The Closing of Harlequin’s Kimani Romance Line
By Mackenzie DeLoatch (2020)
Launched in 2006, Kimani Romance was Harlequin’s line of books that featured African American and multicultural protagonists. This line was the only mainstream line focused on telling Black romance stories, so it was designed to allow space for stories by and for people of color to reach a broad audience. However, in 2017, Harlequin announced that Kimani Romance would be discontinued after 2018. Despite Harlequin executives stating that they would be encouraging Kimani authors to submit their work to other lines, many Kimani authors reported that the closing of Kimani left them without an avenue to get their work to their readers.
Kimani was not without its controversy; while some authors and readers appreciated having a line dedicated to Black authors and readers, others disapproved of the separation between Black romance novels and other romance novels and took issue with the lack of attention and appreciation they felt from Harlequin. Regardless, the closing of Kimani marked the end of an era, and Harlequin’s decision made a greater statement to both authors and readers of Black romance novels. As a major publisher of romance fiction novels, the actions that Harlequin have a resounding impact on the romance publishing industry. Choosing to discontinue Kimani Romance sent a message to the romance community that Black romance novels are not a priority or necessity in the romance novel industry.
What was Kimani Romance?
In 2005, Harlequin Books purchased the Arabesque, Sepia, and New Spirit romance novel imprints from BET” (Shaw). This purchase resulted in the Harlequin’s Kimani Press imprint, which featured romance novels primarily written by and centered around African American protagonists. Kimani Press was launched in 2006 and included lines such as Kimani Arabesque (novels centered around passion, adventure, and intrigue) and Kimani Tru (novels targeted to Black teenagers), yet the largest of the Kimani imprints was Kimani Romance (“Harlequin Kimani Romance”; “Harlequin Kimani Arabesque”; “Harlequin Kimani Tru”).
The Kimani Romance line consisted of contemporary romance novels that featured African American and multicultural heroes and heroines (“Harlequin Kimani Romance”). Throughout the course of its lifetime, four Kimani Romance novels were released each month. As of May 2020, 625 paperback and 530 ebook titles were available for purchase under the Kimani Romance name on Harlequin’s website (“Harlequin Kimani Romance”). For comparison, Harlequin’s largest current line, Harlequin Presents, boasts 1,785 paperback, 2,725 eBook, and 1,278 larger print titles available for purchase (“Harlequin Presents”). Unlike Kimani Romance, books in the Harlequin Presents line do not necessarily include Black or multicultural characters. Rather, these novels all involve royals and/or billionaires who introduce the main protagonist to a world of luxury and passion.
What did authors and readers think about Kimani Romance?
Most of Harlequin’s African American romance novels were published under Kimani Romance (“African American Romance”). The decision to create a distinct line dedicated to Black romance novels was rather divisive among authors and readers alike. This divisiveness was attributed to the fact that most romance novels are divided into lines by genre, such as historical, paranormal, suspense, or inspirational romances. However, this wasn’t the case for Kimani Romance; for this line, the only common feature that linked all of the books together was the fact that the female protagonists were Black. Some authors and readers considered this to be a positive change, while others took issue with the separation of Black romance novels from other romance novels.
On the one hand, some romance authors and readers believed that having a line specifically dedicated to Black stories allowed space for Black authors to tell their stories. The existence of such a line also could make it easier for Black readers to find books about characters who look like them (Beckett). If readers wanted to read a novel with Black characters at the forefront, rather than having to search through each imprint, they could go directly to Kimani Romance and reliably find all of their options in one place.
On the other hand, others argued that the separation of Black books from other books alienated non-Black readers (Beckett). They believed that readers who had not read much Black romance would not be inclined to venture into a completely new line in order to do so. Their thought was that Kimani books may seem to some readers as something extremely different and not worth their time. However, if Black romance novels were integrated into other romance lines, then non-Black readers would be more likely to come across them and decide to read them. Furthermore, some individuals believed that a separate Black romance novel would perpetuate the belief that novels about characters of color are a specific niche interest, not something that everyone can find enjoyable and worthwhile. By other-izing Black romance, there was concern that fans of Black romance novels would feel that they were not truly a part of the romance community and that their preferred type of novel is considered lesser than novels that featured white heroes and heroines (Beckett).
