Romance Writers of America and the Absence of Black RITA Winners

Romance Writers of America posted a tweet a few days ago with a link to this article: Board Commitment to RITAs and Inclusivity

Is there a problem?

According to the RWA article, less than 1% of finalists are black. So, how many black authors entered their books? They don’t know. ONLY 2000 ENTRIES are allowed. If 99 of them are from black authors, that’s less than 5% of the entries and a really big field to compete against. In which case, none of them winning at this point is a high-probability outcome. (ETA: The original % I posted was 1. A reader in comments pointed out the error. Thank you.)

So, the numbers are not the problem. That is, the simple fact that a black author has not won a RITA is not indicative of prejudice or process failure on the part of the RWA. I suspect the numbers are similar for all authors who include themselves under the POC umbrella.

So how are the contenders chosen, anyway?

The authors, themselves—or their publishers—enter the RITA, choose what category to enter in, and pay a fee to enter.

RWA wants a black RITA winner. I’m sure they’ll make one and absolutely let everyone know. But the choice to enter, to pay the fee, is with the author/publisher. If there’s an issue, it’s with the percentage of black authors who have joined the RWA. SO –

How About Actually Putting a Category in the RITA for POC romance books?

RWAcategories

Right between Contemporary Romance: Short and Erotic Romance they can add Diversity Romance. And that’s a lot more inclusive than just looking for a black author.

When you invite people to dinner, you have to make a place for them at the table.

addi-


ETA: I already removed a comment for ad hom. The topic is in the title. Individuals are not topics. I should remove the one I am answering, but there are two good points in it. If you want your comment read here, stick to the subjects of the article.  –addi

17 thoughts on “Romance Writers of America and the Absence of Black RITA Winners”

  1. Um, that’s ‘separate but equal’ which is a classic racist idea. It’s ok to be confused about why and seek to learn more so you understand. There’s TONS of info out there on racism to educate yourself with (for example, AOC twitter feeds or Ijeoma Olou’s new bestseller, So You Want To Talk About Race)

    In the meantime instead of making an uneducated public suggestion, which can be harmful in and of itself given your stature in the community, why not listen to what authors of color are saying they would like to happen? If none of them have suggested the particular idea you thought of, chances are your idea is a bad one.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I’m perturbed at the assertion that “RWA wants a black RITA winner.” As a romance reader (meaning, I am not myself an author but I follow the awards because I enjoy reading these types of books), I read the statement and that wasn’t my take-away at all.

      My understanding is that RWA has recognized that their awards process has been and currently still is biased against black authors. They have collected some data to begin measuring the extent of their problem, and they would like to take steps toward leveling the playing field going forward. That’s what I got out of their statement.

      Adding another “goal” in the form of a Diversity Award would not be not helpful, at all, when the unfair playing field is the issue. Systemic problems require systemic solutions.

      And FWIW I second Ijeoma Oluo’s book.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. I put an *ad hom* warning at the end of the article. If you want to reply, be advised I remove such comments. You didn’t know and have some points that are on-topic, so I didn’t remove yours.

      SEPARATE BUT EQUAL? No. A Diversity category is like an LGBT category on a book seller site or the Young Adult category on the RWA. It’s a genre flag, a way for the reader to find books of the kind they want to read and a way for an author to find their audience.

      Genre overlap means books are often included in multiple categories, so a title in Diversity will be found in Mystery or Historical or YA as well. It’s inclusive rather than exclusive. It includes people of a variety of colors, people who are differently abled, people from small subcultures. It is many many chairs at the table, not just one.

      WHAT DO BLACK AUTHORS WANT? What was: “…why not listen to what authors of color are saying they would like to happen?” The RWA is, I imagine. But they didn’t limit their request for suggestions to a single group; they only limited the problem to a single group: black romance authors. They didn’t include authors of other colors. So, let’s stick to their topic.

      This is an issue at least as old as Frank Yerby, which means we’ve been talking about this for 68 years. And having been part of the discussion for several decades, it’s always seemed to me like demanding better and more powerful painkillers instead of figuring out what’s causing the pain. To figure that out, we have to ask the right questions. We need data: ““we have found it difficult to continue the conversation about diversity in romance without hard data,” says report co-author Leah Koch.” http://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/2017/10/ripped-bodice-report-racial-diversity-romance/

      What do we know from the RWA?

