This article is from the June 2021 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership. This month, NINC has invited Sandra Kitt to share her story as a pioneer in the publishing industry.
Yes, it’s true that I am the first African American to publish with Harlequin, the Canadian publishing mammoth known worldwide for the most enduring and creative line of romance novels in publishing history. I didn’t make this discovery until after I’d published my third book with Harlequin and realized through simple research (I’m a former librarian) that I was the only African American writer consistently published in the burgeoning romance genre of the early 1980s. To admit to this longevity doesn’t make me feel as much ancient as it does experienced. Those early years put me on an important and necessary path to learning how publishing worked. Learning quickly helped to keep me in the game. And, to be honest, I can’t recall if Harlequin ever publicly acknowledged that I am their first Black writer.
I’d made my entry into the industry with two of my first manuscripts being chosen for the then American Romance imprint from Harlequin. It was a new line of stories set in America, written by American writers. It was an immediate and remarkable beginning for me, made more so by my gradual discovery that no one in publishing was prepared for a Black writer to break in, and stay for decades. I slowly began to experience a little pushback as I advanced within the genre with stories that were not the norm for romances. At the time, the industry seemed to have a fixed belief that only white men and women fell in love. I entered their space with a wider worldview that romance novels prior to my entry had not realistically explored.
I was told I didn’t really write “romance.” I already knew that. I didn’t write what I sometimes read as formulaic linear stories. Women’s fiction as a category didn’t exist at the time and, since my stories did have romantic relationships, by default I was whack-a-moled into the box marked romance. My stories were big, complex, sub-plotted, and interjected with social and familial issues never covered before in romance novels. I wrote interracial romances (for sure a first) and included the male point of view (another first), but editors couldn’t deny the strong romantic element that tied the stories together, and which found a following among readers. Penguin Putnam helped me climb higher for a while, when it published The Color of Love, a controversial interracial story, in 1995 simply as mainstream fiction.
The book never made any bestseller list, but was critically acclaimed by USA Today, was optioned by HBO and Lifetime, and is still available more than 25 years later. Obviously, outside the periphery of romance, other sources saw creative merit in my work. The late director Jonathan Demme passed on an early suspense my agent pitched to him, but with the caveat “…tell her to keep writing.” I went on to publish with nearly every traditional publisher from the ‘80s through the early aughts of this century. Until my latest book, Winner Takes All, my last book was published in 2010 from Kimani, another Harlequin imprint. It would seem that I had, unbelievably, come full circle.
On the surface my publishing trajectory appears charmed. And it was. I was being interviewed, profiled, and invited to national book festivals that were then popping up all over the country, sponsored by such publications as the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. For a time, I was sent on yearly book tours and lectured at universities, local libraries, and special-interest groups and organizations. I met an incredible array of writers both inside and outside of romance, many who’ve become long-standing friends. I’ve been championed by editors and publishers, who seemed to admire what I’d accomplished in my first 10 years as a published author. They all saw that I had longevity and possible staying power.
But, as one powerful industry executive said to me, “They don’t know what to do with you.” I was, apparently, an anomaly. Different. This, along the way, led to a series of unfortunate and terrible incidents that, while I was enjoying undeniable success, also made me aware of subtle and not-so-subtle ways I was being sabotaged and held back. Some support seemed slipshod, haphazard, indifferent. And yet…was it really racial, or just instances of trusting and expecting too much from professionals who were not always competent or up to the demands of their own positions? Had I contributed by too often giving in, going against my own better and sometimes more reliable instincts? But yes, some of it was racial.
Editorial changes were made randomly without consideration of consequences; promises were broken that often worked against actually helping my work succeed. Despite saying that I would be published in hardcover, publishers broke that contract promise without a word of excuse or explanation. I was scammed outright on one contract after bailing out a publisher on a project for which they couldn’t find a writer. The end result was not only humiliating but dispiriting.
I waited for the larger industry acceptance that I had a contribution to make, that I was breaking new ground that publishers could have benefited from if they’d been able to see beyond the obvious—that I was a Black romance author—and were willing to develop a “wider and newer worldview” of their own. I believe even now it was a missed opportunity.
Adam and Eva unexpectedly became an early classic for Harlequin, reissued and printed several times. But when it was picked up by the Italian affiliate of Harlequin for sale in Europe, the cover art was a painting of a white couple, instead of the Black characters the book was about. I understood perfectly why that decision was made. Nevertheless, I charged the editorial decision with being disrespectful and bigoted, perpetrating a lie on book buyers.
I once had an editor confess that the publisher would never inform me that I was among their top 25 bestselling writers (Were they afraid to admit that a Black writer was able to compete creatively?), and I was left out of any and all promotions that noted those writers. One publisher kept a “milestone” list for writers based on how many books they’d published. When I knew I’d made that milestone, the criteria was suddenly changed and I no longer qualified.
I eventually came to learn that I could not depend on all publishers to market me with any kind of insight or real knowledge of me. Being easy to work with might have been a mistake on my part. But when you’re the “first” you step quietly, you watch and listen, and trust that your publisher and editors want what you want—for the book to do well so that everyone benefits. I was disappointed that the industry as a whole, and some of my publishers in particular, never saw the importance of sharing or exploiting my value as a writer of color, or making an effort to capitalize on me being “the first” in their midst. The publishers could have been seen as progressive. Instead, I saw the situation, in part, as a loss of energy, time, and talent from everyone.
But, here’s the thing. I have done more as a published writer, a second career I hadn’t really anticipated, than I could have imagined. I came into the industry, into a specific genre, that was growing exponentially and earning more money than any other segment of the publishing industry ever. It is not a stretch to say everyone knew my name, knew who I was. I found genuine support in publishers who sought me to write for them even though sometimes just getting into print was not enough, and their efforts fell flat.
I absolutely love writing, creating, pulling together my themes and premises with a host of characters that I believe in…adore…and root for. I loved working with editors who got my voice and didn’t try to force me onto paths ill suited to me, or to satisfy a misplaced and always-changing expectation, or a target audience. I love the editors who fought for me in their meetings, trying to convince their team that what I’d written, that I, was worth fighting for. I loved the bookstore owners and sales staff who championed my books by chatting up the stories with their customers. The librarians and teachers, the readers I’ve met who validated what I’d written with their praise and support. Yes, it fed my ego. All of which forces me to remain true to me and my stories, and my view of the world that is only getting wider, to explore, to include…and to write about how we love.
To learn more about my journey, watch my interview with Jayne Ann Krentz on Facebook. I’m still here.
Sandra Kitt’s The Color of Love was issued in 1995 to critical acclaim. Girlfriends, an anthology from HarperCollins, was nominated for the NAACP Image Award for Fiction in 1999. The first Black writer to publish with Harlequin, she launched Arabesque, the first African American romance imprint in 1994. She has designed cards for UNICEF and illustrated books for the late Dr. Isaac Asimov. Her most recent project is a trilogy, The Millionaires Club. The first book in the series is Winner Takes All. She is represented by Lisa Erbach Vance with the Aaron Priest Agency in New York.