Bad Romance part 3: Demanding greater diversity in who gets a happily ever after in romance

Updated May 8 2018
Guest post by Jasmine Silvera

Hi, Homies! In preparation for a Seattle event I'm hosting on May 8th 2018, let's talk about feminist romance novels. More info about the event at the end of the post… xo, Ariel

Dancer’s Flame by Jasmine Silvera
You can meet Jasmine Silvera, author of Dancer’s Flame and Death's Dancer

In case you missed them, don't miss parts one and two of the Bad Romance post series!

“If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must
write it.” -Toni Morrison

At a lunch with author TJ Barry the other day, the conversation circled back to romance, and she brought up an interesting point about the way self-publishing speeds up the ability of authors to respond to political and social changes in our work.

One of the big success stories in self-publishing is romance. According to popular platform Smashwords, the genre dominates the market. With a few clicks any writer can become an author. Which makes it possible that a novel most major publishing houses and quite a few small presses would have turned down, one that hasn’t seen an editor’s red pen, or even a proofreader will wind up on Amazon more than in other genres.

There’s an argument for gatekeepers, right? Not so fast.

Not all self-published authors are the same. Not all indie-published books are created equally. Courtney Milan, started out in traditional publishing and took what she learned with her when she told the stories her publisher wasn't into. Elizabeth Hunter, considered the “self-publishing” a misnomer in recognition of the professional editors and designers working as a team with the author to put out a high quality product and a damn good story. Alisha Rai has found mainstream audiences with traditional publishing after having started with small digital presses and self publishing. For Alyssa Cole, success comes from being a mixture of both traditionally and indie-published.

Indie publishing is playing in removing barriers to entry for authors of color telling stories…

That three of these authors are women of color is notable as part of the role indie publishing is playing in removing barriers to entry for authors of color telling stories about characters that resemble them and the world in their experience.

If the genre has elevated pursuit of happiness by white upper middle class hetero-cis couples, it's a reflection on the publishing industry… the gatekeepers. For the second year in a row, the annual survey of diversity in publishing conducted by the Ripped Bodice bookstore makes it clear how little has changed.

The industry is rife with stories of writers being told that protagonists of color don't sell. Publishers blame having no idea how to market books with non-white heroes/heroines. And most traditional houses suffer from a lack of editorial staff of color.

The industry is rife with stories of writers being told that protagonists of color don't sell.

Where does that leave readers looking to see themselves reflected satisfying relationships? Relegated to their section of the bookstore. Way back in 2012, the conversation about shelving was going on around books by erotic novelist Zane, shelved in the African American section.

While I’m not nearly well versed enough to comment in depth on LGBTQ romance and its authors, an ever-expanding market of romance written by/for shows a hunger for happily ever afters and relationships beyond the hetero-cis pairings (and don’t get me started on the hand wringing at the idea that of straight women might also read male/male romances…now, the end is truly NIGH!)

Indie publishing is one way for authors to find their audiences when the avenues to traditional publication are closed. They are also proving quality is not defined by validation from a publishing house. In 2015, when the first self-published book appeared on the Washington Post's best of the year lists, noted historical romance author and Washington Post columnist Sarah MacLean was the least surprised to find an outstanding novel in the ranks of the indies.

Changes in the publishing industry makes romance ideally positioned to explore how movement toward equality in access is changing what the HEA looks like, and who gets to have them.

Just as feminism at its best seeks equality across gender and race, changes in the publishing industry makes romance ideally positioned to explore how movement toward equality in access is changing what the HEA looks like, and who gets to have them.

So, how about some male/male secret agent thriller? An interracial “fake to real relationship” about a billionaire tycoon and his socialite bride? Geeks who find love building games and fighting misogyny in the tech industry? Chinese steampunk? Historical romances set in the post Civil War west with African American protagonists?

According to the Ripped Bodice survey, you’ll find a small percentage published by traditional imprints: Berkley, Harlequin, St. Martins. But a willingness to explore the landscape outside the gates is worth your time.

Where to begin? If you like traditionally written reviews, consider regular romance entries at the Washington Post, Bustle, Book Riot, NPR, or The Seattle Review of Books.

Or get lost in the Smart Bitches Trashy Books database with books listed by trope and graded +A to DNF (did not finish). It’s okay if you’ve never read a romance novel, or spent your entire life mocking them. We can all be redeemed (except the Nazis, nobody’s kissing them).

Here’s another story with a happily ever after. A few weeks ago, comedian Paul Scheer took to the internet to mock the cover of a hockey romance and readers challenged him to read the damn thing. He wound up live-tweeting his reading. (Spoiler alert: he liked it).

So, dear reader, if you’ve made it this far, I offer you a challenge. Don’t be like Paul: find a romance novel and read it. Here are a few authors bringing romance in to the 21st century that I fully endorse:

  • Beverly Jenkins (historical from a US African American experience)
  • Alyssa Cole (contemporaries, post-apocalypse)
  • Courtney Milan (contemporary, historical)
  • Farrah Rochon (contemporaries and small town)
  • Kit Rocha (post-apocalypse, polyamory, BDSM)
  • Marjorie Liu (urban fantasy and fantasy romance)
  • Jeannie Lin (historical fantasy romance set in China)
  • Tessa Dare (historical)
  • Sara MacLean (historical)
  • Damon Suede (m/m contemporary)
  • Elizabeth Hunter (urban fantasy, romantic fantasy)

And if you don’t find something that piques your interest, let me know. I’m always happy to make recommendations.

Ooh an event in Seattle!


Tuesday, May 8, 2018 from 6 PM – 9 PM


The Lab at Ada's Technical Books
425 15th Ave E, Seattle, Washington 98112


Offbeat Bride author Ariel Meadow Stallings hosts a discussion with local writer Jasmine Silvera about the rise of the feminist romance novel and Jasmine's new book, Dancer's Flame. The authors will explore ways the genre's centering of relationships and female pleasure is evolving, judgments about the genre (does enjoying romance make you a "bad feminist"?), and how the "diversity problem" in publishing determines who gets a happy ever after.

  1. I would really love to attend, but live too far away. Any chance the event will be recorded and posted online?

  2. Thanks for publishing this 3-part series on romance novels! As someone that works in the small publishing industry (admin side, my writing is mostly for me and then some fanfic), I'm pleased to see indie writers being touted.

    It was mentioned in one of the parts of the article series, but reviews, reviews, reviews!!! Even the bad ones are "helpful" in their own way (my company pulled a book for review/editing after parts of it were consistently criticized as being lackluster, with very good points being made). And if they are good reviews, it boosts the viewability and numbers up.

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