May 25, 2014

Strictly Business: My Theory About Harlequin's Interracial Romances

By Alexa Day

A few days ago, I read an article on Time magazine’s website about interracial romance novels. The article describes an increase in popularity, and it mentions the names of some popular authors, but that isn’t what got my attention.

Right up top, big as life, was a Harlequin Romantic Suspense cover featuring an interracial couple, a white woman with a black man. (It’s Elle Kennedy’s COLTON’S DEEP COVER.) I could tell from the design that it was a fairly recent cover. Until I saw it, I would have told you that Harlequin didn’t publish all that many interracial romances.

Brenda Jackson has written several interracial romances for Harlequin.
Brenda Jackson has written several interracial romances for Harlequin.

I want to be absolutely clear about this at the outset: it is not the intention of this post to bash Harlequin. I started my romance writing journey by reading Harlequins. While other little girls envied their mother’s dresses or shoes or jewelry, I longed to inherit my mom’s tremendous stash of Harlequins. It’s possible that the problem I’m about to describe exists at publishers other than Harlequin. If I’m focusing my little personal theories on Harlequin, it’s because my little personal research has been directed at Harlequin.

Once I started writing, my career plan didn’t include Harlequin. I was perfectly content to send my manuscripts to houses that I thought were used to seeing interracial romances. There’s nothing wrong with opening doors, but my hope was to join a party already in progress.

The cover piqued my curiosity. Was I wrong? Did Harlequin publish more interracials than I thought? I went to the Web to find out.

If you go to Harlequin’s website, you’ll find that there is no drop-down or button that pulls up all the interracial romances. That’s annoying, but it isn’t uncommon. My current publisher, Ellora’s Cave, has two search options for interracial romances. There’s one for books where the couple just happens to be of different races (like mine, ILLICIT IMPULSE) and another option where the difference in races is important to the story (like Afton Locke’s PLUCKING THE PEARL). Phaze has two separate landings: one for black woman/white man romances, and one for other combinations. In fairness to Harlequin, though, lots of other publishers don’t have ready-made interracial searches.

If you go to the search box on Harlequin’s website and type in the word ‘interracial,’ you’ll pull up four results, not

Take a second to be distracted by this gorgeous cover. Go ahead. I'll wait.
Take a second to be distracted by this gorgeous cover. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

including the one featured in Time. I know Harlequin has more than four interracial romances because my mother sent me a box of five the last time I complained about this. Only one of the books in my box is among the search results.

If you Google ‘Harlequin interracial romance novels,’ the top result is actually a Goodreads list. That list has 41 novels on it, and it’s a great start. This only raised more questions. If Goodreads identified 41 interracial Harlequins, and I myself had more than four, why did Harlequin’s own website identify so few? Why would Harlequin make it so difficult to find these books when they were becoming more popular?

I think the answer can be summed up in three words.

Harlequin Reader Service.

Some of you might not know about or remember the Reader Service. In a nutshell, one subscribed to a Harlequin line (I actually started with Silhouette Shadows), and then every month, the Reader Service sent you four books, or maybe six, from that line. You don’t pick the specific titles in the box. Whatever you got was what you got. Sometimes you’d get something you might not have chosen in the store, but because it was part of the line you picked, you could be sure you’d be interested in the unfamiliar book’s themes or plotlines. I discovered lots of new authors through the Reader Service.

My thought is that these interracial romances that turn up on the Goodreads list, these books scattered throughout the various Harlequin lines, all of them would have gone out through the Reader Service. Some readers probably found their first interracial romances in those monthly packages, tried them out and then wanted to find more. If that’s true, then the Harlequin Reader Service was — and may still be — responsible for helping the readership for interracial romance grow.

This is actually a Silhouette Special Edition from 2005, but I like the sweetness of it.
This is actually a Silhouette Special Edition from 2005, but I like the sweetness of it.

I’m not sure how much of Harlequin’s business is covered by the Reader Service, although I think it’s telling that I had to look hard for the Reader Service website. If the Reader Service is doing a brisk business, then Harlequin’s existing system probably doesn’t look broken to them. Indeed, the readership for interracial romances might even appear to be growing. Sure, the rest of us can’t find the interracial Harlequins, but from a business perspective, that might not look like a huge problem.