      The Romance Book Buyer:

      —Women make up 84 percent of romance book buyers, and men make up 16 percent. (Update: According to Nielsen, as of Q4 2014, women make up 82% of romance book buyers.)
      —The U.S. romance book buyer is most likely to be aged between 30 and 54 years.
      —Romance book buyers are highly represented in the South.
      —Romance book buyers have an average income of $55,000.
      Source: Nielsen Books and Consumer Tracker at https://www.rwa.org/p/cm/ld/fid=582

      If Nielsen asked about the ethnicity of the readers, RWA didn’t include it. Here’s what RWA published:

      What They Read and Buy

      —Print: romantic suspense (53%); contemporary romance (41%); historical romance (34%); erotic romance (33%); New Adult (26%); paranormal romance (19%); Young Adult romance (18%); and Christian romance (17%).
      —E-book: romantic suspense (48%); contemporary romance (44%); erotic romance (42%); historical romance (33%); paranormal romance (30%); New Adult (26%); Young Adult romance (18%); and Christian romance (14%).

      We still don’t have any numbers about titles that include black characters. Those are all the subgenres of Romance the RWA recognizes. If there are, indeed, TONS of readers wanting to read books by black authors and/or books with black MCs, they can’t find them unless there is a genre to look under.

      The RWA includes no author demographics. Not today – which is April, 5, 2018. But someone did. And to give us that data, Ripped Bodice had to do their own study. Here: http://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/2017/10/ripped-bodice-report-racial-diversity-romance/

      THEY FOUND: “In 2016, for every 100 books published by the leading romance publishers, only 7.8 were written by people of color.”

      WHY? That stat is still just the pain, but it tells us what question we have to answer next. WHY? The answer isn’t someone’s opinion or knee-jerk response. It’s a question with specific answers.

      Is it that all the publishing houses that responded are run by neo-Nazis?
      Is it that they believe, correctly or incorrectly, that black MCs won’t sell?
      Is it that, among all black Americans who are writers, the % who write Romance as defined by the RWA is significantly less than the % of the whole which should be about 34%. (Romance novel share of the U.S. fiction market: 34% (source: Nielsen BookScan/PubTrack Digital 2015)
      Is it that “tons” is not a number of readers, and the potential readership is much smaller than that perceived by individuals?

      One thing all authors want, including black authors, is to find their readers and sell their books. Whatever is going on, if anyone defines the actual process that results in the absence of black RITA winners, one thing that can be done is to help the readers to find the titles and the authors to find the readers.

      DO YOU KNOW WHY AMAZON HAS THESE CATEGORIES?

      Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > African American > Women’s Fiction
      #3816 in Books > Literature & Fiction > African American > Women’s Fiction
      #4960 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > African American > Romance

      To help the author and reader find one another. It’s not altruism and it sure isn’t separate but equal – it’s what works so they can make the most money.

      Here’s a single fact: the author whose sales page I copy/pasted the categories from, is not in the RWA author website list. Maybe she doesn’t have one. She is highly successful and listed with a top 5 publisher.

      But maybe there being no RITA for a black author is simply because they don’t join the RWA is large enough numbers or pay the contest fee. I’d like the RWA to publish their complete author list and ask the people who’d identify themselves under the Diversity umbrella to say so. But then I’d like world peace, Trump in jail, and to eat as much chocolate as I want without my waistline expanding.

      IMO – as the article is categorized – the RWA is trying to get in front of the Riptide backlash (which is why all the references to having been working in the issue for years) and they’ll find a black author to give a RITA to this year and everyone can proclaim the problem solved, oh happy day.

      It’ll just be one really big fucking aspirin.

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      1. I never said it was. Which seems like it would be obvious since I said I was answering the points that were on-topic. The first one was separate but equal.

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  2. I don’t much like the suggested solution because “Diversity Romance” seems like it would focus on who the author is rather than the characters or plots. I write under a pen name and don’t discuss my “identity” in terms of race, gender, orientation, etc. I do this specifically to let my work be judged on its own merits and if I write poc characters (which I do) I write them as people first. They are defined by their individual personalities not their identities. I wouldn’t want to be lumped in to some new category because of assumptions as to who I am or pigeon holes created for my characters. I’d want my books to compete in their actual genres and if they win to win because they’re good stories. Not because they include characters with specific physical characteristics.

