6.2 “A history of repeated injuries”: Publishing

Like Ruby, many Black authors believe it is “Time for things to change” (Huguley 9). Ruby, however, faces the threat that if she refuses to “keep things quiet” it is she whom “they be lynching [...] next” (7). Clearly, Black authors’ lives are not similarly threatened by those with power in publishing but, as one Black author, who chose to remain anonymous, stated in 2007:

If you whine and rant too much in this business it’s easy for publishers to get rid of you, particularly if you’re not a big money-making star.

There’s always someone eager to step in and take your place to maintain the status quo. Also, I’ve seen how people who are vocal on this issue are treated and often attacked for trying to raise awareness. (Mystery Author)

Ruby’s key demand is for “equal pay [...] at the mill” (Huguley 52) and again, there are parallels with the situation in publishing: there are significant discrepancies “between what black and white writers earn from their publishers” (Flood).

Power in US publishing, like power in Winslow, has been overwhelmingly concentrated in the hands of white people. In 2019 the Lee & Low Diversity in Publishing Survey found that “76 percent of publishing staff, review journal staff, and literary agents are White,” only 1% of people employed in Editorial were Black and “The percentage of people in Editorial who self-identified as White increased from 82 percent [in 2015] to 85 percent.” These figures for Editorial are important to bear in mind given that editors can push for changes in manuscripts. The draft of Beverly Jenkins’ Night Song, which was published in 1994 by the mainstream romance publisher Avon, for example, was textually assaulted, with clearly racist intent, by a freelance editor:

Scenes were changed. The scene where Cara’s grandfather appears, “n[...]er, n[...]er” replaced his name. Characters were depicted as “black as coal.” I was devastated when I received the galley. I called Vivian Stephens, my agent, and told her that she should return the advance on the book. I did not want the book published like that. The editor called. She cried and apologized. For four and a half hours, the editor and I were on the telephone going over the revisions. (Dandridge 2010, ellipses added)

Even after publication, Jenkins found that there were “stores that refused to sell” her books, and there were also further disparities in how she was treated by her publisher: “a VP of marketing told me in 04, she’d looked at my file and saw that they’d done next to nothing for me” (Jenkins).

Finding a publisher in the first place is disproportionately difficult for Black romance authors. The Ripped Bodice romance bookshop’s racial diversity survey for 2019 found that “For every 100 books published by the leading romance publishers in 2019, only 8.3 were written by people of color.” That 8.3% includes authors from a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds and is not limited to Black authors: the proportion of romances published by Black authors must, therefore, be smaller still. This figure is, moreover, an average: Bethany House and Tule Publishing released no romances at all by an author of colour. The differing percentages across Harlequin imprints is also potentially instructive: their series lines saw 5.5% of books written by authors of colour and their digital-first imprint, Carina, reached 20.7% but their long-established print imprints which market books individually, rather than as part of a series, published a significantly greater proportion of white authors. Of the romances published by HQN, which claims to publish “the best in mainstream bestseller romance by the finest authors in the field” (HQN) only 2.9% were by authors of colour and among the titles published under the Mira imprint, which in 2019 “placed over 60 titles on the New York Times, USA TODAY and Publishers Weekly bestseller lists” and claims to be “proud to publish great stories for a broad audience” (MIRA) only 3.6% were written by authors of colour.

In the 1980s, however, there were almost no Black authors published in the mainstream of romance publishing. Moreover, one of the routes to publication involved erasure of Black protagonists. Donna Hill, whose first romance novel, Rooms of the Heart, was published in 1990 by Odyssey (an African American publisher) “recalls a time early in her career when an editor offered to publish her manuscript ‘if I could make the characters white’" (Dyer 42) and

When Harlequin American Romance published Sandra Kitt’s first novel, Rites of Spring (1984), and thereby made her one of the first African-American authors to cross the color line of popular romance, her racial identity was hidden so that readers would have no idea that they were buying a novel written by a black woman. (Burley 137)

At the end of the same year, Harlequin did publish a romance by Kitt with Black protagonists (Adam and Eva). Its editor was, significantly, Vivian Stephens:

A Black editor in a predominantly white industry, Stephens sought to incorporate the voices of women of color into the burgeoning romance industry. In 1980, Dell published the first category romance by a Black author with Black protagonists—Entwined Destinies by Rosalind Welles (the pseudonym of journalist Elsie Washington). Stephens also made sure that Dell’s Candlelight lines included romances by Indigenous, Latina, and Asian authors, creating almost single-handedly the category that trade publications called “Ethnic Romance”.

