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1980-2000 Black Publishers

Black Romance Publishers: Representation vs. Exploitation

By Sophie Kebret

In this paper I will discuss Black publishers in the United States that published and promoted Black romance fiction in the 1980s and 1990s. I will argue that Holloway House, Marron Books and Genesis Press emerged in the 1980s and 1990s either to capitalize on growing interest in Black romance or to increase the representation of Black women in romance fiction in the United States. Using newspaper articles and advertisements I will explore each publishing house’s journey into the romance industry. First, I will discuss Holloway House’s status as an established Black publishing company and their transition to romance fiction. Next, I will cover Marron Books’ entry and journey through the industry, and finally I will explore Genesis Press’s contributions to Black romance fiction.

Los Angeles based Holloway House Publishing entered the romance fiction industry in the 1980s to capitalize on the rise in Black romance fiction. By the 1980s, romance fiction was largely characterized by the “white American romance,” written by white women about white people.[1] Bentley Morriss and Ralph Weinstock established Holloway House in the 1960s. Although they were both white men, they mainly published Black crime literature and branded Holloway House as the first niche publisher of popular black fiction.[2] After recognizing a growing following from Black female readers, Holloway House undertook their own line of romance books called Heartline Romances as a more targeted effort.[3] Their goal to cater to this demographic is evident in their methods to promote and present this new line. In 1983, an article from the Atlanta Daily World reported Holloway House’s new romance line as “the first romance line oriented for a black female readership” focused on Black characters in “contemporary settings.”[4] This description presents Heartline Romances as a novel moment in Black romance fiction being the first line targeted to Black women, according to the article.  Despite the novelty, an interview with Holloway’s executive editor a decade later states the lack of a market for romance novels with Black characters when Heartline Romances launched.[5]  This lack of market that they mention is one perspective, for the ultimate failure of Heartline Romances but further investigation is needed into the content and quality of the novels produced.

The poor quality of the Heartline Romances and Holloway House’s use of pen names may have contributed to their ultimate failure. Several authors are listed in the Atlanta Daily World article presenting Heartline Romance and while they are all female-presenting names, each bears a remarkable similarity to male authors, already established at Holloway House.[6] This use of pen names on its own suggests an attempt to cater to the aforementioned target audience of Black female readers and as romance fiction and create an image of female authors to whom readers could relate. Despite this strategy, the content of these romance novels lacked strong writing and any emotional journey. One example published by Holloway House, Texas Passion, states, “he left her standing there, all her juices flowing” and “in the end, he dressed and left, left her with all her needs and desires. She cried. She was torn. She cried herself to sleep.”[7] This crude writing, present in most of the Heartline Romance novels, displays a lack of understanding of romance fiction from the authors, as well as a lack of editing. Combined with the use of pen names to present authors as women, this poor quality of writing suggests a lack of commitment to the genre from Holloway House. Pushing out romance novels, despite the quality, displays their attempts to capitalize on their new audience of Black women readers. By using male authors that they already employed and providing them with little guidance on writing romance fiction, the novels could be released at quick rates, with female pen names to bolster their reputability, increasing sales. This strategy may have contributed to the ultimate failure of Heartline Romances but did not seem to damage their reputation in the romance industry in the 1990s.

In 1994, a decade after the launch of Heartline Romances, the Philadelphia Tribune published an article exploring the popularity of ethnic romances at the time and interviewed several authors about their experiences. The article quotes an editor at Arabesque, an ethnic romance line at Kensington Publishing Inc., who credited Holloway House and other “smaller publishing houses” for making it possible for Kensington to publish more ethnic romances.[8] At the time, Arabesque was in its first year and creating a space in a major publishing company for Black writers for the first time.[9] Their mention of Holloway House as a spearhead into the industry holds even more weight because of their status in paving the way for Kensington to create Arabesque. This status bestowed on Holloway House conveys a positive perception of their legacy and aligns their motivations with Arabesque’s to create space for Black romance. Despite Holloway House capitalizing on their Black female readers’ interests in Black characters in romance novels and the ultimate failure of their romance line, they were still considered an important name for publishers a decade later.

