it. The main thing that keeps me from buying Arabesque (and any romance) is that a lot of plots now involve romantic suspense. I’m not that keen on romantic suspense, so I look elsewhere.
What Sandy Wants (Reader Sandy)
As a reader I would love to get some hard information on how African-American romances are published and marketed. I live in a rural, but fairly racially diverse, part of the Midwest and I don’t recall seeing Arabesques anywhere. And the only bookstore in a twenty-mile radius has a serious lack of African-American romance authors. Or African-American authors in general. Case in point, I read a short story by L.A. Banks recently that was just beautiful. So I started on the Vampire Huntress series. I’ve read the first book, Minion, so far and I like it a lot. I had no idea that Banks was African-American till I got the book home and looked at the author bio on the back page. It really didn’t make a difference to me; a good book is a good book. Likewise, it doesn’t matter to me that most of the main characters are African-American; it matters that they are well-crafted characters. The only odd part of buying the book was finding it. Banks was not shelved in Fantasy/Science Fiction with Laurell K. Hamilton, Kim Harrison, etc. I had to track down a clerk who consulted the computer and told me that the Vampire Huntress books were shelved in General Fiction. Why? Beats me, but I’m starting to wonder.
Who was it that determined that there must be a dividing line between books by White authors and books by African-American authors? If African-American authors and publishers have always been marketed separately, how was it determined that “White” readers won’t buy “Black” books? If it’s never been tried, how do they know it doesn’t work?
I don’t believe that African-American romances are too different and couldn’t possibly be relevant or interesting to White readers. I’m a middle-aged, mostly White woman who has lived in the South and Midwest. If I can read books about Regency debutantes and like them, surely I can read and enjoy books by Americans of other races. Yes, there are probably cultural differences between my personal experiences and those of the characters in the book. A good author should be able to bridge the gap, to make the characters and their world real to the reader. If I don’t find the book or the characters understandable, my personal opinion is that the author might not have done a good job. Do I think I can read a book and know what it’s like to be African-American? Of course not. No more than I can know what it’s like to be male or extremely wealthy or Japanese-American or any number of other things that I’m not. But I can still read and enjoy books by African-Americans, men, etc. The idea that I would only read books written by authors of my own race and background is ridiculous.
I find it terribly depressing to think that most romance readers are refusing to buy books simply based on the race of the author. I would much rather believe that it might be a matter of marketing. But I’ve been wrong before.
To help wrap things up, I’m excerpting some of the comments posted to our Potpourri Message Board from a variety of readers.
“I’m a reading omnivore and like to read all kinds of genres. When I’m picking up a mystery or a literary fiction, there’s no “multicultural” section to make me miss the most popular selections…Which brings up a HUGE rant for me. Why are “multicultural” books only about the black of African American experience anyhow? I live in total nonmulticultureville, and a fairly small town to boot. Therefore, the multicultural lines aren’t available. I’d be lucky to find a Harlequin Historical (and midlist romances in general) if I wanted it, I’m going to find little of the “multicultural” lines.
I’m looking for good books, and had some bad luck with my first couple multicultural books. For a while it seemed there was a lesser standard. I don’t care what ethnicity my characters are, I want a good story.
So I say – PUT THEM TOGETHER and offer me some good reading.
For those of us living in the boondocks, Arabesques should now [following the acquisition of Arabesque by Harlequin] be easier to find in our local bookstores. I’m thinking optimistically here. Time will tell.
In my opinion, the only thing that matters is how well the characters are drawn. If I can get inside the character’s head and understand how or why he or she makes a particular decision, then I can get into the book. Some of my favorite books have leads that I have nothing in common with and cannot relate to on a personal basis. But because of the skill of the author, it doesn’t matter.
The type of music he or she likes, or the food, or dialect might add another layer to the character but that is not why I read romance. The point of a romance is the connection between the two lead characters. If I want to read something urban and gritty, I’ll pick up an author who writes that.
Romance has been known for avoiding certain issues (ie. STDs and poverty). Why should it deal with more reality because the characters are black? It seems that there is this expectation that a romance with a black lead couple is supposed to deal with more reality that a “mainstream” romance.
I find a different “flavor,” if you will, in AA-authored books. Yes, obviously, the storytelling and characters are as varied as the authors behind them, but in my experience, neither the stories nor the characters could be interchanged with white characters/stories written by white authors. Whether the black characters are upper middle class or struggling blue collar, there’s a definite slant – one I enjoy a great deal – that speaks of a history and that most whites simply haven’t experienced. On the surface, yeah, we all live similar lives with similar goals and aspirations, but I definitely see, and appreciate the differences, as well. Terri McMillan and Jeanne Ray can both write about middle-aged women dealing with extended families, but the tones of their books, IMO, reflect something more subtle, richer, and deeper than simply their unique voices. And that’s a good thing, if hard to pin down.
But for me, it’s the same as reading an American-set story about Italian- or Greek- or Hispanic- or Jewish-Americans. All Americans, but our approach to life definitely colored (as it were!) but our individual heritages, at least to a certain extent.
I’ve come up with one possible reason why somebody might say that romances with black heroes and heroines have more “flava”: simply that they remember the romances that fit into their conception of blackness (extended families, certain tastes in music, a certain lifestyle) and file these under ‘black romance’ while anything that doesn’t fit that category just goes into ‘romance, general’.
I think this might be the case. Also I wonder if, in cases where there isn’t an obvious front cover (e.g. if it’s a cartoon), and not a huge amount of description and “flava”, whether sometimes some readers might fail to pick up on the fact that the h/h were black. I recall reading something I think may have been a ‘black romance’. It wasn’t until part-way through the story that I started to wonder if the heroine might be black, and I don’t know what colour the hero was. I think it was a mention of the type of church the heroine’s mother attended which began to make me wonder about race. Maybe it was really obvious, but I suspect that, without any other context, if any mention was made of “light-skinned” or “dark-skinned” I’d assume what was meant by “light-skinned” was “pale – the sort of pink skin that blondes have” and “dark-skinned” means olive, tanned, or the shade one would expect of Spanish or Italians.
It wouldn’t have made any difference to the story either way.
Time to Post to the Message Board
In any individual column it’s difficult to express the views of an entire readership, or even an entire sub-section of a readership. In no way have we represented every distinct viewpoint on this topic, but I hope the segments give us a good start to continue a dialogue on our At the Back Fence Message Board. Whenever an “ism” is written about and opened up for discussion, there’s always a chance that the discussion will end badly, which is why I’d like to keep the focus tight and for us simply to talk about African American Romance rather than trying to dissect and resolve race relations in the U.S. (or anywhere else, for that matter). It’s true that some discussion of race relations is necessary in order to get at where we are today with the publishing and reading of African American Romance, but I hope everyone will keep in mind and emulate the respectful tone taken by all those who participated in the writing of this column.
Many viewpoints were suggested in this column, and many questions were raised throughout. Answers for some were attempted, but as often is the case, there is no one, true answer, just a variety of interpretations. Rather than list individual questions, therefore, please simply consider what you’ve read here and comment accordingly.
TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books, Linda Gill, Monica Jackson, Wayne Jordan,
Karen Scott, Senetra Herndon, and Sandy W
Revisiting the Marketing of African American Romance, our September 25, 2006 ATBF
Post your comments and/or questions to our Potpourri Message Board
(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)
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