Romances enroll African-Americans A NEW CHAPTER

Victoria was another hidden treasure. To the casual observer she was beautiful and untouchable. But if a man took the time to get past her defenses, he'd discover a vulnerable and sensitive woman who wanted to love and be loved. He was determined to be that man."

Just another romance novel? Well, yes . . . and no. There's a difference between this one and the vast majority of romance novels flooding the market. The thing is, Victoria possesses a "beautiful, brown face" and the man who wants her has "rugged, dark brown" looks.


The book, "Forever Yours" by Francis Ray, is one of two that introduce a new line of romance novels with central characters who are African-Americans.

Pinnacle Books, a New York-based publishing company, is releasing the romance novels under the Arabesque label. "Romance novels account for approximately 49 percent of all mass-market paperback book sales," says Roberta Elins, a spokeswoman for Pinnacle Books.


Although Odyssey Books, a Silver Spring-based company that specializes in black romance novels, has published nearly a dozen such books since 1990, Pinnacle is the first major publishing house to commit to this theme on a continuing basis, says Ms. Elins. Two new titles will be published each month.

The idea was in the works for a while, says Monica Harris, the editor and spokeswoman for Arabesque books. "A good percentage of people who read romance novels are women of color," Ms. Harris says. "The market is there."

Still, other major publishing houses have no plans to commit specifically to a black line.

"We are not at present considering a line of African-American romances," says Isabel Swift, editorial director for Harlequin/Silhouette Books.

"Our focus is on the essence of the reading experience," she says. "We are concerned with the readers' experience and not the color of anyone's skin."

The company publishes romance novels with varying themes such as historical and Gothic. "Every line has had some books with black characters," she adds.

Christine Zika, an associate editor at Avon Books, says, "We are looking for traditional historical romances. If we find a black one that fits our guidelines, we will publish it." The company will publish a romance novel set in an all-black town this year, she says.

Romance novels with African-American lead characters generally follow the same formula as others in this genre, although some rely more heavily on including African-American culture while others simply describe the characters as black.


Like all romance novels, they are upbeat stories with happy endings that the writers and publishers hope will appeal to readers of all races.

"There are no specific guidelines we are requested to follow," says Ms. Ray. "But I see enough of this negative stuff about blacks on television and in the newspaper. I'm not going to add to it." The truth is, there's not much romance in detailing the poverty and violence that affect the lives of some African-Americans -- so you won't see them in these novels.

"My books are about strong, honest, committed people," Ms. Ray says. "They have no problems with drugs and there are no out-of-wedlock births. I do realize these things are out there but I want to show that you can follow a different path."

Even though Pinnacle is the first major publisher to commit to the genre on a continuing basis, smaller houses saw the potential for such books earlier. Leticia Peoples retired from a government job to begin a publishing business that specializes in black romance novels. Odyssey Books, the Silver Spring-based company, has published 11 books during the past four years.

Ms. Peoples says she knew competition from major publishing houses would come soon. "This is something I expected from the time I started or from the time they saw I was having some measure of success," Ms. Peoples says.

Marron Publishers, a Washington-based company, put out two black romance novels in 1990. "We're happy we have been able to assist black writers in this genre to market their skills," says Gwen Arnold, marketing director for the small company.


"We are not afraid of competition," Ms. Arnold says. "We are a small company that cannot satisfy this market by ourselves. But we will still be here."

Both Ms. Arnold and Ms. Peoples note that some of the authors now writing for Arabesque have been published previously by their small companies.

Sandra Kitt is one of those authors. Ms. Kitt, a New York librarian, is considered the most widely read African-American romance novelist.

"Serenade" is her 12th novel. However, not all of the novels have African-American lead characters, she says.

"When I first started writing romance novels, I didn't have a clue that I would have a hard time getting books with black characters published," she says. But she learned.

"They were not interested when I sent out a book with black characters," she says. "The white romance novels were selling well. The black ones were piling up."


Another African-American romance novelist credits the increased interest from publishers to the number of recent best sellers by black writers.

"Now the [publishing] houses realize they can make a lot of money," says Rochelle Alers, whose book "Happily Ever After" will be released by Arabesque this month.

"It's a very selfish reason for all of this interest," Ms. Alers says. "They see it can be very profitable. But although it's a selfish reason, it's also a very real and legitimate reason for business.

"And I do think we can thank Terry McMillan for that," says Ms. Alers, referring to the author of the best selling "Waiting to Exhale," about a group of black women and their complaints about black men.

"Although she does not write romance novels, she writes what I call women's fiction. It did open doors."

Hot titles


Here's selection of romance novels with African-American characters from other publishing houses.


* "Akayna Sachem's Daughter," 1993; by Mildred Riley

"Indiscretions," 1992; by Donna Hill

* "A Sheik's Spell," 1992; by Eboni Snoe



* "Nightwatch," to be published in 1995; by Tracey Tillis


* "Unforgivable," 1992; by Joyce Mc Gill


* "Night Song," 1994; by Beverly Jenkins