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Romance Writers of America files for bankruptcy

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Romance is big business in publishing - a rare bright spot in adult fiction sales. Think Colleen Hoover, Emily Henry, Jasmine Guillory. So why did the Romance Writers of America, the trade group supporting romance writers, recently file for bankruptcy? Andrew Limbong joins us now. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day Podcast. Hey, Andrew.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Hey, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So quick step back - tell us more about the role of the Romance Writers of America, or RWA.

LIMBONG: Well, it's a trade organization, and it started in 1980 by Vivian Stephens, who was an editor of romance books. She's Black, by the way, which will be, you know, important later on. Anyway, she got together with a bunch of romance writers and formed this group to support authors - you know, mostly women - who were working in this genre that, you know, just didn't get as much respect as, you know, like, literary fiction, right? So every year, they'd hold these conferences across the country, which was, like, a great way to network - you know, like, meet other writers and, like, learn some skills about, like, writing as a business. And at its peak, you know, around 2019, the group had nearly 10,000 members, which is huge for an org like that.

RASCOE: So what happened?

LIMBONG: Well, you know, they just kept getting caught in these multiple accusations over racism. So like, in 2018, fans and members pointed out that no Black author had ever won their big award, which is known as the RITA. You know, the RWA came out of it saying, we're committed to inclusivity and promise to do better. Then in 2019, it got caught in another scandal when it censured one of its own members for going online and criticizing a book written by a fellow RWA author as being racist. And, you know, this, of course, led to a huge blow-up online, and the RWA had to put out another statement saying it was canceling the RITAs and was going to hire a DEI consultant. According to the bankruptcy filing, the RWA's handling of these racism accusations is what caused its membership to just plummet. It's now at, like, 3,000 members.

RASCOE: Oh, wow. And I'm guessing that had to hurt the bottom line.

LIMBONG: Yeah, exactly. And in 2019, when they were at the peak of their powers, they'd gotten into these contracts with various Marriott hotels around the country to host their annual conferences. Of course, then, you know, like, COVID happened. But then, you know, the organization managed to squeak on by. They had their last annual conference in 2023, but then just bills came due.

RASCOE: So what's been the reaction from the romance world?

LIMBONG: I think mixed, you know? There's a decent amount of like, good riddance-type sentiment out there that, like, maybe we'd just be better off starting over. But I talked to Jayashree Kamble. She's an English professor at LaGuardia Community College and is an expert in mass-market romance, and she actually got some funding from the RWA to do research work, and she says she and her fellow academics watched all of this go down with some amount of sadness.

JAYASHREE KAMBLE: Because there is and was so much valuable work that the RWA did, especially for women who maybe otherwise would not have been able to break through. But we always have to be conscious that every organization that is maybe doing something good for some folks may not be doing the same for some other folks.

LIMBONG: And I want to add that the RWA filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which is the, like, I'm going to restructure my debt to figure out a way out of this plan, versus the, like, here's all my assets to liquidate. So there might even be a future here for the RWA.

RASCOE: So what would that even look like?

LIMBONG: Yeah, I mean, I don't know. There's a lot of goodwill and cultural cache in the romance sphere that the org will need to work to regain. And I don't know if it has the juice to pull it off.

RASCOE: That was NPR's Andrew Limbong. Andrew, thanks so much.

LIMBONG: Thanks, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.
Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.