In 1983, Stephens moved on to Harlequin. (Bowling Green State University)

Unfortunately, with Stephens’ departure, “Ethnic Romance” at Dell suffered a set-back. Stephen Ammidown, while an archivist at Bowling Green State University's Browne Popular Culture Library, reported that “The books were there, but after Vivian Stephens moved to Harlequin, the will to publish them evaporated”; despite having been written and submitted to Dell, “Elsie Washington's second book never got published” (2020a) by them.

In 1983, the year Vivian Stephens moved to Harlequin, the company published A Strong and Tender Thread, a romance containing Black protagonists but written by a white author, Jackie Weger. According to another Harlequin author, Kathleen Giles Seidel, when it was put out to “test marketing” it had “tested horribly” (Vivanco 2015). Sandra Kitt recalls that the following year, "when the executives in Canada realized ADAM & EVA would have black main characters they wanted to reject it, afraid of what the reaction would be from white readers.  It was published anyway, too far along in the production process" (Kitt). Afterwards Kitt was "told by a Harlequin official at the time that they'd 'only received 4 letters' objecting to the book" (Kitt). Nonetheless Paul Grescoe, in his book about the history of Harlequin, reports a swift, racist backlash from Harlequin readers in response to the publication of Adam and Eva: “Harlequin got scads of letters complaining about the book, including one from a Philadelphia woman who said, ‘Those people should have their own series’” (279). Grescoe has been criticised for not doing "his homework" (Seidel 1997, 251) so perhaps he was confusing reader responses to Kitt's novel with those to Weger's. However, he has also been critiqued for “Relying heavily on interviews with several Harlequin executives and former editors” (Seidel 1997, 251), so it could be that his account reflects their recollections of the response to Kitt's novel. What is clear is that, as Stephanie Burley has observed,

even this tenuous foray into racial diversity was short-lived. For the remainder of the 1980s, Kitt continued to publish Harlequin American Romance novels featuring white heroes and heroines without acknowledging her status as a groundbreaking African-American author. She was, in a literary sense, passing as a white (i.e., un-raced) author. (138)

As for Vivian Stephens, “after working at Harlequin for about two years" she "was fired. She [...] was never given any explanation for why she was forced out” (Beckett) and "without her leverage, fewer writers of color found doors open to them in the romance world (or the publishing world, for that matter)" (Swartz).

In 1991, Lisa Jones stated of Harlequin that out of "the company's 800 romance writers, only two are African-American, and they don't write about black characters" (233). There seem, in fact, to have been at least three: Kitt, Eva Rutland and Chassie West, using the pseudonym Joyce McGill. Their minority status and the suggestion that they were, in a way, “passing” as white, recall the situation of Adam in A Virtuous Ruby.

Adam’s skin is “cream-colored” (Huguley 10) and so, although there are some clues as to his Black heritage, including the fact that he addresses other Black people “respectfully” (12) in a way that a white doctor would not, he has been able to live and study, unquestioned, “in the white world” (17). Indeed, when Mary Winslow, his white father’s white wife, first sees him “He could tell instantly from her manner and slight smile she believed him to be white. If she thought him Negro, she would not be smiling at him at her front door” (18). It is thanks to this ability to pass for white that Adam was able to attend “the University of Michigan medical school” (28) because “Negro doctors don’t go to no Michigan school” (37). Moreover, continuing to pass would make him “more acceptable to his father” (20). Ultimately, however, despite all the advantages of passing as white, and all the hardships entailed by claiming his Blackness, Adam decides “he would take comfort in being a Negro man” (203) because “I have to own all parts of who I am” (244).

Harlequin’s Black authors who “passed” as white were also eventually given opportunities to do the same. Eva Rutland “got to write Black characters towards the end of her career in romance” (Ammidown 2020), including Heart and Soul, published by Harlequin in 2005. As Joyce McGill, West wrote various romances with white protagonists until 1992 when Leonore Fleischer noted that with the publication of Unforgivable the Silhouette imprint was

bringing out its first adult romantic mystery novel to feature an African American man and woman as hero and heroine. A few years earlier, Silhouette's first young adult ethnic romance, Lesson in Love, was written by Tracy West. Tracy West and Joyce McGill are both pseudonyms of the same writer, Chassie West, an African American woman who is celebrating her 20th anniversary as a writer. (37)

