Since 1960, the Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA) has been the UK’s only professional organisation for writers of relationship-based commercial fiction. Originally set up to challenge prejudices against romantic fiction, now it also offers (among other things) education and a yearly conference, and administers a range of awards for romantic fiction and publishing. As well as providing services for its members, RNA continues to advocate for the status of romantic commercial fiction, which is one of the top-selling genres in the world.

Members of the Romantic Novelists' Association pose with a banner depicting a rainbow heart and reading 'love stories are for everyone'. They are all smiling!

Although the membership is largely made up of published writers, through the New Writers’ Scheme (NWS), a limited number of unpublished writers may join every year. NWS writers receive a critique of a full manuscript as part of their membership. NWS members who go on to have their novel published are eligible to win the Joan Hessayon Award for New Writers. The RNA is the only professional writers’ group in the UK which offers this benefit, and as such, is uniquely placed to help aspiring writers.

As part of an initiative to encourage diversity within the RNA, and along with fellow LGBTQ+ writers Brigid Coady and Liam Livings/Charlie Lyndhurst, I set up the RNA Rainbow Chapter in 2018. The Rainbow Chapter is a smaller group within the RNA, for authors who identify as LGBTQ+, who are writing stories with LGBTQ+ protagonists, or who want to know more. Our goals were threefold: to reach outward to LGBTQ+ authors to provide support and information about publishing romantic fiction; to educate and inform the wider RNA membership about LGBTQ+ concerns and issues; and to promote the publication of LGBTQ+ romantic fiction.

Our slogan is LOVE STORIES ARE FOR EVERYONE, and in 2019 and 2022 we marched in Pride in London under that banner, along with publishing professionals, booksellers and readers.

In the UK at the time that we founded the chapter, there was a large and popular readership for LGBTQ+ romance novels, but the novels’ publication was largely by small presses or authors self-publishing, and physical copies were mainly stocked in gay independent bookshops. Young Adult novels often had LGBTQ+ characters, as did literary fiction, but commercial fiction was less representative.

As someone who’s traditionally published, it was my personal goal to see LGBTQ+ romantic novels on all bookshop shelves next to straight romance. Other members wanted to pursue successful self-publishing careers, break out into different markets, hone their skills, discuss representation in love stories, or simply to meet like-minded people.

While the ebook queer romance market has always been, and continues to be, robust, I would say that the UK mainstream publishing world has changed a little bit since 2018. Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston and In At the Deep End by Kate Davies were breakout print successes in 2019. Mills & Boon, who have published LGBTQ+ novels in ebook for some time, brought out their first LGBTQ+ print novel in 2020 (The Secret of You & Me by Melissa Lenhardt). Recently, members of the Rainbow Chapter helped to judge Mills & Boon’s contest to find new voices in LGBTQ+ romantic fiction (winner One Night in Hartswood by Emma Denny).

However, UK traditional publishing still lags by some considerable extent behind the US publishing industry and independent publishing, and still has a long way to go before it is truly representative.

The Rainbow Chapter would like the commercial fiction industry to be open to everyone, regardless of sexuality, gender, race, age, education, class, or ability. We believe that love stories are transformative – they give people hope, resilience and escape. Everyone deserves love; and everyone deserves a love story, too.

Julie Cohen is an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Reading and a Vice President of the Romantic Novelists’ Association. Her latest novel is Summer People (2022).