Eleven of the publishers agreed to provide their lists. For those who didnât, Bea and Leah set out to create the list of books published and to identify each authorâs race.
The result, released last week by the Ripped Bodice, is âThe State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing.â 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 publishersâ 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. âItâs indicative of every major industry, regardless of whether itâs publishing, academics, finance or government,â said Ms. Jenkins, who is black, in an interview earlier this week. âItâs a sign of how America treats people of color.â
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. âThat was proved wrong because I have 37 books in print,â Ms. Jenkins said. Her subjects have included Harriet Tubmanâs spy ring.
Her latest book, âChasing Down a Dream,â is the eighth book in her womenâs fiction series, âBlessings,â about a wealthy woman who saves from financial ruin a town in Kansas founded by freed slaves.
Ms. Jenkinsâs 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.)
Itâs tough for any new author to get a first book published, but some people say the bar is even higher for writers who arenât white.
When Sonali Dev, a popular Indian-American romance and womenâs fiction author, was shopping her first book to publishers, âThe Bollywood Bride,â âbig-name editors looked me straight in the eye, as if was perfectly normal, and said, âWell, is it possible to change one of the protagonists to white?ââ 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.
âHe said to me, âYou write a âKite Runnerâ and no one can stop you,â referring to the 2003 international best-selling book written by Khaled Hosseini, an Afghan-American first-time author.
Ms. Dev replied, âSo every time you get a white story, do you think it has to be âGone With the Windâ?â
She remains exasperated by the exchange. âHow many authors have their first book as their best book? You have to develop writers,â she said in a phone interview. âPeople of color get one shot only, if they get a shot at all.â
After more than two years and 50 rejections, she sold âThe Bollywood Brideâ and âA Bollywood Affairâ in a two-book deal to Kensington. She has since published another novel with Kensington, and a fourth book, âA Distant Heart,â 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 womenâs fiction and believes her new publisher will make a better showing in future studies.
âThey have made a concerted effort over last year to really increase their diversity,â 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 companyâs 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. âWe donât do it to be politically correct,â Mr. Zacharius said. âWe do well by doing good.â
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.
âIt really speaks to the diversity of publishing behind-the-scenes,â 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.
âThatâs the problem,â she said. âIf youâre thinking about your cousin, your aunt, your best friend, youâre going to keep acquiring the same books and keep not acquiring the same book.â
The difficulty for publishing houses in becoming more diverse is that they donât necessarily know the race of authors submitting manuscripts to them, said Cindy Hwang, the editorial director at Berkley, the imprint at Penguin Random House.
âIt has to be a good read,â Ms. Hwang said, adding that she doesnât think her imprint receives many manuscripts from nonwhite authors. âYou can only publish what you get.â
Berkley publishes about 300 books a year, with romance novels and womenâs 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.
âWe were not comfortable in participating,â Ms. Hwang said, adding that she thinks the Ripped Bodiceâs findings of 3.9 percent nonwhite were low. âIt 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.â
Jasmine Guillory, whose first romance novel, âThe Wedding Date,â 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. âThis delighted me,â said Ms. Guillory, a lawyer who lives in Oakland, 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.
âThere 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,â said Ms. Bond, a former clerk for Justice Sandra Day OâConnor, of the United States Supreme Court.
âIf the romance genre is going to give women books that donât match their own lives,â she said, âwe are going to lose them as readers.â
An earlier version of this article misstated Jasmine Guillory’s profession. She is a lawyer, not a former lawyer. The article also misidentified the city where she lives. It is Oakland, Calif., not Berkeley.