Meet The Women Who Are Building A Better Romance Industry


Posted on: May 6, 2018

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At the offices of Kensington Publishing Corporation, in Midtown Manhattan, I am greeted by a wall of gently cascading water and an African American receptionist who ushers me into a meeting room. Kensington, which styles itself as “America’s independent publisher,” has been churning out fiction and nonfiction since the family business was founded in 1974, and chugs along smoothly still. In 2017, the publisher turned out just over 700 books, with about 35% of them falling under the romance umbrella, which includes historical, contemporary, suspense, paranormal, and so on. It is also the home of Alyssa Cole’s Loyal League miniseries, a trio of historical romances set during the American Civil War, specifically telling the stories of black men and women.

Cole’s stories are striking because of their intensity. Her back catalog may be abundant in novellas, but the Kensington phase of her writing is marked by the Loyal League novels. For the dramatic backdrops to her love stories, she has chosen war and other political upheavals — the civil rights movement and the fight for suffrage, for example — as well as post-apocalyptic settings. While most of her heroines are black women, the cast of characters are ethnically diverse. She admits to having lofty hopes for her books. “Sometimes I hear romance authors say they’re not writing the Great American Novel, and I’m like, ‘Well, if you're not trying to, that's on you,’” she says, laughing. “I'm never going to say that just because there are people having sex and love in [my books].” As a testament to her skill, a Kirkus review called her work “masterful” and An Extraordinary Union was named as a top pick of 2017 by publications as varied as Vulture, Booklist, and Publishers Weekly.

Author Alyssa Cole at the Jefferson Market Library in Manhattan.

Melissa Bunni Elian for BuzzFeed News

The stories in The Loyal League have roots in an unlikely place. In the author’s note at the back of An Extraordinary Union — the first book in the trilogy — Cole writes, “Many things fed into the ideas that formed this book, but first and foremost was Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog.” She laughs and nods emphatically when I ask about it. “I found his blog in 2008 or so, blogging about comic books, and I started reading it every day when I was at work,” she says. “And then he started getting into war stuff. It was nerd heaven.” For history buff Cole, 35, Coates’s interest — and the knowledge of his community of commenters — came at exactly the right time. “At this point, I was trying to write romance seriously and I’d just started reading a lot of historicals — I was reading Julie Garwood and Judith McNaught and loving them. I started reading Courtney Milan. But I didn’t think I would write historicals.”

"Many things fed into the ideas that formed this book, but first and foremost was Ta-Nehisi Coates's blog."

Coates’s writing about the Freedom Riders and the student activism of the civil rights movement stirred a particular romance writer’s urge in Cole. “In my mind, I'll see the most messed-up thing, and I'll be like, but...what if people were kissing?” She laughs and shakes her head. It wasn’t long before she started publishing short stories: Her first was “Sweet to the Taste” in January 2014, and a month later, she published “Eagle’s Heart” with another small independent press, and by the end of the year she had a story placed in a Revolutionary War anthology, For Love & Liberty. Cole writes characters that are not only present at significant points and locations in history — Juneteenth, in Alexander Hamilton’s battalion, a suffragette on the cusp of the Harlem Renaissance, etc. — but are integral to those moments as well.

When Coates brought up Harriet Tubman being a spy, Cole was reading independently about Mary Bowser, the black woman with the eidetic memory who was a spy in Confederate leader Jefferson Davis’s household (her An Extraordinary Union heroine, Elle Burns, is based on Bowser). “I was like, we were around for all this stuff! And I can make these stories that include us.” A short story became a novella, and Cole kept going. She wrote hard and fast to finish a draft during November’s National Novel Writing Month, figuring 30 days was a reasonable sacrifice for the project even if it went nowhere. “And then I finished it, and I was like, I think this is good.” An agent liked it just as much, and Cole’s manuscript made its way to Kensington, landing on senior editor Esi Sogah’s desk.

Senior editor Esi Sogah at Kensington Publishing Corp.

