On Wednesday night, the editorial director of a queer romance publishing company discussed the importance of representing minorities in romance fiction.
During the talk, entitled "OMG It's Me," Sarah Lyons from Riptide Publishing emphasized the power of representation and the challenges of accurately portraying people across the gender and sexuality spectrum in novels. Lyons—who self-identifies as queer—described reading a depiction of a "sadomasochistic relationship" for the first time and feeling validated in her own identity.
“Representation is powerful because it tells you ‘I deserve to be loved,'” Lyons said.
Now, her company tries to publish content that as many readers as possible can identify with.
“At Riptide Publishing, 'we publish across the rainbow spectrum,' is what we like to say," said Lyons. "So our moneymakers are gay male romances with two male characters who fall in love with each other and overcome their problems and get their happy ending—but we do try to cover as much of the rainbow spectrum as possible."
However, Lyons noted that publishing companies often struggle when it comes to racial minorities—likely due to the racial makeup of those behind the scenes.
“Publishing is very, very white because people like me end up in it—people who are academics who got their English degrees and joined publishing," she said.
Lyons explained that although these editors love their professions and firmly believe in representation and diversity, they are more likely to pick books by and about characters who look like them.
To combat this, her publishing company tries to hire writers and editors who are not all “straight, white, middle class women.” They also employ “sensitivity readers” who are part of the minority group being written about to review books before publishing.
This can help ensure accuracy, she said. For example, Lyons said that she would not be able to write a Jewish character correctly because she is not Jewish herself.
Her company also has a seven page-long list of sensitivity guidelines for editors reading about sexual, gender or racial minorities.
“A lot of authors are like, ‘Authors should be allowed to do whatever we want!’" Lyons said. "Absolutely they should—they’re just not going to be published by Riptide. It’s not censorship because we’re not the only forum in which you can publish."
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Lyons noted that publishing can be a “vicious cycle.” Books featuring minorities are only advertised to minority communities—leading to poor sales for the book and less interest in publishing future books about minorities.
“Only African Americans buy it because no White people even know about it, so it doesn’t sell very well," Lyons said. "So the next time there’s an amazing book submitted with an African American character, the publishing house is like 'no, the last one didn’t sell very well.'"
Advertising is one way to improve minority representation in romance media, she added.
“Maybe if you put the same type of marketing push behind books with non-white, non-straight characters, they would sell as well as books that have white, straight characters,” Lyons said.