    As to fixing the application problem why not invite poc authors in these genres? Maybe offer a discount on the entree fee or advertise the awards on POC author discussion groups? If its simply a matter of getting more diverse people to try out then let them know that the option exists and that they are welcome. After that the ball is really in their court as to whether or not they want to. If it turns out that romance authors of color simply don’t want to enter then that’s not a bias on your end.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wonder if it seems like it’s about authors because our topic is authors? I think in practice, Diversity Romance would be content that that defined inclusion. RWA is a powerful force for setting standards. If they do it, so will retailers. I want a place for a MM writer I know who often has a blind MC. My daughter’s best friend is in wheelchair for life. I guess I just want an answer for everyone
      marginalized in our industry. I agree in the end, it’s about each individual author making the decision to enter.

      I didn’t enter because I read Alexis Hall and knew I couldn’t get close that standard of prose. See, this is why I want to know the actual demographics of the RWA. I’d like them to survey and find out why they don’t or do enter.

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  3. Reblogged this on KIM GOLDEN and commented:
    Romancelandia has been aflame with discussions about the lack of support and representation when it comes to authors of color in romance publishing and in RWA’s RITA finalists. As an author who has been affected by this issue in terms of bigoted comments from and attitudes from people via email and face to face, it seems only fitting to share Adira August’s post addressing the subject. This is the perennial elephant in the room — it’s always there, but some people wilfully ignore it.

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  4. You know I love you Adira, but the idea of a diversity category is a nonstarter. It lumps all the varieties of ‘diverse’ into one category and forces them to duke it out for a single award. This would also disregard the subgenre of the story. If I sweat my guts out writing romantic suspense novel, I certainly don’t want it jammed into the ‘diversity’ category for judging.

    The thing is when it comes to black people in romance, we know what the issue is. There’s a lovely interview with the venerable Brenda Jackson on the This Is Love podcast, in which she describes having the reasons spelled out for her, by editors who had rejected her work because, ‘people aren’t interested in how black people live’ or they ‘don’t believe black romance exists’. This was said to her, not in the 60’s, the 70’s, or the 80’s; but in the 90’s.

    It takes a long time for an industry to log from that kind of sensibility to a less delusional one. There is a lot to unpack. And unfortunately a lot of that process requires black women to put themselves in places that do not welcome them. And to put themselves there using that part of them which has the least amount of natural protection, the artist. The advent and ease of self-publishing has made it more likely that fewer black authors will put themselves through the ordeal of attempting to be published and recognized via traditional routes. Which, of course, makes the data even more troublesome to run down.

    In my opinion, just like when it came to getting Black Panther made and made right, the solution is more black butts in decision-making seats.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you love me, not sure that will continue to be true. Which would make me sad.

      ::It lumps all the varieties of ‘diverse’ into one category and forces them to duke it out for a single award. This would also disregard the subgenre of the story.::

      The RWA considers all the categories to be the Romance subgenres. Here’s the page where they have announced what the subgenres of romance are: https://www.rwa.org/p/cm/ld/fid=579 Contemporary, Erotic, Historical, Paranormal, Religious, Suspense, Young Adult. You and I know that there are multiple types, or sub-subgenres, in all those categories.

      They don’t force you. You submit and you choose what category you are submitting in. Where do you think you have the best chance against the field? In Suspense, a very popular category that will have a large percentage of entrants? If that’s what you want, then you can.

      I think the better chance is the smaller diverse field. But that’s just guessing. And yes, I am suggesting inclusivity. RWA has isolated this as an issue with black authors. But this discussion is the same one that LGBT authors have and differently abled people have.

      ::The thing is when it comes to black people in romance, we know what the issue is.::

      You didn’t say what you think the issue is, precisely, but I’m going to assume (uh-oh!) from your statement “the solution is more black butts in decision-making seats” that you think the problem is RWA needs to put a larger proportion of black persons on their Board of Directors. Or in some position to make decisions on the RITA.

      Tell me what different decisions would be made and how that would change things. Do you want a black authors category for the RITA? Do you want to require authors to choose an ethnic category when applying, so RWA can choose specific books by black authors to be judged separately from the rest? Or ….?

      I’ve been having this same discussion for a few decades now, and no one ever seems to offer concrete steps to take. I’m convinced it’s because people will not define the issue and ask the hard questions.

      As I said to someone else here, it’s an issue we can follow all the way back to Frank Yerby. And up to some editor at Riptide who told a writer the facts and got fired for it. There are a lot of devices now for measuring customer response. Knowing what to put in front of an audience to get a click-through is a fairly precise science. It got Trump elected. We can finally start to identify the issue and instead, we fired (literally) the messenger:

      Covers with black people on them don’t get as many clicks. How do we sell our books? Get them to click to read the blurb that hooks them so they buy. So, what do you, as a black author, want? Do you only want to sell to black readers? Or to everyone? And let say, I seem to get a lot of interpretation on my questions. But they are very straightforward. I really want to know what you want, otherwise there is no way to set goals and figure out a way to achieve them.

