TORONTO -- A hiring announcement by a very small publishing company over the summer has snowballed into an explosive confrontation on racism within the powerful Romance Writers of America (RWA) organization, leading to the resignation of more than a dozen board and committee members within a few short weeks and leaving the future of the influential trade group in doubt.

The initial discourse centred on the systemic impact an influential editor – said to be a supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump – would have as a gatekeeper within the industry on diversity and representation. The heated discussion on social media escalated into disciplinary action by the RWA against an author of colour last month, igniting a firestorm within the romance-writing community.

The startling fallout has resulted in a number of major publishing houses and their imprints, including Harlequin, Avon (HarperCollins), Berkley (Penguin Books), and St. Martin’s Press (Macmillan Publishers) issuing statements last week that they would not attend this year’s national conference in San Francisco, a major event within the massive romance industry that draws some 2,000 attendees. 

“I am an author of colour and I am not exactly shy about speaking out when I see injustice in our industry, so the fact this all happened, sparked by an author of colour speaking out against racism in a book, that’s very troubling to me,” Farah Heron, president of the Toronto Chapter of the RWA, said in an interview.

Heron, author of “The Chai Factor,” noted that the romance industry tends to be forward thinking on gender issues, but is still behind in diversity.

“For all of the publicity and all of the attention to authors of colour, romance is still hugely white,” she said.

The romance community is no stranger to leading hard conversations on diversity and representation – and receiving backlash. Authors, for example, have long complained about the lack of black representation and winners among the RITA Award finalists.

The latest annual racial diversity report, released in March 2019 by The Ripped Bodice, a California-based specialty bookstore, showed that only 7.7 per cent of books published by leading romance publishers in 2018 were written by authors of colour, yet they represented 80 per cent of the bookstore’s best-selling titles.

“The most common refrain from publishers remains: These books don’t sell,” the report said.

“Clearly, the publishers were not moved by this data given that there has been zero progress in the last three years...ultimately, unless acquiring editors purchase more manuscripts for publications by authors of colour, these numbers will remain the same.”

AN INFLUENTIAL BILLION-DOLLAR INDUSTRY

The romance genre, which includes a broad range of sub-categories, is a billion-dollar-a-year industry that makes up a significant portion of the fiction market. It has also frequently been a pioneer within the wider publishing industry, with romance readers a major influence in popularizing ebooks and self-publishing. A staggering 87 per cent of the top 100 self-published best-sellers were romance novels, according to a 2015 survey by indie book distributor, Smashwords.

And with a notable number of romance writers who are lawyers as well, it has also been at the forefront of significant legal and ethical topics within the wider publishing industry. Issues include absurd trademark registrations by some authors (see #cockygate), plagiarism and ghostwriting, and “book stuffing” within Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program. The latter involved authors who added significant "bonus" content (such as entire copies of previously published books) to the end of their ebooks, which had the potential to significantly drive up how much they earned through Amazon's program (the company has said it has fixed the technical loophole).

RWA IMPLOSION?

So how did an influential industry’s biggest trade organization fall apart in a matter of days?

It all started in early mid-August when Sue Grimshaw, a former book buyer for Borders bookstore and acquiring editor at Penguin Random House, was hired to be an editor for author Marie Force’s small publishing firm, Jack's House Publishing. Romance authors noticed and immediately took issue on social media, sharing screenshots of Grimshaw having “liked” tweets by President Donald Trump, of ICE arrests, among others. That same day, a number of users alleged that Grimshaw had cleaned up hundreds of her Twitter “likes,” with those initial screenshots the only remaining proof.

Numerous authors and romance readers discussed the issue on Twitter and other platforms, including author Courtney Milan, who only joined the conversation several days later, but unwittingly became the face of the entire controversy.

Author Courtney Milan
Author Courtney Milan (Copyright Jovanka Novakovic / bauwerks.com)

Milan, a former law professor and longtime advocate for diversity and inclusion within the industry, pointed to Grimshaw’s power as a book buyer for Borders to make or break an author’s career, adding that for decades, black romance authors heard there was no market for their work.

“...This anecdote actually tells you a lot about what systemic power plus prejudice can do: It can change the course of an entire industry, to the detriment of authors around us,” she tweeted.

There are potential, real consequences here. And I haven’t even touched on the editorial work that she has done yet. Prejudice plus power can change an industry. And maybe it did.”

Force reportedly parted ways with Grimshaw following the controversy, while the Facebook page for Force’s Jack's House publishing firm has since been deleted. Grimshaw did not respond to a request for comment.

A week or so later, author and publisher Suzan Tisdale, whose Glenfinnan Publishing still employed Grimshaw as an acquisitions editor at the time, posted a 12-minute video in Grimshaw’s defence and about her own company’s “blind” acquisition process.

Suzan Tisdale live on Periscope
Suzan Tisdale's live broadcast on Aug. 24, 2019. Click here to watch the video

She described Grimshaw as a “lovely person” who was a Christian with conservative leanings, but said that did not mean she was “a skinhead or a member of the KKK.” She is “no more a racist or a bigot than I am,” Tisdale said.

Her comments drew further criticism, however, with authors of colour noting that blind submissions are impossible when identifying features are part of the story. “The repetitive feedback I got from (New York) was that I needed to change my character’s ethnicities and hide my own,” author Alisha Rai tweeted.

In her video, Tisdale also said it was not up to her or others to dictate how someone should live their life, but did draw the line at peodophiles and anyone who supported genocide of a race or group.

“If your line of acceptability is ‘calling for the annihilation of a group of people’ but you don’t have an issue with systematically excluding a race of people from bookstores and publishing contracts? Then you are DEFINITELY a racist,” Milan, who is half-Chinese, tweeted.

