Posted On January 16, 2013 by Print This Post

What Will and Won’t Fly in Multicultural Romance with Shelly Ellis

As a reader, I am all about equal opportunity-you write a good romance and I’ll read it. While I don’t favor historical romance in general, my bookshelves/Kindle cover every genre and every subject matter in romance. I know I lean towards contemporary and LGBTQ romance when I want to lose myself in a story but I also avidly read multicultural romance and as a woman living a multicultural romance – it does speak to my heart. But, like every sub-genre it has it’s canon and rules and I am thrilled to have Shelly Ellis here today to give us her take on the subject.

My love of romance novels began like many romance aficionados: I inherited author photo4it. At around 13, I graduated from my Babysitter’s Club and Sweet Valley Twins paperbacks to my mother’s hardbacks stacked on her dresser. They included my future favs like Zoya by Danielle Steel, Nora Roberts’ MacGregor Series, and Until You by Judith McNaught.
So when I decided to write romance, I knew that I wanted to craft stories just like my idols—but with a twist. I wanted to write about African Americans, and in my view, not only would that require a change in setting and characters, but also a change in sensibility. Because though some things stay consistent in romance—love, passion, tension, and ultimately, happily-ever-after—writing multicultural romance requires something a little different.
“I think the stories are different,” says fellow multicultural romance author, Cheris Hodges. Cheris published her first romance in 2003 and has since released more than a dozen novels for African-American audiences. “You can work in a layer of the black experience that you can’t in the mainstream.”
But, hey, not everyone agrees—like author Phyllis Bourne. She’s been writing romance since 2005 and now writes for Harlequin’s Kimani imprint, its African-American romance line.
“If you pick up a multicultural romance and read the back cover copy, it isn’t about multiculturalism,” she argues. “It’s about the powerful CEO, the sexy M.D., the runaway bride, the office romance, etc… the same descriptions that are on the back of ‘mainstream’ romances. The characters are African-American, Asian, or Hispanic, but their journey to happily-ever-after is the same.”
But what do editors think? What are they looking for when they receive multicultural romance submissions?
“At the end of the day, strong, developed characters, great writing, and a unique voice are the most important things in any story—regardless of genre—so I wouldn’t say there’s a huge difference between mainstream and multicultural fiction,” says Mercedes Fernandez, assistant editor of Dafina Books at Kensington. “A good story should transcend race. But, I would say that as an editor, perhaps because of my penchant for reality television shows, I tend to gravitate towards more fast-paced, dramatic stories and I think readers of multicultural fiction tend to look for those elements as well.”

Drama with a capital “D”… OK! Got it! That’s important. But are there any other things you may or may not traditionally find in multicultural romance that differ from mainstream? I always wondered about the conspicuous absence of the domineering Christian Grey-types (a la Shades of Grey) in popular African-American romances. Where are they?
“I read plenty of strong, powerful alpha males in black romances. I love to see an alpha male being brought to his knees by his love for the heroine,” Phyllis says. “However, there’s a difference between a properly motivated hero taking charge and one being controlling for control’s sake. I can’t speak for other African-American readers or writers, but as an African-American woman I don’t find a domineering hero appealing.”
Cheris admits that in one of her novels, she tried to create a domineering alpha male, but “readers didn’t really like him. And when you’re writing about a black couple, there is a certain level of love and respect you want to show. Outside of a black couple like Michelle and Barack Obama, you don’t really see too many positive black couples in mainstream media. You don’t want [your hero] pushing [the heroine] around and putting her in handcuffs.”
So ixnay on the Christian Grey… Next issue: where are the heart-wrenching, passionate male/male romances in African-American fiction? These romances seem to be gaining more traction among mainstream but not multicultural readers.
“I think that is a reflection of the black community in general,” Cheris says. “Generally, there isn’t much acceptance of gay romance. We are not as open with dealing with these issues. A lot of us aren’t going to read it.” She pointed to famous authors like E. Lynn Harris, who even when he approached the issue, “they weren’t openly gay men. They were the ‘down low’ brothers. You don’t really see black gay romantic couples and frankly, I’m not sure if the book industry is ready for it.”
So with these slight differences, is it a challenge for multicultural romance authors to crossover to mainstream? Judging from sales numbers and fan base, I think so, and Cheris and Phyllis agree. But they say it has more to do with the marketing of the multicultural romance than the content.
“I don’t think white readers get the same exposure to African-American romances that black readers get to mainstream books. I buy both on my e-readers,” Phyllis says. “However, books suggested to me by the online stores are overwhelmingly white. In stores, African-American romances are often shelved separately.”
Not only are separate book sections and book recommendations a challenge, but also bookstore search engines.
“It has a lot to do with the fact that when you type in ‘African American romance’ in search engines, you’re going get page after page of books that aren’t by romance authors. They’re street lit,” Cheris explains.
And though ‘street lit’ can have romantic elements, the genre often has a tone that is more urban and admittedly rougher than many mainstream readers may prefer.
Despite these obstacles, Mercedes says she’s always on the lookout and rooting for multicultural books that have crossover appeal.
“It’s great to have multicultural characters and writers out there become household names,” she says. But, Mercedes notes, having “crossover appeal depends on so many factors—the content of the book, the timing of the release, and that magical word of mouth buzz from readers that will make consumers take a chance on a new author amongst other things. When all those things come together, it’s fantastic— but, unfortunately, not every book will experience that crossover success. So, it’s also about having realistic expectations.”


