A Billion-Dollar Romance Novel Industry, And Its Lonely Black Author

The Fabio business finds itself short on diversity.

Between the kitty litter and the toothpaste, on a lonely aisle of your supermarket, they cry out for love. Highlander Untamed! Unleash the Night! To Pleasure a Prince! The Boss’s Wife for a Week! Willingly Bedded, Forcibly Wedded! Carrying an average price of $7.42, these paperbacks are cheap and hardly literary, yet carefully crafted by an industry that annually produces some 6,000 titles.

With hairless pecs bulging from almost every cover, misty castles in the background, and unsheathed swords grasped by virile hands, there is a lingering musk of Fabio that causes snickers among the uninitiated, the cynics who pass the racks by in search of paper towels and TV dinners. Before heading home alone to watch Desperate Housewives or The Hills, these shoppers may smirk, wondering to themselves, “Why would anyone want to read these books?”

A better question is: Why would anyone want to write them?

With only four romance novels to her credit, Edwina Martin-Arnold is not yet a star in the romance firmament, which includes a striking cluster of successful writers here in the Northwest: Jayne Ann Krentz (aka Amanda Quick, aka Jayne Castle), Debbie Macomber, Julia Quinn, Christina Dodd, Kristin Hannah, and Susan Wiggs among them. Last month, several of these women attended the Emerald City Writers’ Conference. And all of them, unlike Martin-Arnold, are white. Largely for that reason, Martin-Arnold didn’t attend the event, which was organized by the Greater Seattle chapter of the Romance Writers of America.

Early in her writing career, before she was published, Martin-Arnold recalls, “I went to one [GSRWA] meeting, and it was extremely uncomfortable. It was a clique. Seattle’s local chapter is distant—I guess that’s a good word. I stay away.”

Yet, writing in relative isolation, determined to crack the romance market—which accounts for 26.4 percent of all popular fiction sales—Martin-Arnold’s underdog story shows how the industry is essentially split along racial lines, making her a solitary representative for black women romance writers in the area.

“As far as I know, I’m the only one in Seattle,” she says, an imbalance that’s reflected on the shelves of Wal-Mart, Costco, Fred Meyer, Safeway, Bartell, and other mass-market retailers, which sell around 40 percent of romance novels, according to the RWA. Study these in-store displays and you’ll discern highly specific genres within romance: fantasy, paranormal, sci-fi, and especially historical—where swords, stallions, castles, hoopskirts, plantations, and domestic servants have strangely endured.

And among these coded book covers, where yearning maidens cling to strapping lads with gilded locks, it’s nearly impossible to find an African-American face. Nor any Latina features, nor any Asian figures, nor any sign that love exists for nonwhite women.

“There’s a big drama in my industry right now—where do you put the black romance?” says Martin-Arnold. “It’s incredibly frustrating for me. It’s a crapshoot as to where they go. I think they should go in both [areas of the store],” meaning general romance and black romance—if you can find that section at the Rainier Valley Safeway.

But the old color lines are starting to change. An RWA industry report warns of flat sales and “an aging readership whose demand for traditional mass-market format books will fall.” Book readership is down generally, according to a 2002 study by the National Endowment for the Arts (TV, video games, and the Internet are blamed). Even mighty Harlequin—the industry leader, which produces more than 115 new titles a month and sold 131 million books in 2006—announced job cuts last year, after several lackluster quarters in a row. For that reason, there is money in multiculturalism, in expanding the reader base to new ethnic niches. But where are the new authors who can reach them?

Martin-Arnold recognized good fortune back in 1998, when her husband, John Arnold, sold his high-tech company, OutPost Network, to InfoSpace. They then moved their three kids—now ages 10, 15, and 16—from Federal Way to a waterfront home in Des Moines, and Martin-Arnold retired from her career as a city of Seattle prosecutor (previously, she worked for King County). Though she and her husband bought a couple of businesses, Martin-Arnold soon realized the limitations of a life of relative leisure.

“I was bored to be a housewife,” she says. “I was driving my husband crazy, and I was going crazy.”

Seated in her living room with the sun beaming in over Puget Sound, Martin-Arnold looks anything but. Her gated Italianate house has enough space out front to park a fleet of cars. Inside, there’s plenty of room to grow for her children, the youngest of whom pads around silently in a soccer outfit. Meanwhile, the family’s miniature Doberman pinscher, Morgan, is busily coughing up a hair ball on the rug.

