When it comes to the book publishing industry, there are a lot of barriers to inclusivity and diversity. Editors and publishers sometimes claim that books by and about marginalized communities do not sell, and many refuse to give underrepresented authors a chance to even try and sell their work. Recently, however, many groups within book publishing have started to push back by tracking the field’s diversity through reports and infographics, to illustrate the lack of books published by non-allocishet white people.
Projects like this are popping up in every genre and every age range, from children’s books to young adult books to adult science fiction. For instance, UK-based children’s book publisher Lee & Low Books started tracking the diversity gap in children’s books with a set of infographics. The publisher went on to create the Diversity Baseline Survey report in 2015, based on the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s statistics on the number of children’s books by and about people of color published each year. Similarly, We Need Diverse Books[WNDB] is a grassroots nonprofit made up of children’s book lovers that aims to give audiences more books featuring diverse characters, so that young readers from underrepresented groups can see themselves in the pages of the books they love. Their work crosses genres and age ranges, making it a comprehensive support system for authors from diverse backgrounds.
In the romance genre, a Los Angeles brick-and-mortar bookstore called The Ripped Bodice does the most extensive tracking of diversity in an annual report. The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing Report, first released in 2016, provides data on the publication of books written by authors of color and indigenous peoples in the romance genre. Yet one thing that has never been tracked is the number of professional reviews that books by marginalized authors or featuring marginalized characters get. That’s something that Jennifer Prokop sought to change.
Romance has been a bright part of Prokop’s life for as long as she can remember. She’s been a reviewer for only a few years now, tweeting as @JenReadsRomance, but she noticed a trend in the romance novels that she saw professionals raving about—and she got curious. That curiosity led her to do something that had never been done before: she built her own database of professional romance reviews and looked at which books got reviewed.
“The Ripped Bodice diversity report makes plain the huge obstacles that authors of color face in the romance publishing industry,” Prokop wrote. “By counting authors of color, I wanted to find out if professional reviews function as yet another form of gatekeeping, narrowing the funnel of buzzworthy books even more.”
Prokop set out to track professional romance reviews for books releasing in 2018. She chose eight top sites that review romance novels: Library Journal, Booklist, Kirkus, The New York Times, NPR, The Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly and The Seattle Review of Books. Prokop chose to focus on professional reviews not only because it made the project feasible for her, but also because reviews are what she uses to discover books. “There’s 800 million romance blogs, which seems so overwhelming, but when you look at what gets professionally reviewed, that seemed like something that could be done.”
Prokop looked at the reviews of books by authors of color, in keeping with Ripped Bodice’s data. She also looked at the books with queer characters in them. While Ripped Bodice does not track books with queer characters, because they believe the authors are more important, it was not too difficult for Prokop to track down on her own who was queer and who wasn’t.
What the results showed was that most of the books that got reviewed in these journals were by white, allocishet authors with allocishet characters, something that wouldn’t be surprising to most people who know the state of diversity in romance publishing. As Prokop put it, “I expected the numbers to be dismal, and they were.” The numbers showed that out of 304 books that were reviewed, only 62 books by authors of color were reviewed, and there were only 40 different authors represented. Only 33 books with queer characters were reviewed, based on what Prokop could ascertain from the reviews.
One finding that surprised Prokop was the way that reviews seemed to be spread among different journals. Few books were reviewed by more than one publication. Based on Prokop’s data, only 75 books received more than one review. Of those 75, only 3 were by authors of color: Jasmine Guillory’s The Wedding Date,Beverly Jenkins’s Tempest, and Priscilla Oliveras’s Her Perfect Affair. Guillory’s book, a debut featuring a black heroine, was featured in Target’s Book Club in February 2018. Jenkins’s book is the third in a series, while Oliveras’s Her Perfect Affairis the sequel to His Perfect Partner, which finaled in two categories in the Romance Writers of America (RWA) RITA awards. In other words, all of these books had high marketing buys—and got the reviews to prove it.
“I have no problem with the handful of authors that got reviewed a handful of times getting reviewed a handful of times,” Prokop said. “My problem is with these journals who take the safest way out when they do reviews of books by people of color.”
Romance fans aren’t the only ones who rely upon reviews. Booksellers and librarians also use reviews to help them to decide what books to buy, especially when it comes to titles that they don’t know much about. Old Firehouse Books bookseller Allison Senecal has been reading professional reviews across genres for more than a decade. Librarian and RWA member Robin Bradford, who was honored as 2016 RWA Cathie Linz Librarian of the Year and 2018 Library Journal Mover & Shaker, has been reading professional reviews for more than a decade in her role in collection development at her library in Washington state.
