Today I am honored to hand over the blog to USA Today Bestselling author Naima Simone. Naima is a client of Rachel Brooks and last week she approached Rachel about publicly sharing the story of her newest releases. Rachel agreed it’s an important story to tell, as do I, which is why we offered her the blog. Her message is important, and she says it so much better than I ever could. (We’re pleased Naima’s publisher is working with her on this as well, and you can check for more updates and data in their cross-post.)
Bestselling Author Naima Simone Talks Sales in the Diverse Books Movement
About a week ago, I spoke with my publisher regarding the books in my new contemporary romance series entitled, WAGS (Wives and Girlfriends of sports stars). The first book, Scoring with the Wrong Twin, had released in January, and the second, Scoring Off the Field, in early March, about a week and a half prior to this conversation. But in that span of time, I’d noticed something about the releases, and apparently, so had my publisher. Sounding infuriated and frustrated, she gave me the sales numbers.
In the two weeks since book 2 released, I’d sold over and beyond the copies of book 1 in the two months it’s been out. Both books had received the same advertising budget, the same number of ads on the same platforms such as Facebook, Amazon and Instagram, the same promotional push. At the time, both books had received over fifty reviews, and most were four and five stars. As a matter-of-fact, I’d actually spent an unprecedented amount of personal money and time with ads, giveaways and parties than I had with any of my previous books. There was really one main difference between the promotional and marketing package of the books…
The first book had an African-American hero on it, and the second book cover had a white hero.
Now right about now, I can practically hear the rattling of the eye rolls, along with, “God, no. Another blog about diversity.” And yes, you’re right. It is. I think too many of us are afraid to talk about race and instead would rather avoid it because of the negativity and emotional exhaustion it can wreak. But I remember in college how my senior seminar professor wanted to desensitize me to spiders because I had a horrible phobia. Disclaimer: It didn’t work, because when she explained the last step would be holding an actual tarantula, I was like hell-to-the-no and decided to write about the music and meaning of Sarafina! Apartheid, yes. Spiders, no.
Still, her reasoning was very sound. The more we expose ourselves to, or confront something, the less sensitive we are to the emotional and physical stimuli it provokes. The more we discuss and meet this topic of diversity and race head-on, the less hold fear, anger, grief, and frustration have on us, and we can talk about it with calm instead of antagonism.
And that’s what I want to do here. A week has passed since speaking with my publisher, and me sitting down to write this because I had to think about what I wanted to say. If I wanted to say anything. And then I prayed. Because my hope is that those of you reading this know me, or know of me, and understand my heart, and therefore can understand this post isn’t an indictment or a vehicle to point fingers. The purpose of this post is to ask, “What can we do?”
So, going back to these numbers. When I heard them, I was shocked. Not because book 1 sales were lower. I’d followed the rankings; I knew this. But it was the huge disparity in those numbers. I had to ask myself, why didn’t readers buy book 1? This was my weakest release out of all of my contemporary romances. Was it my writing? I would have to say, because my previous book sold well, and then the sales and reviews of book 2 prove that readers still enjoy my voice. Maybe it was football itself? The “take a knee” movement? Maybe it was the twin thing from book 1? It could be that people aren’t into twins pulling a switcheroo. Okay, maybe it could’ve been any of those. But they still couldn’t account for the fact that book 1 only sold 1/6 of the sales of book 2.
Finally, I had to look at the most obvious—and according to Occam’s razor—probably the most likely explanation. Book 1 didn’t sell as well because of the black man on the cover. I’d like to add and confirm that my publisher designed these two covers with my full support and included me in the decision-making process on the models.
In 2018, why should the color of a cover model’s skin determine whether or not a book will be enjoyed? If any genre should be the poster child and vanguard for diversity and inclusivity, it’s romance. Our message is love. Love doesn’t exclude, harm, is blind, is kind, accepts instead of condemns. And yet… In my head I can hear some of the reasons and justifications of why.
“I read to escape, and I don’t want to read about racial and social issues when I want to get away from all that.”
“I just can’t relate to those characters.”
“I’m not attracted to the model on the cover, and if I’m not attracted to the hero, how can I get into the book?”
I, too, read to escape, and I see absolutely nothing wrong with that. But to assume that just because a POC model is on a cover means the romance will be about race is an assumption—and an incorrect one at that. All it means, with a certainty, is the character is ethnic. Could it include a social or racial topic? Yes, that’s possible. But it could also show how the power of love overcomes such ignorance. Still, a reader won’t know unless he or she reads the book.
It amazes me how readers can relate to billionaires, MMA fighters, CEOs, vampire hunters, vampires, mafia kingpins and rock stars but are unable to relate to a character who has more melanin in their skin or a different grade of hair. What about low self-esteem, dysfunctional family dynamics, brutal childhoods, sexism, ageism, body image issues, peer pressure, bullying, loneliness, the need to be loved and accepted… Can’t we all relate to those issues? Because no matter race, economic status, geography or age, we all have been touched by pain, loss, insecurity and/or death. In romance, our heroes and heroines overcome these strongholds by love of self and their mate. Isn’t that why we read? Because we relate to wanting that happily ever after for ourselves. That has nothing to do with race.
