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    Romance Writers of America has filed for bankruptcy. What’s next?

    Brittany Allen

    June 5, 2024, 12:46pm

    Last week, Romance Writers of America filed for bankruptcy. The “nonprofit trade association” was founded by the author and editor Vivian L. Stephens in 1980, and had at its height close to 10,000 members.

    According to Publishers Weekly, RWA is currently crumbling because it owes “about $3 million to hotels that have hosted its flagship conference, as well as roughly $74,500 in cash to other creditors.” But this filing falls on the heels of years of controversy, in tandem with membership hemorrhage.

    As Walker Caplan reported here three years ago, the org fell under fire in 2018 after judges snubbed a favored Black author, Alyssa Cole, for the coveted RITA Award. And scandal hit again in 2019 when RWA leadership retaliated against a Chinese-American author, Courtney Milan, after she called out a fellow member’s racist novel.

    Though backlash to these scandals augured a nominal changing-of-the-guard (the board resigned, “diversity summits” were held, change was promised), RWA’s reputation never fully recovered. (CBSNews reports that the association’s membership dwindled by some 80% over the past five years.) After major publishers broke ties with RWA’s popular annual conference, and high-profile members chided the board’s milquetoast statements, disaster stayed looming. Though some authors are angry that RWA’s cited “old” controversy as cause for crumble, this bankruptcy filing is at once the apex of scandal mountain, and a mere matter of funding. Without a robust (and so: inclusive) membership, the org could never hope to pay off its outstanding bills.

    I spoke to Christine Larson, a journalist and labor historian who studies the romance writing community, in search of a little more context. How did a collective founded on a love for love stray so far from its better angels?

    And what’s next for the romance community?


    Though RWA was founded by a Black womanthe aforementioned editor and pioneer, Vivian L. Stephensromance as a genre has historically resisted efforts to “diversify” with grace. Speaking of the 80s, when the org was formed, Larson reminded me: “The publishing industry, especially romance writing, was unbelievably racist.” In the same breath she recalled that “no major publisher” would touch LGBTQ+ stories, and “all romance heroines were white, able-bodied, skinny straight women.” Stephens’ association helped organize a community that felt ostracized from those myopic, traditional publishing corridors, with all their blindspots and prejudices. And for many years, that effort was successful.

    “RWA had a major impact on the progress of romance writers from being literary outcasts to being taken seriously as professional writers,” Larson said. Practically, the org assumed union dutiesit fought copyright battles, helped authors negotiate contracts, and “stood up to Amazon and its audiobook refund policy.” But RWA was perhaps best known for the community it gave authors, many of whom were writing (and publishing) their projects alone.

    In her upcoming book, Love in the Time of Self-Publishing: How Romance Writers Changed the Rules of Writing and Success, Larson argues that the romance community is inherently nimble, despite the shambling of its largest institution. Over a decade of study, Larson observed that authors in “Romancelandia” (to use the preferred nomenclature) are uniquely group-minded. She noted unusual working behavior, not seen in traditional publishinglike the fact that advice moves fluidly among romance authors. Established writers talk to newbies, and vice versa.

    “A super important thing to take away here is that romance writers have the strongest writing community that I have ever seen,” Larson insisted. And no bungling board can quash that. Even if the larger irony herethat a community so inherently nimble, diverse, and vanguard has been tethered to an organization as blind-spotty as any found in Old Publishingisn’t lost on anyone.

    From here, Larson sees three ways forward for RWA: 1) the org could rebuild itself (“But I think that’s an outside possibility”); 2) it could reconstitute as a much smaller, perhaps local organization with smaller goals; or 3) romance writers seeking a professional collective may flock to the Authors Guild, whose membership has grown 45% over the past five years. In any event, despite the hurt, grief, and exasperation this news occasions for some, I’m assured much of the community is optimistic. “Romance writers will always find a way to imagine a happy ending,” Larson said. “And if they can’t do it within a big organization, they’ll do it somewhere else.”

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