Audra NorthI’m guest posting today about diversity in romance, with a focus on race and ethnicity, using the responses from a small, informal survey I conducted last month. The discussion about diversity in romance, which goes beyond race and ethnicity, has been ongoing for years, with many people contributing to the advancement and visibility of diverse romance. This is only one small part of the conversation, but I so appreciate All About Romance for lending me space to share these findings.

At Scandalicious Book Reviews, I posted a partial analysis report of the survey, which had 507 respondents. To summarize that report, the most frequently cited obstacle to reading more romance featuring POC main characters was: knowing about existing or upcoming content. Lack of content as well as mistargeted marketing were two suggestions for why discovery is so difficult. Multicultural romances are often subject to specialized categories or descriptions, which places a net-non-beneficial tax on great romance stories.

In this post, I am focusing on the results in one other question from the survey. “When reading romance works, do you enjoy…?”

The summary of responses, which I’ll discuss in more detail below, is as follows:

    • Readers prefer stories in which they find at least one character attractive to them, personally. This might seem like a too-obvious statement, but I use it as a point of reference for the other responses.
    • The second-most frequently indicated response was “stories where you can physically identify with one of the main characters or put yourself in her/his place.”
    • Respondents who indicated that they prefer stories in which they find at least one character attractive to them were much more likely to indicate that they also prefer stories featuring main characters with cultural backgrounds markedly different to their own.
    • Respondents who indicated that they prefer stories where they can physically identify with a main character were more likely to indicate that they also prefer stories featuring main characters with cultural backgrounds similar to their own.
    • Respondents were more likely to indicate that they enjoy stories featuring characters with cultural backgrounds markedly different to their own.

I’ll discuss some of the possible reasons for these trends below, in this post. A longer, more technical report, including discussion of all survey results, is available on my website.

Identification with Characters
The question, “When reading romance works, do you enjoy…?” was included on the survey in order to determine how readers are identifying with stories and with characters. There’s been some discussion on social media and in workshops at conferences about how, exactly, readers read. The short answer? Everyone is different. But though this answers makes sense on an intuitive, human level, sometimes it helps to put numbers to a concept.

The question listed a set of preferences from which respondents could choose one or more answers, including “None of these preferences describes mine.” Here is how the responses broke down:

s graph

Interestingly, readers were more likely (68%) to indicate “stories where the one of the main characters has physical characteristics that are attractive to you, personally,” as a preference than they were to indicate “stories where you can physically identify with one of the main characters or put yourself in her/his place” (59%).

Why do I think this is interesting? Although the question and the responses do not indicate race or ethnicity as being a factor at all, the way that these questions relate to the other responses: “stories where one or more of the main characters has a cultural background markedly different to you own” and “stories where one or more of the main characters has a similar or very similar cultural background to your own” is important when making a case for increased diversity in romance. I’ll get to those relationships in just a second.

But first, I want to make the point that these responses weren’t specific to one race/ethnicity. In both cases, the breakdown of responses by race/ethnicity were similar—significantly more similar than for some of the other questions. You can find the exact numbers in the post on my website, but I think it is important to acknowledge that these trends deal with romance readers as a whole, and not just “Caucasian romance readers” or “African-American romance readers.” I think this is especially relevant when we’re having this discussion with anyone who publishes romance—to demonstrate that categorization of romance based on race/ethnicity is not adhering to expectations that the industry seems to have of readers, based on the way diverse romances are categorized and marketed.

So back to the discussion of the responses. We know that respondents in this particular survey are more likely to want stories where they find one of the main characters attractive than stories where they can physically identify with one of the main characters. Respondents were also more likely to choose “stories where one or more of the main characters has a cultural background markedly different to your own” (54%) over “stories where one or more of the main characters has a similar or very similar cultural background to your own” (50%). Although the difference is not as significant here, there is a preference, nonetheless.

Okay, so why is this important? If I’m trying to make the case to publishers (author/self-publishers as well as traditional publishers), that diverse romance has a market, then I’m going to point to these numbers and show that a higher majority of readers prefer stories about people in cultures that are different over those that are similar. “Culture” and “background” to a reader could mean race/ethnicity, or it could mean religion, or be based on socioeconomic class—we would need a more detailed survey to understand how respondents interpreted this question; however, differences are a big part of diversity, and in this survey, “different” was preferable.

