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3/23/21 Racial Diversity Report Critique Response

The following is a response to a critique of the annual Ripped Bodice State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing report written by two romance bloggers/readers (Nick & Ari). One of romance’s defining features is the passionate engagement of the community, and we salute them both for the time and energy they put into their critique. 

 

What follows is our attempt to respond to the major points of the critique and is the result of a hard look at our own work and many hours of discussion. 

We started the Diversity Report after hearing repeatedly from publishers that they were making improvements in acquiring more BIPOC authors, while also, somewhat contradictorily, claiming that racial diversity wasn’t a big problem in romance. During the same time, we also were aware of several documented incidents where publishing houses openly racially discriminated against authors who are BIPOC, and particularly against Black authors. While the rest of this response focuses on the methodology of the report--as this was the target of the critique--it is worth mentioning up front that the purpose of the report is to prove that racial discrimination is widespread in romance publishing and we don’t want to lose focus of the original problem. 

Before we address specific concerns, we want to acknowledge the potential for “defensiveness” to take over. First, we believe in standing up for yourself and your work. But the internet is not always known for its sympathy to nuanced discourse. Being “defensive” has become synonymous with “not listening.” We care about what we do; it is only natural that we will defend our work. But we want to assure everyone--to the best we can--that we have spent many, many hours reviewing, contemplating, and responding to the critiques of the report. There are some that we have taken fully to heart and that we have incorporated immediately or have plans to going forward. And there are others where we will push back. But we do hope that this dialogue can further the ultimate goal of promoting racial diversity in romance publishing. That is, and has always been, the goal of this report. And we hope that is one in which our critics share. 

We had hoped this could be a dialogue. At the end of their critique, the authors stated that it was up to us to “decide whether or not [The Ripped Bodice] want[s] to truly listen.” We are certainly intent on continuing to listen to feedback. Unfortunately, after members of the community posted comments disagreeing with some of their assertions, the authors disabled comments on both the essay and one of the author’s Twitter threads promoting the essay. We found this disconcerting, but it is not our goal to go round-for-round sparring on the Internet. 

We want this to move the conversation forward. So let’s get into the specifics. 

 

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The whiteness of romance is “self-evident” 

While it might be self-evident to a romance reader seeking diverse authors, narratives, and representation, the very fact that so much of the romance publishing industry remains dominated by white voices refutes this point. We started this report five years ago when we heard from people in the industry that diversity “wasn’t a problem.” Racism in publishing may be obvious to some, but it is far from universally acknowledged by all.

 

Your research methods are “unethical” and “nonconsensual”

Consent is important. Ethics are important. We believe that strongly, and that is part of the reason why we do not publish authors’ personal identifying information. In attempting to respond to the allegation that the data collecting methods are non consensual, we were, to be honest, a little confused. It was unclear whether the critique was alleging that including a book and its author in the report without the permission of the author was non-consensual or whether the notion of identifying BIPOC authors was non-consensual. 

If the critique is that it is non-consensual to include a book and its author in the report without the permission of the author, then we simply disagree. Collecting information on authors and books published is how bestseller lists are generated, how revenue figures are calculated, and how myriad metrics are gathered in the publishing industry. Additionally, none of the information we use to identify authors is through means other than author websites, bios, headshots, published interviews, or public social media profiles. Suggesting that accessing this public information requires consent seems suspect. 

The critique also addresses ethical concerns under a framework that does not apply. Under the Department of Health and Human Services Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects §46.104(d)(4), “secondary research” of the kind we do for the report does not require informed consent.

If the critique is based on the notion that identifying an author’s race based on this public information was non-consensual, then we turn to the next point.

 

You shouldn’t guess someone’s race based on a photo

While we do use photos, they are not the only means by which we conduct our research. We also use biographies and interviews where a person specifically self-identifies their race. We have always been explicit about the limitations of this research technique. As we say upfront in our FAQ section:

This is not a foolproof system and we readily admit that.

Some authors do not choose to publicly share personal information for a variety of reasons. We wanted to respect that choice, but it does mean there is some room for error. It is also probable that in the midst of hundreds of authors, we will misidentity at least a few people’s race.

The New York Times used a technique nearly identical to our own when conducting their analysis of whiteness in publishing, “To identify those authors’ races and ethnicities, we worked alongside three research assistants, reading through biographies, interviews and social media posts.”

We’re not saying the system is perfect. Of course there are people whose race is not easily identifiable based on photos. But we also don’t want to pretend like race isn’t something that is perceived by others. Why should we pretend that a person’s race is not something that the outside world can see, and too often, judge? What point does this willful ignorance serve, if not to uphold white supremacist structures that pretend to operate on meritocracy because they “cannot see race”?

The critique fundamentally seems uncomfortable with the idea of perceiving and naming race as an identifying characteristic. But the whole point of the report is to call out what is happening and attempt to hold publishers to account. 

 

The report does not establish a “clear definition” for romance books

This is true and we should have included a definition from the start. We have updated the FAQ section of the website to include a definition for the books included in the report, as well as some of the other specific questions about what books get included and excluded.


The report does not include “other forms of diversity,” a particular subset of data, or some other piece of the puzzle

This is also true! We understand the need for more data across the board, which is why we are so specific with our intended goal, both at the top of each year’s report and on our FAQ page: 

"The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing Report tracks the publication of books written by authors who are BIPOC in the traditional romance publishing genre."

This has been our goal from the beginning. It was a place where we felt, as booksellers, that we were able to best contribute. The pieces of the critique that focus on areas we don’t review miss this point; the goal of the report is not to be comprehensive or the definitive source on studying racial diversity in romance. We are booksellers trying to contribute one piece to what we hope will be a larger discussion.

We welcome other members of the romance community interested in studying other aspects of the romance genre or publishing industry and releasing their own reports or findings. Over the years we have answered questions from people interested in conducting their own surveys of the romance industry and we are always happy to share our experiences.

 

Your graphs are “unclear” and “leave much to be desired” 

Fair point! Our data visualization has much room for improvement and we have updated our graphs to try and incorporate the feedback. 

 

You should follow the Lee & Low model

The Lee & Low report is fantastic! But the data collected, the infrastructure behind it, and, in particular, the goals of their report, are wildly different than ours. Lee & Low studies the employees within the publishing industry, meaning they need access to information that is frequently not public.

We have considered adopting a survey model several times, and ultimately return to the conclusion that it does not serve our stated, narrow goal. 

 

You are not transparent with the raw data

It is true; we do not publish the raw data along with the report. We have a specific reason for this: we think it is a really bad, and potentially dangerous idea, to publish a very large list of names of authors who are BIPOC for anyone to freely access on the internet. For the same reason the critique worries that we are storing this data “without encryption,” we would not want this kind of a list fueling hate-filled parts of the internet, which too often bleed into real-world harm. Of course someone could compile the information on their own--after all, that’s how we put together the data in the first place--but we are not interested in aiding in the cause of someone motivated by hate. 

 

You should use the term BIPOC

We absolutely should and we will. Language is ever-evolving and we are happy to evolve along with it. We have changed the language used in all our reports and on our FAQ page.

 

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We hope this has been useful in responding to major points of the critique and explaining some of our choices.

Finally, we sincerely request that everyone who engages with the authors of the critique do so in a way that is professional and respectful. 

-The Ripped Bodice