By Zakiyah Edmonds-Sills (2020)
Picking up a romance novel with two people, who despite their initial conflicts, are destined to have their eventual happily ever after is a temporary medicine to some of the harsh realities of life. That escapism is a major reason why women read romance novels; the books have people at the edge of their seats and leave them feeling good in a world that isn’t always so pleasant. However, the romance industry has its issues with representation, and some have gone so far as to say that the romance industry has a “diversity problem” (Garcia-Navarro).
In the early 1990s this lack of diversity caught the attention of a government worker who was an avid romance reader but was disillusioned by the lusty stories of white characters and the oppression of black ones (Corey). Leticia Peoples retired from her secure government job, took publishing classes, and used more than $10,000 from her retirement fund to start Odyssey Books, Inc., a Maryland-based publishing press focused on black romance (Young). In Peoples’ own words, “Women of all ethnic groups had just accepted what was available” (Corey). Driven by frustration from the white face of the romance industry and an incurable passion for romance, Peoples conceived of Odyssey to “provide black women with positive heroes and heroines” that they identified with, to address social issues related in the black community, and give an anthology about the experience of black people in history with a central love story (Young).
This report will argue that the world in which Peoples created Odyssey Books was a world that had limited visibility of ethnic romance novels, but romance readers were interested in multicultural love, and authors that identified as people of color were interested in writing those kinds of stories. There were discrepancies between the interests of romance readers in ethnic books and the flood of white men and women who made up the pages of the Romantic Times, a magazine specializing in romance fiction founded by Kathryn Falk. Peoples wasn’t the first person to publish a black romance novel, but her actions were inspirational in a time where there was so few black romances visibly available. She was acknowledged in the romance industry during her publishing run and appreciated even after. Throughout this report, I will use the terms African American and black interchangeably to refer to people of African descent.
Brief history of black romance novels pre-Odyssey Books, Inc.
Before beginning to talk about Leticia Peoples’ publishing press focused on black romance, it is necessary to define what an ethnic romance is and give a brief lens to the world in which Peoples started her publishing press. An ethnic or multicultural romance is a subgenre of romance where the hero and occasionally heroine’s racial, ethnic, or cultural background plays an important role in the story and the relationship of the characters (Ramsdell, 438). In simpler terms, one or both of the characters identifies as something other than the traditional white protagonist. Within this subgenre there are historical, contemporary, and even futuristic settings that differ depending on the racial and ethnic group central to the story (Ramsdell, 439). In the 1950s, African American characters were featured in sensually violent stories on plantations, such as Kyle Onstott’s Mandingo, though these stories were not in the least bit romantic because they did not provide their characters with a happily ever after (Ramsdell, 441).
By the 1980s category romances with black characters began to arise, like Rosalind Welles’s Entwined Destinies which is considered to be one of the first contemporary black romance novels (Fleming, 258). Sandra Kitt’s novel Adam and Eva was purchased by an editor at Harlequin in 1984, which was a big deal because of Harlequin’s status of being known as a major publishing house and Kitt being the first black author to write for them (Fleming, 258). Things remained pretty stagnant in the black romance world until 1990 when Leticia Peoples launched Odyssey Books.
Leticia Peoples’ Launch of Odyssey Books
The year was 1990 when a woman sent a letter to the editor of the Romantic Times asking, “Aren’t we ready for an Afro-American story??” (RT April/May 1990). Her argument was that all romance readers love reading about love, and having stories with protagonists of ethnic backgrounds added to the spice of a romance story (RT April/May 1990). Additionally, the woman argued that a well written ethnic romance had the power to make her, a “typical” white woman, experience the emotions that black women feel (RT April/May 1990). Interestingly enough, this is the complete opposite of what many publishers told Leticia Peoples before she launched Odyssey. Famous publishers such as Zebra, Dell, and Leasiure said that they weren’t accepting black manuscripts because “the masses” (i.e. white women) were not interested in stories focused on ethnic romance (Young).