Milan later followed up with a series of tweets about a historical romance book, “Somewhere Lies the Moon,” written some 20 years earlier (and reissued in 2014) by the other editor at Tisdale’s Glenfinnan Publishing, Kathryn Lynn Davis.

Milan called it a “f******g racist mess” that perpetuate damaging stereotypes of Chinese women. Milan highlighted descriptions of "slanted almond eyes" and skin "turned slightly yellow", and passages that described Chinese women as demure and quiet, "as our mothers have trained us to be...young unmarried women are even more modest and submissive, so they will make good wives."

Milan was far from the only critic in what had become an unfiltered and intense public conversation about racism and gatekeeping in the industry on social media and in closed forums as well, but days later, Tisdale filed a seven-page ethics complaint to the RWA against Milan and described her position as chair of the RWA Ethics Committee “akin to putting a neo-Nazi in charge of a UN human rights committee.” 

Milan was asked by the organization to resign her post.

Davis followed suit two weeks later in September with a similar 13-page complaint that said Milan “attacked me in what can only be described as cyber-bullying.” Davis, who has a master’s degree in history, said she studied Chinese history for over seven years and that her book was a historically accurate portrayal of how women in China were oppressed in the 1870s.

Both she and Tisdale, who did not respond to requests for comment, claimed that prospective projects fell through because their potential collaborators feared a similar backlash from Milan. But Davis clarified later to The Guardian that the publisher "never said anything" about fearing a backlash and that further discussion of a potential contract was simply delayed until spring.

“(Milan) didn’t start the story. She entered the controversy after it had already started,” the Toronto RWA chapter's Heron said. “She was critiquing, yes, a 20-year-old book, but it was specifically because of the stance of the two women who were claiming that they were not racist .... She wasn’t coming down on somebody for no reason.”

'What the RWA board allowed to happen is shameful'

Fast forward to December, two days before Christmas, when author Alyssa Cole broke the news on Twitter that the RWA had censured Milan by suspending her membership for one year and handing out a lifetime ban on holding any leadership position. 

Social media and online forums erupted, as countless authors, in support of Milan, began cancelling their RWA memberships, and stepping down from judging or pulling their books from consideration at this year’s RITA Awards, the Oscars of romance fiction. Last week, the RWA cancelled this year's awards, which was set to take place during the national conference this summer.

Many defended Milan and her advocacy work with the RWA and questioned why an author of colour was singled out for punishment.

"Courtney Milan has spent years using her voice to advocate for change within the RWA. She's been one of many to fight for diversity and inclusion not just within RWA but across Romancelandia as a whole. What the RWA board allowed to happen is shameful," tweeted Laurel Cremant, incoming president of CIMRWA, the interracial and multicultural chapter of the RWA.

To be sure, there were authors who also left RWA in support of Tisdale and Davis. In the RWA’s PAN (Published Authors Network) private forum, for example, some of the posts were reportedly sympathetic to the two complainants. Tisdale told The Guardian she received numerous messages of support from people who said they did not agree with what was happening, but felt they could not say anything publicly.

But both women also told the publication they were shocked at the severity of Milan’s punishment, saying they only sought an apology, even though Davis’ own complaint specifically stated that Milan “cannot be allowed to hold a position of authority, or to use her voice to urge others to follow her lead.”

The day after Milan’s suspension became public, the RWA rescinded its decision to censure her, pending a legal review as details emerged that the process by which the decision was made was questionable and not transparent. Particular spotlight was directed at the organization’s new president, Damon Suede, and his handling of the matter.

Damon Suede
Damon Suede (DamonSuede.com)

Suede’s own legitimacy and qualifications as president also came under scrutiny after members could not find evidence that one of the books Suede listed among his published works even existed. RWA bylaws require a president to have authored five published romance novels. At the time of publication, Suede had yet to respond to a request for comment.  

CIMRWA, along with more than two dozen local chapter presidents demanded that he step down, with CIMRWA leaders collecting more than 1,000 member signatures within four days for a formal recall petition.

The RWA for its part reiterated “its support for diversity, inclusivity and equity and its commitment to provide an open environment for all members.” In press releases issued this week and last week, the group outlined a number of steps it would take to repair the organization.

Meanwhile, numerous other stories were being shared about bigotry and bias within the RWA as well as the organization’s failure to act in the best interest of its members, such as not taking action to support numerous authors who were seeking unpaid royalties from Dreamspinner Press. Luminaries within the genre, including Nora Roberts, also weighed in on RWA's history of problems. Timelines were made to keep track of an avalanche of developments and information.

After two weeks of intense pressure, Suede stepped down last Thursday. Many are still demanding answers for what happened, but for others, it may be too little, too late.

A number of authors have voiced on Twitter they do not see themselves ever returning to the RWA fold. Milan, for her part, told the 40-year-old organization in a letter she shared publicly on Tuesday that she is withdrawing her membership. “RWA is not capable of repaying me for the harm it has done in this matter. But the community deserves complete transparency,” she tweeted.  

The irony – and tragedy – for many is that the founder of the organization, Vivian Stephens, was black.

Meanwhile, the repercussions at the top of the organization are hurting local chapters such as the Toronto one, with organizers struggling to find speakers, editors and agents willing to participate at this year’s regional conference.

"I feel kind of stuck, because I think we’re doing really, really good work, but I can not blame members who chose not to be associated with RWA because of what’s going on,” said Heron.

She expressed optimism that the industry and romance community as a whole are moving in the right direction and will be fine: agents, editors, publishers and most importantly, readers, are looking for more diversity, equity and inclusion. But she is less certain about the RWA itself.

"I don’t know if it’s an implosion … but I don’t know how we can move forward from something like this.”

Edited by CTVNews.ca senior producer Mary Nersessian and producer Phil Hahn