By Alyssa Haduck
The first season of Netflix’s hit historical drama “Bridgerton” treated more than 80 million global households to a Regency-era romp, complete with compelling characters, eye-candy costumes, and excitement in both the ballroom and the bedroom — and in the library, on a picnic, against a tree …
While season two of the Shonda Rhimes (“Grey’s Anatomy”) show progressed in a slow burn, the longing just left viewers wanting more, with the second season surpassing the first as Netflix’s most popular English-language TV series of all time.
Preparations for the third season of “Bridgerton” are already underway and most notably include a departure from the sequential order of the bestselling romance novels on which the series is based. But this separation from source material is nothing new for the show.
“Bridgerton” broke the mold of typical period pieces by casting characters of color in roles representing early-1800s aristocrats. The characters in the “Bridgerton” book series are white. And while the romance genre has long offered diverse love stories for those who seek them out, the show’s inclusive portrayals have further highlighted the literary genre’s ongoing struggles to elevate diverse narratives.
“We have been desperate to make our voices heard, to represent our communities the best ways we know how, all while being told our stories aren’t relatable or aren’t meant for a wider audience — and then ‘Bridgerton’ goes and puts two South Asian women at the forefront (of its second season),” said a Chicago-based South Asian romance author who writes under the pen name Suleikha Snyder. “It’s hurtful, and honestly might even be undercutting us in terms of being able to get our own stories out there.”
The billion-dollar romance industry recently suffered a high-profile incident involving its leading trade group, Romance Writers of America (RWA), which many in the comanche community called out for insufficient backing of authors of color. The conflict showed that in many ways, it is an industry still catching up to its creators and fans who have proven there is an audience for more diverse storytelling.
Record “Bridgerton” viewership drove a spike in interest in the overall genre, with U.S. print romance sales rising by 1.2 million units in the first quarter of 2021 following the show’s December 2020 debut, according to the market research firm NPD Group. But with more attention now being paid to elevating underrepresented voices in the genre, the romance community is demanding industry gatekeepers make much-needed progress — providing authors of color more opportunities to share their work, and giving these stories the marketing, promotion and overall investment befitting streaming’s next great romance.
The one-and-done fallacy
“Bridgerton” proved there is an appetite for diverse love stories on television, but that has not yet translated into more romance novels by authors of color. Experts and enthusiasts within the genre say readers want diverse narratives, too, but traditional publishing has failed to make these stories widely available.
In 2020, the industry’s top romance novel publishers only distributed 12 books written by authors of color for every 100 books published, according to a diversity study conducted by The Ripped Bodice, a Culver City, Calif., bookseller that became the country’s first romance-only bookstore in 2016. The study also estimated that nearly 92% of all romance books it surveyed in the past five years were written by white authors.
While members of the romance community have recently questioned The Ripped Bodice’s research methods, a New York Times study of fiction books released by major publishing houses reports similar findings: Just 11% of novels published in 2018 were written by authors of color.
“In publishing, a lot of people of color in romance are constantly being told there’s no audience for their books, but then when you look at indie- or self-published books, that’s clearly not true,” said Jennifer Prokop, a Chicago-based romance novel editor and cohost of the romance podcast “Fated Mates.” “Publishers will then say to authors who are querying, ‘We already have our Black author for this year,’ and so the pipeline is essentially one book wide.”
Yet even when publishers do decide to add more authors of color to their rosters, challenges for these creators continue. Many writers, like Ieshia Wiedlin, wonder if they have been selected for their talent, or for their race.
Wiedlin is a Chicago-based romance writer signed with Tule Publishing, a small publishing house that reported just 6% of its 2020 romance novels were written by authors of color, according to The Ripped Bodice’s study. Wiedlin experienced the consequences of this disparity firsthand while editing her debut novel, released in February.
“There would be phrases or situations that would get flagged in the editing process, and I would have to write a little note back to the editor to further explain myself,” she said. “There was a (lack of) clarity, which to me would be a signal for them to maybe add more Black editors to their editing pool, so when the next Black writer is signed, (editors) don’t have to question it.”
Publishing’s diversity dilemma
Publishing’s reluctance to expand diverse storytelling likely stems from its own lack of inclusivity at all levels and specializations — from literary executives and book agents, to sales representatives and interns. In 2015, 79% of publishing industry professionals considered themselves white, according to a diversity survey from independent publisher Lee & Low Books. In 2019, the survey showed a marginal improvement to 76%.
A need for increased diversity in publishing becomes even clearer when the industry’s demographics are compared with those of “Bridgerton,” which features color-conscious casting that is a hallmark of producer and Chicago native Rhimes. And while there may not have been any Black dukes dancing around Regency-era estates, the inclusive casting choices in “Bridgerton” reveal a greater truth about the minimization of the Black experience in mainstream historical fiction.
“Black people didn’t just drop out of the sky onto a slave ship in the early 17th century,” Chicago-based romance enthusiast Pamala Knight said. “You can look through Roman times, the Tudors — they’re in England, and other places as well, outside of Africa. It’s just that no one was telling those stories.”
Knight is a member of Chicago-North Romance Writers and co-chair of the organization’s biennial conference, which took place April 28-30. The group was once a chapter of the larger RWA, but a 2019 incident involving a prominent RWA member prompted the section to secede.
In 2019, Heidi Bond, a New York Times bestselling romance author who goes by the pseudonym Courtney Milan, was serving as the chair of RWA’s ethics committee when she publicly critiqued the social media activity and writing of two other RWA members. Among other criticisms, Milan, who has Chinese ancestry, described one member’s work with a half-Chinese character as “a f—ing racist mess.”
RWA issued a one-year suspension of Milan’s membership in the organization and a lifetime ban from serving in leadership positions after finding that her comments were “in violation of the organization’s expressed purpose of creating a ‘safe and respectful environment’ for its community of writers.”
