Romance Writers Survey Reveals Long Way to Go on Inclusion

As part of a broad range of initiatives and actions to address diversity, RWA released the results of its first diversity survey, conducted in April 2017, this June. About a quarter of RWA’s members responded, showing the membership to be largely white (86%), not Hispanic or Latinx (95%), heterosexual (88%), female (97%, of whom less than .1% were transgender), and nondisabled (79%).

In a statement released at the end of May, Romance Writers of America (RWA) declared, “Diversity and inclusion are paramount concerns for RWA,” recognizing that, “in the past, members from the historically marginalized groups have felt unheard, unseen, and unrepresented.” 

As part of a broad range of initiatives and actions to address diversity, RWA released the results of its first diversity survey, conducted in April 2017, this June. About a quarter of RWA’s members responded, showing the membership to be largely white (86%), not Hispanic or Latinx (95%), heterosexual (88%), female (97%, of whom less than .1% were transgender), and nondisabled (79%). 

Those following diversity conversations in publishing will not be surprised by these numbers. In 2015, publisher Lee and Low conducted “The Diversity Baseline Survey” of the publishing industry to find similar results—80% white, 88% heterosexual, 78% female (with less than 1% being trans-female), and 92% nondisabled. The numbers are even starker when looking at which books are traditionally published. For its report, “The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing,” romance bookstore The Ripped Bodic

In a sharp disconnect from the demographic data, a full half of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that RWA had a diverse membership. Only 13% disagreed or strongly disagreed. For comparison, in July 2017, the Census Bureau’s fact sheet showed that only 61% of the United States is white and not Hispanic.

RWA’s diversity survey also polled members on writing diverse characters and appealing to diverse audiences. Over three-quarters of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that it was important that their work appeal to diverse audiences. Some 60% agreed or strongly agreed that their characters come from diverse groups and 70% indicated they would like to include more diversity in their work. Some 66% feel comfortable writing diverse characters, settings, and plots, while 57% responded they could use more help and resources in making their work appeal to a diverse audience. However, owners Bea and Leah Koch point out in The Ripped Bodice’s 2016 “State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing” report, “We need marginalized creators getting paid to tell their own stories in publishing. If every creator is white, the default is a white lens.”
Although diversity is a frequent topic of conversation in romance circles on social media, the survey data seems to have gone largely unheralded. RWA did not tweet when the data was released, nor mention it on the group’s Facebook page. A few people tweeted out the report and romance author and Bawdy Bookworms founder Thien-Kim Lam commented, “it’s glaringly obvious RWA has a diversity problem” but a larger online conversation has not yet ensued. 
In March, the RWA board addressed diversity in relation to the organization’s prestigious RITA awards: in the past 17 years, no black author has won a RITA and less than half of 1% of finalists are written by black authors. The board stated, “The RWA Board is committed to serving all of its members. Educating everyone about these statistics is the first step in trying to fix this problem. We know there are no perfect solutions but ignoring the issue is not acceptable.” 

Robin Bradford, RWA's 2016 Cathie Linz Librarian of the Year, applauds "RWA's recent boards for seeing the inequities and taking positive, concrete steps to address them. I'm sure it hasn't been easy, especially looking at those demographics. The diverse books conversation hasn't been an easy conversation in any sector, and I'm sure romance is the same as children's books, YA, SF, and everywhere else that continues to address it. But when you look at YA, for instance, and the makeup of the past year or two's NYT bestseller's hard to argue against diverse books. Romance, which has been on the cutting edge of so much innovation in terms of books, is lagging behind here." 


The organization held its second Diversity Summit at the 2018 RWA Conference in Denver on Friday, July 20, moderated by Bradford. There, it presented the results of a survey RWA commissioned from NPD Book focusing on the buying habits of readers across ethnicity, age, and sexual orientation. While the full survey is only available to RWA members, the organization made some top line data public, which demonstrates that the romance readership is more diverse than the RWA membership: 73% are White/Caucasian, 12% Black/African American, 7% Latino/Hispanic, and 4% Asian/Asian American. Some 82 percent are female and 18 percent male; 86% are heterosexual; 9% identified as bisexual, pansexual, or other bi+ identity; and 2% identified as gay or lesbian. RWA also released selected info on age, reading habits, formats, subgenres, and book acquisition patterns.

Also at the summit, RWA public relations and marketing manager Jessie Edwards provided an overview of initiatives the organization has undertaken or plans to undertake, including adding a commitment to diversity and inclusion to the strategic plan; creating an anti-harassment policy for the conference, which specifically addresses harassment on the basis race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, gender, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, or religion; revising the nondiscrimination policy for membership to expand the groups protected to include all those listed above; revising the Ethics Code provisions to make sure issues of discrimination and harassment are more fully covered; changing its programming focus from offering programming about diversity to ensuring that conference panels, class instructors, and programs through RWA University and contributors to the Romance Writers Report include individuals from historically marginalized groups; and funding two housing stipends for summer publishing interns from underrepresented backgrounds.

The summit also included an open discussion in which publishers and authors shared positive developments and aired continuing roadblocks to further progress which should be addressed. Among them were increasing the percentage of diverse romances on lists, such that each title’s success or failure is not regarded as a referendum on the commercial viability of diverse titles as a whole. They also need marketing support, ideally from creative, targeted campaigns that go beyond the standard outlets. Bookstores and libraries need to overcome reader programming that diverse books are “not for” readers beyond their demographic niche by training their staff on how to recommend these romances to all readers, and shelving them together with other romance. 

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