Here is a good place to say that I am very much trying to make the case that diverse romance has a market, that it is important, and that we should be creating more of it and changing the way we market it. So I will call out and admit to bias in how I’m interpreting these results. But I don’t feel they’re off base, despite that bias. And, in fact, if we take a slightly different approach and look at those two responses broken down by amount spent per month, spending among those who chose “similar” came out to:

$15-$30 80 31.50%
$2-$5 1 0.39%
$30+ 44 17.32%
$5-$15 94 37.01%
<$5 35 13.78%

While spending among those who chose “different” came out to:

$15-$30 92 33.82%
$2-$5 1 0.37%
$30+ 48 17.65%
$5-$15 98 36.03%
<$5 33 12.13%

The percentage of those who indicated that they enjoyed reading romance where one or more of the main characters has a cultural background markedly different to their own was higher for the top two spending groups ($30+ and $15-$30) than those who indicated a preference for main characters with a similar cultural background. For the third highest spending group, the percentage difference was less than a point. The way I interpret this data is that, again, there is a market—and not a small one—for diverse romance.

All of my conclusions might seem obvious to some people, but I’ve pulled this data together both to show these there are trends in place that back up what so many already know and believe, as well as to demonstrate to those who don’t understand that diversity in romance is important or relevant that this is not the case. There is a need for more diverse romance content, there is a reader preference for diverse romance, and there are substantial potential dollars at play in the market for diverse romance.

Now, to try to be more fair and present information that would not support the case for diverse romance as strongly, I’ve tied together the responses:

“stories where the one of the main characters has physical characteristics that are attractive to you, personally,” and “stories where you can physically identify with one of the main characters or put yourself in her/his place”

with

“stories where one or more of the main characters has a cultural background markedly different to your own” and “stories where one or more of the main characters has a similar or very similar cultural background to your own”

You can see in the following results that, in doing this, the relationship between those who prefer stories with characters of similar cultural backgrounds and those who prefer stories with characters of different cultural background changes:

    • Percentage of respondents who indicated that they preferred reading stories in which they were attracted to one of the main characters and who also preferred stories in which one or more of the main characters has a similar cultural background: 44%
    • Percentage of respondents who indicated that they preferred reading stories in which they were attracted to one of the main characters and who also preferred stories in which one or more of the main characters has a different cultural background: 46%
    • Percentage of respondents who indicated that they preferred reading stories in which they could physically identify with a main character and who also preferred stories in which one or more of the main characters has a similar cultural background: 41%
    • Percentage of respondents who indicated that they preferred reading stories in which they could physically identify with a main character and who also preferred stories in which one or more of the main characters has a different cultural background: 39%

In this comparison, the percentage of respondents who indicate that they prefer reading stories in which they can physically identify with a main character goes down from those who also chose “similar” to those chose “different” cultural background.

Although the percentage of those respondents—those who chose “physically identify” and “different cultural background” option is still significant, this particular set of responses does not necessarily support diversity in romance. The difference makes sense, though. If a reader prefers stories in which they can physically identify with a character, then characters of different cultural backgrounds will probably be less likely to meet that criterion.

However, this is not race-specific. Again, this is a survey of the general romance-reading population, wherein the responses broken down by race varied, but were not significantly variable as to merit discussion in this post. Understanding, then, how and why readers read, and what makes a good story, might be of interest in improving the way that diverse romance is marketed to the general romance-reading population.

I’d be very interested to hear what the readers of this post prefer: being attracted to the hero or heroine, being able to physically identify with the hero or heroine, and so on. I’d love specifics, too—do you think height of the hero is important? The color of the heroine’s eyes? Is it about the heroine’s personality, her intellect, or her past struggles?

And overall, what are your thoughts on how diverse romance is marketed, given the way that respondents’ preferences broke down? I’ve seen discussions around the web, but I’d also love to hear points made here, and to know if this information has affected anyone’s thoughts on diversity in romance.

Thanks to everyone for taking the time to read this post, and to All About Romance for hosting me!


 

Audra North writes strong women, smart men, hot romance. Her latest release is In the Fast Lane, a Hard Driving novel. You can sign up for Audra’s month Diversity in Romance newsletter at  http://eepurl.com/buUFrX.