At the offices of Kensington Publishing Corporation, in Midtown Manhattan, I am greeted by a wall of gently cascading water and an African American receptionist who ushers me into a meeting room. Kensington, which styles itself as “America’s independent publisher,” has been churning out fiction and nonfiction since the family business was founded in 1974, and chugs along smoothly still. In 2017, the publisher turned out just over 700 books, with about 35% of them falling under the romance umbrella, which includes historical, contemporary, suspense, paranormal, and so on. It is also the home of Alyssa Cole’s Loyal League miniseries, a trio of historical romances set during the American Civil War, specifically telling the stories of black men and women.
Cole’s stories are striking because of their intensity. Her back catalog may be abundant in novellas, but the Kensington phase of her writing is marked by the Loyal League novels. For the dramatic backdrops to her love stories, she has chosen war and other political upheavals — the civil rights movement and the fight for suffrage, for example — as well as post-apocalyptic settings. While most of her heroines are black women, the cast of characters are ethnically diverse. She admits to having lofty hopes for her books. “Sometimes I hear romance authors say they’re not writing the Great American Novel, and I’m like, ‘Well, if you're not trying to, that's on you,’” she says, laughing. “I'm never going to say that just because there are people having sex and love in [my books].” As a testament to her skill, a Kirkus review called her work “masterful” and An Extraordinary Union was named as a top pick of 2017 by publications as varied as Vulture, Booklist, and Publishers Weekly.
The stories in The Loyal League have roots in an unlikely place. In the author’s note at the back of An Extraordinary Union — the first book in the trilogy — Cole writes, “Many things fed into the ideas that formed this book, but first and foremost was Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog.” She laughs and nods emphatically when I ask about it. “I found his blog in 2008 or so, blogging about comic books, and I started reading it every day when I was at work,” she says. “And then he started getting into war stuff. It was nerd heaven.” For history buff Cole, 35, Coates’s interest — and the knowledge of his community of commenters — came at exactly the right time. “At this point, I was trying to write romance seriously and I’d just started reading a lot of historicals — I was reading Julie Garwood and Judith McNaught and loving them. I started reading Courtney Milan. But I didn’t think I would write historicals.”
Coates’s writing about the Freedom Riders and the student activism of the civil rights movement stirred a particular romance writer’s urge in Cole. “In my mind, I'll see the most messed-up thing, and I'll be like, but...what if people were kissing?” She laughs and shakes her head. It wasn’t long before she started publishing short stories: Her first was “Sweet to the Taste” in January 2014, and a month later, she published “Eagle’s Heart” with another small independent press, and by the end of the year she had a story placed in a Revolutionary War anthology, For Love & Liberty. Cole writes characters that are not only present at significant points and locations in history — Juneteenth, in Alexander Hamilton’s battalion, a suffragette on the cusp of the Harlem Renaissance, etc. — but are integral to those moments as well.
When Coates brought up Harriet Tubman being a spy, Cole was reading independently about Mary Bowser, the black woman with the eidetic memory who was a spy in Confederate leader Jefferson Davis’s household (her An Extraordinary Union heroine, Elle Burns, is based on Bowser). “I was like, we were around for all this stuff! And I can make these stories that include us.” A short story became a novella, and Cole kept going. She wrote hard and fast to finish a draft during November’s National Novel Writing Month, figuring 30 days was a reasonable sacrifice for the project even if it went nowhere. “And then I finished it, and I was like, I think this is good.” An agent liked it just as much, and Cole’s manuscript made its way to Kensington, landing on senior editor Esi Sogah’s desk.
Sogah, 36, is something of a romance veteran, having spent seven and a half years at Avon Books before moving to Kensington five and a half years ago, as well as being a lifelong romance reader who grew up swiping her mother’s love stories. Cole’s book came to Sogah at a critical point in her own career. At the DC premiere of 2015’s romance novel documentary Love Between the Covers, veteran romance writer Beverly Jenkins said something that resonated with Sogah during the panel discussion afterward. “She said she was tired of being the only person out there writing historical romance with African American people in it,” says Sogah. “And I was like, I should do something about that!” And when Cole’s book crossed her desk, she was empowered at Kensington, she says, to do just that.
Sogah credits the head of the company, Steven Zacharius (who took over from his father, and who regularly attends editorial meetings) with the company’s “try it and see what works” ethos. “I came to the editorial meeting, and I started describing the plot and I saw eyes lighting up,” Sogah says. “There hasn't been a time where I felt like I need to convince anyone that people will be interested in reading about black people during the Civil War, in a romance. When I started in romance, I would not have expected to have had that path.”