Melissa Bunni Elian for Buzzfeed News

Sogah, 36, is something of a romance veteran, having spent seven and a half years at Avon Books before moving to Kensington five and a half years ago, as well as being a lifelong romance reader who grew up swiping her mother’s love stories. Cole’s book came to Sogah at a critical point in her own career. At the DC premiere of 2015’s romance novel documentary Love Between the Covers, veteran romance writer Beverly Jenkins said something that resonated with Sogah during the panel discussion afterward. “She said she was tired of being the only person out there writing historical romance with African American people in it,” says Sogah. “And I was like, I should do something about that!” And when Cole’s book crossed her desk, she was empowered at Kensington, she says, to do just that.

Sogah credits the head of the company, Steven Zacharius (who took over from his father, and who regularly attends editorial meetings) with the company’s “try it and see what works” ethos. “I came to the editorial meeting, and I started describing the plot and I saw eyes lighting up,” Sogah says. “There hasn't been a time where I felt like I need to convince anyone that people will be interested in reading about black people during the Civil War, in a romance. When I started in romance, I would not have expected to have had that path.”

In survey after survey on the demographics of publishing, from the executive level, circling through marketing and sales and all the way through to reviewers, the trends are stubbornly constant: 79% of the industry overall is white, and that rises to 89% in the realm of reviewing, while straight people account for 88% of the industry. As author Brit Bennett noted in a sobering December 2017 tweet, “The average book will pass through a white agent, a white editor, a white publicist, a white sales team, a white cover artist, and white booksellers. And this process is considered natural and objective.”

In a genre where the focus is already so firmly female, romance is undergoing its own series of ructions regarding diversity, access, and inclusion.

Diversifying publishing is a war being fought on many fronts, from the continued efforts of smaller independent presses to dedicated initiatives designed to widen participation. There are more interrogations into the frequency and diversity of characters that deviate from the usual templates of what is considered worthy of good, complex storytelling as well as meta tracking of things like who gets to write the narratives of marginalized groups. It’s a moment that has caught fire in one billion-dollar (and 34% share) market in particular in recent years: romance.

In a genre where the focus is already so firmly female, romance is undergoing its own series of ructions regarding diversity, access, and inclusion. To date, no black author has ever been awarded the RITA, the Romance Writers of America’s award for excellence in romantic fiction. (Alyssa Cole has been a finalist twice, in 2016 and 2017.) By the RWA’s own count, less than 0.5% of the total number of finalist books have been by black authors since 2000. (Consider that veteran author Nora Roberts has won across categories no fewer than 21 times since 1983.) Inversely, a 2014 Pew Research study found that college-educated black women are the most likely to read a book in any format. The disconnect between creators, characters, readers, and industry recognition is stark.

In 2016, LA-based romance bookstore the Ripped Bodice began its now-annual racial diversity audit of mainstream romance publishing, tracking “the publication of books written by authors of color and indigenous peoples in the romance genre.” That first report, The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing, collected information from mainstream US publishers including Random House and Crimson Romance, a recently closed Simon & Schuster digital imprint. Even a quick skim of the report showed a clear skew: It concluded that for every 100 romance books published by leading houses in 2016, just 7.8% were written by people of color. In the 2017 report, this proportion dropped even further, to 6.2%.

But one house stayed steady amid the change: Kensington. In fact, one of its titles, Cole’s novel An Extraordinary Union, was the Ripped Bodice’s second-largest-selling title of 2017. (According to Kensington, it is currently in its third printing.) The company has forged a chain uncommon in mainstream publishing: an unbroken line of black women, from the novel’s protagonist, via the author, to the editor, to the art director who created the cover art (featuring a black woman).

This was a “black on all sides” mainstream publishing project. And it worked.

Kensington Publishing Art Director Kris Noble in her Midtown office.

Melissa Bunni Elian for Buzzfeed News

When I tell Kensington’s art director Kris Noble that I picked up An Extraordinary Union because of the cover design, she laughs. “That's good to hear! One of the things on my website is: Always judge a book by its cover.” All of the covers in the Loyal League series were art-directed by Noble, and they all feature black models. Racial representation has been a noted feature of her career since the beginning.