Additionally, although this claim was never corroborated by Harlequin, many authors who published books under Kimani Romance said that their novels received less support and fewer marketing and promotion opportunities than authors of other imprints (Beckett). Author Cheris Hodges wrote three books with Kimani and was disappointed at how under-promoted the line was throughout its lifetime, saying that “many publishers don’t try to market ethnic romance at all” (Hodges). Author Eve Laren expressed similar feelings. She wrote that despite social media being a fairly inexpensive avenue for advertising, Harlequin failed to adequately feature Kimani titles in its online campaigns (Laren). Additionally, Laren reported that the Kimani line was understaffed; there were only two full-time Kimani editors, and one of these editors was an assistant. Outside of those two full-time editors, Laren said that there were only a couple of additional editors working on the line who were borrowed from other lines (Laren),
Altogether, though there was much debate about the best way to market and publish Black romance books, Kimani Romance was believed to be the only mainstream Black romance series imprint in the market (Long), and thus created a place dedicated for Black authors to publish their novels and for Black readers to find them. However, 11 years after the line was started, everything abruptly came to a halt.
Why was Kimani Romance discontinued?
On May 15, 2017, the news broke that Harlequin Books would be shutting down Kimani Romance. Courtney Milan, a bestselling historical romance novelist (“About Courtney”), was the first to report the news (Milan). Milan tweeted that she had received news from three different sources that Kimani would be closing down along with four other Harlequin lines: Western, Superromance, Nocturne, and Love Inspired Historical (Milan). Of these five lines that were being closed, only the Superromance line has published more novels than Kimani Romance (“Harlequin Western Romance”; “Harlequin Superromance”; “Harlequin Nocturne”; “Harlequin Love Nocturnal”).
Milan proceeded to provide a letter that she had received from Loriana Sacilotto, Executive Vice President of Global Publishing and Strategy for Harlequin (Milan). According to Sacilotto’s letter, Harlequin had decided to end publication for these five lines because the support for these lines from retailers was declining. Her letter not go into specific detail about why or how support was dwindling. Consequently, Sacilotto wrote that the executives at Harlequin wanted to focus their efforts and resources on the types of authors and novels that were the most popular among both consumers and retailers, but she did not provide any further information about which types of authors and novels were the most favored.
Sacilotto attributed the declining support for the canceled lines to recent changes in both the retail landscape and the preferences of romance readers. However, she did not go in depth about what these specific changes were that drove this decision. Additionally, Sacilotto wrote that the changes to Harlequin would also allow the company to make adjustments in its business model for its other series. These changes would reportedly include consumer research, video and advertising campaigns, and retailer-specific merchandising and promotions (Milan). Sacilotto concluded her letter by informing authors that Harlequin encouraged them to submit their work to one of its other lines.
What was the response to the discontinuation of Kimani Romance?
The initial response to Milan’s tweets was overwhelmingly negative. Notably, most of the immediate reactions came from authors who had an already established history of being vocal about the importance of diversity in fiction.
Marie Long, a novelist who is a self-proclaimed supporter of diversity in literature (“About Marie”), criticized Harlequin’s move, writing that it was a “HUGE blow to diversity,” especially given the fact that Kimani was the only mainstream romance line that published African American romance novels (Long). Savannah J. Frierson, an author and editor whose objective is to “empower underrepresented voices to share their stories”, echoed Long’s sentiments, but placed more blame on the retail landscape than on Harlequin itself (Frierson). Kwana Jackson, a bestselling author and an advocate for equity and diversity in books, also took issue with Harlequin’s decision to end Kimani Romance (“About Kwana”). Thinking forward to the future, Jackson expressed her wishes for Harlequin to make space for Kimani authors in its other lines (Jackson).
The cancelation of Harlequin was first announced via Twitter, so initially, people expressed their thoughts on that platform. However, the backlash to Harlequin’s decision then continued on to reach other media platforms outside of Twitter. Several authors were very clearly upset with the news and expressed their disappointment with how Harlequin handled the situation.