Okay – so if you write or read mulitcultural romance – what is your take on Shelly’s post?  If you don’t read it, why not? What unknown sub-genres of romance do you want to explore in 2013?

On Friday, we have Lynne Silver with us to discuss cool tips for organization



CANT STAND THE HEAT coverShelly Ellis began her romance writing career when she became one of four finalists in a First-Time Writers Contest at 19 years old. The prize was a publishing contract and having her first short-story romance appear in an anthology. She has since published more short stories, two novels, and was chosen as a finalist for 2012 African American Literary Award in the romance category. Shelly will release her first women’s fiction series in May 2013 with the novel, Can’t Stand the Heat, followed by The Player and the Game in September 2013.

When she isn’t writing novels, or reviewing articles during her day job as a magazine editor, she’s harassing her husband to finish the nursery for their first baby who is due in April.

Visit her at her web site, on facebook at, and on twitter at @ellisromance.

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39 Responses to “What Will and Won’t Fly in Multicultural Romance with Shelly Ellis”

  1. Hi Shelly,

    Love the MacGregor series! I’ve written a book with a bi-racial heroine. Her Private Collection comes out in June. I also recommend Dyanne Davis’ book The Color of Trouble.

    Good luck with your books and baby!

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | January 16, 2013, 6:29 am
  2. Thank you for writing this post today. I enjoyed the commentary, especially about why there aren’t as many alpha males in romance fiction.

    I’ve been investigating the historical romances and trying to appeal to readership in that way. We have a lot of pain in our history, but there are some powerful stories there to tell that haven’t been touched yet. Thanks again!


    Posted by Piper | January 16, 2013, 8:59 am
    • Hi Piper,

      Yeah, historical romances featuring African Americans are far and few between. The major author in that genre I can think of is Beverly Jenkins (one of my favorites) and a few are self-published, but Jenkins even said in a recent RT article that she heard from one aspiring writer that other African American authors have been discouraged from doing similar historicals because “We already have a Beverly Jenkins.” Though I and the other authors shared what we think are the rules for the multicultural romance sub-genre, I’m all for expanding the boundaries of what is traditionally covered. Good luck and I’ll keep an eye out for your future work. 🙂

      Posted by Shelly Ellis | January 16, 2013, 9:06 am
  3. Morning Shelly!

    I do have some multicultural romances on my Kindle, but sad to say I haven’t gotten to them yet….that IS one of my goals for this year, to pare down the TBR pile!

    How do the Kimani romances sell from Harlequin? Are they as big of a seller as the other lines?

    Thanks for your post!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | January 16, 2013, 9:14 am
    • Hi Carey,

      Great questions! I wish I could share sales numbers! (I don’t even have that info available for my publisher, Kensington.) Judging from just a rough comparison (now this is very rough) on Amazon and Barnes & Noble sales rankings between the Kimani line and other lines like Harlequin Presents, I’m going to say that no, Kimani probably isn’t selling on par with those other lines. (But if anyone has better info than I do, please share!)

      I bet though it has more to do with the fragmentation of the audience. African American romances DON’T sale as much as mainstream romances, in general, unless you’re Brenda Jackson or L.A. Banks, maybe. We just have a smaller audience. I think that’s why so many multicultural authors lament not being accepted by the mainstream. You know the quality of writing is the same but by virtue of being labeled “multi-cultural” you also know that limits your audience.


      Posted by Shelly Ellis | January 16, 2013, 9:29 am
  4. Shelly – Thanks so much for being with us today!

    If there is some barrier that you wish would go away in multi-cultural romance – what would that be?


    Posted by Robin Covington | January 16, 2013, 9:23 am
    • Thanks for the question, Robin! Hmmm, I think if there was any barrier, it would be all the “rules” I shared above! LOL I think the barriers are already being taken down a lot with self-publishing. Even if I don’t always like the stories, I like that there are authors out there testing the waters. And frankly, I think if multicultural romances want to go more mainstream, we have to widen the circle of what characters, plots, subjects, sexual practices, etc. are taboo and what isn’t.

      Posted by Shelly Ellis | January 16, 2013, 9:41 am
  5. I am writing a romance novel about interracial love..