Between ferrying the kids to sports practice, readying them for school, tending the restaurant and hair salon she owns with her husband, and—oh, yes—getting to that unfinished manuscript for Harlequin, Martin-Arnold pauses to chat. “I came home to be with the kids,” she explains, “and I began writing after that. I was pretty much free to parent and write. I wrote every Monday for a year.”

The result, after extensive vetting and feedback from friends, would eventually become her first novel, Eve’s Prescription, published in 2001 by Mississippi’s Genesis Press, the largest private black-owned publishing house in the country (but still very small by overall industry standards). That tale, about a Seattle prosecutor—life into art, perhaps—who falls for a fireman, led to Jolie’s Surrender (zookeeper re-encounters her old flame, now a college basketball recruiter) the following year.

By then, Martin-Arnold was ready for bigger things. “The first two books, I didn’t have an agent,” she says. “Then an agent found me.”

It was a good time to jump up to the big leagues, since the big leagues happened to be on a scouting mission. Two years ago, Harlequin—part of Canada’s publicly traded Torstar conglomerate—bought BET Books away from media giant Viacom for an unspecified amount. BET was then considered the largest American publisher of black-interest books, and its Arabesque imprint was a widely recognized romance brand. Thus consolidated, Harlequin sold $471 million worth of books last year. In financial terms, that’s a lot of heaving bosoms, passionate sighs, and lips ripe for kissing.

And among those 2006 sales, Harlequin’s Kimani Press published Martin-Arnold’s third novel, House Guest, in which a physician falls for a handsome security expert and former Navy SEAL. Outwardly tough, it turns out he has a sensitive side: “He felt her tears as he lay down on his couch bed. They washed the dust off a memory of another woman crying in his arms, those extremely rare times when his mother showed weakness.”

Glenda Howard, Kimani’s executive editor, is bullish on this sort of prose, and the ethnic romance genre in general. “African-American romance is definitely a growth area,” she says by phone from New York. “The growth of the African-American romance titles has led to a lot of the authors being very prolific and writing lots of other genres as well. It’s robust and it’s flourishing.”

Howard and other publishing executives know that the romance market flattened in the ’70s and ’80s, when musty Anglophile romantic lineages (e.g., Tudor and Regency) failed to keep pace with the reality of life for American women who were working, marrying later, and not necessarily preserving chastity for the bridal suite. Though it’s a biz that peddles fantasy and happy endings, realism began to creep into the pages. And the reality of modern American demographics means diversity. Thus, Harlequin and other houses began hunting for talent in what once were considered out-of-the-way niches.

“We are actually one house where you don’t have to have an agent to get a manuscript seen,” says Howard. “We will consider all manuscripts, agented and unagented, and we’ve had some good success stories that way. That barrier that exists within a lot of other publishing houses doesn’t exist here. We want to give some of those new, fresh young writers a chance; we’re open to new voices.

“I don’t think that, when Arabesque started out, it had a lot of competition,” she adds. “We can probably say that we are the market leader for African-American romance. Where other houses are doing it, they haven’t really dedicated a line to it, or an imprint. It’s basically books they publish here and there with the rest of their list.”

Still, Kimani’s series lines—where the brand is emphasized above the individual author—total only 72 titles a year, a small fraction of Harlequin’s overall output. Not all Kimani’s authors are black, and while Howard cites “different talent pools,” there don’t seem to be any hard numbers on how many writers—or readers—are black, Hispanic, or Asian (to be fair, the company lists 1,300 different authors). “It’s a constant rotation for some authors. It seems like a demographic that’s constantly changing.”

The 27-year-old RWA, which is based in Texas, counts some 9,500 members, but a spokesperson draws a blank when asked about the ethnicity of its authors and readers. While there are plenty of market-research factoids available—half of all paperbacks are romance—the RWA’s race demographics are curiously blank. Its tally of romance category sales for 2006 can be precisely divided into 17 percent historical, 9 percent paranormal, and so forth, but there’s no accounting for whether black/ethnic falls into contemporary (16 percent) or just plain “other” (5 percent).

Nor do publishers seem to know these demographics. “Harlequin doesn’t have any firm numbers that reflect the ethnic profile of its readers,” says Howard.

Here in Seattle, the demographics of romance authorship could reasonably be expected to look like those of the city: about 69 percent white, 14 percent Asian, and 8 percent black. But when asked to cite some nonwhite representatives from its 145-writer membership, the GSRWA finds two.

