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  • Writer's pictureIsa Luzarraga

Can the Romantasy Genre Bridge Diversity Gaps in Publishing?

An array of colorful romantic fantasy books within a dark green bookshelf. We see titles from Leigh Bardugo, Holly Black, Victoria Aveyard, as well as some by BIPOC authors like Chloe Gong and Hafsah Faizal.
A shelf of romantasy books in the Beacon Hill Bookstore & Cafe based in Boston, MA.

The New York Times best-selling author Shanora Williams faced a daunting decision when selecting cover art for her romantic thriller books. Despite writing Black female protagonists who resembled herself, Williams’s novels were intentionally designed to not feature characters of color on their covers, in an effort to increase their marketability.

“I didn’t want people to not read the story because they felt like they couldn’t connect to a person of color on the cover, which was sad for me to do,” Williams told Keke Magazine.

Despite this initial strategy, Williams acknowledges that after over a decade of publishing romance stories, she has witnessed an indelible shift. More readers are seeking out diverse authors, a trend Williams attributes to the consumerist power of digital platforms. 

“Diversity is an important element that I was afraid to write before because I was worried that my books would not sell or be picked up,” Williams said. “But now that TikTok has emerged, people want more of that.”

Since Williams’s foray into the popular genre of “romantasy,” which is literature containing both romance and fantasy elements, she has been hopeful that its popularity, as well as its diverse storylines, will motivate readers to support authors of color. Romantasy authors acknowledge that fantasy elements in literature, including new worlds and imaginative species, prime readers to become invested in characters that look different from them. The romance aspects of romantasy books elicit initial interest while the unique characters and storylines sustain readers’ fascination until the last page.

Currently, some of the most trending titles featured within the literature-loving TikTok community of BookTok are romantasy books—which means many of them have started to proliferate and top general best-seller lists. For example, Sarah J. Maas, the author of the cult favorite series “A Court of Thorns and Roses” has become a worldwide phenomenon, with her books selling over 38 million copies and counting. Similarly, writer Rebecca Yarros’s romantasy debut “Fourth Wing,” has spent nearly a year on the New York Times’s best-sellers list. Maas’s series about faerie worlds and Yarros’s stories surrounding dragon riders are equally steamy and profitable, representing readers’ insatiable desire for romantasy series, a demand reinforced by BookTok users and online fandoms.

The self-published author of the “Hearts of Maya” series Mikayla Hornedo, a bank employee by day and writer by night, started writing fiction because of the lack of representation among both literary characters and authors. She would create character art for the romantasy books she was reading and found herself using the same color palette of skin tones for her drawings.

Leslye Penelope, who is an author of fantasy and paranormal romances recounted a similar experience growing up. 

“In my early writing, when I was a teenager, I fell into the trap that I know many Black writers have—many, if not all, of my characters were white,” Penelope said. “It’s an unfortunate side effect of not seeing yourself represented in what you read.”

Ever since, Penelope said she has embraced a “Black default” for her characters, as seen in her “Earthsinger Chronicles,” a romantic fantasy series. When Penelope first began publishing, “straddling fantasy and romance was still a difficult thing to market.” Now, the romantasy prospects are much brighter.

“I think fantasy in general and romantasy specifically are definitely ways for diverse authors and characters to break through,” Penelope said. “One of the main benefits of fantasy… is that it allows us to mirror our world without the particular baggage of real-world cultures and societies. Readers who claim they are not able to relate to characters from a different race or background, are more easily able to become invested in fantasy creatures or humans from invented lands.” 

For Williams, romantasy’s appeal is grounded in the high stakes that come with unknown, magical worlds. Mysterious forces push the love interests closer together just as dangers pull them apart. As a result, booksellers like Koch continue to see an increase in the sales of romantasy novels.

“There’s another level of excitement when fantasy is involved,” Toyoko Kumasaka, the operations manager of Beacon Hill Books & Cafe in Boston, said. “The romantasy category has expanded people's minds about [diversity] in non-human [characters], or even just worlds.”

Still, diverse characters within romantasy books do not automatically equate to more authors of color within the genre.

“I don't care about characters. And I think it's a mistake to focus on characters,” Koch said. “Fictional characters can't be discriminated against and experience financial discrimination and have their manuscripts turned away. I care much more about the actual authors.” 

As white romance authors, Maas and Yarros represent the nearly 90% of writers published in 2023, while Williams is among the other 10% of BIPOC writers. From 2022 to 2023, romance authors saw a 2% decrease in diversity, according to an annual report released by the romance-only bookstore, The Ripped Bodice.

“We know that contemporary [romance] is by far the most diverse subgenre in terms of the race of the author, and that when you go to historical and fantasy you're going to see far, far fewer,” Leah Koch, a co-owner of The Ripped Bodice, told Keke. “I talk to authors all the time, and I know that it's much harder to sell a non-contemporary romance as an author of color.” As a result, there are more readers actively searching for diverse authors within the subgenre of contemporary romance, specifically. 

Nevertheless, the increasing demand for romantasy has allowed authors of color like Williams to subvert this trend. Williams’s prior success with her romances and thrillers enabled her to branch out into romantasy with her latest “Tether” series. She acknowledged the support from her white colleagues and friends, including the romance authors Tarryn Fisher and Colleen Hoover, for “pushing my name” within the industry. Still, authors of color like Williams and Hornedo, said they feel like they have to work twice as hard as their white counterparts to get published.

“There's people [of color] who I talked to who had been waiting years and years and years to be published. And I didn't want to wait that long,” Hornedo said. “I felt like I didn't need the validation from a publishing company who doesn't even publish books like the ones that I'm writing. I didn't think that publishers would really be interested in something that they've never seen before.”

Penelope also acknowledged that digital platforms’ promotion of the genres is not always beneficial for BIPOC authors.

“One issue that BIPOC authors and readers have seen regarding TikTok is relatively less diversity in the books that go really viral,” Penelope said. “There’s a lot of attention on specific stories and authors that get talked about over and over again. There are some examples of books by and featuring BIPOC people getting attention, but it doesn’t feel proportional.”

Sarah J. Maas's "House of Flame and Shadow" book sits on top of a table. Various patrons wander throughout a bookstore in the background.
Sarah J. Maas's "House of Flame and Shadow" displayed at Posman Books in Boston, MA.

A quick search of the term “romantasy” on TikTok will yield posts rounding up the same books by primarily white authors, the most popular being: “Fourth Wing” by Yarros, “House of Earth and Blood” by Maas, “From Blood and Ash” by Jennifer L. Armentrout and “The Serpent and the Wings of Night” by Carissa Broadbent. 

Although the domination of white female authors within the romantasy genre could be discouraging, the inequity is nothing authors of color haven’t experienced. The sheer force and nature of romantasy, particularly its fantastical elements that challenge reader expectations, has spurred incremental change from Williams’ and Penelope’s perspectives. 

“I do believe that a rising tide lifts all boats though, and there is opportunity for many different kinds of books to experience a lift in visibility on online platforms,” Penelope said.

As Williams finishes the third book in her “Tether” series, she has faith that more and more book lovers will want to pick up a book with a Black woman on its cover. Hornedo agrees.

“If there's anybody who can do it and do it in a way that people can connect to, I think it's authors in the fantasy romance genre,” Hornedo said. “We're only heading in the right direction.”

Story originally published in Keke Magazine.

Photographs and data visualizations by Isa Luzarraga.


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