A Minority-Run Industry
Nielsen staged its inaugural Romance Book Summit yesterday (July 14) at the Romance Writers of America’s (RWA) conference in San Diego. We knew we’d see plenty of good statistical research and a lot of thoughtful, intelligent speakers.
The program’s lead, Nielsen’s director of new business development Kristen McLean, over the years has become an increasingly compelling industry analyst, focusing first mostly on YA and children’s literature and now looking with hard compassion at romance.
And we saw was a formidable show of willing self-examination, a group of publishers and authors working together constructively.
The tone was set by the author Caridad Piñeiro’s keynote, which she called “Setting the Table: Why There’s Room for Everyone in the Ever-Evolving Romance Business.”
Based on an anecdote around the first Christmas meal for her Cuban-Italian marriage and family members, Piñeiro echoed what she’d said to Jane Friedman and me in a May interview for The Hot Sheet:
“I am proud to be a member of one of the largest minority-run industries in the country. At every level, from publisher to editor to agent, author, and reader, women dominate the romance book business. Because of that, romance novels provide a wealth of opportunities for women at all levels and speak to women in very unique ways.”
And while she’s right on these points, Piñeiro was winding up into a look at how romance needs to “find a place at the table” for all its people. Since she spoke of women, here’s one instance of interest: sixteen percent of the romance readership, Nielsen’s research shows, is male. And most of that group identifies as heterosexual, not gay. How many of the writers of romance are male?—Nielsen’s figure is 3 percent.
Another intriguing data point McLean would bring out: Nielsen’s research shows that 55 percent of all romance readers asked said that it was more important that imprints and/or series reflect diverse backgrounds than that they reflect the readers’ specific ethnic backgrounds, and this finding seemed strongest in the younger spectrum, those aged 13 to 29. On the other hand, 41 percent of minority readers of romance said they preferred buying their books from imprints and/or series reflecting a diverse background, compared to 23 percent of white readers who said this.
As Piñeiro pointed out, romance is “ever-evolving” because sub-genres wax and wane in popularity. One example: a renewed uptake these days for western romance, as many writers at RWA can tell you, is cowboys. And what began to emerge as the day went on, was an understanding that the diversity of sub-genres in romance itself may point to its capability to lead the way in publishing’s industry-wide crisis of needed diversity.
My provocation for you today has two elements to it.
First, I suggest that romance may be the genre best ready to lead with deep, society-reflecting diversity ahead of other genres, for the very reason that its writers and readers are accustomed to exploring and accommodating variety. When Radclyffe, the influential lesbian author and publisher, told us that five years ago she could still get a note from a publisher saying that a same-sex story line is “not romance,” the room saw in sharp relief just how quickly romance is adapting to the world, adopting more range: Nielsen’s McLean told us that LGBT romance is among the fastest growing sub-sectors, it’s not your imagination.
Second, I’d suggest that romance’s position as a sometimes maligned minority field of genres—the fact that it’s seen by many as peopled by “feather headed” readers and writers of happy-ending, formulaic mass entertainment—may be a strength. It’s striking how supportive is the RWA context of us-against-the-world, despite romance’s vast reach. “We have to stick together” is a productive concept for this genre’s people.