Marron Books was created with the intent to represent Black women in romance fiction and support Black authors in the industry. Sharon McKim and Marquita Guerra, both Black women, founded Marron Books in New York in 1989 after feeling the need to see characters that reflected their own lives.[10] They specifically chose to market their books to the African American community rather than trying to capture the “mainstream” audience. A 1991 advertisement in the New York Amsterdam News promotes a Marron Books book-signing at Black Books Plus, a book convention for authors and readers.[11] It mentions Ortiz and Guerra and states the focus of their Romance in Black line to be on “stories about people of color as the heroes and heroines” attributing this to be “unlike the traditional romance novels.”[12] This statement provides the perspective in 1991 that traditional romance novels did not involve people of color in central roles.  Their approach to only cater to African Americans rather than what they perceived to be the larger romance audience speaks to their motivations in the creation of their publishing company. Despite their intentions, this article also mentions the rise in appeal of ethnic romance to men and white women, along with African American women, and that Marron was receiving manuscripts with characters of different ethnicities than their authors.[13] This increased attention in ethnic romance novels from men and white women was an unexpected result but it displays the eagerness of romance readers and writers to provide representation that they believed was missing from the industry.

Both this article and an article in the Greensboro News & Record detail the Romance in Black series that Marron Books published, consisting of two books – Love Signals by Margie Walker, who later went on to write for Arabesque, and Island Magic by Loraine Barnett, Marquita Guerra’s pen name.[14] Guerra stated her realizations about the realities of romance fiction; “I’m not reading about me here. I don’t have blond hair and blue eyes. That’s when you start yearning for something that reflects you.” Her reflection on the characters in most romance novels at the time conveyed her desire to begin Marron Books and fill this gap in romance fiction by creating books with Black characters and authors. The article continues on and mentions that these new stories create “enlightening sociological insight.” Below this blurb, a photo of three Black women is displayed and at first glance, one might assume they are publishers or authors. However, the caption marks them as honorees to a Tribute to Black Women in the Media program discussing issues within the New York Black community.[15] The framing of the Romance in Black line juxtaposed with this image conveys the article’s suggestion that Black romance fiction was directly related to social issues. These articles emphasized the motivations behind the creation of Marron Books as a focal point, revealing an underlying importance on why Black characters in romance novels were so desired by Ortiz and Guerra, and how this translated the types of novels they published.

Genesis Press began its legacy within the romance industry by catering to Black audiences, but their financial exploitations suggest a lack of interest in supporting their authors. An article in Black Issues Book Review details various classifications within the romance genre including contemporary, category or series, and historical directly from the Romance Writers of America. Within the contemporary section they mention that “most African American romances released by Arabesque, Genesis Press, and others are contemporaries.”[16] The direct mention of Genesis Press here conveys it is a recognizable name to the audience and even led new readers toward their novels. It is worth noting that Arabesque was an imprint in Kensington Press, the second largest publisher of romance novels.[17] The article’s mention of Arabesque alongside Genesis Press further elevates Genesis’s status in the Black romance industry as it displays them as equals without any distinction on number of titles or popularity.

Understanding Genesis Press’s motivations behind the creation of the company may provide some insight on how they obtained this status as a recognizable publisher of Black romance fiction. Genesis Press was launched in 1993 by Wilbur and his wife Dorothy Colom, along with an agent named Denise Stinson based out of Columbus, Mississippi and New York. Their romance imprint, Indigo, was created immediately with the tagline “Sensuous Love Stories for Today’s Black Woman.”[18] This tagline emphasized the gratifying nature of romance fiction and specifically catered their romance novels to Black women on the cover of each one. A Publishers Weekly article from 2006 revealed financial complaints from a group of writers employed and published by Genesis Press in the 1990s.[19] They note two Black authors, Angie Daniels and Kayla Perrin, who claimed to never have received royalties or only delayed and partial payments. Colom, one of the creators of Genesis, placed the blame on their distributors at the time and that the problems had been dealt with. Perrin noted her disappointment and distress especially because many new authors at the time would go to Genesis Press to get their foot in the door.[20] Despite Colom’s claims that the issues had been resolved, these authors disagreed and questioned Genesis Press’s motivations. Following a financial crisis in 1994, Genesis Press arranged for Noble Press to take over their distribution and marketing and later moved to Kensington Publishing for their distribution in 2004.[21] Their move to Noble Press and then to Kensington does not necessarily signal any disrespect for their authors but, as Colom did cite the change of distributors as a reason for the issues in payment, one can conclude that their authors were not prioritized in the move. The Black women they employed as authors were the ones impacted the most, according to this article, and while not necessarily intentional, hurt any motivations they had to support Black women authors. While Genesis Press achieved a status as a Black romance publisher, their financial struggles and exploitations suggest a lack of commitment to supporting Black authors.

