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Ten years of sizzling chocolate kisses and lasting love: now under BET Books, Arabesque celebrates a decade as black romance publisher.

The summer of 1994 began like any other summer: slowly, quietly, promising to be hot. But for some, the same summer would be lonely, with no possibility of excitement, no way for them to ease their intense desires ... Until July. That's when seekers were treated to a new line of black romance novels from Arabesque.

Ten years later, Arabesque is still going strong, with a change of ownership from Kensington Publishing to BET Books. BIBR chatted with a few of the key players about the history of the imprint. A decade ago, the few black romance novels on the market came out singly and very rarely from mainstream publishers like Dell and Harlequin, recalled Monica Harris, former senior editor at Kensington Publishing and founding editor of the Arabesque line.

Harris was interviewing for the position of editor of historical romances at Kensington, when she happened to mention that she had researched the publishing history of black romance novels. "They said, 'We were just thinking of doing that! Do you want in help?'" So, she did. And Harris thus became the first editor at Arabesque. The original authors to join the imprint were Rochelle Alers, Angela Benson, Monique Gilmore, Layle Giusto, Shirley Hailstock, Donna Hill, Sandra Kilt, Felicia Mason, Francis Ray, Ebony Snoe and Margie Walker.

The timing was perfect for the authors and their readers. "Somewhere around 1995, I read Serenade by Sandra Kitt," says Carrie M. Miller, an avid romance novel fan in Louisiana. "Once I discovered there were romance novels by people who looked like me, about people who looked like me, I was elated."

In making book selections, Miller says, "I look for clear characterizations, and an intelligent, believable story line. But there is just something special about reading a book that describes a sister and her 'bad perm,' or problems on the job that we have as black women, or the use of phrases and slang that are special to just us. And then there are all the different ways we can describe a good-looking brother ... mahogany, teak, coffee, etc. Ummmm, mmmmm!!!"

Kitt was the first author signed to the Arabesque imprint, front 1993 to 1996. Previously, Kitt had been an author at Harlequin for 10 years; as such, she is considered a pioneer of African American romance novels. "I was very happy to be Arabesque's launch author; it helped expand my audience," she says. "I found out that for many years, a lot of my readers didn't know I was black." Kitt has published 27 novels to date.

"Other authors were writing and submitting novels, but no one was buying them," she recalls. "Once Arabesque came along, if you were an African American writing fiction, you knew you could submit your work to them. Our work had a home."

Author Angela Benson says that when she came to Arabesque, Kensington "was the only major New York City publisher [of African American romance novels in the marketplace. Their success led other publishers to join in. More publishers mean more opportunities for writers and better contracts."

Benson wrote seven romances for Arabesque and has since become a university professor at the University of Illinois and a writer of Christian romance novels. She is currently writing her first mainstream Christian fiction novel, The Amen Sisters, for Walk Worthy Press.

In 1998, Arabesque was purchased by the newly formed BET Books. (Kensington announced last fall that its Dafina Books imprint was starting a new publishing program this summer for African American romance novels, its first since selling Arabesque to BET.) According to Linda Gill, BET Books vice president and publisher, "Our initial objectives were to continue to leverage a good business reflecting African Americans in positive relationships; to leverage the programming for the network with thirteen movies; and to provide additional content for the Web site."

In the past decade, more than 450 Arabesque titles have been published, 59 each year, up from 12 a year in 1994. The movies are no longer being produced, but they continue to air on BET and are also available on DVD.

Authors are chosen from an existing roster, as well as from new submissions from agents and authors. As Gill points out, Arabesque is also one of the few publishers that accepts unsolicited manuscripts.

Kitt notes that over the years "Arabesque romances have become more inventive, with a wider world view; they're not just stories of African Americans in our own communities, but how we interact in other contexts. Instead of it being locked in and limited, it shows the rest of the world."

The books have evolved visually, as well. Veteran bookseller Emma Rodgers, co-owner of Black Images Book Bazaar in Dallas and a cofounder of the popular annual Romance Slam Jam conference, says, "In the beginning, Arabesque had good story lines, but bad covers; they used stock photos, and all the people were light-skinned! But readers started complaining, so they improved the covers." Arabesque is a sponsor of Romance Slam Jam, now in its ninth year.

Forthcoming treats from Arabesque include the "Collectors" series, four titles with three full books in one. The series' third title, Francis Ray's Falcon Saga, will be released in August. The "Sizzling Sands" series, set at black beaches and resorts, will feature Sandra Kitt's Southern Comfort in July. Arabesques military series is also popular, says Rodgers, because the story lines encourage readers, especially now with our troops in Iraq.

Gill says readers should watch for new authors including Kim Louise, Celeste Norfleet and Melanie Schuster. As black romance novels continue to thrive at Arabesque, so will its readership. Or as Rodgers puts it, "I see smiles on their faces, looking forward to the next book. The readers are so avid. They come into my store on Friday evenings because they want a book to cuddle up with for the weekend--a good, safe, healthy companion. Romance fans are like the Energizer Bunny: they keep buying and buying and buying."

Passion Picks

When the days get longer and the nights get hotter, publishers know that readers want plots that are scandalous and passionate.

The bookcovers are the tip-offs to summer sizzlers, wrappings that are brightly colored with models in erotic poses. For example, Genesis Press's A Happy Life by Charlotte Harris (June 2004) has a photograph of our hero and heroine embraced in each other's arms, on a seaside porch.

Often, summer signals a publishing house's best offerings. For example, Donna Hill is the lead author for Kensington Publishing's Dafina, a new imprint for romance novels. Say Yes (August 2004) continues the story of Regina Everette, the heroine from Ms. Hill's If I Could (August 2003).

Each month, an original romance will be published, including titles from best-selling authors such as Leslie Esdaile, Carmen Green and Monica Jackson. So pick up a romance and have fun in the sun. They're waiting for you. Looking a few suggestions? Here's four:

Diva's Inc. by Donna Hill, St. Martin's Press July 2004, $12.95, ISBN 0-312-31651-8

Like the First Time by Francis Ray St. Martin's Press, May 2004 $13.95, ISBN 0-312-32429-4

A Meeting in the Ladies Room by Anita Doreen Diggs Kensington Publishing Corp., March 2004 $24.00, ISBN 0-758-20234-2

The Pleasure Principle by Shirley Harrison, BET Books May 2004, $6.99, ISBN 1-583-14483-8

At the Helm

Linda Gill, vice president and publisher of BET Books, has more than 20 years of experience in the publishing industry. She previously held management positions at Conde Nast, Lotus and Black Entertainment Television. Gill is a graduate of Dartmouth College, and completed executive training at Babson College and Stanford University.

At BET. Gill was group circulation and marketing director for YSB. Emerge, BET Weekend and Heart & Soul before the company divested the magazine division. She became publisher of BET Books in 1999, which now includes the imprints Arabesque for romance, Sepia for fiction and New Spirit for inspirational titles.

She is directing a $225,000 marketing and publishing campaign to celebrate Arabesque's 10th anniversary, including special book releases, merchandising a consumer contest and advertising.

--A.P.D

Diane Patrick has covered books for Publishers Weekly magazine since 1996.

Monica Harris was founding editor Black Expressions book club.
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Title Annotation:the love scene
Author:Patrick, Diane
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 2004
Words:1365
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