Growing up in Minnesota, Helen Hoang suffered from crippling social anxiety and struggled to make friends. She found refuge in romance novels, frothy stories that allowed her to experience intense feelings that were clearly spelled out on the page, always with the promise of a happy ending. “It was like I found a pure, undiluted drug,” she said.

Many years later, as a mother of two in her 30s, Ms. Hoang began researching autism and realised she’s on the spectrum, a condition that makes it difficult for her to hold casual conversations, read emotional cues, have an office job and meet new people. She once again turned to romance. But this time, she wrote the story herself. So far, romance fans have swooned over Ms. Hoang’s debut novel,
The Kiss Quotient
, a multicultural love story centred on an autistic woman who has trouble navigating the nuances of dating and courtship. Readers have flooded the website Goodreads with more than 7,000 positive ratings, and the book, which was published in June, is already in its fourth printing.

Breaking into the genre

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 centre on white characters, and rarely feature gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people in leading roles, or heroines with disabilities.

“Publishers aren’t putting out books by many people of colour and they’re giving us limited space at the table,” said romance writer Rebekah Weatherspoon, who has published some novels with small presses and self-published others, including
which features a black heroine and a disabled, bisexual Korean-American hero. “It’s definitely not a level playing field.”

The landscape is slowly starting to change, as more diverse writers break into the genre, and publishers take chances on love stories that reflect a broader range of experiences and don’t always fit the stereotypical girl-meets-boy mold. Forever Yours, an imprint at Grand Central, publishes Karelia Stetz-Waters, who writes romances about lesbian couples. Uzma Jalaluddin’s debut novel,
Ayesha at Last
, takes place in a close-knit immigrant Muslim community in Canada, and features an outspoken Muslim heroine who falls for a more conservative Muslim man, a Darcy to her Lizzie Bennett.

Alisha Rai and Sonali Dev have expanded the genre with love stories that feature Indian and Indian-American protagonists. Priscilla Oliveras, who is published by Kensington, writes romances with Latino characters. Jeannie Lin has published historical romances with Harlequin that are set in China during the Tang dynasty era. And Mindy Hung, writing under the pen name Ruby Lang, has a series of contemporary romances starring Asian-American female doctors in a group practice.

“Readers want books that reflect the world they live in, and they won’t settle for a book about a small town where every single person is white,” said Leah Koch, co-owner of the romance bookstore The Ripped Bodice in California. Last year, six of her store’s top 10 best-selling novels were written by authors of colour, Ms. Koch said. For the past two years, Ms. Koch and her sister Bea have conducted a study of leading romance publishers, and found that out of the 3,752 romance novels released by 20 major imprints in 2017, only around 6% were written by nonwhite authors. “Some publishers are showing more interest in acquiring books from marginalized groups, but there are still barriers,” said Alyssa Cole, who has published romances set during the Civil War with African-American protagonists. “Part of the problem is some publishers say, ok, we need more diversity, we’ll just have white authors write more diversely.”

“We hear that readers want more diversity, but it’s still the case that the most popular books are the least diverse,” said Cindy Hwang, an editorial director of Berkley, a Penguin Random House imprint.NY TImes

Publishers aren’t putting out books by many people of colour and they’re giving us limited space at the table

Rebekah Weatherspoon

Romance writer

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