In survey after survey on the demographics of publishing, from the executive level, circling through marketing and sales and all the way through to reviewers, the trends are stubbornly constant: 79% of the industry overall is white, and that rises to 89% in the realm of reviewing, while straight people account for 88% of the industry. As author Brit Bennett noted in a sobering December 2017 tweet, “The average book will pass through a white agent, a white editor, a white publicist, a white sales team, a white cover artist, and white booksellers. And this process is considered natural and objective.”
Diversifying publishing is a war being fought on many fronts, from the continued efforts of smaller independent presses to dedicated initiatives designed to widen participation. There are more interrogations into the frequency and diversity of characters that deviate from the usual templates of what is considered worthy of good, complex storytelling as well as meta tracking of things like who gets to write the narratives of marginalized groups. It’s a moment that has caught fire in one billion-dollar (and 34% share) market in particular in recent years: romance.
In a genre where the focus is already so firmly female, romance is undergoing its own series of ructions regarding diversity, access, and inclusion. To date, no black author has ever been awarded the RITA, the Romance Writers of America’s award for excellence in romantic fiction. (Alyssa Cole has been a finalist twice, in 2016 and 2017.) By the RWA’s own count, less than 0.5% of the total number of finalist books have been by black authors since 2000. (Consider that veteran author Nora Roberts has won across categories no fewer than 21 times since 1983.) Inversely, a 2014 Pew Research study found that college-educated black women are the most likely to read a book in any format. The disconnect between creators, characters, readers, and industry recognition is stark.
In 2016, LA-based romance bookstore the Ripped Bodice began its now-annual racial diversity audit of mainstream romance publishing, tracking “the publication of books written by authors of color and indigenous peoples in the romance genre.” That first report, The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing, collected information from mainstream US publishers including Random House and Crimson Romance, a recently closed Simon & Schuster digital imprint. Even a quick skim of the report showed a clear skew: It concluded that for every 100 romance books published by leading houses in 2016, just 7.8% were written by people of color. In the 2017 report, this proportion dropped even further, to 6.2%.
But one house stayed steady amid the change: Kensington. In fact, one of its titles, Cole’s novel An Extraordinary Union, was the Ripped Bodice’s second-largest-selling title of 2017. (According to Kensington, it is currently in its third printing.) The company has forged a chain uncommon in mainstream publishing: an unbroken line of black women, from the novel’s protagonist, via the author, to the editor, to the art director who created the cover art (featuring a black woman).
This was a “black on all sides” mainstream publishing project. And it worked.
When I tell Kensington’s art director Kris Noble that I picked up An Extraordinary Union because of the cover design, she laughs. “That's good to hear! One of the things on my website is: Always judge a book by its cover.” All of the covers in the Loyal League series were art-directed by Noble, and they all feature black models. Racial representation has been a noted feature of her career since the beginning.
Starting out as a junior designer at Random House in 1980, Noble has seen, as she calls it, “the waves of African Americans” a few times now. Over the 17 years she was at Random House, she worked her way up to art director, and she recalls how mainstream publishing used to be even more monochrome. “I've been in publishing, like, almost 40 years, right? I was one of the founding members of One World, which was the first African American imprint in a mainstream publishing house, and that was five black women,” she says. (The other four women are Cheryl Woodruff, Beverly Robinson, Brenda Brown, and Tamu Alajuwani.) “And then when I came here and this project came up, I was like, ‘Yes, sisters!’” She laughs, before saying sotto voce, “Wakanda forever.”
One of the stories Woodruff, the founding editor of One World, has told about the early days of the imprint involves the image on the jacket of Bebe Campbell Moore’s coming-of-age novel Sweet Summer, a book she acquired in 1991. In Jewels: 50 Phenomenal Black Women Over 50, Woodruff recalls: “This was a coming-of-age story that takes place in Philadelphia and rural North Carolina. It was a brilliant book, and on the cover the art director had put a photograph of an African girl in a head wrap walking across the desert. I lost it.” Creating covers that reflect both the content of the books and the diversity within blackness is something she strives for and so a mismatch between content and cover is what Noble seeks to avoid at all costs. But she admits there are persistent challenges to doing that.