    Posted by Dorothy | January 16, 2013, 9:23 am
  6. Hi, Shelly. Great post. I don’t write multicultural, but I’m wondering if the ereader explosion has helped multicultural authors break in. I’ve found with mainstream that digital publishers are more willing to publish a book with a hero or heroine that isn’t the typical romance h/h.

    Thanks for being here!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | January 16, 2013, 9:35 am
    • Hi Adrienne!

      Yes, I think ereaders have helped a lot! And digital publishers seem more willing to embrace different multicultural authors and plot lines, but the weird thing about that is I’ve seen it happen more in erotica than anything else. (Though I guess it’s not THAT weird since anything goes in erotica. LOL)

      But the obstacle still for multicultural authors isn’t just getting the books out there, but getting it ON the ereaders of a wider audience. As Phyllis Bourne pointed out in my blog post, the nemesis for many multicultural romance authors is the “Also recommended reading” or “Customers who bought this are also buying…” prompts that you see on Kindles and Nooks. You rarely see mainstream romance and multicultural romance on those same feeds. I understand from a sales and marketing perspective why you wouldn’t, but it can be challenging as an author if you don’t have readers specifically looking for your work.

      Posted by Shelly Ellis | January 16, 2013, 9:54 am
  7. Thanks for a fascinating post, Shelly, and congratulations on all your awards! Congratulations on your baby-to-be – April is a great month to be born! Good luck writing once the baby arrives. I’m babysitting for my 5 1/2 month-old granddaughter these days, and I’m still struggling to find a balance. Let me know if you come up with a plan that works! 😉

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | January 16, 2013, 9:35 am
    • Hi Becke!

      Oh, I’m trying not to think about how in the world I’m going to balance the two. Our little girl is due in April and the third book in my series is due in July. I’m trying not to freak out about both impending timelines, but I don’t think I’m succeeding. LOL Maybe I can do a blog post on how to nurse an infant and change diapers AND write a novel at the same time!

      Posted by Shelly Ellis | January 16, 2013, 9:57 am
  8. My respect by writers with babies and young children has skyrocketed in the past months. Talk about multi-tasking!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | January 16, 2013, 10:03 am
  9. Loved the post. Congratulations on your new release and new baby!


    Posted by Brandie N. | January 16, 2013, 10:38 am
  10. “I always wondered about the conspicuous absence of the domineering Christian Grey-types (a la Shades of Grey) in popular African-American romances. Where are they?”

    Maybe they’er not there because black women have more sense?

    Posted by carmen webster buxton | January 16, 2013, 12:09 pm
  11. What an interesting post. I loved your point that black readers are way more exposed to traditional romance than white readers are to multi-cultural romance.

    Posted by Lynne Silver | January 16, 2013, 12:12 pm
  12. This was a great article. I write paranomral romance with multicultural characters. This is a strange genre to cross over with diverse characters. I actually have more non African American fans reading my books. When I had signing at more urban book store, it was interesting explaining to readers what the genre was about. I hope to see multicultural characters branhc out into more genres and everyone having a more open perspective when reading books with diversity.

    Thanks for the opportunity to discuss!

    Posted by Vivi Dumas | January 16, 2013, 12:49 pm
    • Thanks for your comment, Vivi! And you know, I think you do see more crossover in the paranormal genre. Maybe it’s the uniqueness of the subject matter. (It’s hard to focus on race when the story’s about a wolf shifter LOL) Good luck in expanding minds and widening your audience!

      Posted by Shelly Ellis | January 16, 2013, 12:52 pm
  13. Great article and a lot of food for thought. I write multicultural romance and was thinking about my approach. Most of the time I’m not consciously thinking about how to incorporate the black experience into the book. I’m just trying to tell a coherent, compelling story. Do I think it seeps in and someone else reading my work might say it’s obvious? Yes, probably.

    I do think we need to be careful about saying what will and won’t fly whether that’s MC or mainstream romance because 1. that can be unnecessarily limiting and 2. something will always come along to prove you wrong.

    Posted by Jamie Wesley | January 16, 2013, 1:42 pm
    • Hi Jamie! I couldn’t agree with you more on being careful about stating what the rules are. In the end, there really ARE no rules in the romance genre at all (especially when you consider self-published works that can and have broken them all). I guess I would say the “rules” that we shared deal more with what the publishing houses seem to be buying now. There are constructs in basic romance that authors might not agree with, but editors will espouse (get the couple together in the first 12 pages, must have a happily-ever-after, etc.) This is based on their experience of what sells and what doesn’t. The same can go for sub-genres like multicultural romance. Again, I’m all for testing the boundaries, but that’s with the caveat of if you want to sell your work to existing imprints and if you want to appeal to a certain audience, THIS is what the market seems to be focusing on right now. But I’m more than happy to see things change.

