In a new essay for Medium, I look at responses to Hulu’s Happiest Season and efforts by Hallmark, Lifetime, and Netflix to offer LGBTQ holiday stories. The total effect is that queer holiday stories are still lacking and when they do exist, are disappointing. So I propose viewers turn to queer publishing, where LGBTQ holiday novels are growing in number.
Romance has a whiteness problem. That’s true in rom coms, made-for-TV movies on *that* network (which has admittedly begun to make changes in race, even if they still pretend LGBTQ folks don’t exist), and for publishing. Search #romancesowhite on Twitter, and you’ll find dozens of links to articles, stories about scandals at publishing houses and within professional writing organizations, and more.
At heart, romance is about fantasy. Always, necessarily. Romance promises us that we, like the characters, can find true love, and the story will neatly conclude there. We don’t have to worry about how the couple – or ourselves – will fare through the trials of real life. And we don’t have to worry about rejection. No matter what obstacles stand between the couple and the declaration of love, they will always be broken down and overcome, and the “I love you” always comes. It’s a tidy fantasy, encapsulating the neatest but often smallest moments of real life, if you’re lucky.
It’s because romance is a fantasy that romance writers and publishers should support moves to end systemic racism. In the real world, for every time someone says that Black lives matter, there is someone else to argue. For every victory, like my governor’s declaration this week that racism is a public health crisis, there is at least one unnecessary death of a Black person. But romance is poised to offer us a fantasy view at the world we could have, one where people move in socially integrated circles and where we don’t ignore system racism (something that does sometimes happen in romance, unfortunately) but where we have fixed it.
I’m excited to see my publisher, Bold Strokes Books, putting their efforts into this charge. BSB is published a collection of stories and essays from BIPOC authors. The Lesbian Review, a website which reviews books and can make or break an author’s popular success, has said they are focusing on BIPOC authors for now. White authors will have to wait to be reviewed. I’m a white author with a debut novel coming out in a month. This is one of those times when I get to see if my values and actions actually align. I have to be okay with not being reviewed (or not yet being reviewed) to make up for all the authors of color who were forced into the backseat for so many years before. This may mean a hit to my review status, the word of mouth recommendations writers rely upon, and probably royalties and sales. But it’s important.
Romance is a fantasy that offers us a vision of the world where people find love just for being who they are. They all get their happy ending. Romance, more than many other genres, should naturally lead the charge on foregrounding stories about and by BIPOC authors. Because everyone deserves love.
Ebooks, especially with services like Kindle Unlimited, have changed some of the fundamental economics of publishing today. For small, independent publishers and self-published authors, the old rules don’t work anymore. Once upon a time, an author painstakingly wrote and revised a book. If they were lucky enough to get a contract with a reputable publisher, they could count on editorial revisions, followed by copyedits and galley proofs, and many, many months later a book would finally appear on the shelves of bookstores. If the author wanted to publish a sequel, they would have to wait to see how sales on the first book went. If the first book was popular enough, a follow-up might land a contract.
Even once ebooks began to take off, this model still worked, but today savvy entrepreneurs (whom I won’t automatically call “authors” for reasons I explain in a second) have figured out that the real secret to success on platforms like Amazon’s Kindle store was not to write one popular, well-selling book. It wasn’t even to get a lot of good reviews, though those help. No, the secret is something called “rapid release,” which means publishing a series of related books set in the same universe in a very short period of time. This keeps the author’s name fresh, which means the author will continue to appear under new releases, and the abundance of offerings are more likely to result in multiple sales to the same readers – all of which is favored by Amazon’s algorithms, making it more likely the book will be recommended to other readers. Whereas in the past, too many books set in one universe or series might have been a detriment because of a presumed saturation point for readers, rapid release favors excess: the more books there are, the more someone can buy and read, cross-promote, review, recommend to someone else, and the cycle continues.
It doesn’t take much googling to find countless resources for authors interested in rapid release. Author Imprints offers a checklist to prepare writers in advance for what will be a very heavy and swift writing, revising, and publishing season. Mindy Klasky describes her own experiences with a rapid release romance series and suggests using interweaving characters with the seed for one book’s plot planted in another. This helps the author keep the universe tidy and moving forward, and it no doubt whets a reader’s appetite to buy the next book to see how the secondary characters’ experiences will turn out. There are even books on the subject, which, given the pace of publishing and the changes rapid release is trying to impart, seems a little weird to me.
My writing takes a long time. Once I have the idea for a story fleshed out, it’s quick to actually draft the novel. But drafting is hardly writing a finished product. I sit with the characters, dialogue, and plot for a while, and then I revise for story clarity first before changing any out of place dialogue or details. All told, I revise each book I write in its entirety at least twice before submitting it to a publisher. Although my writing process may change in the future, at the moment I am not a good candidate for rapid release.
So I won’t weigh in on the many benefits and possible drawbacks for writers. Plenty has been said about that already by people who are participating in this movement. Instead, I want to focus on what rapid release gets to, which is only one aspect of what ebook publishing on platforms like Kindle are making us question. Is e-publishing a sport for profit or a craft that requires patience to develop? Should an author approach writing to earn an income by tapping into the secrets of algorithms that contribute to our popularity and ability to sell books, or should an author’s first duty be to writing the best book possible? Are there any compromises between these two extremes?
Some people participating in the rapid release movement are more interested in earning profit than creating art. There have been scandals over how certain people manipulate the number of books they publish by regurgitating material and how they pad book length by combining shorter books that have already been published to earn the person a share of the Kindle Unlimited fund (which pays based on the percent of a book that’s read). While some of these people are bona fide writers, others are just entrepreneurs who have realized there’s an opportunity to make serious cash in this game, and they write things with typos, plagiarized passages, even nonsensical ramblings – all to get it out there, get it read, and get paid. You can see why I hesitate to call them “authors.”
At the same time, authors deserve to get paid. Recent studies have shown that “writing” is no longer a wage-earning profession. The New York Times published a story earlier this year that cited a median income for full-time writers as approximately $20,000. This living wage calculator developed at MIT shows that you could maybe survive on that in a rural area, but not in most of the United States and certainly not if you have a partner or kids (or pets, I’ll add. These things never factor in pets, which from my experience are terribly expensive family additions).
Do these books feel as satisfying to readers? That’s a question I don’t see discussed much on the many websites touting the virtues of rapid release. For a genre like romance, with a tight formula and predetermined ending, readers may not sense much difference between a story written in under three weeks and one written in three months or three years. (And it’s worth nothing that some of the great American literature was written speedily: Zora Neale Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in just seven weeks, and high schoolers are still reading in AP English eighty years later.) So does there need to be a fine distinction between craft and cash? Maybe not.
In the meantime, I’m headed to Jami Gold’s beat sheet to revise, for the third time in eight months, the second pinch point for my novel in progress.