“I like to take a look at reviews as I’m doing my final look at the catalog,” Senecal said. “If there’s no buzz anywhere online, that’s never a good sign. It means customers are less likely to see any interest or publicity and less likely to ask us about it.”
Bradford explained that she uses reviews more sparingly.
“I discover things through the reviews. I scan through them, but I don’t pay that much attention to them,” she said. “I don’t rely on reviews, and if I did, our collection would be very small because a lot of things don’t get reviewed at all, anywhere. Getting out there and finding things that are typically unseen is how we can help. I need you to help me discover new people. I need you to tell me who’s got books coming out. The more that they expand that to include other people that I don’t see, the better off I’ll be.”
While reviews don’t necessarily affect Bradford’s purchases, she acknowledges that other librarians rely on reviews to narrow down the books they purchase.
“You don’t have all the money, all the time, all the space to put the books,” she explained. “You have to be able to narrow things down, but we may have to find another way to look over books.”
Senecal, who feels that recent diversity statistics are better than what she’s seen in the past, concurs that “getting out there” is key to opening up the field.
“Ten years ago, it seemed to still be the big six publishers getting the most review attention,” she said. She’s especially noted improvements for romance and science fiction reviews, thanks to more places reviewing the smaller press books. Coverage of romance on social media (and in media in general) has helped shift the landscape, too. The recent closure of Romantic Times, one of the most dominant and prolific romance review venues—its online magazine reviewed more than 70,000 books—has allowed fresh reviewer voices to emerge. Whereas Romantic Times was slow to review queer books and books from small presses, the blogosphere helps romance fans see reviews by non-professional readers of all backgrounds, and romance genre professionals like Bradford and Senecal are paying attention.
“If it wasn’t for bloggers, I’d have no clue about 90% of the diverse romance titles out there,” Senecal said. “The big romance pubs are still sorely lacking. We try to be a socially conscious store and early reviews really help me get a pulse for that. With romance and fantasy, as much as I’d like to I can’t personally read everything, and I trust the blogger community and review sites to give me extra details in case I need customer recommendations outside my wheelhouse!”
“A really stellar review of something, or at least an interesting review, can get me to add something to an order later or special order it in!” she added. “[It’s] also extremely useful for some small presses, since I don’t have dedicated catalogs and reps for them.”
One example that Bradford gave was that of Alyssa Cole, an African American author whose self-published romances were widely praised on social media for years, which forced others to pay attention. When she signed a deal with Avon and Kensington, her books were much more likely to be reviewed because people already knew her name. Social media coverage, in other words, helps Bradford figure out how to order more books that her customers will want.
Ultimately, though, when it comes to what the professional romance review scene needs most, every person said the same thing: more attention for books that are by and for marginalized groups.
“Every week for like two or three months, I would get five [requests for] lesbian romances from the same person every week,” Bradford remembered. “They’re not seeing what they want, and good on them for requesting it, but they shouldn’t have to. They shouldn’t have to request five per week because they can’t find anything to read. I just want more visibility for more books. I want everyone to be able to see what books are out there instead of what books are being marketed directly at them.”
As romance novelist and RWA board member Courtney Milan put it in a recent Twitter thread, “I want marginalized authors to be #1 on the NYT list for weeks running and I also want them to get picked up for the ‘enh, we have to fill this slot SOMEHOW’ spot that serviceable but unexciting books by [allo] cishetwhite authors have filled forever.”
“The number of reviews marginalized people get is not a zero sum game,” Milan tweeted. “And if the problem is that a review outlet has a “there can be only one” approach to including marginalized people…that’s what needs to go.”
CEILLIE SIMKISS is a queer and neurodivergent author and freelance writer based in southern Virginia. She has bylines in the Danville Register & Bee, Culturess,and Global Comment. She blogs regularly on CandidCeillie.comand is the owner and editor of LetsFoxAboutIt.com. Her sapphic romance novella, Learning Curves, and the follow up short story collection, The Ghosts of Halloween, are available on Amazon. She loves nothing more than curling up in bed with a book and her many furry creatures, but playing silly video games is a close second, even though she’s terrible at them. If anyone wants to reach her, check out CeillieSimkiss.com. She also spends way too much time on Twitter as @CandidCeillie.