During the early 1990s, before the Arabesque Line was released, the publishing presses that were focused on black romance were Marron Publishers’ Romance in Black line and Odyssey Books. In issue #87 of the Romantic Times, Layle Giusto talked about the rejections she received from publishers before the Romance in Black line from Marron Publishers brought her story Wind Across Kylarmi and released it in May 1991 (RT June 1991). In their October 1991 magazine, a response to Giusto’s rejections was written, by a woman from San Francisco, to the editor expressing disdain for major publishers like Avon and Zebra for “disserving” women of color and women in general for their lack of ethnic romances (RT October 1991). Clearly, people wanted these stories with heroes and heroines from ethnic backgrounds, but one issue was that publishers did not believe these kind of stories translated well enough to sell to romance readers (Crockett).
Thus, Odyssey Books was conceived in a time where black authors wanted to write black romance and readers wanted to read black romance; however, publishers weren’t willing to take those chances. Though, major publishers were willing to observe how Odyssey and Marron sold their black storylines before they too took the plunge in production of black books (RT October 1991). During the early 1990s, whenever ethnic romances were discussed, the most common names that were appearing in conjunction with black, or ethnic were Odyssey and Marron. From December 1990 until May 1993, in the monthly Romantic Times, which usually ran to more than one hundred pages per issue, there was an average of two to three pages dedicated toward anything that mentioned ethnic romances and authors. The rest were flooded with white book covers, reviews on white stories, white authors, white editors, and white protagonists. Taking RT at face value suggests that people were not interested in ethnic romance, but that simply was not the case.
Here are the facts. Odyssey Books began in 1990. In January of 1992 Peoples had already published four books and put out ads in RT (RT January 1992). In 1994 she had published eleven books in total and by 1996 Odyssey was defunct (Crockett). She launched the careers of many black authors including Francis Ray, Donna Hill, and Eboni Snoe (RT September 1994). Throughout her publishing career, Peoples put out ads for new books by her Odyssey black authors and she integrated herself into the publishing world, for example, visiting Book Conventions held in the romance industry to promote her authors and seek out others (RT June 1991). Her transformation from a romance consumer to a romance producer is impressive.
What made Odyssey so special was the face that Leticia Peoples created it on her own, not for the money (she had no notions of getting rich off of this business venture), but for the reading experience of other black romance lovers (Young). She created Odyssey in a time when diversity wasn’t an online hot topic, with articles pointing to the lack of diversity. For this reason, among others, she had the respect of important people in the romance industry during that time, including RT founder Kathryn Falk who said, “Leticia is trying to give ethnic romance to the American woman.” (Young). Simply put, Leticia Peoples saw the demand for black romance books and supplied for it.
Peoples’ legacy lived much longer than Odyssey. By May 1994, there was little reference to Odyssey Books in RT, but Eboni Snoe and Francis Ray, two authors that got their start with Odyssey were featured in columns (RT May 1994). The July 1994 issue of RT featured two books covers with black lovers on the front cover of the magazine introducing Pinnacle’s new African American line, Arabesque (RT July 1994). The book covers were Forever Yours by Francis Ray and Serenade by Sandra Kitt, two black authors who had books published by Odyssey.
Almost a decade after Odyssey ended, Peoples was thanked in Francis Ray’s acknowledgment section of Someone to Love Me, for her grit, determination, and vision (Ray). In 2013, Peoples and Odyssey was thanked by author Eboni Snoe, on her Facebook page, for their role in the multicultural publishing industry and her role in publishing A Sheik’s Spell (Snoe). Snoe is a black romance author who cleverly chose a pen name to demonstrate that there is room for black and white stories to coexist (RT September 1994). Leticia People’s name lives in the pages of Romance Fiction: A Guide to the Genre, 2nd Edition when discussing the brief history of ethnic and multicultural romance (Ramsdell, 441). She is discussed in the African American romance novels section of The African American Writer’s Handbook: How to Get in Print and Stay in Print (Fleming, 258). She was not a big-time hotshot in the nineties, and she isn’t now, but the people that she influenced remember and acknowledge her part in pushing black romance into the spotlight just a bit more than it was. Odyssey didn’t have the kind of money that Pinnacle put into Arabesque, which contributes to why Odyssey was all but obscure in RT magazines in 1994 and 1995, even though it was still running until 1996 (Young). Nevertheless, many of the authors writing for Arabesque, especially in its opening days, had their start with Ms. Leticia Peoples and that demonstrates her footprint in the ethnic romance industry.
