Way back in the early aughts, when Borders was still a book lover’s dream destination, I read that summer blockbuster book, “Bridget Jones’s Diary.”
It was the first time I’d really read a voice that was similar to mine. Funny, self-deprecating and full of romance. I wanted to write a book like that. I wanted to be in the front of the store where I’d be accessible to the most readers. Oh, and one more thing: I wanted the heroine to look like me. It was one hell of a mission statement. Especially considering at that time, I was well aware that books that celebrated black women were not always easy to find.
Sure, I could find Toni Morrison and the queen herself, Maya Angelou, but even as important as their books were, I wanted romance, joy and fun. For that, I had to sift and search.
In the Borders I used to go to, the African American section was at the back of the store and on the top two shelves. Worse, the few black romance authors I could find were not in the romance section. To find Beverly Jenkins or Brenda Jackson, I had to climb the shelves at the back where they were haphazardly shelved with books that had nothing to do with romance.
There were many mountains to climb in my journey — including confronting the obstacles of the Romance Writers of America, which earlier this year underwent a massive shake up in members and leadership stemming from charges of organizational racism. Despite the fact that a black woman founded the organization in 1980, no black author had ever won an RWA prize at its annual awards, until 2019.
I’d done the hard work of learning to write and honing my craft but when I was getting started there weren’t many classes that taught you how to market. My first publisher dictated what my packaging should be. Since the protagonist was black, I was classified as a multicultural romance writer but my publisher was reluctant to put a black woman on the cover because, as I and other authors of color were told, black women don’t sell books. Furthermore, if we wanted to sell books, what we looked like would serve as a barrier to entry.
Eventually, I dipped my toes into the indie market and I loved the freedom: I could choose my covers but I quickly also learned that while readers said they want diversity, they often didn’t make buying decisions to support their so-called desire.
For years, I refused to acknowledge the impact of bias in book-buying decisions and it hurt me. Because I was African and my stories often featured women of color, readers made the assumption that my books weren’t for them.
I had a lot to learn. I also specifically had to learn about the algorithm problem. Amazon, ever unhelpful, attempted to “bookstore” me by recommending my books to Urban Literature readers because I was in the multicultural category. This often led to reader dissatisfaction because they expected a gritty Urban Lit romance and instead they got a story much like the popular TV show “Girlfriends.” Like traditional brick-and-mortar stores, Amazon’s smart little computer didn’t understand that there was not one unilateral black experience and neither did publishers.
When I signed on with Harlequin to write for its now defunct Kimani line that featured diverse writers, I agreed to do a series of anthologies. I wrote a fun, enemies-to-lovers office romance and I was paired with a writer whose work I’d been a fan of for years, but she wrote dark, mafia romance. Our styles and heat levels were completely different. Kimani was just as guilty of “bookstoring” both of us. They didn’t understand that a reader who wanted to read something dark and intense was not going to be satisfied with an office romance and vice versa. But hey, we were both black so it was good enough, right?
I knew that when it came to the stories, I was unwilling to compromise on what I wanted to write. I needed for young black women to see themselves as worthy of love and grand gestures and fun! Because we are the focus of so many struggle stories, I wanted us to be the focus of fun, upbeat stories too. And I knew if could just get readers of all ethnicities engaged, once they read a few lines, they’d be too invested to stop reading once they realized their hero or heroine was black.
I experimented with covers and categories. I found other authors to target regardless of race. I found a way to get my books into the hands of readers and introduce more people to the beauty of melanin. It is always a bitter pill to swallow having to make these considerations, while knowing my contemporaries don’t have that added layer of difficulty. I have to be aware of categories that will get me labeled inappropriately or keywords that might get me ignored by algorithms
The other equally bitter pill is the unavailability of cover images. Hunting through the dregs of stock imagery is soul-crushing if you’re looking for diversity. After much frustration, I decided to do something about it. I agreed to model for cover shots for a photographer friend in the industry, to provide authors with more options. It shouldn’t be an anomaly to find melanin on book covers or inside the pages, it should be the norm.
Thankfully, there is hope.
As more and more writers of color enter the marketplace there is a shift happening. Readers are demanding books reflective of the world around them. I, for one, can’t wait for the sea change, especially as readers graduate from the Young Adult market where diversity is demanded. And in the adult romance market, the bell has been sounded loudly, particularly with the recent RWA firestorm.
Through the years, my mission has remained the same: write marketable, fun books that feature women of color because love is love and everyone deserves a happy ending.