Elizabeth Flynn writes under the pen name of Eilis Flynn (The Sleeper Awakes, Festival of Stars). Notwithstanding the Irish surname (by marriage), she’s Japanese-American and has puzzled over the lack of Asian faces both at RWA conferences and GSRWA meetings for the past dozen years. “It’s still, I think, overwhelmingly white,” she says. “You see more people of color” at national conferences, she adds, but the workshops there on multiculturalism have focused on African-American and Latina concerns.

So where are the daughters, so to speak, of Amy Tan? Flynn doesn’t see many, and would like to see more. The broader problem, she speculates, is that Asian readers tend to get lumped together with Caucasians. And if the heroine of a romance is Asian (as in her Festival of Stars), it’s shelved with the general (white) contemporary category. What if the Asian-American heroine were more prominent on the cover of the book? “I think that would possibly limit the readership,” concludes Flynn, who by day is the managing editor of a financial magazine.

Dona Sarkar-Mishra was born in Nepal to a family of Indian heritage, then moved to Michigan as a girl. Now 27, she’s been a Kirkland resident since she went to work at Microsoft in 2002. After joining the GSRWA soon thereafter, she began concentrating on the young-adult end of the romance spectrum, resulting in a sale of two forthcoming titles to Harlequin’s Kimani Press: How to Salsa in a Sari, a multicultural coming-of-age tale, and Shrink to Fit, which features an African-American heroine with an eating disorder. Never mind that the latter is often considered to be a “white” disease, says Sarkar-Mishra, who grew up in Detroit (where whites are a minority) and went to college in Ann Arbor.

As a young reader with a diverse group of friends in the ’90s, she remembers, “There were hardly any ethnic authors. I didn’t have many role models. I was a Harlequin reader.” That meant ad hoc multiculturalism, mixing Nora Roberts with Amy Tan and Jane Austen. Later, however, she discovered authors like Jhumpa Lahiri, whose The Namesake recently became an acclaimed movie.

Planning to write future projects on the grown-up side of romance (she prefers the term “women’s fiction”), Sarkar-Mishra points to an industry door opening ever so slightly to ethnic chick-lit titles like China Dolls (a kind of Asian Sex and the City clone written by Michelle Yu and Blossom Kan) and The Hindi-Bindi Club (mothers and daughters squabble over whom to marry in a tale by Monica Pradhan). “I think it’s very salable,” she says of ethnically themed romance writing, one reason Harlequin has been aggressively courting such authors.

That said, Sarkar-Mishra concedes that “the GSRWA is predominantly white” (see Karla Starr’s Tome Raider, “Romance Writers Find Power in Numbers,” May 16). But she points outside the group to a Northwest concentration of South Asian women writers, not all of whom would necessarily call themselves romance specialists. Locally, Bharti Kirchner has enjoyed success with novels like Pastries, while Anjali Banerjee (Invisible Lives) and Indu Sundaresan (The Splendor of Silence) also traffic in affairs of the heart.

But there’s no South Asian romance writers’ group as such, either locally or nationally, and Sarkar-Mishra echoes Flynn’s comments about Asian writers when she says, “If it’s not African-American fiction, it’s Caucasian—and no in-between.”

Martin-Arnold has no problem with her novels being stocked in grocery stores—or anywhere, for that matter. In fact, she’s direct-selling her fourth novel, Chocolate Friday (English professor falls for younger hip-hop dancer who later turns up in her classroom), at her restaurant, Philadelphia Fevre, a 24-year-old neighborhood institution that sits just east of the intersection of Madison and 23rd. Buy the book, and you get two bucks off your order.

It is here, over the “Edwina salad” (a tasty hybrid of cheese steak and greens), that Martin-Arnold explains some of her marketing methodology. The lunch break is also a business errand, as she’s delivering provisions to the eatery, which she and her husband purchased from founder Renee LeFevre eight years ago. Her busy days also typically entail a stop at the salon-barbershop her family owns in Renton, which is why she usually does her writing late at night, without a minimum daily word count or page quota. She is clearly not a woman who can afford to linger for hours over her laptop at Starbucks; her life, like those of her readers, is too hectic for that.