      Posted by Shelly Ellis | January 16, 2013, 2:00 pm
  14. I agree with the assessment of the alpha male. I don’t really care for alpha heroes, nor do I write them in the strict sense. I like my bad boys, but they need to be reformed or at least have a gooey center, even if it takes some doing to get to it.

    My stories always feature a multicultural cast of characters, though not necessarily a multicultural romance. I write about love, family, and the human experience. But it’s also important that the story also reflects the cultural backgrounds of the characters.

    Posted by Reese Ryan | January 16, 2013, 2:47 pm
    • Hi Reese, and exactly! Just like a historical romance novel should be true to the time period, I think an author should keep in mind cultural background of the characters they’re writing about, whether he is a Highland Scot or an urban African American lawyer.

      And alpha heroes can turn me off too. I always thought it spoke more to the character’s insecurities than his male strengths.

      Posted by Shelly Ellis | January 16, 2013, 3:14 pm
  15. I really liked the post and it’s a great topic to discuss especially since America is quickly becoming more “brown”. I read mostly interracial romance because the “natural” conflict is there and I love to see how the author deals with the two lovers and this huge issue as well as the story of the two individuals. No matter what, I appreciate GOOD writing whether multicultural or not. As far as black LGBT literature, I don’t think there’s a place for that. I won’t read any of that.

    Posted by Pamela | January 16, 2013, 5:47 pm
    • Hi Pamela! That’s funny you should say that you love interracial romance but don’t think there’s a place for LGBT black literature. The very same thing was rationalized about interracial romance by publishers decades ago. I guess tastes shift, but maybe a lot of multicultural romance readers still feel the way you do about LGBT (judging by lack of book releases on this topic.)

      In full disclosure, I am in an interracial marriage. I’ve been married to my wonderful husband for 4 years and our multicultural child (in every sense of the word) is due in April. I’m very happy to see the emergence of interracial stories. I DO think they present yet another facet of the changing America.

      Posted by Shelly Ellis | January 16, 2013, 6:25 pm
  16. Wonderful post! I started writing interracial romances featuring African American heroines involved in interracial relationships, like myself, who face the challenges of all women in our culture – balancing family and career. I agree that for the romance reader, a hero and heroine who are both well developed can transcend race and be appealing to all readers.

    Posted by Vallory Vance | January 16, 2013, 10:18 pm
  17. I totally loved this post!

    I agree on the mm/mm romances, and would love to see more in the LGBT community as well. Equally, I would love to see more historical IR romances as well, so I don’t feel so alone out there lol. I write contemporary, historical and paranomral IR.

    And what pains me most, is the fact tat I am primarily a IR Paranormal romance author, however we don’t get the props that the contemporary genre does; and I feel like it almost still seems as if paranormal is a “taboo,” among people of color.

    I wish that it would get it’s due, because there are some amazing IR PNR authors out there, because we love what we do, and competing with main stream is a really hard job; because we don’t get the hype or chances that they do.

    This is the same with IR historical, like the post referred to. There are some amazing IR historical authors out there as well, however because of the context and time period, people assume that we write about the pain and struggle only, and that isn’t true.

    I’m multiracial, and I write IR in three genres, because I wanted to show that “LOve, is LOve,’ no matter the race.

    Awesome post though, really enjoyed it.

    Posted by Alexandria Infante | September 22, 2014, 2:23 pm
  18. Thank you for this article! I released my first interracial romance in December of 2013. I agree with the points made about the lack of exposure for the sub genre. I do hope to see multicultural romance have a more firm place in “mainstream.” Also, I know this post was over a year ago, but congrats on your baby girl!

    Posted by SC Ellington | October 5, 2014, 10:52 pm
  19. Thank you for a great piece. I’m a multicultural romance author, and I’m inspired by the sheer number of readers hungry for the genre. I stumbled upon the category by accident with my first multicultural romance novel — Loving a Texan from New Orleans — in 2013. I had chosen a different hero for the cover — fine brother! — but the model in the cover I ultimately chose simply spoke to me, so I simply went back and tweaked the description of the hero. I wonder if the book would have been as much of a success had I chosen the other model. My sister and I talk about this all the time. I was floored by the sales and the number of readers in the IR romance category, and have pretty much stayed glued to multicultural romance writing since. Enjoying the comments; they are providing great insight for future works. Thank you again for a great piece. Cassandra Black

    Posted by Cassandra Black | October 13, 2014, 2:49 pm
  20. Greetings. An old thread but a wonderfully insightful one. I tried my White hand at writing interracial romance with the consequence that I fell head over heals in love with African American girls. I mean marriage and children in love, not just recreational interracial adventures.

    Posted by Bob | July 6, 2015, 2:21 pm


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