Romance in Color

by Kayla Perrin

It's the year 2010. The first African-American president has celebrated one year in office. While the world isn't perfect, racial tensions have certainly eased. You need only to watch a movie like THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES to know that the world has come a long way in terms of racial and sexual equality. February is Black History month, and it's a time when the achievements and accomplishments by blacks are celebrated. Those who broke the color barrier, like baseball star Jackie Robinson. And Ernie Davis, who was the first black man to ever receive the Heisman trophy for college football (watch the move, THE EXPRESS, which chronicles Ernie Davis's life--it's incredible). And of course, there's Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5 who truly broke color barriers from the moment they hit the music scene.

There are black inventors we don't typically hear about, like Lewis Latimer (1848-1928) who invented the carbon filament used in light bulbs. And George Washington Carver (1860-1943) who was born a slave but went on to invent peanut butter.

Black music and black actors have had success for many years, but it took a lot longer to see black novels reach a high level of success. In 1992, Terry McMillan's breakout bestseller, WAITING TO EXHALE, proved to the publishing powers that be that books about blacks could bring in big bucks. A few years later, Kensington Books began the Arabesque imprint, a line dedicated to publishing African-American romances. A little over ten years ago, you didn't see too many novels on the bookshelves featuring people of color. Now, there are all kinds of publishing imprints that produce books with heroes and heroines of diverse backgrounds. I always say that when Harlequin starts an imprint or line, you know there's money to be made. When they bought the Arabesque line of romance novels from BET Books (who had bought the line from Kensington) in 2005, I knew that African-American romances were here to stay.

Given how far the world has come in terms of race relations, I am sometimes left scratching my head when I hear certain sentiments from the publishing world. After twelve years in the book business, I have learned that the publishing business is often way too conservative. I won't say the publisher, but this comment was made about a book that featured both a black and a white heroine: "We don't know how to market a book with a black and a white woman." And there was this comment by an editor about a book I'd submitted that had two black women and one white woman who were all best friends: "Why is there a white girl in this book?" That book is called GETTING EVEN, and I'm thankful to say that Harlequin was more than pleased with the diversity in the book and eagerly published it, and in fact used that novel to launch their new Spice line in 2006.

But it's not just some editors' or the marketing department's attitudes in a publishing house that make me wonder if black novels will reach the level of success as black music and movies. There are issues in the bookstores. African American romances, for example, are often placed in "African American" sections in the bookstores--a section that is a mix of fiction, biographies, non-fiction, cookbooks. There have been lots of discussions on various readers and writers groups, and the majority of non-blacks say that they don't peruse the African American section, and therefore--by default--wouldn't see the fiction offerings in that section. This results in the readership for this market being pigeonholed. How can readers discover great new stories and authors if their books are segregated? And worse, how can readers discover books when a bookstore won't even order them in? In my home town, I was saddened to learn that the big box bookstore is not carrying the Kimani line--which means my new romance isn't available there! They didn't even order mine in, and I'm a local author. Ouch.

There are debates about covers--should there be "color" or does that turn readers off? Are non-black readers likely to pick up a book with a black couple in a loving embrace? I had a publicist who was working for me tell me that she would have never picked up my book in a store because of the cover, but having read it she couldn't stop singing its praises. She thought the publisher should have given me a more "neutral" cover--maybe no people on it at all. I recently got St. Martin's Press to include a white college girl on the cover for SPRING BREAK, given that she's a central part to the story. This is my first book cover with a multi-racial cast--I'm interested in seeing if it affects my sales one way or another. It goes on sale on March 2nd, but can be pre-ordered on Amazon now!

I hope that in time, we all prove to publishers that we can read stories by diverse groups of people and enjoy them. Instead of worrying how to market them differently, I'd like to see publishers market them the way they do the majority of books. It's all about the story, isn't it? A story that touches us and makes us cheer for and empathize with the characters. Amy Tan's THE JOY LUCK CLUB is one of my favorite books and movies ever. MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA isn't a book/movie that only Japanese can enjoy. Every human can relate to the emotions and conflicts in this beautifully told story.

In honor of Black History Month, if you haven't read a "romance in color" yet, why not give one a try? I have a brand new release called ISLAND FANTASY, that takes place on the beautiful island of Jamaica. After the heroine confronts her cheating fiance at the altar, she goes on her solo honeymoon, never expecting to find love. There are great books by Francis Ray, Brenda Jackson, Donna Hill, and many many other authors writing romances and mainstream fiction featuring people of color.

We can read books that have characters of different races as friends, can't we? (Seriously, I still can't get over the "Why is there a white girl in this book?" question--asked by a white editor--go figure.) After all, fiction should reflect our world, and my world is a myriad of colors. I hope yours is too.

By the way--check out a radio interview I did for the CBC with Pamela Yaye about writing romances. We do discuss the issue of "color" in romance for a bit. It's a fun interview...Pam and I are a bit insane with this one. :-) The interview will air on CBC radio on Monday, but it is apparently online now. Click HERE to go to the link!

Until next time,


  1. Terrific post, Kayla. I'm one of those readers who hate it when fiction is segregated into the African American section because I don't think "fiction" when I see a section heading like that--I think it's non-fiction.

    I'm really gobsmacked by that comment, as well.

  2. Hi, Toni!
    Thanks for the comments. So often those AA sections have so many other kinds of books and no one is inclined to stop there... Oh well. It can be frustrating. And yes, that comment was truly baffling to me--as though we're all so segregated when it comes to friendships!

  3. It's been quite a year and I'm happy for all of us - the Black community, the White community, the human race. And I hate boxes - people are people - quite trying to put us - and our books - in boxes. Love the cover of Spring Break - fabulous!

  4. Amen, Kathy!

    And thanks re the cover of Spring Break! I love it too.

  5. Brava! Terrific post. I agree with you - I hope we can see a continued focused attention on the book and the story! Thanks for this Kayla!

  6. 'African American romances, for example, are often placed in "African American" sections in the bookstores--a section that is a mix of fiction, biographies, non-fiction, cookbooks.'


    Whose brilliant concept was that? Your books belong in the romance section, where I looked for them and couldn't find any. Thank heavens they can be special ordered.

  7. Sorry for the lateness of this, but this was such a great post! Good thing marketers don't rule the world. I abhor labels!

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