Read More Romance: Diversify!

Brenda Jackson with some of her 100 romance novels.

Brenda Jackson with some of her 100 romance novels.

There's something in the air right now in the publishing world, and I can't help but talk about it, in part because it's 2014 and I am shocked that any of us still have to talk about it, and in part because I have a daughter now, and I want her to see that when we see something wrong with our world, we stand up. 

This began last week with my reading a post on Suleikha Snyder's blog about Sheikh romances. I put it on my Tumblr, which is where I talk about issues facing romance and romance readers, but it bears repeating here that Suleikha is 100% right. Sheikh romances are a problem. Many of them capitalized on an old-fashioned, institutional racism that predicates itself on the idea that western women are necessary to "civilize" middle eastern men. I know they're popular, and I know that many of them are tremendously good reads (after all, Sheikh is really a placeholder for alpha, and who doesn't love a good alpha?), but they're also problematic. And we should feel weird about them still being around in 2014.  

Over the years, we've seen romance toss out a number of old-fashioned, problematic tropes -- remember when rape was par for the course? When Native American "savage heroes" captured white heroines and were subsequently "civilized" by them? When gay secondary characters almost always represented "villains?" Of course you remember. Some of my favorite books featured these themes. But now, I'm so very grateful that the romance industry stood up and said, "No more of that." After all, respect is the most important part of love -- so it makes sense that romance would be among the first genres to prioritize respect above all else. 

I would have left it at that, if not for the second storm that blew in last week. At the end of May, in New York City, the publishing industry comes together for the biggest book party in the States -- Book Expo America. It's four days of awesome parties and signings and panels and speeches, and it gives us a chance to celebrate this awesome industry that we all love so much. 

This year, BEA is launching BookCon a day for readers to come and hang out with their favorite authors. And the list of authors is seriously incredible. John Green, Amy Poehler, James Patterson, Jodi Picoult, the guy who invented Humans of New York, Grumpy Cat...oh. And me. I was asked to sit on a panel with the fabulous J. Lynn, Cora Carmack, and Jeaneine Frost to talk about bad boys and romance. Needless to say, I'm excited.

But then I read this post at BookRiot. And I looked at the list of authors who are attending BookCon. And while this list is unbelievable, the truth is, it's lacking. Not one single author of color is speaking at the conference. Not one. It's 2014.

I'm thrilled that BEA and BookCon are including Romance on the docket. For a long time, romance has been the bastard child of publishing, and you all know how hard I and others have worked to change that opinion. We stood up and said, Romance is real. Our fans care. Look at us. And slowly but surely, people are listening.

And now, it's time for us to stand up and say, "Diversity is important. We want books that represent our world. And we want to hear from authors who write them."

So, here's what I'm doing. I owed you another "Read More Romance" list and now I've given you one -- Great Books from Diverse Romance Writers. 

I'm going to bring this list with me to BookCon. If you're there, stop me and ask for a copy. Or better yet, come to our panel and pick one up after it's over. 

  • Nalini Singh - Nalini's Psy-changeling series is one of the best paranormal series out there. Begin your journey with the first in the series, Slave to Sensation, featuring a classic trope (and one of my favorites)--enemies to lovers. The world Singh has developed denies emotions, and the ruling class (the Psy) punish them. The heroine, Sascha, was born Psy but flawed--she can feel--and she has to hide her feelings to avoid having them erased. The hero, Lucas, is a changeling, who feeds on emotion and sensation, and he is part of an army of his kind who are fighting a war against thePsy. When he forces Sascha to help him, he discovers that she can feel, and the book just gets better from there.
     
  • Beverly Jenkins - Historical romance royalty, Beverly Jenkins has been one of my favorites since I started reading romance. Her books are richly researched, and set against the backdrop of Black History in America. There are a number that I'd recommend, but if you're a romance lover, try Destiny's Surrender, her most recent, set in the 1880s in the American West. Part secret-baby romance, part marriage of convenience, it's the story of a former prostitute and the man she's always loved. It's strong, smart & sexy, and I loved it. 
     
