Earlier this year, after having seen books like “Heroine Complex,” “Trade Me” and “Forbidden” fly off shelves at the Ripped Bodice, their Culver City, Calif., bookstore that specializes in romance fiction, Bea and Leah Koch got curious.
Seven of the 10 best-selling novels from the time of the store’s opening in March 2016 through the end of that year were written by nonwhite women. So why was the overall percentage of books that were written by nonwhite women and released by the major romance publishing imprints, like Avon Romance, at HarperCollins, and Berkley, at Penguin Random House, so low?
With its fainting-couch décor, the Ripped Bodice is an informal meeting place for romance readers, writers and publishers who linger at the store as they peruse titles, work on manuscripts and discuss industry trends.
Racial diversity — or the lack of it — in books by authors writing for big publishing houses, has been a frequent anecdotal topic. It is one that has become even more vexing to people in the romance book business since 2014, when a Pew study indicated that one of the most significant book-buying demographics is college-educated black women.
Leah and Bea, 25 and 27, decided to compile some data.
The sisters, who grew up in Chicago and whose father is Steve Koch — until recently the deputy to Mayor Rahm Emanuel — drew up a list of the 20 largest publishing imprints of romance novels and requested from each a list of every romance title published in 2016.
Eleven of the publishers agreed to provide their lists. For those who didn’t, Bea and Leah set out to create the list of books published and to identify each author’s race.
The result, released last week by the Ripped Bodice, is “The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing.” It reports that of the romance novels published in 2016 by the 20 largest imprints in the romance genre, 7.8 percent were written by nonwhite authors.
To account for instances in which biographical information on authors was scant or whether they missed titles on publishers’ lists, the sisters appended the study with a 2 percent margin of error.
Beverly Jenkins, a prolific author of historical and contemporary romantic suspense, is not surprised. “It’s indicative of every major industry, regardless of whether it’s publishing, academics, finance or government,” said Ms. Jenkins, who is black, in an interview earlier this week. “It’s a sign of how America treats people of color.”
When she was getting her start as an author in the 1980s, Ms. Jenkins said, publishers told her that they did not see a market for historical fiction about or for black people. “That was proved wrong because I have 37 books in print,” Ms. Jenkins said. Her subjects have included Harriet Tubman’s spy ring.
Her latest book, “Chasing Down a Dream,” is the eighth book in her women’s fiction series, “Blessings,” about a wealthy woman who saves from financial ruin a town in Kansas founded by freed slaves.
Ms. Jenkins’s novels are published by Avon Romance and William Morrow, both of which are imprints of HarperCollins. According to the Ripped Bodice survey, 2.8 percent of the books published in 2016 by Avon Romance were by nonwhite authors. (Avon declined to comment for this article.)
It’s tough for any new author to get a first book published, but some people say the bar is even higher for writers who aren’t white.
When Sonali Dev, a popular Indian-American romance and women’s fiction author, was shopping her first book to publishers, “The Bollywood Bride,” “big-name editors looked me straight in the eye, as if was perfectly normal, and said, ‘Well, is it possible to change one of the protagonists to white?’” she said.
At a book-industry seminar she attended, Ms. Dev says she asked a well-known agent who was sitting on a panel to address the difficulty that nonwhite authors face in trying to sell books that focus on people of different backgrounds.
“He said to me, ‘You write a ‘Kite Runner’ and no one can stop you,” referring to the 2003 international best-selling book written by Khaled Hosseini, an Afghan-American first-time author.
Ms. Dev replied, “So every time you get a white story, do you think it has to be ‘Gone With the Wind’?”
She remains exasperated by the exchange. “How many authors have their first book as their best book? You have to develop writers,” she said in a phone interview. “People of color get one shot only, if they get a shot at all.”
After more than two years and 50 rejections, she sold “The Bollywood Bride” and “A Bollywood Affair” in a two-book deal to Kensington. She has since published another novel with Kensington, and a fourth book, “A Distant Heart,” is set for publication at the end of the year.
She recently signed a new deal with William Morrow, a sister imprint of Avon Romance at HarperCollins, which rejected her back in 2012. She is switching publishers in part because she wants to expand beyond the romance genre into women’s fiction and believes her new publisher will make a better showing in future studies.
“They have made a concerted effort over last year to really increase their diversity,” Ms. Dev said.
Kensington Publishing, a family business founded in 1974 that publishes about 650 trade, mass-market, electronic and hardcover books each year, drew the highest rank on the Ripped Bodice report. Of its romance titles, nearly 20 percent were written by nonwhite authors.
Marketing a range of authors and stories has been a smart business strategy, said Steven Zacharius, the company’s chief executive. In 1994, Kensington introduced Arabesque, a romance-focused imprint for novels about and by black women. It was a success and was acquired by BET.
About 15 years ago, Kensington tried to start a bilingual Spanish imprint to bring romance novels to Hispanic women in America. This was before social media had become a large-scale phenomenon, and the effort faltered.
But the company still tries to find compelling stories that will appeal to often underserved readers. “We don’t do it to be politically correct,” Mr. Zacharius said. “We do well by doing good.”
That the best-performing company on the Ripped Bodice report has only 20 percent of its 2016 titles written by nonwhite people underscores a larger problem in the publishing industry, said Robin Bradford, the collection development librarian who purchases primarily adult fiction for the 27 branches of the Timberland Regional Library in Washington State.
“It really speaks to the diversity of publishing behind-the-scenes,” she said.
Ms. Bradford, who in 2016 was named librarian of the year by the Romance Writers of America, said she frequently asks editors and publishers how they decided which books to acquire. Inevitably, she said, they tell her that they read a book and then try to think of someone they know who would like it.
“That’s the problem,” she said. “If you’re thinking about your cousin, your aunt, your best friend, you’re going to keep acquiring the same books and keep not acquiring the same book.”
The difficulty for publishing houses in becoming more diverse is that they don’t necessarily know the race of authors submitting manuscripts to them, said Cindy Hwang, the editorial director at Berkley, the imprint at Penguin Random House.
“It has to be a good read,” Ms. Hwang said, adding that she doesn’t think her imprint receives many manuscripts from nonwhite authors. “You can only publish what you get.”
Berkley publishes about 300 books a year, with romance novels and women’s fiction making up about two-thirds of the list. The Ripped Bodice study reports that 3.9 percent of it 2016 romance books were written by nonwhite authors.
Berkley declined to provide the Koch sisters with their publishing list, leaving it to them to cull the information.
“We were not comfortable in participating,” Ms. Hwang said, adding that she thinks the Ripped Bodice’s findings of 3.9 percent nonwhite were low. “It felt very awkward to us to hand out lists of our authors, and they were only concentrated on people-of-color diversity, which we thought was limiting.”
Jasmine Guillory, whose first romance novel, “The Wedding Date,” is to be published next year by Jove Trade Paperback, a Berkley imprint, said that Ms. Hwang, her editor, encouraged her to examine more closely the issues of race experienced by the black protagonist and her white boyfriend. “This delighted me,” said Ms. Guillory, a former lawyer who lives in Berkeley, Calif.
Heidi Bond, whose pen name is Courtney Milan, is a New York Times best-selling romance author who has turned to self-publishing in order to have more agency over the background of her characters and the stories she wishes to tell.
“There is a deep and systemic problem in that publishing is insular and people have learned everything about the industry from the people who came before them, in a time when nobody understood or wanted to understand that people of color have inner lives and want to find love and happiness,” said Ms. Bond, a former clerk for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, of the United States Supreme Court.
“If the romance genre is going to give women books that don’t match their own lives,” she said, “we are going to lose them as readers.”