“The only thing holding me back is me,” she says between bites, nabbing the occasional onion ring for punctuation. “I’m just writing slowly.” She’s “about three-quarters done” with the Harlequin sequel to House Guest, tentatively titled Invitation Only, in which the gal pal of House Guest‘s heroine gets her chance to shine. “If I were making a living on this, yes, there would be a quota,” she adds. “I’d have to put out three or four books a year.”

She has a goal of two books for 2008, which she hopes to promote at Romance Slam Jam, an annual conference of black writers and readers to be held next year in Chicago. Unlike the mostly white RSA confabs, she’s been a regular attendee at the Slam Jams, where stars like Francis Ray, Beverly Jenkins, Brenda Jackson, and Evelyn Palfrey mingle with fans. “Those are the pioneers,” says Martin-Arnold, who considers these women to be very much her role models.

Likewise, Martin-Arnold recognizes the need for self-promotion. “Marketing to me is how much you wanna put into it,” she says. “I work the Northwest. I sell as many books as I have energy to. You gotta keep plugging. And now, I haven’t really taken advantage of the fact that I have a large publisher behind me. I do the circuit with Barnes & Noble and with Borders. I find that if you contact the bookstore and let ’em know [you’ll be traveling in the area], they’re pretty receptive.”

That DIY ethos particularly applies to Chocolate Friday, which she self-published as an experiment through her own company, UrbanKind Press. Of the book’s 3,000-copy print run, she says, “I made my money back and then some. Some people might think it’s backwards: Because here you are published [with Harlequin], and you want to self-publish. But I wanted to see what the process was from the bottom up, from when I first put it in the typewriter to getting it to finished product.”

Her entrepreneurial drive extends to in-home marketing, networking through friends, and online forums. And she’s not shy about public speaking, of course (“I was a trial lawyer”). After such presentations, “it turns to sisterhood time,” she says, which amounts to research for future projects. Romance tends to be tightly outlined and structured, and Martin-Arnold says, “My stories come from bits and pieces of life that I fit into that structure. Truth is stranger than fiction; if you just pay attention, you see the oddest things. Once I find a good conflict, I try to build a story around that.”

One such conflict, widely reported following recent census data, is the widening class and education gap between marriageable black men and women. The latter outnumber the former on college campuses and at grad schools, and then into the white-collar workplace life. For this reason, the dating gap is a recurrent point of conversation during sisterhood time. “That’s constantly a problem,” says Martin-Arnold.

Thinking back to those days when she and her husband—now happily married 20 years—were dating in college (and often dining at Philadelphia Fevre), she recalls the same phenomenon: “Your dating pool was limited.” Then, as now, Martin-Arnold was a striver. Raised in Spanaway, she attended college at the University of Washington and law school at the University of Puget Sound before meeting a similarly ambitious black guy.

She recalls there was more of a stigma against a black woman dating across color lines on campus than there is now. As she’s realized through her kids, “All of that has really changed.” She also notes that Sandra Kitt, one of Harlequin’s very first black authors, made a specialty out of a formerly taboo subject, writing frequently about interracial romance.

Today, among her friends, Martin-Arnold advises thusly: “If they’re open [about dating], there are a lot of men out there.” Yet she is none too patient with women who passively gripe about the situation. “A lot of them, they’re bitter. If I weren’t with my husband, I’d have no problem getting a man—because of my attitude.” Just like the heroines in her books.

The dating gap may also figure in terms of industrywide demand. Says Glenda Howard, “I think that is part of the need to show you can have successful relationships, you can have successful marriages. Sometimes, in the romance novel, he doesn’t have to be a white-collar worker. It can be a blue-collar guy who gets the girl who works in the white-collar field. We just try to show these kinds of relationships can work.”

Though Martin-Arnold is clearly coming from an educated, buppie demographic, Howard thinks her work is in keeping with tradition. “From its inception, from when these romance novels were first written, the characters were aspirational,” she says. “We always wanted them to be professional, own their own companies, have these wonderful jobs and careers, [visit] these wonderful vacation spots. Consumers were really drawn to these types of books, because you really don’t see a lot of this portrayed in the media.”

Romance is supposed to be optimistic, after all, with a strong element of wish fulfillment. Not that Martin-Arnold wants to be writing a black version of Dynasty, she cautions: “I really struggle to be realistic. I have two or three [friends] I depend on to keep it real.”

She also meets with a writers’ group whose three other members happen to be black. Should a new spot become available, she says, “We’re open to anyone” of any color. It remains to be seen if the romance industry will embrace the same policy.