One of the comments that comes up most when we talk to readers is, ‘Oh yes, I wish to see more *** in romance’.
*** can be anything from settings (books set outside of the US or the UK, books set in Africa/Asia/South America/etc) and time periods (historicals set outside of the Regency, historicals in different cultures) to characters (women in high-powered jobs, women 40+, men who are merely millionaires and aren’t pricks!) and representation (characters that aren’t white, characters that are LGBTQI, characters that are disabled or aren’t neurotypical).
This kind of comment comes up quite a bit in reader panels, and publishers and editors dutifully listen and make notes and look for books that meet those suggestions, but we also know one crucial fact that makes it hard to publish them: different books don’t sell.
Sure, there are the occasional outliers. Joanna Bourne has a series set during the French Revolution. Laura Lee Guhrke saw critical and commercial acclaim with her Girl Bachelors series; The Rosie Project worked from the point-of-view of a man who is neurodivergent; gay romance is one of the strongest subgenres in romance (though it’s very heavily on the m/m side, with lesbian romance a much smaller subset).
But a lot of these so-labelled diverse books sink under the ocean of small-town romances about straight, white people in their late 20s or early 30s. There’s nothing wrong with small-town romances about straight, white people in their late 20s or early 30s. In fact, some of the strongest, most creative, most romantic, and well-written romance novels written have fit into this mould perfectly.
But if, as a reader, you have ever wanted more – what have you done about it?
We’ve all heard the quote, ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’, but not all of us can write novels or film television shows or produce movies, but we do all have the choice about what we consume. And in this current climate where consumption drives visibility, what we choose to consume can make an enormous difference.
There are many, many excuses, and many of them are automatic, but they’re also holding you back:
- “I’m not the target audience for this book/tv show/film”
- “I won’t relate to the characters because they’re *** and I’m not”
- “I don’t want to get into identity politics tonight. I just want to be entertained.”
- “Books/TV shows/Films about *** are always so sad/depressing/angry/scary”
- “I don’t want to risk my money on a book that no one’s recommended”
If you’re used to being the target audience for everything, it can be hard work when a creative pursuit is deliberately not about you, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t enjoy it and get a lot out of it. This is also a weak excuse: think of the number of consumers who are not straight white men who nevertheless are able to consume and relate to any number of stories about straight white men.
You will also be surprised by the diversity within areas that you haven’t discovered and that are whole pools for you to dive into. Love romcoms? Try one about African-Americans like Think Like a Man or Brown Sugar or Love and Basketball. Love reading about billionaires? There are scads of Asian billionaire novels. Want a historical that eschews the ballroom? May I humbly suggest The Lotus Palace by Jeannie Lin or Not Quite a Husband by Sherrie Thomas? If you like stories about female friendships, why not try The L Word which is about a group of close-knit women who also happen to be lesbians?
If you care about representation in film, are you seeking out films with writers/actors/storylines about people who look different or have different experiences than you? Or are you letting your Netflix recommendations drive your viewing habits?
If you care about diversity in your romance novels, are you actively searching for terms like ‘seasoned heroines’ (heroines 40+) or ‘interracial romance novels’? Do you take a chance on unknown authors, if you’re interested in the story, or do you only one-click well-known authors? Do you grab a story that has a few strong reviews, but about something that you’ve never tried, just to see if there’s something there for you?
Do you prevaricate on spending $4 on a book that has few reviews, even though you’ve spent way more money on way bigger risks? Have you read books by big name authors that you didn’t like, but you won’t take the same risk on a new author?
Supporting the change you want to see in the world is the single biggest difference you can make, and it’s incredibly important to creating a vibrant, inclusive, diverse marketplace.
We can’t all write or film or produce, but we can support those that can, and we can make change in the world, one book at a time.