“I think society has pigeonholed African Americans to look like one thing or the other,” she says. “It's either we look like Halle Berry or like Naenae from the block, you know what I mean? And the modeling agencies tend to go for what they think the client is going to want.” Noble gestures at me, and then at herself. “It really is difficult to find models who represent what we know — people who look like your auntie, or my sister. So we have to search many houses.” It’s slightly better now though, she says; back in the day, Noble had to take matters into her own hands by going casting herself. “I would go into gyms and look at people and be like, ‘You wanna go on a book cover?’ and hand them my business card.” She raises her brows. “It looked like the casting couch.”
Noble got her first taste of creative control with One World and is very aware of how many filters a book goes through in order to get into a reader’s hands. She has sometimes had to be a sort of translator over the course of her career. “I've been everywhere. I've been at Random House, Simon & Schuster, I mean, I think I've hit every publishing house out there. What’s good at Kensington is that they would also ask me to read the books. Most art directors don't get that.” Cole, who had been used to self-publishing or digitally publishing, was more at home with stock photos, which are still quite limited in choice. When she found out Noble was a black woman, she was blown away. “When I met Kris, I said, ‘She’s black!’” she says, laughing. “She had a Daughters of the Dust poster on the wall, and I was so happy.”
While covers are uniquely important to how enticing a book will be for a browsing reader, the path to publishing a book must first begin with intense conversations and collaboration between writer and editor. For Cole, who received rejections with some notes along the lines of “I couldn’t really connect with the characters,” having Sogah as an editor has been both reassuring and exciting. “I've worked with really amazing nonblack editors, [but when] Esi acquired the book, I was so happy because she is one of the few black editors, and for this particular story it felt good to have that kind of background,” she says. “I didn't want to have to explain emotionally sensitive things.”
For Cole, a black editor on a project like hers means a sharing of the burden of telling emotionally draining stories about black people in history. “It does make me feel like I can come with certain concerns and they will understand,” she says. The trust they’ve built working on the first two Loyal League books no doubt informed the ambition of Cole’s An Unconditional Freedom, the final book of the trilogy that will be published this October. In it, Cole tells a story of a freedman resold into slavery, and her research spanned the globe, from England to Cuba, Russia, and back to America. Through the process of writing it, she has been solidly guided by Sogah, the calm editor such a vast, painful, and ambitious project needs.
Sogah, for her part, already knew Cole “in an internet way” before they began working together and her enthusiasm for the series was high, especially considering some of the previous Civil War romances she’d been pitched. “It was very clear, even from reading the pitches, who had written [those stories]. I got one where the daughter of the plantation was in love with the slave — and I call him ‘The Slave’ because that's all he was called for the entirety of the query.” She laughs grimly. “With Alyssa’s book, I was like, it's got this great story and lots of great research and I know that she is a person who cares about this topic and is invested in it.”
Even so, Sogah is quick to point out that being a black editor working with a black author is not a cure-all for what ails publishing. I ask if she feels a need to be extra careful to get things “right” when she is working with authors who are black or from other marginalized groups. She pauses for a long time before she answers. “If I had to quantify it, I would say I probably find myself doing less? Because I know these are authors who have had to think about it a lot.” She recounts an experience at a writers’ conference in Virginia where she took part in a diversity panel, during which many in the mostly white audience asked semi-defensive questions about representation and inclusivity.
“We were talking about the questions you have to ask yourself, whether getting sensitivity readers or checking in with your peer group on something, all that stuff,” Sogah remembers. “And one of the things I said was: all these questions you’re being forced to ask yourself? Authors of color, gay authors, other marginalized writers … they’ve been asked by the publishing industry from the get-go. It feels like an extra burden to you but really, you're just now being brought to that level.”
Sogah is also aware that her presence in the process does not mean the work is infallible. She is not every black woman. Cole herself currently lives in Martinique with her husband, and Sogah says, “My parents are from Ghana. Alyssa does a lot of research, and I also have to shut down any instinct towards...my first-generation respectability politics,” she says, laughing. “I always work to not let that interfere, and make sure that the characters are doing stuff that makes sense for them, and not that would be approved of by my father, you know?”
“It's not editing my [writers] to fit the biases that I know are out there, but making sure I'm editing to make the book itself better.”
Once Sogah sends Noble the art sheet with a synopsis or a sample, the work to find the right artist to execute the joint vision begins. For The Loyal League’s Civil War setting, Noble wanted to make sure the woman on the cover embodied strength. “They kind of got us beaten up and down, and I kept saying, ‘This artist has to make sure this woman is powerful.’” Then, she says, with a proud smile, “I art-direct. Every detail, down to the ribbon on her dress. I need it to be historically accurate, I need it to be powerful.”
