Romance Publishers and Diversity at the Nielsen Summit: ‘Uniquely Familiar’

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

As part of Nielsen’s inaugural Romance Book Summit at the Romance Writers of America conference, a panel of publishers talks about globalization, sales, and diversity challenges.
From left, publisher-panelists at Nielsen's Romance Book Summit: Sourcebooks' Deb Werksman; Harlequin's Malle Vallik; Grand Central's Leah Hultenschmidt; and Kensington's Steve Zacharius. Image: Kat Meyer

Publisher-panelists at Nielsen’s Romance Book Summit. Image: Kat Meyer

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘Our Changing Landscape’
On a day when the term silo was heard many times relative to the experiences of publishers and authors in the romance space, transparency was a welcome word—and it came from Malle Vallik, Editorial Director with Harlequin Books, in commentary about working well with market-savvy authors.

Vallik was joined by Grand Central Publishing’s Leah Hultenschmidt, Editorial Director of the Forever and Forever Yours imprints; by Deb Werksman, Editorial Director of Sourcebooks’ Casablanca division; and by Kensington Publishing CEO and President Steven Zacharius. “Romance Publishers Talk Shop” was a panel in Nielsen’s Romance Book Summit on Thursday (July 14).

panel gallery

The summit was co-located by Nielsen, a first, at San Diego’s Romance Writers of America (RWA) conference and co-chaired by Nielsen’s Kristen McLean and the Book Industry Study Group’s (BISG) Kat Meyer. Designed to bring together authors and publishers on issues facing the sector, the program was a mix of statistical research reports and experienced commentary and discussion.

No issue drew as much attention or debate during the day as the question of diversity in a genre that, according to Nielsen research, is heavily white and female—as is US publishing overall—both in its writers and readers. With a diversity committee in place headed by Chanta Rand (who spoke on one of Nielsen’s panels), RWA and the industry sector it serves have for years been wrestling with deeply held opinion and sometimes contentious efforts to gain ground in the diversity arena.

Nielsen Romance Book Summit 2016

Nielsen Romance Book Summit 2016

The question of needed multiculturalism in publishing isn’t limited to social considerations, of course: it’s also a key point around business interests.

As McLean reminded delegates at the conference, Nielsen’s The Multicultural Edge report indicated in March 2015 that between 2000 and 2014, some 92 percent of growth in the US population was generated by multicultural consumers.

More focus: 21 of the most densely populated 25 counties in the United States have populations with multicultural majorities.

Nielsen romance diversity reflection slide lined

Nielsen Romance Book Summit 2016

In population balance, just over half—50.8 percent—of “Gen Next” Americans aged 9 and younger are identified in survey work as multicultural, as compared to 29.6 percent of Americans in the “Boomer” generation aged 50 to 59.

The direction of the trend toward a rising multicultural populace is unmistakable—and it doesn’t jibe well with the Lee and Low survey this year, which indicates that the US publishing workforce is 79-percent Caucasian.

In a series of figures from research results, McLean offered more highlights of some of the romance-genre figures that Nielsen can break out from its Books & Consumers survey material.

Nielsen Romance Book Summit 2016

Nielsen Romance Book Summit 2016

Examples:

  • The share of female romance buyers who report their sexual orientation to be heterosexual or straight: 85 percent
  • The share of male romance buyers who report their sexual orientation to be heterosexual or straight: 88 percent
  • Male (61 percent) and younger readers surveyed said it’s important that characters in romance reflect diverse ethnic backgrounds
  • Non-white respondents who said it’s somewhat or very important that characters reflect diverse backgrounds: 78 percent

Needless to say, publishers in the romance sector today are acutely aware of the issues reflected in such findings. And publishing houses are frequently criticized by authors for rejecting or ghettoizing multicultural work into special, under-supported imprints. Retailers hear the same criticism for categorizing and displaying multicultural romance as “social studies” or as ethnicity-specific work, as in cases of African-American romance sold in “Black Studies” sections where romance readers won’t find it.

Nielsen Romance Book Summit 2016

Nielsen Romance Book Summit 2016

The Nielsen panel certainly benefitted from a lot of forthright commentary.

Harlequin’s Vallik, she said, is in charge of directing “author engagement,” something she described as “a unique position that exists solely because of the indie world out there. My job is to develop and execute on strategy to show authors why they want to publish with a traditional publisher. Also to transform Harlequin to think differently about that entire world.