But it is a problem, both for Reader Service subscribers and for the rest of us. For subscribers who may be discovering interracials for the first time, Harlequin itself offers no way to identify additional selections. Those readers will find other sources to supply them with the stories they now know they want. The rest of us Harlequin readers continue to labor under the belief that Harlequin doesn’t publish that many interracials, for whatever reason, because we cannot find any. We occasionally run across them by chance or gather them up in Goodreads lists or the like, but I’m certain there are books we aren’t seeing there.

Harlequin can help itself now by making its interracials easier to find. I think readers would take notice immediately, and writers would follow up by sending in the stories that would otherwise go to other publishers. The future would be brighter for everyone.

I’ll be interested to see what, if anything, happens in this arena now that Harlequin has changed hands. Real opportunity for growth exists here. Hopefully, someone’s ready to take that one extra step and act on it.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for a list of interracial romance authors, try this roll call for last year’s Loving Day Blog Hop. All those folks — myself included — are down with the swirl.

And be sure to follow Lady Smut. You won’t have to wait a whole month to get that good stuff from us.

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  • Post authorMadeline Iva

    I’m a big believer in the canary in the coal mine. If you’re having a problem finding books you want to read–then others are having a problem and the environment of the coal mine needs to be fixed for everyone’s sake.

    That said, our LADY SMUT anthology coming out in August is being publishing by HarperImpulse, owned by Harper Collins, who now owns Harlequin, so it’s all just one big happy family here at LadySmut.com, yes indeedy!

    I’m hoping, Alexa, that you provide us with a follow up post about the differences between inter-racial romances that have white heroines/black heroes vs. ones with black heroines/white heroes, because we started to chat about this last time we met, and I’m fascinated by what you have to say on the topic….

    Reply to Madeline Iva
    • Post authorElizabeth Shore

      I’d be fascinated in your opinion on that, too, Alexa. Gee, maybe we just gave you your next post idea. 🙂

      In the meantime, if it’s true that the interracial romances are gaining more ground on the virtual or real shelves, then I say it’s about damn time. And I’ll add that in the classic sense of “interracial,” meaning “existing or involving difference races,” I’d like to see other mixes as well. As I noted in my post, Where Are All The Asians? the continual growth and development of romances to reflect everyday realities will help keep them meaningful and fresh for generations of readers to come.

      Reply to Elizabeth Shore
      • Post authorAlexa Day

        Some of the Asians are at Phaze. I checked. 😉

        Here’s the thing about black heroine interracials and white heroine interracials.

        There is a perception that at Harlequin, if your novel has a white heroine, it can be placed in any of the Harlequin lines (except Kimani). If, on the other hand, your novel has a black heroine, to Kimani it goes, without further examination.

        I’m not so sure that’s the case any more. Part of the reason is that I have no way at all to determine if black heroines are appearing outside Kimani because Harlequin can’t/won’t give me a way to search for them. In fact, after a great deal of searching, I found Kayla Perrin’s black heroines in Spice, so I have little reason to think there aren’t other black heroines out there somewhere that I can’t find because there’s no way to search for them.

        The other part of the reason is the Harlequin Reader Service.

        See, the Reader Service is driven by my preferences, but not in a refined way. I can order up a monthly box of romantic suspense or spicy romance or home-and-hearth books, and I’ll get a box of whichever of those I choose. If I decide I want my box to feature black heroines, the Service will send me a Kimani box, which will feature black heroines. If what I want is a box of spicy reads featuring black heroines, well, there’s no line for that. I would have to pick a lane: do I want spicy reads or black heroines? If having a black heroine is that important to me, in fairness, that’s what Kimani is here for. If I want a really hot story, then there’s always Blaze, but I get the heroines they send.

        My problem is that I want everything. Fortunately, I’ve found publishers willing to let me have access to everything. Harlequin might even be one of those publishers. But right now, I’m not sure.

        I’m glad you all are so interested. I could write a book about this.

        Reply to Alexa Day
  • Post authorEva Lefoy

    i have a question – is the pairing always a white male with an interracial female?Is that the new wave of the romance world?