These three Black publishers took on romance fiction in various manners with different motivations for their entry into the industry. Holloway House was an established publisher of Black fiction decades before they created their romance line. After seeing their customers’ demographics shift to Black women, their response was to cater to this audience through romance novels. Despite their failures in extending their romance line, members of the industry recognized their contributions to Black romance, as seen by their mentions in newspapers. Marron Books also filled a similar need in the industry by creating novels that portrayed Black women like themselves in romances. Their pursuits are portrayed more nobly in the articles presenting their company, perhaps because of the short time they were around. Genesis Press wanted to represent Black women in their romance imprint as well but fell short of supporting Black women in their mishandling of payments for their authors. Overall, these three publishers created romance about Black people, for Black people, in order to cater to audiences that desired to see themselves represented in romance fiction.

Despite the exploitative practices I outlined, Black romance fiction as a genre has continued through several other publishers. In fact, there has been a recent call for more diverse characters and authors from romance readers.[22] The motivations behind these publishing companies may simply be to cater to their audience and capitalize off diversity, similar to Holloway House or Genesis Press. However, Marron Books displays an authentic desire to create representation and inclusivity that is still present in some publishing houses today. Regardless of the motivations behind it, these three publishers did promote representation of Black characters in romance fiction.

[1] Deborah Bradley. “Matchmaking: Black Writers Find an Audience for Black Romance Novels.” Crisis (00111422) 101, no. 8 (November 1994): 34. https://search-ebscohost-com.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=pwh&AN=9411290064&site=pov-live&scope=site.

[2] Matthew Teutsch, “Holloway House and the Black Literary Underground,” African American Intellectual History Society, November 30, 2019, https://www.aaihs.org/holloway-house-and-the-black-literary-underground/.

[3] Matthew Teutsch, “Holloway House and the Black Literary Underground,” African American Intellectual History Society, November 30, 2019, https://www.aaihs.org/holloway-house-and-the-black-literary-underground/.

[4] Kinohi Nishikawa, Street Players: Black Pulp Fiction and the Making of a Literary Underground, University of Chicago Press, 2019, Chicago Scholarship Online, 2019, https://doi.org/10.7208/chicago/9780226587073.001.0001.

[5] Ellen Alperstein, “Romance Novels Embrace Diversity : Books: Think Bodice Rippers Are Only about the Young? Think Again. New Stories Cater to Multicultural and Mature Loves.,” Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles Times, September 29, 1994), https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1994-09-29-ls-44432-story.html.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Leah Guild, Texas Passion (Los Angeles, Ca: Holloway House, 1983), 21, 45.

[8] M. McCollum, “Romance: Novels,” Philadelphia Tribune, Nov 25, 1994.

[9] Judith Rosen, “Arabesque sets events to mark 10th anniversary,” Publishers Weekly, May 24, 2004, 19. Gale General OneFile, https://link-gale-com.proxy.lib.duke.edu/apps/doc/A117326336/ITOF?u=duke_perkins&sid=summon&xid=0a567878.

[10] McCollum, M. “Romance: Novels.”

[11] “Romance Novelists at Black Books Plus,” New York Amsterdam News, May 25, 1991. https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/romance-novelists-at-black-books-plus/docview/226235462/se-2.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] “Writers & Words” (Greensboro News and Record, June 29, 1991), https://greensboro.com/writers-words/article_6fd747bc-d234-57d2-9cc4-2eb8411da6ae.html.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “What is a Romance Novel?” Black Issues Book Review, Jul, 1999, 45, https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/magazines/what-is-romance-novel/docview/217750951/se-2.