“We do an author survey. Three years ago about 75 percent of our authors—and we have around 700 authors—published exclusively with us and 25 percent with somebody else, as well. We just did another survey in February” and found that the authors were publishing some 50 percent of their work with others. So that’s a huge change.” And a lot of it represents hybrid publishing, she said, meaning publishing both with the trade and in self-publishing.

To capitalize on what she says are the creativity and energy that hybrid authors can provide, “We’re really open when you want to do something else. How do we schedule it together? Are there any marketing opportunities we can do together?” Mallik said she runs workshops on ways authors and publishers can coordinate their resources. She agreed with Sourcebooks’ Werksman that publishers aren’t always as good about explaining how things work to authors as they need to be.

“Some things, even our own editors don’t understand, and that’s part of our changing landscape: making sure our staff knows, and how do we talk about it with authors?—part of our transparency issue, being upfront about the marketplace and what the changes are.”

Hultenschmidt from Grand Central agreed, applauding Mallik’s use of the term transparency. She talked of a dashboard that her program provides to authors after a title is out for eight weeks to brief them on where and how many copies are selling, which accounts are buying, and other details.  “They’re able to use that if something is taking off,” she said. “We can often leverage that to keep it going well. Having that kind of immediate reaction” helps authors know how the company might be adjusting marketing.

Niche Audiences and Wide Diversity
On searching for what’s “uniquely familiar” in romance diversity: “Listening for stories we haven’t heard before, told in voices we haven’t heard before is a really wonderful approach.”Deb Werksman, Sourcebooks

In talking about diversity, the Nielsen conference had heard author Kianna Alexander in an earlier panel talk about having to self-publish African-American historical romance because publishing houses had wanted parts of the work “toned down” to be more palatable to a wider audience. And overall, the dynamic in the romance world at this point turns on assertions from many authors that publishers are dragging their feet on acquiring diverse material, only to market it as too niche for it to find a mainstream audience.

Werksman, for Sourcebooks, referred to comments that author Caridad Piñeiro had made in her keynote address to the Nielsen conference, in relation to books for niche audiences versus books for broad audiences.  Nielsen’s reader survey made last year for RWA, Werksman said, showed that 30 percent of books purchased were bought on impulse. Another 26 percent were purchased when someone planned to buy a book but didn’t know what they wanted.

“This shows us that first you have to be everywhere” to grab the attention of the unprepared buyer, Werksman said. “Second, it means that if you know who your audience is, then you package and market accordingly.” Her point was that there’s “space for diversity that hasn’t been explored yet,” but that once the material is in place to serve that need, it has to be marketed in such a way that it can catch the eye of the right consumer.

Werksman mentioned the phrase, “uniquely familiar” as something that makes a lot of sense in material that has the potential to “blow the roof off. It’s a romance, it has a happy ending…and yet you stay up half the night” reading it.

“Listening for stories we haven’t heard before, told in voices we haven’t heard before is a really wonderful approach.”

Vallik gave credit to the hashtagged campaign #WeNeedDiverseBooks, saying that “a lot of our younger editors” had found it helpful in encouraging the search for more diverse material. “We have diverse books,” Vallik said, “we’re looking for diverse books, and we encourage our editors who are looking for diverse books.”

By way of demonstrating the kinds of obstacles publishers, like authors, can run into, she mentioned “a very popular author” with Harlequin who had a new book releasing with a cover “which we loved, showing black characters. And it was when it started going to the accounts that we got some pushback.” Retailers, she said, were asking “whether it couldn’t be an ‘iconic’ cover, instead?”

“And our answer was, ‘No. This is the cover and it suits the book.’ But the point is that sometimes, even when we’re yes-yes…there are other obstacles to get through, too,” in order to place more diverse material within consumers’ reach. “It can be the accounts and distribution channels” that present the barriers, she said, “not just the publishers.”

On trying to place more diverse romance with retail accounts: “They have to have the volume. It’s a big factor in what the accounts will take. They’re looking at what has sold gangbusters before. ‘What is the comp title for this book?'”Leah Hultenschmidt, Grand Central

Some authors will readily agree that the retail accounts are behind a lot of resistance to more diverse material, while asserting that it’s nevertheless the publishing houses’ marketing teams’ job to overcome that kind of objection and hold firm on behalf of their content.

