Growing up in Minnesota, Helen Hoang suffered from crippling social anxiety and struggled to make friends.
She once again turned to romance. But this time, she wrote the story herself.
So far, romance fans have swooned over Hoang’s debut novel, “The Kiss Quotient,” a multicultural love story centered on an autistic woman who has trouble navigating the nuances of dating and courtship. Readers have flooded the website Goodreads with more than 7,000 positive ratings, and the book, which was published in June, is already in its fourth printing.
The novel’s unexpected success is all the more astonishing given the striking lack of diversity within the romance genre. Romance novels released by big publishing houses tend to center on white characters, and rarely feature gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people in leading roles, or heroines with disabilities.
Even as the genre has evolved to reflect readers’ varied tastes and fetishes — popular subcategories include vampire and werewolf romance, military romance, cowboy romance, time travel romance, pirate and Viking romance — the lead characters are often confined to a fairly narrow set of ethnic, cultural and aesthetic types.
“Publishers aren’t putting out books by many people of color and they’re giving us limited space at the table,” said romance writer Rebekah Weatherspoon, who has published some novels with small presses and self-published others, including “Sated,” which features a black heroine and a disabled, bisexual Korean-American hero. “It’s definitely not a level playing field.”
The landscape is slowly starting to change, as more diverse writers break into the genre, and publishers take chances on love stories that reflect a broader range of experiences and don’t always fit the stereotypical girl-meets-boy mold. Forever Yours, an imprint at Grand Central, publishes Karelia Stetz-Waters, who writes romances about lesbian couples. Uzma Jalaluddin’s debut novel, “Ayesha at Last,” takes place in a close-knit immigrant Muslim community in Canada, and features an outspoken Muslim heroine who falls for a more conservative Muslim man, a Darcy to her Lizzie Bennett.
Alisha Rai and Sonali Dev have expanded the genre with love stories that feature Indian and Indian-American protagonists. Priscilla Oliveras, who is published by Kensington, writes romances with Latino characters. Jeannie Lin has published historical romances with Harlequin that are set in China during the Tang dynasty era. And Mindy Hung, writing under the pen name Ruby Lang, has a series of contemporary romances starring Asian-American female doctors in a group practice.
“Readers want books that reflect the world they live in, and they won’t settle for a book about a small town where every single person is white,” said Leah Koch, co-owner of the romance bookstore The Ripped Bodice in Culver City, California. Last year, six of her store’s top 10 best-selling novels were written by authors of color, Koch said.
Still, progress has been painfully slow. For the past two years, Koch and her sister Bea have conducted a study of leading romance publishers, and found that out of the 3,752 romance novels released by 20 major imprints in 2017, only around 6 percent were written by nonwhite authors.
Romance publishers say that they want to publish books with more diverse characters and settings, but argue that it’s a challenge in part because the majority of submissions still come from white authors. The genre’s largest organization, the Romance Writers of America, which has around 10,000 members, recently conducted a survey and found that nearly 86 percent of its members are white. The group has also faced growing scrutiny over its RITA Award, which has never gone to an African-American writer in the 36-year history of the prize. Black authors have accounted for less than 1 percent of finalists.
“It was eye-opening,” Dee Davis, RWA’s president, said of the survey results. “We have a lot of work to do.”
The issue will likely be widely debated at the group’s annual meeting in Denver this month, where some 2,000 romance writers will gather. Industry leaders will attend an invitation-only “diversity summit” at the conference to discuss ways to make the genre more inclusive, and African-American romance novelist Brenda Jackson will help teach a workshop on writing characters from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, age groups, abilities and body types.
Avon and Harlequin, two of the biggest romance publishers, have both taken modest steps to publish more diverse books, but despite those efforts, their lists remain overwhelmingly white: Books by minority writers made up less than 4 percent of Avon’s list and around 7 percent of Harlequin’s list, according to The Ripped Bodice.
A spokeswoman for Harlequin said the publisher was “working to increase representation and inclusion in our stories, as well as in our author base,” and cited recently published works that feature African-American and South Asian characters, gay and lesbian characters and heroines with disabilities.
An Avon representative noted the company publishes books by Alyssa Cole, Tracey Livesay, Mia Sosa, Nisha Sharma, Cat Sebastian and Laura Brown, all authors who write about diverse couples. One of Avon’s authors, Stacey Abrams, who has published romance novels with African-American characters under the pen name Selena Montgomery, recently became the Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia.
“Some publishers are showing more interest in acquiring books from marginalized groups, but there are still barriers,” said Cole, who has published romances set during the Civil War with African-American protagonists. “Part of the problem is some publishers say, OK, we need more diversity, we’ll just have our white authors write more diversely.”
While a growing number of authors from minority groups are finally getting published, many say they still face more hurdles than their white peers when it comes to signing with an agent, finding a publisher, getting review coverage and convincing bookstores to carry their novels. Brick and mortar stores with limited shelf space for romance sometimes stock love stories that feature African-American characters in the “urban fiction” or African-American literature sections, limiting their visibility among avid romance fans.
Beverly Jenkins, a trailblazing African-American romance novelist who began publishing historical romances with Avon in the 1990s, said plenty of diverse romance was being written, but too little of it was being acquired by major houses. “There are hundreds of women of color who are writing romance,” she said. “The issue is getting them published so they’re seen.”
With scant opportunities in mainstream publishing, many romance writers whose books feature diverse characters have turned to smaller presses, digital-only outlets or, increasingly, self-publishing.
Best-selling romance writer Courtney Milan, who writes novels with interracial and gay couples and transgender and bisexual characters, left a Harlequin imprint around seven years ago and began self-publishing because she wanted to have more creative control over her plots and characters.
She has since sold more than 1 million copies on her own, she said. Delaney Diamond, who started self-publishing romance novels with African-American characters in 2011, has sold around 370,000 copies of her books, and created her own imprint, Garden Avenue Press. She recently began publishing multicultural romance novels by other authors.
“People in publishing thought that black romance wouldn’t sell, which blew my mind,” she said.
That perception remains widespread, in part because romance imprints have traditionally published so few writers of color that there have been limited opportunities for those authors to break out. Big retailers like Target and Walmart typically base their book orders on an author’s sales track record, and are unlikely to take a risk on up-and-coming writers. So books that are seen as risky don’t get picked up by retailers, and then fail to sell, and the cycle repeats itself.
There have been some exceptions, including Nalini Singh, whose novels have sold more than 3 million copies, and Jasmine Guillory, whose recent novel, “The Wedding Date,” became a surprise hit. But the majority of romance novels on the best-seller lists are by and about white, heterosexual people.
“We hear that readers want more diversity, but it’s still the case that the most popular books are the least diverse,” said Cindy Hwang, an editorial director of Berkley, a Penguin Random House imprint.
That may finally be changing. When Hoang’s agent put “The Kiss Quotient” on the market, five publishers made offers. Hoang signed a three-book deal with Berkley, which released the novel in June with a robust announced first printing of 100,000 copies.
Hoang gave her autistic heroine many of her own personality traits — her love of math and numbers and logic, her tendency to drum her fingers when nervous, her aversion to loud music and parties, and her struggle to accept herself. She was surprised and overwhelmed by the flood of responses from readers who connected with her nontraditional love story.
“I wanted to share the perspective of an autistic woman, because I don’t think that’s a perspective you see very much,” she said. “Why can’t you make an impact with romance? It seems like the perfect place to do it.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.