  • Sherry Thomas - Chinese-born Sherry Thomas published her first historical a year before I did, and she blew the doors off the genre, winning the RITA award on her first year out. Add to her great writing the fact that English is her second language (she taught herself how to read in English by reading romances!), and she's really just a show off. :) I loved her most recent book, The Luckiest Lady in London (also nominated for a RITA!), the story of an impoverished and devoted older sister on the hunt for a wealthy husband to ensure the safety and security of her family, and the wealthy scoundrel who has vowed to marry only when he absolutely must, and never for love. 
     
  • Alisha Rai - I'm new to Alisha Rai, having recently discovered her after a friend praised her "smokin' hot" books, but I'm hooked! These are erotic novellas (mostly), and I don't use the term erotic loosely. Ranging from paranormal to menage to straight-up sexy, Rai's books will burn your e-reader for sure. I started with Hot As Hades (a modern retelling of Hades & Persephone set in the underworld), as I figured the crazier the better in romance, right? Right. Don't read this one in public, though. You might embarrass yourself.  
     
  • Brenda Jackson - Remember how I said that Beverly Jenkins was historical romance royalty? Well, Brenda Jackson is right up there with her. Brenda has written more than 100 novels. She's probably famous for her ongoing Westmoreland family series, about a family of wealthy, sexy oil barons, ranchers, and tycoons (money runs in the blood--no slouches here) and the women who love them. Some of these are out of print, it seems, but my favorite is an early one -- Thorn's Challenge -- about super alpha motorcycle racer Thorn Westmoreland and his sister's best friend (right?!), brilliant doctor, Tara.     
     
  • Lisa Valdez - Before erotic romance was a huge thing, Lisa Valdez wrote a seriously very hot historical called, appropriately, Passion. I, like many, ate this one up and couldn't wait for her next book, which came along years later. Valdez is an author you'll either love or hate, both because her writing style is a little more old-fashioned than most modern romance writers, and  because her books edge into BDSM and she's not afraid to test the limits. 
     
  • Suleikha Snyder - I'd be remiss if I left Suleikha off this list, both because she partially inspired it and because I so enjoy her Bollywood Confidential series, which offers a fun, sexy, edgy look into the world of Bollywood. The most recent--Bollywood and the Beast--features an American-born heroine trying to make a go of it in Bollywood, and her co-star's brother, who is broken and in need of some serious care.  
     
  • Damon Suede - Diversity comes in all shapes and sizes, and in romance, male writers are in short supply. Damon Suede writes smokin-hot gay romance--and I don't just use that adjective because his Hot Head is about firefighters. The premise is simple--a New York firefighter needs cash and finds himself asking his best friend (and fellow fireman) to help him out on a racy online video site. The two fall for each other during the process. But the book is more complex that that, showing the uninitiated that erotic romance doesn't have to lack character and conflict. There are echoes of 9/11, issues of coming to terms with sexuality, and an underlying story of love that makes the book really terrific.

Here's one case where eight is not enough.

There aren’t near enough writers on this list. Granted, I wanted to recommend (as I’ve always done before) writers who’ve written books I’ve enjoyed. I know there are a number of terrific writers out there whom I haven’t even read. Or maybe I have read them and I don't know it -- I know as well as anyone that pseudonyms and hidden identities are rampant in romance; my real last name is long and Italian and difficult to spell, and so MacLean it is. 

I want to do what I can to help fix this problem in publishing. As I'm now writing a monthly romance column for the Washington Post, I'd like to make a point of including a more diverse cross-section of authors there, so I would love to hear from you about who I’m missing on this list. Please leave names (and book recommendations) in comments!

Authors -- self-promotion is welcome here! Tell us about your books: I, for one, would love to hear about them.