    Reply to Eva Lefoy
    • Post authorAlexa Day

      It’s not, fortunately. I ran across that Cindy Dees cover by accident, and it and the Elle Kennedy book I mentioned both feature black heroes with white heroines. I think that woman on the Dees cover is white, anyway. I have a couple of Harlequins on hand with black heroes and white heroines, and they’ve got a few years on them.

      Outside Harlequin, I see black heroes appearing in interracial romances, too. My publisher, Ellora’s Cave, has several.

      The problem — at least with Harlequin — is that no one knows these books are out there because they can’t/won’t give us a way to search for them. Ellora’s Cave has a searchable index, and I love what Phaze is doing with one click for bw/wm and another click for other combinations. But Harlequin would do itself a world of good by making these searchable.

      Romance is becoming more diverse, thankfully. It’s just not doing so very quickly.

      Reply to Alexa Day
    • Post authorNormandie Alleman (@NormandieA)

      Eva, my new release Daddy’s Game features a black hero and a white heroine. It’s the first inter-racial book to be published by my smallish kink publisher Stormy Night Publications, and I think we’re all excited to be branching out into territory that’s new to us.

      Reply to Normandie Alleman (@NormandieA)
  • Post authorNormandie Alleman (@NormandieA)

    Yes, that is one AWESOME COVER! I write for a smaller publisher, and my first inter-racial erotic romance is due out tomorrow – Daddy’s Game. I had no idea these type romances were becoming more popular but that’s wonderful.

    Reply to Normandie Alleman (@NormandieA)
    • Post authorAlexa Day

      Happy release day! In other news, I have decided that Subterfudge is now my new favorite word.

      Reply to Alexa Day
  • Post authorKel

    How interesting. I honestly don’t look for or not-for Interracial couples when shopping… probably because I don’t particularly identify with that situation. (And that sounds… bad, I think.) I do enjoy them when they appear in stories that I otherwise enjoy, and I like that the options are there for people who might feel marginalized otherwise.

    Honestly, though, I kind of like aliens, so the whole inter-racial thing is a bit… too mundane as a plot point? It’s like the modern-day West-side-story…and while I liked that, I’ve seen it already. Unless your inter-racial couple has something else going for them than just disparate backgrounds, I’m not really interested. Now if it’s another point of (family?) tension while they save the world from an invasion or a super-bug or a secret spy organization or something, that could be good…

    I guess I’m just picky.

    • Post authorAlexa Day

      Well, here’s the thing.

      We’re not always writing about interracial couples as a plot point. I myself do not, and I know a couple of other authors who don’t. So the situation presented by my stories and by theirs is largely identical to situations presented by books featuring same-race couples.

      I’ve run across a lot of interracial romances where the plot does address the difference in races; they’re just not all contemporary. Afton Locke’s book is set in Maryland in the 1930s, where a difference in skin color was a big deal. I saw Belle yesterday, and the difference in skin color was a big deal there, too.

      When my mother started reading romances and then when I did, many years later, we had to identify with heroines who didn’t look like us because our choices were either to identify with them or find another genre. I started writing romances to create happily-ever-after endings for women who looked like me. (And acted like me, honestly. I pride myself on a less sweet heroine. :)) Mia Zachary put it this way: “The protagonist is the avatar for the reader.” I wanted an avatar who looked like me, in a story accessible to any reader. If my reader didn’t pay all that much attention to my protagonists’ race, that was fine with me, so long as they liked the story. If my reader loves reading that a character of another race thinks that the same things that set her and my heroine apart make them both absolutely beautiful, then so much the better.

      My goal is to produce a smart, sexy romance with a heroine who happens to be black and a hero who happens to be of another race. They both see color, and they both think it’s hot, but it doesn’t otherwise figure into the story. It’s not for everybody, certainly. But that’s the nature of the business, right?

      I hadn’t really had the chance to think about this, so I’m glad you mentioned it!

      Reply to Alexa Day
  • Post authorAlexa Day

    Reblogged this on Alexa J. Day and commented:

    Food for thought with Loving Day coming up soon!

    Reply to Alexa Day
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