However, although Fleischer reported that West/McGill was "already plotting [...] future novels, including romances" (37), this appears to have been the last romance McGill wrote for the imprint. Sandra Kitt’s run of romances featuring white protagonists ended when Love Everlasting was published in 1993 by Odyssey. This was a decade in which

several small presses emerged to focus on romances with African American heroes and heroines; Odyssey Books, launched in 1990, and Genesis Press, established in 1993 with its first Indigo Romance title released in 1995, were two of the most important. Then in 1994 Kensington Publishing [...] launch[ed] Pinnacle’s Arabesque Romance, a line of multicultural romances, with Sandra Kitt’s Serenade and Francis Ray’s Forever Yours, two African American romances. The line was a success and in 1998 was bought by BET (Black Entertainment Television). (Ramsdell 2018a, 86)

In this decade, then, despite the appearance of occasional romances with Black protagonists in more general romance imprints, including works by Beverly Jenkins at Avon and Maggie Ferguson at Harlequin Intrigue, it appears the vast majority of romances by Black authors and featuring Black protagonists were published by presses and imprints specifically focused on Black or “multicultural” romance.

At Harlequin the beginning of the twenty-first century saw further attempts to publish Black romance, including Robyn Amos’s Hero at Large (2000), another work of romantic suspense for Silhouette. Brenda Jackson, who had already established herself as an author of Black romance, recalls that “Harlequin asked me to write for Desire, saying it would be the first Desire with a Black hero/heroine” (Jackson) with the result that Delaney’s Desert Sheikh was published in 2002. Romances with Black protagonists nonetheless remained rare at Harlequin until the acquisition from BET of Arabesque in 2005, where it retained its identity as a line publishing Black romance, within the Kimani imprint.

The acquisition suggests that although Black romance publishers and imprints had demonstrated the existence of a market for Black romance novels, their success could also be used to justify Black romance’s continued separation from the mainstream of romance publishing. One of the most public examples of the existence of a separate imprint being cited as a reason not to acquire Black authors occurred when,

During the Spotlight on Pocket at the 2015 RWA conference, an attendee asked Executive Editor Lauren McKenna, “Are you working at all on diversifying your author list?” When McKenna requested clarification, the attendee observed that it seemed most of Pocket’s authors were white. McKenna then responded:

“Right now, we [Pocket] don’t have an African-American line. Our sister imprint—because we are all Simon & Schuster—[...] Our sister imprint, Atria, has an entire two lines dedicated to African-American titles, and they really do corner that market. We find doing just one in a larger list, it tends to lose its focus and it really doesn't get the attention and time it deserves, so it also requires a different marketing and publicity plan. (RWA 2016)

There are likely to have been many more such incidents. Preslaysa Williams, for example, mentioned on Twitter that she wrote some books for younger readers at around the same time as she started writing romance which she

pitched to a CBA [Christian Booksellers Association] editor [...] and she directed me to Lee & Low instead.

She said they do “multicultural fiction”

(Implying that their house does not do that)

Series is still unpublished.

Clearly, Black imprints are not, and were not, the only option for Black romance authors. A rare Black editor such as Vivian Stephens could be hired by and publish Black romances for non-Black imprints, and Beverly Jenkins at Avon was consistently published by such an imprint. However, separation and inequality were the norm. The unequal treatment received by Jenkins has already been mentioned, and as Gwendolyn E. Osborne observed in 2004, despite "the number of Black romances and readers [...] growing [...] African American romances are rarely reviewed by mainstream literary or romance media" (65). Inequality also extended to booksellers: Black romances were generally to be found in the African American section of the store rather than with other romances. As one romance reader commented in 2008 under the pseudonym “AA response” with regards to the major bookselling chain Borders,

Black authors writing romance aren’t considered romance authors by Borders, but put in a racial category of fiction. The romance specialists don’t deal with the black romance authors. Blacks are not a part of Border’s romance initiatives.

Black authors writing romance are segregated from the other romance authors by policy, much like the South’s Jim Crow laws.

Over ten years later, when reporter Lois Beckett was investigating racism in romance, the segregation continued. Beckett visited Kianna Alexander, a Black romance author who, despite

her success, [...] knows all about the barriers that make it more difficult for authors of colour to succeed. On the morning we met, we visited her local Walmart to look at the book section. Her latest Harlequin romance was on display, but it was not placed with the other romance novels. Instead, it was on a separate shelf marked with a neat label: African American. [...] The African American section is not an issue specific to Walmart, or to North Carolina. Many black romance novelists told me they had found bookstores and large retailers stocking their work in a special black section, far away from shelves that the majority of romance readers will be browsing.

The segregation of Black romances has, therefore, often too-closely mirrored the segregation found in Winslow.