“Diversity came first in our mission statement this year,” Hultenschmidt said of Forever and Forever Yours. Romance work within the wider company, she said, had been analyzed to have the most diversity of all the companies and imprints, not only in race, ethnicity and sexual orientation, but also in terms of age and body image, as well.

“I can see this going two different ways,” she said, getting close to a question that dogs a lot of publishing efforts today among writers who say multicultural work is placed in imprint “ghettos.” On one hand, she said, “you can push to the mainstream audience, branding and building it for a mainstream story—the accounts will have no trouble with that. Or—and this works better on the digital side—you can have a smaller audience that might be more niche.”

The accounts support this kind of division, Hultenschmidt said, although it may be contrary to what many proponents of more diversified marketing prefer, “because they have to have the volume. It’s a big factor in what the accounts will take. They’re looking at what has sold gangbusters before. ‘What is the comp title for this book?'”

On diversity: “About 15 years ago we started a line of books called Encanto. We did a bilingual edition of each in English and Spanish, and then we did a Spanish edition…I think we were just ahead of our time. “Steve Zacharius, Kensington

For his part, Zacharius drew a laugh by saying, “We’re pretty diverse already. We’re the largest Jewish-owned black publisher in the country.”

Having started the Arabesque line of African-American romance, Kensington saw that imprint sold to BET and later to Harlequin, he said. Efforts to introduce more diversity, however, frequently lie in the realm of trial and error, he said, with lots of the latter to be borne by publishers.

“About 15 years ago we started a line of books called Encanto, he said. “We did a bilingual edition of each in English and Spanish, and then we did a Spanish edition. And they bombed terribly. And we were distributing to bodegas…I think we were just ahead of our time. Probably now, they’d do very well digitally or even in print. But getting these through to print accounts is very difficult. Even with our African-American lines, we still see lower readership digitally. Print books, we have very good sales in the African-American market, but digitally lower.”

Zacharius added, “Our offices are 90-percent women.” He then hastened to say: “Which I’m fine with.”

Markets Overall: How Is Romance Doing?
On romance and self-publishing: “Mass market paperback sales are down, and that’s no surprise when you think about the indie world.”Malle Vallik, Harlequin

Sourcebooks’ Werksman used Nielsen research showing that some 28.5 million romance books were sold in print in the US 2015, “a boatload of books,” as she put it.

Brick-and-mortar discovery remains in the lead, as she pointed out—with a special nod to Bea and Leah Koch of The Ripped Bodice, a new all-romance bookshop that has opened in Los Angeles this year: the Koch sisters were panelists during the Nielsen summit. Many comments during the day reflected new energy among member-stores of the American Booksellers Association in serving romance patrons who are widely termed “voracious readers” of their favorite genre.

“Fifty-five percent of the romance readership,” Werksman said, “is buying their books in the bookstores.”

Harlequin’s Vallik, noting that the romance market has been “in change for some time,” told the conference, “Mass market paperback sales are down, and that’s no surprise when you think about the indie world,” which has gained what McLean conservatively estimates may be 25 percent of the romance market and is focused in ebooks, of course.

“Having said that,” however, Vallik said, “Harlequin is actually the leader in mass market paperback, and we find lots of opportunity for us there. And what it tells us in the romance world is that there’s more openness to a variety of formats.” She predicted, in fact, that trade paperback and hardcover “will become much bigger deals for romance authors moving forward,” reflecting a trend that McLean is seeing in favor of trade paperback.

Vallik said that Harlequin publishes “30 cowboy books, at least” among a total 110 or so romance titles released monthly by the house. “I was surprised to hear that westerns ever weren’t popular,” she said. In addition, she said, romantic suspense still seems to be growing, and “in digital, paranormal is actually starting to increase again,” but less in traditional vampire strains than in “shifters, perhaps werewolves. Another uptick Harlequin sees in popularity is for the “unreliable narrator” romance, both in suspense and general.

On digital’s dynamic: “In the old days, you published two books, you had crappy sales in print, and your career was over. Now, you have as an author, the capacity to wait longer, build yourself.”Malle Vallik, Harlequin

At Forever and Forever Yours from Grand Central, Hultenschmidt said that romantic suspense “had been a struggle for us in past years, but now we find that accounts, Wal-Mart in particular, have been taking a chance on new offers” in the field. “And cowboys are evergreen,” she agreed with Vallik.