Lindsay Evans, a writer of African American romance and erotic romance, wrote a blog post for the Pink Heart Society detailing her opinions on the closing of Kimani and discussed her plans for moving forward (Evans), According to Evans, Harlequin’s decision to shut down Kimani was heartbreaking, yet came as no surprise to Kimani authors. The announcement came out in May of 2017, and even several months later, at the beginning of January of 2018, Evans was still unsure about where she stood with Harlequin and whether or not she would have the opportunity to write for any of its other lines. Evans was actively searching for other avenues to get her stories out to potential readers because she did not believe that could not rely on Harlequin as a dependable publisher for her novels (Evans). Additionally, author Eve Laren was not satisfied with Harlequin’s statement of encouragement for Kimani authors to write for other lines. Having sold nine books to Harlequin, Laren felt that the dismissal was abrupt and that she, along with other authors, were not given any sort of priority over new authors when it came to writing for other lines (Laren).
Overall, the general sentiment from authors who had written for Kimani Romance was that, despite the issues that some authors had with the imprint, Kimani had provided an avenue for Black authors to publish their work, and the end of the line marked the end of an era. Author Yahrah St. John said that Kimani demonstrated that there was a market for African American romance, and the news that the line would be shut down after over a decade of making history was devastating (St. John).
Why does it matter that Kimani was discontinued?
The closing of Kimani Romance has resounding effects for the romance community, especially given Harlequin’s presence and reputation as a major publisher. More than two Harlequin books are sold every second (“2019 Press Kit”). Furthermore, almost three-fourths of women in the United States recognize the Harlequin brand, and over one-third will read a Harlequin book at some point in their lives. Harlequin states that it “aims to include people of all ethnicities, races, genders and gender identities, sexual orientations, ages, classes, religions, national origins, and abilities” (“Harlequin Corporate”). Harlequin also states that it is involved in a range of initiatives to support authors from diverse backgrounds. Given the company’s prominence, its actions speak quite loudly, and unfortunately, its actions have somewhat contradicted its stated mission and goals.
Although the company indicated that it would welcome Kimani authors to submit their work to other lines, some evidence shows that the racial diversity of authors writing Harlequin romance novels took a steep drop after Kimani was discontinued. In 2018, the last year that new Kimani novels were being published, an estimated 7.8% of Harlequin novels were written by people of color (“The Ripped Bodice”). In 2019, the first year post-Kimani, the percentage of Harlequin novels written by people of color dropped to 5.5%. It is important to note that these data are purely correlational, so the decrease in racial diversity should not be seen solely as a result of the closing of Kimani Romance without further evidence. However, these data do demonstrate that after Kimani Romance closed, the racial diversity of Harlequin authors diminished significantly.
Black romance authors have already explained that they feel a lack of support in the industry, and Harlequin did not capitalize on the opportunity to change that when the company had the chance. As an example of the romance industry’s dismissal of Black novels, one can look to the RITA Awards. The RITA Award is the most prestigious award that a romance writer can receive, and no Black author has ever won a RITA. (“RITA Award”; SB Sarah). In fact, less than half of 1% of all RITA finalist books were written by Black authors. The romance industry’s dismissal of Black novels extends much further than the RITA Awards. The number of books written by non-white authors is vastly disproportionate to the percentage of non-white individuals in the population. (“The Ripped Bodice”). In 2019, only 8.3% of books published by leading romance publishers were written by people of color. This discrepancy between the diversity of the general population and that of the authors that are getting publish demonstrates a dearth of adequate representation in romance novels.
Overall, the romance industry has not given due credit to Black novelists, and Kimani was one of the few existing spaces in which Black authors could thrive. By shutting down this line, authors were left without a way to get their work out there, meaning that there is less opportunity for readers to discover new Black romance. Harlequin had the opportunity to lead by example and showcase Black talent. However, by discontinuing Kimani Romance, the publishing company instead failed in its goal to include all fans of romance.
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