The Ripped Bodice’s Diversity Report: A Critique

by Nick and Ari

Summary

We offer a critique of The Ripped Bodice’s State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing Report. With its lack of transparency, unethical, and unclear methodology, the diversity report leaves us with more questions than with answers. Though well-meaning, a study like this does a disservice to both publishers and BIPOC authors, while also setting a dangerous precedent of allowing poor ethics and poor data practices to run rampant in the romance community. In the last couple of years, we have seen the damaging effects of allowing misinformation in the media, so why are we still uncritically accepting a report that could be spreading misinformation to be published year after year? We urge The Ripped Bodice to do better and to carefully consider a few of the alternatives presented in this article.

Introduction

Since 2016, The Ripped Bodice, an L.A.-based romance-exclusive bookstore owned by Bea and Leah Koch, has released The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing Report, a yearly data report that seeks to track the publication of books written by authors of color and Indigenous authors. The intent of the report is admirable. However, this study, meant to highlight the self-evident whiteness of romance publishing, is riddled with flaws from the study design, to the ethics, and to the reporting phase. If we want to understand and make impactful commentaries that can sway the state of publishing, it is essential that we responsibly and ethically collect, analyze, and report diversity data to the best of our abilities in order to back our statements with the least biased evidence. We live in a world that is becoming increasingly distrustful of science and lacking in data literacy. There are good reasons why research studies in any academic field are held to rigorous standards. Why then should a study in romance publishing, one that is often cited in major publications such as Publisher’s Weekly and The New York Times, be any different? Why are we accepting at face-value a study generated by two individuals with seemingly no analytical background or desire to accept external expertise?

Ethics Violations

Let’s take this back to basics for a moment: What are ethics?

Informed Consent

It’s one of the most important aspects of a romance book, and yet in this study, informed consent is nowhere to be found.

Transparency, where art thou?

Transparency is key when running any type of study, as any good study should include a reproducible and replicable methodology section. Researchers are constantly testing and retesting theories so it is important to note every step taken as it shows how and why certain results were obtained in a study. When it comes to The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing Report, transparency is severely lacking. Taken directly from their website, let us go through the following steps in this method’s section and discuss why there is a need for more clarity.

The Math Ain’t Mathin’

Let’s take a closer look at the possible statistical and data reporting issues in this study.

Figure 1: Screenshot of page 3 of the 2020 Diversity Report. The figure shows a graph titled: Individual Publisher Data Overview. What Percentage of Books Published in Each Year Were Written by People of Color? The graph shows percentages from 2016 to 2020 for Avon Romance.
Figure 1: Screenshot of page 3 of the 2020 Diversity Report. The figure shows a graph titled: Individual Publisher Data Overview. What Percentage of Books Published in Each Year Were Written by People of Color? The graph shows percentages from 2016 to 2020 for Avon Romance.

So, What’s the Alternative?

If external expertise was sought out, then The Ripped Bodice would know that ideally, a survey is a proper way to conduct a study of this nature. An exemplary diversity report is the Diversity Baseline Survey (DBS) by Lee & Low Books, which aims to survey publishing houses and review journals to establish data and evidence on the racial, gender, sexual orientation, and ability makeup of the publishing workforce. It should be noted that Lee & Low Books collaborated with a team of experts since the inception of the report in 2015 to handle the surveys and data analysis with proper protocols: Toluna administered and deployed the surveys and Dr. Laura M. Jiménez & graduate student Betsy Beckert from the Wheelock College of Education & Human Development at Boston University handled the data analytics of the second iteration of the study. As part of the full report, the DBS clearly outlines the methodology used, presents the exact sample sizes together with the survey response rates, states how the anonymity of participants was maintained throughout the study, and discusses important results of the analysis. These are all excellent research practices that The Ripped Bodice should also be striving for in their report. Further, because the DBS is a survey that is sent out to the participants, informed consent is at the forefront of the study. This also allows potential participants, publishing employees in the case of DBS, to i) opt-out of the study if they wish to do so and ii) identify race, gender, and sexual orientation on their own terms, lowering the probability of misclassification and eliminating the risk of unethical research or research misconduct.

Some Much Needed Updates

The Ripped Bodice has been publishing their diversity report for five years and yet, there have been no changes or updates made in regards to the methodology nor have they expanded this study to include other forms of diversity. Yes, racial diversity is important, but shouldn’t the goal be to have more inclusive stories all around? While we won’t further discuss this thought, it is something to keep in mind when looking at the bigger picture. But let’s backtrack for a moment and discuss racial diversity. Hypothetically speaking, say an imprint published only books written by authors of color for a certain year, it would be safe to assume that on paper it would look like that imprint is being more inclusive, yes? Because it would definitely reflect that way on the graphs in the diversity report. But what happens if half of those authors of colors chose to only write about white couples? Then would the imprint really be championing diverse romances? It is questions and scenarios like these that are not discussed enough in traditional publishing and these types of conversations need to be added to the diversity agenda.

To Hell with Good Intentions

While the intent of the report is important, we cannot dismiss the countless issues found in this study. From the lack of transparency to the unethical and unclear methodology, The Ripped Bodice’s diversity reports leave us with more questions than answers. A study like this does a disservice to both publishers and BIPOC authors. If these figures can be proven to be unreliable and inaccurate, then the media outlets that have referenced this report as a source would then have to retract their stories. For instance, in an article about the 2020 report, Book Riot erroneously claimed that The Ripped Bodice obtained racial data directly from some publishers. This is a result of people making false assumptions on this study based on the scant information provided by The Ripped Bodice.

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