[17] Hal Karp “In the market for romance,” Black Enterprise, vol. 27, no. 5, Dec. 1996, p. 62. Gale In Context: Biography, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A18918639/BIC?u=duke_perkins&sid=summon&xid=fe263c4f.

[18] Bridget Kinsella, “Noble Press regroups, merging with romance imprint,” Publishers Weekly, January 1, 1996, 23. Gale OneFile: CPI.Q, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A17952902/CPI?u=duke_perkins&sid=bookmark-CPI&xid=88fb0e17.

[19] Calvin Reid, “Authors Cite Problems with Genesis Press,” Publishers Weekly (Publishers Weekly , September 15, 2006), https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/print/20060918/12620-authors-cite-problems-with-genesis-press.html.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Katherine Rosman, “In Love with Romance Novels, but Not Their Lack of Diversity,” The New York Times (The New York Times, October 10, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/10/style/romance-novels-diversity.html.


Alperstein, Ellen. “Romance Novels Embrace Diversity : Books: Think Bodice Rippers Are Only about the Young? Think Again. New Stories Cater to Multicultural and Mature Loves.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, September 29, 1994. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1994-09-29-ls-44432-story.html.

Bradley, Deborah. “Matchmaking: Black Writers Find an Audience for Black Romance Novels.” Crisis (00111422) 101, no. 8 (November 1994): 34. https://search-ebscohost-com.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=pwh&AN=9411290064&site=pov-live&scope=site.

Gifford, Justin, Roland Jefferson, and Odie Hawkins. “‘Something Like a Harlem Renaissance West’: Black Popular Fiction, Self-Publishing, and the Origins of Street Literature: Interviews with Dr. Roland Jefferson and Odie Hawkins.” MELUS 38, no. 4 (2013): 216–40. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24570024.

Guild, Leah. Texas Passion. Los Angeles, Ca.: Holloway House, 1983.

Karp, Hal. “In the market for romance.” Black Enterprise, vol. 27, no. 5, Dec. 1996, p. 62. Gale In Context: Biography, https://link-gale-com.proxy.lib.duke.edu/apps/doc/A18918639/BIC?u=duke_perkins&sid=summon&xid=fe263c4.

Kinsella, Bridget. “Noble Press regroups, merging with romance imprint.” Publishers Weekly, January 1, 1996, 23. Gale OneFile: CPI.Q. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A17952902/CPI?u=duke_perkins&sid=bookmark-CPI&xid=88fb0e17.

McCollum, M. “Romance: Novels.” Philadelphia Tribune, Nov 25, 1994. https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/romance/docview/533125430/se-2.

Nishikawa, Kinohi. Street Players: Black Pulp Fiction and the Making of a Literary Underground. University of Chicago Press, 2019. Chicago Scholarship Online, 2019.

Reid, Calvin. “Authors Cite Problems with Genesis Press.” Publishers Weekly. Publishers Weekly, September 15, 2006. https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/print/20060918/12620-authors-cite-problems-with-genesis-press.html.

“Romance Novelists at Black Books Plus.” New York Amsterdam News, May 25, 1991. https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/romance-novelists-at-black-books-plus/docview/226235462/se-2.

Rosen, Judith. “Arabesque sets events to mark 10th anniversary.” Publishers Weekly. Publishers Weekly, May 24, 2004, 19. Gale General OneFile. https://link-gale-com.proxy.lib.duke.edu/apps/doc/A117326336/ITOF?u=duke_perkins&sid=summon&xid=0a567878.

Rosman, Katherine. “In Love with Romance Novels, but Not Their Lack of Diversity.” The New York Times. The New York Times, October 10, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/10/style/romance-novels-diversity.html.

Teutsch, Matthew. “Holloway House and the Black Literary Underground.” African American Intellectual History Society. December 5, 2019. https://www.aaihs.org/holloway-house-and-the-black-literary-underground/.

“What is a Romance Novel?” Black Issues Book Review, Jul, 1999, 45, https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/magazines/what-is-romance-novel/docview/217750951/se-2.

“Writers & Words.” Greensboro News and Record, June 29, 1991. https://greensboro.com/writers-words/article_6fd747bc-d234-57d2-9cc4-2eb8411da6ae.html.

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