Hultenschmidt said that her company finds it interesting to see how subgenres play differently in varying locations, as reflected by the orders from retail accounts. As the conference heard earlier in the day from librarians, the trick for a major romance house is to have something for everyone in order to service the accounts’ range of needs. At Target, Hultenschmidt said, historical romance is showing strength, “including historicals by new authors, which is exciting.”

While the talk on publishing’s street these days is of a print resurgence and a plateauing in ebooks, Kensington’s Zacharius said, “We’ve seen, like everybody else in the print traditional area, a distinct leveling off of print books because there’s less space for them in bookstores. Unless Amazon is going to open up another few hundred stores next year, I don’t see many retailers expanding. Wal-Mart is cutting down its space, Barnes & Noble has fewer stores each year. So print is definitely a challenge.

“We’re nine months into our fiscal year and our digital sales are up 10 percent. We do everything, all kinds of romance,” he said, and Kensington is “going to be starting a sci-fi digital line and we’re going to be starting a series-romance digital line…We see ups and downs, and a lot of it is author-driven.”

“It’s a multi-channel world,” Harlequin’s Vallik said, agreeing with Kensington’s Zacharius, and part of the job of working with authors, she said, is trying to move them away from the concept of print-only.

“In the old days, you published two books, you had crappy sales in print, and your career was over. Now, you have as an author, the capacity to wait longer, build yourself. It’s a really challenging marketplace, but there are really interesting opportunities for authors in how to weave through it.”

Romance International: Not Just ‘Jumping Borders’
On international book sales: “Territorial breakdowns are outdated, given the reality of ebooks. There isn’t really a territory with an ebook, it’s cyberspace.”Deb Werksman, Sourcebooks

While the old assumption that digital makes it simply a matter of “jumping borders” got a big world-weary laugh from the room’s professionals, Sourcebooks’ Werksman said she sees “the world as our oyster.”

Timing is a tricky factor. “The international scene lags the US a bit,” she said. “What we publish today may take two or nine years to find its audience in other countries…or it may sell in 20 countries next week.

“But there are a lot of people reading romance in English throughout the world. Territorial breakdowns are outdated, given the reality of ebooks. There isn’t really a territory with an ebook, it’s cyberspace. It behooves us to think about how to break down those borders and reach an author’s readers wherever they are, whatever time zone they’re in, and whatever language they speak.”

Vallik reminded the conference that international reach “has been a big part of Harlequin’s DNA since the 1970s. We publish in 34 languages, with 110 international markets on six continents. We take the romances we publish, we translate them, and we send them out.”

A couple of American memes that don’t travel well, she said, are military-themed romance, “and cowboys,” ironically for their popularity at home. But in an interesting business development, Vallik said, Harlequin’s international editorial offices—formally doing mostly translation—”are now starting to make their own acquisitions” of locally written romance titles. “They form relationships with local agents that we haven’t had…It’s interesting how it’s shifted so that we can publish their material, as well.”

On having international editorial teams make acquisitions: “They form relationships with local agents that we haven’t had…It’s interesting how it’s shifted so that we can publish their material, as well.”Malle Vallik, Harlequin

As part of Hachette, Hultenschmidt said, “We’re constantly working with our global sister companies. One of our missions is to get world rights…We work right from acquisition so we can coordinate covers,” which are deliberately varied by market to meet local tastes and interests.

Perhaps a poignant note from Hultenschmidt: military romance, as Vallik had indicated, is generally not traveling well outside the US market. But recently a significant deal was made for such material in France, causing Hultenschmidt to wonder if security issues being felt so painfully in Europe may have an impact on interest in such themes.

Kensington’s Zacharius had an interesting international anecdote to offer, too.

“Digitally,” he said, “we do more now with Amazon-UK than we do in all of print internationally.

“English in digital has some very nice growth, but pricing the books is very tough.”


More on the Nielsen Romance Book Summit is here and here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. Prior to that he was Associate Editor for The FutureBook, a channel at The Bookseller focused on digital publishing. Anderson has also worked with CNN International, CNN.com, CNN USA, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media.