The move sparked outrage among the romance community, which calls itself “Romancelandia,” motivating many to denounce RWA. But these difficult discussions could be paving the way for progress.
For 37 years, RWA presented its annual RITA Awards, named for the organization’s first president, Rita Clay Estrada. Author Kennedy Ryan became the first Black writer to receive a RITA in 2019. After romance’s recent controversy, however, RWA now calls its top award The VIVIAN, in honor of Vivian Stephens, a Black editor and founding member of the organization.
RWA has also made it a priority to invest in the scholarship of Black romance, awarding one of its 2021 RWA Academic Research Grants to Julie E. Moody-Freeman, an associate professor in African and Black diaspora studies at DePaul University in Chicago. Moody-Freeman is researching and documenting the history of Black romance via the “Black Romance Podcast.”
A shift in the industry has been brewing for years, according to Isabeau, a romance enthusiast living in Chicago who shares her thoughts on the genre via the “Whoa!mance” podcast along with co-host Morgan. (Like many in the romance community, Isabeau and Morgan prefer to maintain an air of mystery, so they have chosen to withhold their last names.)
“Before ‘Bridgerton,’ in the trenches of Romancelandia, people like Courtney Milan and others have been fighting the RWA institution for authors of color and been doing a lot of really good work on the ground that ‘Bridgerton’ was able to capitalize on,” she said. “So I don’t think that ‘Bridgerton’ is the first part of the wave. It’s catching the crest.”
And through Moody-Freeman’s conversations with both experienced and emerging Black romance writers, editors and experts, she has found that no matter the era, this drive to diversify the genre will not diminish among authors of color.
“We know those things will ebb and flow, come and go, but to me, the writers are the activists that will keep pushing,” she said. “When the mainstream culture gets tired of the trends, this will still be going because these writers and editors have a passion for this, and the readers are always hungry. We will continuously read, and follow, and buy, regardless of whether they want to put romance (on screen).”
Investing in authors of color
Knight, of Chicago-North Romance Writers, notes she has seen an increase in deal reports involving authors of color post-‘Bridgerton.’ However, she isn’t yet willing to count the uptick as an indicator of lasting change.
For diverse narratives to reach peak potential among readers, publishers must fully invest in the authors and their stories, she said. More than just making these books available, it is important to market them in a way that resonates with the right audiences.
“There’s a tendency to jump on that (diversity) bandwagon, but to not necessarily give those authors (of color) the support and time they need to be successful, instead saying, ‘OK, well, we tried. Let’s go back to the status quo,’” Knight said. “I hope that doesn’t happen. I hope that ‘Bridgerton’ can be a good thing.”
Chicagoan Kathy Douglass is also cautiously optimistic given her personal experience as an author of 12 books with HarperCollins’ Harlequin, a romance publishing powerhouse.
“I think publishers are becoming more aware that if you’ve made a good book, people are going to read it — Black people are going to read it, white people are going to read it, brown people, Asian people, whoever,” she said. This, though, comes with a caveat: “You have to have the book there, and you have to let people know the book exists.”
To ensure her titles are reaching the right readers, Douglass has enlisted the help of Honey Magnolia, a book packaging and promotion company that focuses on supporting underrepresented creators. Founder Keisha Mennefee started the business after releasing a few books of her own and finding that more could be done to amplify diverse voices beyond publishers’ efforts.
“There’s always the idea that everything’s one-size-fits-all, and that’s not the case,” she said. It takes a diverse team of marketers to understand the best ways to highlight the work of an author of color. “Really knowing your audience, knowing the client and being able to sell that is (a space where) I really want to help bridge the gap.”
Since launching in 2018, Honey Magnolia has worked to elevate the stories of hundreds of romance authors, including RITA winner Ryan, as well as USA Today bestselling authors Naima Simone and Andie J. Christopher. But Prokop, of “Fated Mates,” emphasizes that readers must also do their part to invest in diverse stories and storytellers — beyond simply bingeing “Bridgerton.”
“Buy the books you want to see in the world,” she said.
A DIY approach to diversity
Outside of publishing and promotion, some other members of Romancelandia have taken matters into their own hands when it comes to uplifting diverse voices, working directly with readers to make a change in the genre.
Verve Romance, a Chicago-based search engine startup, connects readers in more than 150 countries with works by self-, indie- and traditionally published authors, ensuring all stories and writers have the opportunity to thrive in the Verve network. Users can browse Verve’s extensive catalog by keyword, which enables the company to connect readers with a range of stories from a host of authors, all while sticking to the tropes and themes that most resonate with the searcher.
“It is absolutely our responsibility to reflect all of romance, not just one piece of romance — that would be missing the beauty of the genre,” Verve Romance founder and CEO Tracey Suppo said.
Promoting diverse love stories isn’t just happening online, but also in good old-fashioned brick-and-mortar retailers too. In the Chicago area, romance enthusiasts receive a similar experience in person at Tinley Park’s Love’s Sweet Arrow, the country’s second romance-only bookstore.
Mother-daughter duo Roseann and Marissa Backlin opened Love’s Sweet Arrow in June 2019. Their intimate knowledge of both the store’s inventory and the romance industry allow them to make precise book recommendations readers may not have considered themselves.
“If you just read about people like you,” Marissa Backlin said, “then you’re never going to be able to empathize with other people.”
While Netflix has not yet revealed a release date for the show’s third season, the Backlins will continue to keep “Bridgerton” books stocked for fans who frequent their shop. However, they also plan to direct customers to stories similar to “Bridgerton” and written by authors of color. With any luck, they will help build the fan base of Netflix’s next hit romance.
Alyssa Haduck is a sports media graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @Alyssa_Haduck.