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Who — or what — are your characters?

My brain has been on overload the last couple of weeks as I published one book and started on another. Family obligations and scheduling conflicts added to the overload. So the other day I gave up, pulled out my Kindle Oasis and read. Just read. For more than 12 hours, I let my imagination go where several different authors took it. One book was traditionally published and several were indie books. Each had their strong and weak points. Each came to mind when I read a post and the accompanying comments on The Passive Voice yesterday.

PG quoted from a New York Times article telling us we need more diversity in romance novels. The article pointed to a book by Helen Hoang that focuses on a “multicultural love story centered on an autistic woman who has trouble navigating the nuances of dating and courtship.” Now, being the Times, you can guess what sort of glowing language they had, not so much for the prose, but for the diversity of the book.

“The novel’s unexpected success is all the more astonishing given the striking lack of diversity within the romance genre. Romance novels released by big publishing houses tend to center on white characters, and rarely feature gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people in leading roles, or heroines with disabilities.”

Okay. At least the Times was smart enough to qualify their comments by saying “big publishing houses”. A check of the various Romance sub-genres on Amazon show there are a large number of titles that fill this so-called void. Yes, most of them are by indie authors and they are selling. The problem, you see, is that indie books are generally beneath the notice of media outlets like the Times. So if traditional publishing isn’t doing it, then it isn’t being done period.

Besides, by admitting indie authors are filling this niche would be to deviate from the narrative and the Times certainly can’t do that. Someone might revoke its “woke” card if it did.

But the Times isn’t satisfied with just condemning traditional publishing for not putting out enough “diverse” Romance titles. It goes on to quote Rebekah Weatherspoon, a small press and indie author. “Publishers aren’t putting out books by many people of color and they’re giving us limited space at the table. . .It’s definitely not a level playing field.”

Wait, what?

I know very few readers who are aware of an author’s race or nationality, much less their religious beliefs or sexual preferences. The only way they are going to know about them is if the author posts about them. Most readers don’t care about any of that. What they care about is if the writer has put together a story they want to read. To start putting artificial limits on what sort of person a publisher should buy from is doing the reader a disservice. But, as we have seen over the last decade or more, publishers aren’t really concerned with what the reader wants.

Should a publisher decide to buy a book from someone based on the color of the author’s skin or some other basis besides how well written the book is and how well the publisher thinks the book will sell? I don’t think so, at least not in most circumstances, but apparently the Times disagrees.

But let’s go back to the lack of diversity in Romance. After reading to comments on PG, I decided to check the offerings myself. On Amazon, here are the main sub-genres in the Romance category:Action & Adventure, African American, Anthologies, Clean & Wholesome, Contemporary, Erotica, Fantasy, Gothic, Historical, Holidays, Inspirational, LGBT, Military, Multicultural, New Adult & College, Paranormal, Regency, Romantic Comedy, Romantic Suspense, Science Fiction, Sports, Time Travel, Vampires, Werewolves & Shifters, Western, and Writing. If I counted correctly, that is 26 main sub-genres. Of those, African American, LGBT and Multicultural are clearly “diverse” categories. There are over 30,000 titles in the African American sub-genre. There are more than 50,000 titles in the LGBT sub-genre and more than 30,000 in the multicultural sub=genre. Hmmm, was the Times protesting too much?

But let’s look a little deeper. Staying in the Romance area of Amazon books, I did a search for “Asian”. I came up with a list of more than 4,000 titles. “Gay” and “lesbian” each had more than 50,000 hits. “Autism” had 267 returns and “autistic” 74. I could go on but you get the gist.

What those numbers don’t show are the number of books that deal with those particular types of characters but that don’t use the keywords to show up in such searches. This is why keywords are so important. For example, there is a book by Christine Feehan, Water Bound, where the female lead is on the autism spectrum. I don’t remember for sure if the word “autism” is ever used but the description is clear. The blurb definitely doesn’t use the word. Nor does the publisher use the word as a key word. So it doesn’t show up if you search for autistic on Amazon in the romance category. Does that make it less of a “diverse” title? Not at all.

This is the problem with stories such as the one in the Times. They rely on a quick search using certain buzz words and not on real knowledge of the genre. Perhaps instead of worrying about making sure books are representative of the makeup of the nation — or the world — publishers should look at who is reading what. Oh, wait, that means they would have to look at indie published books as well and they don’t want to do that. Doing so would be to admit indie is a force in the industry and they no longer control everything. If they did, they would see there are more and more titles fulfilling the wants of the smaller niche audiences. The traditional publishers could then look and see how those titles are selling compared to more “traditional” sub-genres and base their own publishing schedules on that information.

But that makes too much sense. It is much easier to say the reason they are not selling as they once did is because they need to be more diverse. That may be part of the answer but it isn’t the only answer and the sooner the trade recognizes it, the better.

Now, for a bit of self-promo. Fire from Ashes, the fourth (and next to the last in this story arc) book in the Honor & Duty series is now available for download. The print version will be available in a week or so.

At war with an old enemy, betrayed by a supposed ally, Fuercon is a system on the brink of disaster. All that stands between it and defeat are its Space Navy and Marines – and the fact the betrayer does not yet know its secret plans have been discovered. But will that be enough to turn the tide of war?

Honor and duty.

Honor and duty have guided Colonel Ashlyn Shaw’s life for as long as she can remember. Honor kept her sane when she was betrayed by those she had fought beside. Duty gave her reason to trust again once the betrayal came to light and her name, as well as the names of her fellow Devil Dogs, was cleared. Now she and the Marines under her command are once again asked to risk their lives to protect Fuercon from its enemies.