Starting out as a junior designer at Random House in 1980, Noble has seen, as she calls it, “the waves of African Americans” a few times now. Over the 17 years she was at Random House, she worked her way up to art director, and she recalls how mainstream publishing used to be even more monochrome. “I've been in publishing, like, almost 40 years, right? I was one of the founding members of One World, which was the first African American imprint in a mainstream publishing house, and that was five black women,” she says. (The other four women are Cheryl Woodruff, Beverly Robinson, Brenda Brown, and Tamu Alajuwani.) “And then when I came here and this project came up, I was like, ‘Yes, sisters!’” She laughs, before saying sotto voce, “Wakanda forever.”

“I think society has pigeonholed African Americans to look like one thing or the other. It's either we look like Halle Berry or like Naenae from the block."

One of the stories Woodruff, the founding editor of One World, has told about the early days of the imprint involves the image on the jacket of Bebe Campbell Moore’s coming-of-age novel Sweet Summer, a book she acquired in 1991. In Jewels: 50 Phenomenal Black Women Over 50, Woodruff recalls: “This was a coming-of-age story that takes place in Philadelphia and rural North Carolina. It was a brilliant book, and on the cover the art director had put a photograph of an African girl in a head wrap walking across the desert. I lost it.” Creating covers that reflect both the content of the books and the diversity within blackness is something she strives for and so a mismatch between content and cover is what Noble seeks to avoid at all costs. But she admits there are persistent challenges to doing that.

“I think society has pigeonholed African Americans to look like one thing or the other,” she says. “It's either we look like Halle Berry or like Naenae from the block, you know what I mean? And the modeling agencies tend to go for what they think the client is going to want.” Noble gestures at me, and then at herself. “It really is difficult to find models who represent what we know — people who look like your auntie, or my sister. So we have to search many houses.” It’s slightly better now though, she says; back in the day, Noble had to take matters into her own hands by going casting herself. “I would go into gyms and look at people and be like, ‘You wanna go on a book cover?’ and hand them my business card.” She raises her brows. “It looked like the casting couch.”

Noble got her first taste of creative control with One World and is very aware of how many filters a book goes through in order to get into a reader’s hands. She has sometimes had to be a sort of translator over the course of her career. “I've been everywhere. I've been at Random House, Simon & Schuster, I mean, I think I've hit every publishing house out there. What’s good at Kensington is that they would also ask me to read the books. Most art directors don't get that.” Cole, who had been used to self-publishing or digitally publishing, was more at home with stock photos, which are still quite limited in choice. When she found out Noble was a black woman, she was blown away. “When I met Kris, I said, ‘She’s black!’” she says, laughing. “She had a Daughters of the Dust poster on the wall, and I was so happy.”

For Cole, a black editor on a project like hers means a sharing of the burden of telling emotionally draining stories about black people in history.

While covers are uniquely important to how enticing a book will be for a browsing reader, the path to publishing a book must first begin with intense conversations and collaboration between writer and editor. For Cole, who received rejections with some notes along the lines of “I couldn’t really connect with the characters,” having Sogah as an editor has been both reassuring and exciting. “I've worked with really amazing nonblack editors, [but when] Esi acquired the book, I was so happy because she is one of the few black editors, and for this particular story it felt good to have that kind of background,” she says. “I didn't want to have to explain emotionally sensitive things.”

For Cole, a black editor on a project like hers means a sharing of the burden of telling emotionally draining stories about black people in history. “It does make me feel like I can come with certain concerns and they will understand,” she says. The trust they’ve built working on the first two Loyal League books no doubt informed the ambition of Cole’s An Unconditional Freedom, the final book of the trilogy that will be published this October. In it, Cole tells a story of a freedman resold into slavery, and her research spanned the globe, from England to Cuba, Russia, and back to America. Through the process of writing it, she has been solidly guided by Sogah, the calm editor such a vast, painful, and ambitious project needs.

An exclusive look at the cover of An Unconditional Freedom by Alyssa Cole.

Kensington Publishing

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