      So, I will assume you want to sell lots of books to lots of people. When the Riptide deal happened, I asked the few white people I knew who’d give me a straight answer if they thought they were likely to skip over a romance title with black people on the cover. They all said yes, so I asked why. (Obviously we can’t extrapolate to the whole of romance readers from my small sample, but it’s a start.) One person gave an answer I thought was representative of everyone.

      “If there are two black people, I don’t want to read it because it will be about their, you know, their culture, not mine. If it’s a white guy and a black woman, I don’t want to read it because I’m not black and I’d have a hard time relating. If it’s a black man and a white women, oh yeah I’m clicking because, you know …” (She likes her men tall, dark and darker.)

      Another answer was: “It’s the same as not liking those mm books all about gay bashing. I don’t want to read about the KKK or something in my happy romance place. So, like, you or somebody would have to rec it.” She also said she wouldn’t read romance about a handicapped person. She doesn’t want sad.

      It doesn’t matter how we feel about these people or their answers. What I know about them is, they don’t give a crap what ethnicity the author is. They don’t care if the book is written by a computer. They just want what they want and they respond the way they do to what they see. And I believe, if they got hooked by a blurb and a few pages of text and related to the MC as a person looking and wanting the same things they have, they wouldn’t give a crap if she and the guy were black.

      I believe that because I don’t know anyone who cared that Alex Cross was black twenty-five-ish years ago when Along Came a Spider was published. Everybody was just glad Patterson was publishing a new book. Maybe I’m naive, but romance is a lot more personal than murder. Readers want to sink in and identify. (Which actually does not explain why mm romance readers are overwhelmingly female …) But women will identify with other women if being a woman is the essence of the character. (BTW – I don’t read romance. I don’t like it. So pretty much everyone is a bigger expert on that than me.)

      I only read one book by a RITA winner and that’s because it was MM. And Alexis Hall is so far superior to me in talent and skill, I can’t imagine throwing away $100 on an entry because I cannot compete at that level. People have been paying me to write since I was 20 years old, so I’m not a hack, but I’ll never be that good.

      So I’m back to numbers. Many many more black authors joining the RWA. Many, many more who believe they write as well as the winners in their genre, entering. That’s action at the author end. EXCEPT: RWA limits entries so the big publishers know when it opens and rush in with their choices before anyone else has a chance and the contest is closed.

      From the RWA end, from the being in charge end, what would you do? Because my solution is to forget the RWA and find a sponsor for a much more prestigious award like the Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowships is. Create a thing from the ground up. Create a thing that doesn’t exclude any authors or limit the entries.

      addi

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  5. Hi Adira, my last comment didn’t appear, it was really long, so I get it. I’ll post it elsewhere as I think the points within are worth making. I would like to answer one point you made regarding the firing of Sarah from Riptide. The Guardian article completely neglected the sexual harassment part of the equation. The woman needed to be fired for more than one reason. so I’m re-posting that part of my comment, which I hope you will share with your readers.

    ADDI HERE. I WILL ALLOW THE ABOVE PORTION OF THE COMMENT TO STAND WITH THIS WARNING: THIS BLOG HAS NO OBJECTIVE EVIDENCE THAT THIS IS FACTUAL. HOPING OP CAN PROVIDE SOME. UNTIL THERE IS SOME OBJECTIVE EVIDENCE, THE PARTICULARS HAVE BEEN REMOVED. IF I GET EVIDENCE FROM RIPTIDE, I’LL LINK TO IT.

    Like

    1. Hi! I checked by coming here in a private window to make sure I wasn’t seeing it just because I am admin and your whole post is there. Which doesn’t mean it was before, though it was when I answered it. And nobody’s as long-winded as I am so write as much as you want.

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  6. This may be germane, at least tangentially, for readers like me who find added value in diverse MCs. Just this hour I encountered the concept of a “sensitivity reader.” I had gone to KU for a new title “Whisper” by Garrett Leigh. And I haven’t as yet progressed past the Foreword, where I found this remark: “Many thanks to my sensitivity reader, Packy, who gave me valuable insight into his life as a settled Cornish gypsy. Also to Rosa who triple checked the Roma details. Thank you for letting me into your world.” Perhaps with allies like this, authors might find the confidence and competence to create MCs from backgrounds differing from their own.

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