Leticia Peoples created Odyssey Books during a time when there was interest in ethnic romance novels and her actions were appreciated during Odyssey’s run, as well as after. Can it be said that she caused major publishing houses to take notice? Absolutely not. Can it be said that her small degree of success had some relation to the “hot topic of ethnic romance” in 1994 (RT September 1994)? Absolutely yes. In the words of an editor from RT, “Mildred Riley is one of the groundbreaking authors whose black romances were published by Odyssey Books long before the major publishers were exploring this market” (RT September 1994). There was a minute level of interest in black manuscripts, black authors, and black heroes and heroines, yet when People’s started pushing those type of books out and people wrote them and people bought them. Her determination led to a number of black authors being able to create the stories they had yearned to make, including Francis Ray and Eboni Snoe.
Representation and diversity go hand in hand. Diversity means that multiple perspectives are being represented and “true” representation doesn’t come from only one point of view. The romance industry has come a long way since the self-described “typical white woman” wrote RT asking, “Are we ready for an Afro-American story??” (RT April 1994). In 2019, Kennedy Ryan was the first African American woman to win the RITA Award, a prestigious award in romance fiction, that no black person had won in its 37 years (Glenn). Interestingly enough, this win came after the RITA Award organization confirmed that no black author (man or woman) had ever received the award in 2018, so while the romance industry is more diverse than it was in Odyssey’s time it is by no means as representative as it could be (Garcia-Navarro). Though the focus of this report was black romance and Leticia Peoples, diversity is more than seeing black protagonists and authors. We can afford some more diversity in racial representation, sexual orientation, persons with disabilities, and much more. However, we will not have a more diverse romance industry without the determination and grit of people like Leticia Peoples working to make it happen.
Corey, Mary. “A BOOM IN BOOKS FOR BLACKS from Best-Seller Lists, to Romance Novels, to More Shelf Space at Book Stores, Black Literature Is Proliferating.” The Baltimore Sun, November 19, 1991. https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-1991-11-01-1991305003-story.html
Crockett, Sandra. “A NEW CHAPTER: ROMANCES ENROLL AFRICAN-AMERICANS.” The Sun (1837-1994), August 1994. https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/2289127494?accountid=10598.
Fleming, Robert. The African American Writers Handbook: How to Get in Print and Stay in Print, 258-260. New York: Ballantine Pub. Group, 2000.
Garcia-Navarro, Lulu. “The Billion-Dollar Romance Fiction Industry Has A Diversity Problem.” NPR. NPR, April 8, 2018. https://www.npr.org/2018/04/08/600549049/the-billion-dollar-romance-fiction-industry-has-a-diversity-problem.
Ramsdell, Kristin. “Ethnic/Multicultural Romance.” In Romance Fiction: a Guide to the Genre, 2nd Edition, 438-441. Santa Barbara: Libraries Unlimited, 2012.
Ray, Francis. Someone to Love Me. New York: St. Martins Paperbacks, 2003.
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Romantic Times, December 1991.
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Romantic Times, September 1994.
Snoe, Eboni (@ebonisnoe). “Leticia Peoples and Odyssey Books”. Facebook, April 28, 2020. https://www.facebook.com/pg/ebonisnoe/photos/?tab=album&album_id=189942907857818.
Young, Vincent. “Romancing the Ethnic Novelist.” The Washington Post, April 22, 1991.