The key to a great cover, says Noble, is to pay attention. For the final book in the series, they decided to put a black man on the cover. Selecting the model was a long process, but they got it right, she says. “How often do you see a handsome black man on the cover of commercial fiction? You just don't. And we're beautiful.” One of her inspirations was Queen Sugar star Kofi Siriboe. “I keep saying book publishing is part of pop culture. Whatever’s trending, you need to be on top of that. So, although I'm an old lady, I could tell you who Cardi B is and sing all her lyrics. And it's because I have to.” She taps her fingertips on the pages on the desk in front of her. “I have to know: what's trending, what are people buying, what are the colors they're looking at? What are the makeup trends? The thick eyebrows trend, for example! There are so many little elements, just to make this book sit on a shelf. ”
Noble’s experience bleeds through her department. “Any time we give an African American book to the art department, whoever is working on it will ask about skin tone and hair texture, probably because of having learned from Kris,” says Sogah.
For a chunk of traditional romance readers, the resistance to new narratives that have nonwhite, not-straight, or disabled protagonists can manifest in oddly passive-aggressive ways. Sogah is familiar with the added scrutiny some of her authors face merely for writing historical romance with LGBT characters, or people of color, or both. “I know that they have been interrogated in this way or that since they started writing,” she says.
Cole laments the “typo police” who show up to closely read her stories for poorly placed commas. “The nitpicking to try and make up for their discomfort with reading someone that isn't like them,” she says. “To some people, it’s an affront. They don't want to think about any other kind of history. Like, only white people and straight people have ever loved in history? It doesn't make any sense. I’ve done my research.” Cole jokes about the same “25 dukes running around London” who many readers have no problem accepting, as they do the anachronistic (and white) liberated women who fill the pages of the genre. “Spinsters and wallflowers are doing all kinds of crazy stuff that they could have been punished for in that time period and instead they ‘win’ a duke and have all these babies and don’t die in childbirth. None of the rakes have syphilis.” She laughs. “But when the people happen to not be white, or straight, suddenly it’s ‘Oh, I don’t know about all of this. Would someone really do that? Would she really know these words?’”
Cole’s books are romances, which is to say they always have happy endings. But placing her characters in the past requires a certain dexterity because the past has always been a difficult location for marginalized groups. These are not, however, insurmountable obstacles. In 2017, Cole contributed a novella to Hamilton’s Battalion, an anthology of historical romance. Her story, “That Could Be Enough,” centers on Eliza Hamilton’s maid Mercy, who is helping collect stories about her mistress’s late husband. Mercy falls for Andromeda, the descendant of an officer who fought alongside Alexander Hamilton. People fall in love under all sorts of conditions, Cole says simply, and Sogah is happy to help her authors get those kinds of stories published. “When you do something like a Civil War romance, people are like, ‘Well, how could there be any romance? Everyone was a slave and miserable!’ and it's like, everyone was not a slave, and slaves fell in love too! Black women are happy!” she says. “We don’t have whatever that disconnect people think there is between living in hard times and also having joy. It’s not that complicated.”
Cole notes the parallels between the past and present day, in which black women consistently drive social change. “I like to focus on the fact that black women were always doing things. Who’s always at the forefront, even if they get pushed to the side eventually? Like, I don’t even have to make this up!” Sogah also believes the timing of the books’ release is very illustrative of the coexistence of daily joy and daily hardship today. “When I bought this book, America was different. And I think the unintentional parallels are a part of what’s made them resonate a lot with people.”
As the Diversity Baseline Survey showed, publishing’s problem does not end at the editorial and art desks. “When we talk about diversity in publishing, I always think of the acquisition editors, but also sales and marketing,” says Cole. “I think the sales and marketing teams get shielded from the diversity talk when in fact they have a huge impact on it.”
Noble, whose career history is so entwined with pushing for progress, suggests that changes in the way books are sold — in chain supermarkets, via online retailers, and across new formats — have also introduced new kinds of subjectivity into the equation. “The book buying business has changed. So your buyers are not necessarily ‘book people.’ The challenges are meeting the outside forces — and those are the buyers — and getting it past them, and their biases, and into the consumers’ hands.”
There are already a number of barriers for authors looking to break into the industry.
With their colleagues at Kensington, who always put their all into their projects – Sogah and Noble know that working on this project together carries an inevitable significance. “It's rare to have this many of us in one space,” says Noble. “I certainly feel a responsibility. I don’t know if I should say that, but I absolutely do.” Across the table, Sogah nods her head. “I do, too.” ●