The color of a person’s skin isn’t a hair color preference or whether or not you like a man bun (how can you not love a man bun? But that is a different blog post!). When we discount a person as attractive or beautiful because of the shade of their skin, we’re saying there is only one standard of beauty and everyone else is inferior, defective, not worthy. Besides that, I further back up my argument with two words: Shemar Moore. Most women, regardless of race, age and political leanings wouldn’t kick Shemar out of their bed. And if they would, we have Dr. Phil, Iyanla Vanzant, and Dr. Jeff over on aisle 4.
My point is there’s more that unites us than divide us.
We must come to realize it’s not just about you or me, as individuals. Once we start thinking about the other person—their experiences, their hurts, their feelings, their struggles—than we won’t bristle, bracing ourselves for accusation or the offensive defense every time race or diversity is mentioned.
If you’re not a person of color, I don’t know if you can fully grasp the magnitude of the joy and pride that swells within me when I see an ethnic woman or man on a cover. A smile doesn’t just break out on my face but in my heart. It may not seem huge to one who often sees themselves depicted in media, but believe me. It’s so huge. It feels wonderful to view someone who looks like me held up as this symbol of beauty and love. I still remember when I was fourteen years old, sitting on my grandmother’s porch, reading French Silk by Sandra Brown. I can’t express my awe and utter delight when I realized Yasmine, the heroine’s gorgeous best friend and supermodel, was black. Honestly, I reread the description about three times just to make sure. Okay, so she died (oops! Spoiler!), but that’s beside the point. A model. A black woman. In a Sandra Brown book. Damn. I was floored. I was almost sick with joy. It might be difficult for some to understand the need—no, the craving—to see yourself represented on tv, in movies, on and in books. And not The Next 48 or criminal #2 on prime time. No, represented as positive, powerful, successful, educated individuals who, yes, are worthy of love, of that HEA. It’s…priceless.
So when I say it’s not about you or me, I mean it’s about all of us. My desire, my hunger to see someone who looks like me on the cover of a book, and in its pages, may not directly affect you. But think of how it affects my children who need to see that they can be lawyers, judges, officers, actors, superheroes… If you consider that world-changing impact, then is spending $2.99 or $4.99 on a book with a character of color or a book by an author of color too high a price? If spending that money means increasing demand for these books and publishers giving in to that demand, then is taking a chance on a book or author too high a cost? Worst case scenario, you spend $2.99 on a book that sits on your Kindle. Because that never happens. So much sarcasm in that considering the size of most of our To Be Read piles. But the best case scenario is you’ll find an author you really love that you previously weren’t aware of.
The bad news about the future of diverse books and books written by authors of color being published is a good part of that responsibility lies on the shoulders of the readers.
The good news about the future of diverse books and books written by authors of color being published is a good part of that responsibility lies on the shoulders of the readers.
For authors especially, I believe because our relationships with editors, marketing staff and publishers tend to be closer and more accessible than in other professional fields, we tend to forget publishing is a business. It’s the bare, at times seemingly ugly truth. With most businesses, the law of supply and demand, the bottom line, rules it. What if we all decided, out of our monthly book budgets, we’re going to buy at least one book with diverse characters or by an author of color? From the voices lifted on social media, it appears readers and authors across races support more diversity. But confession without action means nothing. A person will place their resources behind their passion, where their hearts lie. Yes, publishers are watching social media and viewing what readers and authors are saying. But they’re responding more to what their money is saying. If you’re declaring with your words that you support diversity in romance, but only putting your money toward books that aren’t diverse, then your words mean less than nothing. Supply and demand. Demand more diverse books by buying more diverse books.
If you take nothing else from this blog post, please understand we are the gatekeepers. The change makers. The solution.
All of us.
Change comes when we do. When we look at a book and not determine it’s worth or strength on the color of model’s skin. When we start understanding that diversity isn’t about a group of people, but all people. When we put our money where our mouths are, and tell publishers with our resources that we demand more.
Here’s a starting point for you of authors of color and/or authors who write books with diverse characters:
USA Today Bestselling author Naima Simone’s love of romance was first stirred by Johanna Lindsey, Sandra Brown and Linda Howard many years ago. Well, not that many. She is only eighteen…ish. Though her first attempt at a romance novel starring Ralph Tresvant from New Edition never saw the light of day, her love of romance, reading and writing have endured. Published since 2009, she spends her days—and nights— writing sizzling romances with a touch of humor and snark.
She is wife to Superman, or his non-Kryptonian, less bulletproof equivalent, and mother to the most awesome kids ever. They all live in perfect, sometimes domestically-challenged bliss in the southern United States. http://naimasimone.com/