Family and the Corps.

They are why she fights. She knows what will happen to them should Fuercon fall to the Callusians. Their lives are worth any sacrifice she must make to help keep their homeworld safe.

Betrayal.

The not-so-secret driving force of Ashlyn’s life. Four years ago, someone betrayed her and her command. That person now works to betray Fuercon. Ashlyn is determined to discover who – and why – and bring them to justice.

The storm clouds of war gather and time is running out. Will Ashlyn and the Devil Dogs be able to turn back the enemy and unmask the betrayer before all is lost?

21 Comments
  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

    I’m almost afraid to mention this idea because somebody might seriously use it.

    But here goes, a Romance that is about the Love Affair the Main Character has with himself/herself/itself. 😈 😈 😈 😈

    July 10, 2018
    • Amazon has those, too – most of them trad-pubbed. Of course, you have to use the “political autobiography” keywords.

      July 10, 2018
      • Might I recommend anything by HRC? VBEG

        July 10, 2018
        • That might result in a game of hopscotch… not much hopping, but lots of scotch.

          July 10, 2018
          • Why shouldn’t someone else suffer along with me, Ox?

            July 10, 2018
        • I do need to clear out the many, many gallons of inherited booze in the house somehow…

          July 10, 2018
        • Draven #

          “What Happened” Fiction, written by a woman who is on the autistic spectrum

          July 11, 2018
    • Carrington Dixon #

      “All You Zombies” writ large?

      July 10, 2018
      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

        Nope, that was a Time Travel story with the same person from different times and doesn’t know it.

        This would be “I love myself” and the person knows that the person he/she/it is love with is himself/herself/itself.

        July 10, 2018
        • Okay. A woman has just ended a marriage with a controlling and emotionally abuse man. She has very low self-esteem and is in the long process of regaining her emotional equilibrium as a single person.

          She needs money and gets work doing video sex chat. She masturbates on cam for an audience. Over time she begins to do a bit where she romances herself and her shows grow longer and more elaborate, doing things like eating a fine meal or taking a luxurious bath before the sex part.

          Her channel grows more and more popular, making her more money, but at the same time she pays less and less attention to the audience, not acknowledging their existence at all and making the shows all about herself and a passionate love affair with her own body.

          Okay, so that combines exhibitionism/voyeurism with the idea of self-romance, but the main storyline is her learning to care for herself without anyone else telling her what to do.

          Would that do it, do you think?

          July 10, 2018
          • There’s a scene in The Blue Ring by A.J. Quinnell, where a very exclusive sex show starts with a woman in sexy lingerie ‘preparing herself for a man’ – getting made up, doing her hair… all very sensually. Then at the end of her preparations, she says “I have not prepared myself for a man… but myself.” She does the whole passionate love affair with herself, but at the end – it’s been a while since I read the book so I don’t remember it that well – she says something that could be taken for an invitation for someone in the audience to basically come up there and take her. Which someone does.

            So the premise has been done, mostly as erotic tidbit, and I can see where there could be a market for it.

            July 11, 2018
          • So when are you going to write it?

            July 11, 2018
  2. Along those lines, panelists at LibertyCon’s “Weird West” panel were complaining because Amazon doesn’t have a specific category for Weird West. And the sub-field needs more stories that break the tropes and patriarchy of the real Old West. *facepaw*

    July 10, 2018
    • Gah. If they had done their own homework, they’d know Amazon creates categories when there are finally enough titles/interest in them. 10 years ago, there weren’t nearly the number of sub-genres and sub-sub-genres there are now.

      July 10, 2018
    • Christopher M. Chupik #

      It wasn’t enough to kill the Western once?

      July 10, 2018
    • BobtheRegisterredFool #

      So they want more apologia for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union? 🙂

      July 10, 2018
  3. mrsizer #

    There’s a gay romance – Fire on the Mountain, iirc – that I liked. I met the author and was most surprised to find out she is an older (my age; story is about college-aged men), married, grandmother.

    July 10, 2018
  4. Amazon actually has a team that manages the taxonomy, and they add new categories when they think it makes sense to. I spent a fair amount of time talking with them when I was at Amazon (because in my job I needed that data to be right, if possible) but I never did figure out exactly how they decided to (for example) have a “Black Romance” category but not an “Asian Romance” one. It’s not rocket science, though; I’m sure of that.

    The bigger problem was getting the right labels on the products. For products Amazon itself sells, it depends on vendors to assign the labels, as well as provide other data about products. Vendors were terrible about doing this, so a whole team existed to double-check items from vendors and beat them up when they screwed up. Where possible, machines would override labels from vendors (e.g. to measure the weight of products).

    For third-party vendors, the challenge was to convince sellers that it was worth their while to get the tags right. I was surprised to learn that getting the right tags on a product could improve sales by a factor of up to three. As a customer, I make almost no use of the taxonomy, but apparently I’m unusual.

    Anyway, don’t assume that the Amazon categories are optimal or set in stone. Unless something has changed in the five years since I left, they’re more of a hack than anything else.

    July 10, 2018
    • Exactly. Every writer with anything up on Amazon should regularly go back and re-evaluate not only their key word tags but also their two categories they can select. Why? Because as Greg said, Amazon is always updating and that means categories and key words change.

      July 11, 2018
  5. 23 skidoo

    July 11, 2018

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