Romance fiction is the Rodney Dangerfield of the publishing world: It don't get no respect.
This, despite the fact that romance is the most consistently profitable genre in an unsettlingly shaky business. Last year, romance alone contributed more than $1 billion to publishing's diminished coffers. And a growing amount of that income comes from romances written by ethnic writers for ethnic readers.
Romance novels have always been popular with ethnic readers — despite the fact that for the longest time, the heroines on the covers looked nothing like the women avidly consuming them.
"That's why I started writing stories when I was in the eighth grade," says best-selling writer Brenda Jackson. "I wanted heroines who looked like me." Jackson grew up in Florida with a mother and grandmother who loved romance fiction. "I came up with Cinderella and Snow White and all the Disney princesses. Anything that, in the end, my mom or my grandmother would always say, 'And they lived happily ever after.' That stuck with me — and I wanted it for myself, and for my readers."
So Jackson makes sure her books are saturated with black culture and customs. Her heroines and heroes have money (sometimes inherited, often made through hard work), and are connected to their families and communities. And there is lots of sex — although Jackson insists on it being portrayed a certain way.
"I pretty much go into the bedroom," she says firmly. "I don't just close the door and let the reader wonder what's going on. But I do it tastefully." She says she's gotten thank-you notes from grateful husbands who appreciate the source of their wives' newfound inspiration. Jackson's tenure in the industry has garnered her a devoted following — and, this year, Romance Writers of America's Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award, the highest honor the industry can bestow.
"I want young women of all races to see that there can be a happy ending in real life — but you have to work at it. I've been married since I was 19, to my high school sweetheart who is still the man of my dreams," Jackson smiles. She flashes the small gold and diamond going-steady ring her husband of 40 years gave her when she was 15. "I wear it proudly!"
Michelle Monkou is as reserved as Jackson is ebullient. She, too, is a romance writer, and is a past president of Romance Writers of America. There were ethnic writers who broke barriers in the '80s — beginning with Newsweek editor Elsie B. Washington, who penned Entwined Destinies under the name Rosalind Welles. Washington's editor, Vivian Stephens, later created the first ethnic romance line. But Monkou says it was Terry McMillan's How Stella Got Her Groove Back that made mainstream publishers realize black readers would pay handsomely for black love stories.
Stella, Monkou says, "gave mainstream publishers a peek into the appetite of [ethnic] readers, and they got interested and presented imprints for it." And the books have been selling briskly ever since. The advent of e-books has boosted sales even more, Monkou says, because authors have more control over their product.
"You don't have to wait for the validation or confirmation from marketing teams," she explains. Especially when the marketing departments of many mainstream publishers are, essentially, clueless when it comes to positioning ethnic romances with people of color. Which seems economically shortsighted.
"Unfortunately, romance written by people of color has occupied a unique space within the romance genre," says Sarah Wendell, co-founder of the blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, an exhaustively thorough and delightfully snippy analysis of romance fiction for both readers and writers. Wendell says that in past years, bookstores often shelved romances by ethnic writers in sections reserved for ethnic subjects. "And romance readers would never leave the romance section to look for, say, African-American romance novels, because "why would it be anywhere else?"
Like Michelle Monkou, Wendell says the Internet is rapidly changing everything, "as more readers discover books online instead of in brick-and-mortar bookstores."
And that's its own kind of Happily Ever After (or HEA, as it's known in the trade) for the publishing industry. America's becoming more diverse every day, which means the future for ethnic romances looks pretty rosy.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It has been a rough couple of years for the publishing industry, but things would have been far worse were it not for romance fiction. Sales in that genre have held pretty steady - more than a billion dollars last year. And one of the brightest spots has been romances aimed at ethnic readers. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has the story.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Welcome to the annual convention of Romance Writers of America. RWA is the trade association devoted to the care and advocacy of romance writers everywhere. And while you might think romances are all about porcelain-skin women who are clasped, by their narrow waist, to a rock-hard hero's sun-bronzed chest - uh-uh. Not anymore. Proof of that is this year's recipient of RWA's Lifetime Achievement Award. By this year's end, Brenda Jackson will have had 96 of her African-American romance novels published.
BRENDA JACKSON: I'm set to publish my 100th book in November 2013.
BATES: Jackson was the first black romance author to make the New York Times best-seller list. And unlike Danielle Steel, who writes popular romances from a hilltop mansion, Jackson, until she retired, wrote as she juggled her day job and family obligations.
JACKSON: I used to get up at 3 o'clock in the morning and write my stories, and then go to work. Take my kids to ball practice, whatever, and sit in the car and do my editing then, and still take care of my husband at night. And when he go to sleep, I'm back at my computer.
BATES: Jackson says she's loved romantic stories since she was in middle school, except for this:
JACKSON: None of those people looked like me, and that's why I wrote my own stories. That's why, in the eighth grade, I wanted to write stories that looked like me.
BATES: Doing that has made Brenda Jackson a consistent best-seller. Black women snap up her books. Sometimes, so do their men, because Jackson likes to write steamy romances.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S GET IT ON")
JACKSON: I pretty much go into the bedroom. I don't just close the door and let the readers wonder what goes on. But I do it tastefully.
BATES: No "Fifty Shades" here - which, by the way, is romance - kinky division. Like Brenda Jackson, Michelle Monkou is African-American, and she's a past president of RWA. Monkou says Terry McMillan's 1996 best-seller "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" brought black romance to the general public's attention. It was an indication of how the market could expand.
MICHELLE MONKOU: It gave mainstream publishers a peek into the appetite of readers. Then the mainstream got interested, and presented imprints for it.
BATES: Eventually, many of the genre's major publishers signed black writers, but getting published was just the first challenge. Getting a good spot in book stores was the next. Michelle Monkou says the rise of e-books has reduced that obstacle considerably.
MONKOU: You don't have to wait for the validation or confirmation from marketing teams - because I feel the marketing, in the publishing houses, try to determine what the reader's appetite will be, and I think they're underestimating the sophistication of romance readers.
BATES: The success of the early African-American writers spawned writers of other ethnicities. Latinas, Asians and Native Americans have all written romances, and many have fans outside their respective ethnic communities. Camy Tang, a bubbly young woman with fuschia-streaked hair, is autographing her books out on the cavernous signing floor. Tang says her parents were OK when she wanted to ditch a career in biology to write Christian-themed romances.
CAMY TANG: They're so proud of me; that I was able to succeed in a business that's so difficult, especially for people in minorities.
BATES: Tang's latest novel is "Protection for Hire."
TANG: The heroine is the niece of the Japanese mafia boss in San Francisco, and she works for him. But she went to jail for her cousin, for a murder she didn't commit. And then she finds Jesus in jail.
BATES: Tang's heroine is released eventually, but her uncle wants her to go back to her old job immediately. But she can't; she's been saved. Her happily ever after - or HEA, as they say around here - comes with a former adversary: the lawyer who put her away. The romance industry's HEA may come as an increasingly diverse group of writers swells its sails.
Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.