Those statements feel kind of weird and uncomfortable to read, right? Like maybe you should stop reading this blog post now because what the heck is going on right now? I would like to say I made them up, but I did not. I took those four sentences directly from four different rejection letters I have received over the years from publishers. That’s just four sentences from dozens of rejection letters that basically all said the same thing. “We like the story, but we’d prefer if the character wasn’t so obviously disabled.”
Let’s break them down.
“You can’t write romance that way.”
I was confused at first. The claim was that I couldn’t write a romance where the male MC was already interested in the female MC and had decided to pursue her from the beginning of the book. It took me about .002 seconds to remember about fifty romance books that have started the same away. I immediately put that excuse out the window and that left only one reason. The male main character was abled and the female was disabled. We can’t have that! REJECT IT!
“We like the story. Is there any way you can make the main character not an amputee?”
Sure, I suppose there’s always a way to do that, but then it wouldn’t be the same story, so how much did you REALLY like it? The whole point of this particular story is the fact that the main character is an arm amputee (The Secrets Between Us). She’s not the hip kind of amputee, though. She didn’t lose her leg in war. She lost her arm in a domestic incident with her ex-husband. She doesn’t wear a ‘high-tech prosthesis’ because she can’t afford one (this is not unusual), so she chooses to wear nothing at all (Also common). If I make Mercy abled, then the story falls apart and becomes the same as every other contemporary romance novel out there.
Ohhhhhhhhhh, that’s what they wanted. Right, right, right. My bad. What was I thinking? I’m on the same page now!
“We’d be interested in this story if the main character wasn’t in a wheelchair. Could you make them less disabled?”
Less disabled. Let’s read that again. LESS DISABLED. Sure, I’ll just do what abled writers do when they write a disabled character. I’ll give them a dramatic disability that only comes into play when the writer needs to garner sympathy for the character or as something that can be healed at the end of the book in order for the character to live happily ever after without the disability getting in the way of their forever love because THAT’S HOW THIS WORKS IN REAL LIFE. Spoiler alert: no, it’s not. That’s not how any of this works. The letter was so offensive to me as a person with a disability that I immediately deleted it and removed that publisher from my list of possible submissions. Which, to be fair, they would probably be thrilled to hear. That way, I didn’t keep sending them my uncomfortably disabled stories because *clutches pearls* How would we ever publish a book with a strong female character who is living her life and falling in love while in a *gasp* wheelchair?!
*Takes deep breath after a heavy eye roll* Moving on.
‘This was a great story, but we don’t publish romance like this.’
That was a fun one to get. ‘Like this.’ How lyrically put by an editor of a major romance publisher. Here’s the thing, they do publish romance ‘like this’ but only when it’s written by their abled authors in a ridiculously inaccurate way that just fills the readers head full of inaccurate nonsense in an inspirational porn kind of way. *Inspirational porn is the portrayal of people with disabilities as inspirational based simply on their disability. “Wow, you pushed a shopping cart while in a wheelchair. You’re so inspirational!”*
So there you have just four sentences from all the letters I’ve gotten over my decade of writing romances ‘like that.’ They tell me we have a long way to go when it comes to inclusion in romance. They have made me want to quit, made me dig in, made me sad, made me angry, and filled me with the burning need to make my voice heard.
The other day, a friend sent me a link for another publisher who was asking for submissions from ‘under-represented’ authors to submit their works for editorial feedback. I chuckled. You’ll know why if you’ve read this blog post here. But, being the ever optimist, I opened the link. I really wanted to believe someone had figured out that if you ask for under-represented authors to write for you, it’s because you want under-represented stories to publish. WRONG AGAIN. I chuckled when I got to their definitions of genres and the breakdown of what they would like writers to submit. Commercial fiction describes books with broad appeal. So, they definitely don’t want any disabled romance because, you guessed it, they were the publisher who had already told me they liked the story if I could make the main character LESS DISABLED. (I want you to know it actually pains me to type that.)
Where am I going with this? Here. When publishers put out these calls for ‘under-represented’ authors to submit to their houses, they aren’t looking for ‘under-represented’ stories. They want the same ‘commercial fiction’ they can sell without trying too hard (and in the case of the above publisher, they do promotion for one genre EXTERMELY well, but their contemporary romance attempts are abysmal). Imagine them sitting around a table trying to figure out how to market books that are under-represented stories when they can’t even say the word disabled? I might like to be a fly on the wall of that roundtable discussion.
So for those of us who ARE ‘under-represented’ authors, we can see these calls for what they are. If you are an under-represented author who writes THEIR stories, you will be successful with your submission. If you are under-represented author who writes YOUR stories, you will be disappointed. In the attempt by these publishers to look woke they just come off as pandering because they never actually PUBLISH anything other than their usual. In the end, the publisher feels better about themselves, but unless they actually start publishing some under-represented stories and not just their stories written by under-represented authors, then it’s all meaningless. Until we see ‘romances like that’ published by large houses who have taken the TIME and DEDICATION to make a plan to sign under-represented authors, have trained editors who are comfortable to work with the author as they perfect their stories, AND have a viable, engaging, and educated marketing plan for the completed books, we won’t move anywhere. If these publishers think we, as under-represented authors, can’t see that, then the only ones they are fooling are themselves.
Katie Mettner writes small-town romantic tales, filled with epic love stories and happily-ever-afters.
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