Saturday, November 01, 2014

The Diversity in Romance Poster Girl

USA Today bestselling author Jeannie Lin is at the Pink Heart Society today, talking about what it's like to be the "Diversity in Romance Poster Girl".  

The Diversity in Romance Poster Girl.

Do you know what she looks like? She looks like this:

Four years later, she still looks like this. 

I feel a little bad because this post is very personal, and all about me, but it’s what’s on my mind right now when people ask me about diversity and I can’t shake it.

When my first book was coming out, I must say the buzz was shocking for a category book. At least to me. I was thrilled. I was touched. A lot of people were talking about it, and I wanted to reach out and hug every one of them. I know it’s so hard to get noticed, and I know that people were going out of their way to support me.

The Pink Heart Society was one of the blogs that picked up the story and even chose Butterfly Swords as a discussion book for the month. And I wholeheartedly thank you and have always had a soft spot for PHS because of it.

Which is why when asked to blog about diversity….again….I didn’t try to slink out the back door and bury my head in the sand. It’s what I always get asked to blog about, to the point where I fear sounding like a broken record.

When people bring up how romance novels aren’t very diverse, I hear—But look at Jeannie Lin! Things are getting better. The market is opening up.

My ears perk up. I love that my name gets mentioned at all. I hope someone sees that mention and tries my books. I hope they tell their friends…

But one Jeannie Lin does not a diverse market make.

I know I’m not the only one in this position, but ten of us doesn’t a diverse market make.

I’ve discussed this before, but I don’t think being different or diverse is an overwhelming selling point for a book. Sure there are readers who do seek out diversity, but I feel that market gets tapped out pretty quickly and it’s a thin market. The reason is the term “diverse” or “different” is really not very descriptive—other than saying, there’s not much out there like it. It says this book is set apart – but is it set apart in a good way? In a way that assures readers they’re going to get what they want when they pick it up?

People overwhelming read a romance for much stronger reasons – the story, the emotion, the conflict, the swoony satisfying ending. But when it comes to stories with non-mainstream cultures, the leading story is how different it is.

And it’s a killer.

Courtney Milan told me once that people tend to buy for the same, but remember for the different. Which is the exact OPPOSITE of how my stories are positioned. They’re presented as different with hopes that once people read them, they’ll be taken in by the universal love story and how accessible they are.

I still blog about writing Asian characters. I discuss my thoughts on where and how to fit into the market. I support the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement in YA and children’s books. I think there’s still a lot more that needs to be said about representation of non-white characters and culture in fiction. In mass-market genre fiction in particular, darn it! And I haven’t said all I’m going to say about it.

But do you know….and this hurts to admit…do you know I at times wonder if I should tone it down? Every time I signal boost about a diverse book or cheer when an Asian hunk is given a major role on television, I wonder if I’m further digging myself into this sub-niche? If people look at me and automatically say, her stories are not for me. Whether being the Diversity in Romance poster girl is hurting my image? If it’s led to very strong branding, but very weak sales.

I could adapt. I could reinvent myself and totally leave China behind. I can write another type of story that’s not so niched. It’s taken a lot for me to finally admit that to myself that I can do that. I don’t suck at this. Writers have to reinvent themselves all the time, and I’m not the first or the last.

But I don’t want to. And I’m scared to. And I’m NOT DONE YET.

I have no right to cry about being made an example of. I’m so strongly branded as that person. People would have never heard of me if I wasn’t a diversity poster girl. For my little debut book to still be talked about four years after release, that doesn’t suck. For an author having anyone know their name and being so supportive in mentioning it, that doesn’t suck. For people to still care about what I say once in a while, that’s a huge gift. But it’s bitter and sweet, I must admit.

So the solution for the question of diversity in romance? A hundred poster girls. A thousand poster girls. Until my stories are no longer super special snowflakes.

Or until they can be special for something else besides just being different.

USA Today bestselling author Jeannie Lin writes sweeping historical romances set in Tang Dynasty China. Her Opium War steampunk adventure series, The Gunpowder Chronicles, starts in 2014 with the release of Gunpowder Alchemy is available for pre-order now: 

Since her father’s execution eight years ago, Jin Soling kept her family from falling into poverty. But her meager savings are running out, leaving her with no choice but to sell the last of her father’s possessions—her last memento of him.

Only, while attempting to find a buyer, Soling is caught and brought before the Crown Prince. Unlike his father, the Emperor, the Prince knows that the only chance of expelling the English invaders is to once again unite China’s cleverest minds to create fantastic weapons. He also realizes that Soling is the one person who could convince her father’s former allies—many who have turned rebel—to once again work for the Empire. He promises to restore her family name if she’ll help him in his cause.

But after the betrayal of her family all those years ago, Soling is unsure if she can trust anyone in the Forbidden City—even if her heart is longing to believe in the engineer with a hidden past who was once meant to be her husband…


To find out more about Jeannie, check out her website, her blog and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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