Jul 8, 2021 • 34M

The Podcast - Episode 2: The Sisters of The Ripped Bodice

For Leah and Bea Koch, Regency Romance is Feminist, Diverse, and Serious Business

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Dear friends,

Our second podcast episode is out! 

And it’s a treat. In this conversation with superb sisters Leah and Bea Koch, co-owners and founders of Los Angeles romance-only bookstore The Ripped Bodice, we get into the questions about what Jane Austen has to do with romance (a lot, friends), diversity and equity in the romance business from representation to pay, and real women of the Regency era. (Spoiler alert: They’re mad and bad! ) In next week’s conversation we’ll get Leah and Bea’s favorite romance tropes and themes … not to mention some of their favorite Austen retellings. So stay tuned!

Those of us who are romance readers know that the romance industry is a billion-dollar industry with a huge demand in readers - including many of us in the Austen world, and also including Leah and Bea Koch themselves. The sisters say they have always loved romance novels. They also have serious academic degrees in their fields, and they work with Sony Pictures to find books that can be adapted for the screen. 

So for these sisters, as for the industry itself, romance is serious business.

Leah and Bea Koch, the sisters of The Ripped Bodice bookstore, know that Romance is serious business.
Leah and Bea Koch own The Ripped Bodice bookstore, in Los Angeles, and work with Sony Pictures to develop books for the screen. | Photo courtesy of The Ripped Bodice. ...

Bea and Leah have also noticed that like much else in our culture, the romance industry has a diversity problem - so they have produced an annual State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing Report - gauging the numbers of books being published by BIPOC authors in traditional romance publishing.

Besides running a business through the pandemic, Bea Koch also published a book exploring little-known Regency women from marginalized backgrounds in her book Mad & Bad: Real Heroines of the Regency

I caught up with Leah and Bea Koch by Zoom a while back. We talked about how the Regency era has been whitewashed not only in romance storytelling but in so much of our cultural discourse. 

And when it comes to Regency stories, history, romance, how these stories are presented historically and how they might more accurately reflect the actual racial diversity of the era - they have some thoughts!

They began by talking about how challenging the pandemic year had been. But there was an upside - people from all over the world were joining their bookstore events, virtually. 

Here’s an excerpt from our conversation. 

Plain Jane  

So, Leah, it sounds like ups and downs, as you say [during the pandemic]. But one positive might be the community - people are searching out community, people are searching out books. Have you found increased interest or just sort of connecting?

Leah Koch  

Yeah, well, and I think possibly one of the only silver linings is the real sort of expansion of our community on a global sense. Because I think before people were still excited about the store, but it was sort of like, “Oh, maybe when I go on vacation to California someday, I would get to come.” And I think we every once in a while did a live streaming event if the author really wanted to, but it just wasn't something that we did a lot. So now anyone can come to a Ripped Bodice event because they're all virtual. So if you live in Singapore, you can attend the virtual Ripped Bodice.

Bea Koch  

And I think we're excited about - now that we've learned all that - using that to make us more inclusive, moving forward so that more people can attend our events in different ways and figuring out ways to make that exciting.

Leah Koch

I agree, I don't see virtual events just completely going away. I mean, we will return to some amount of in-person because it's fun. But yeah, that's been really nice to sort of include more people that way. And you know, make make them feel like they're at the store, sort of from people's living rooms.

Plain Jane

Yeah, that's great. I know, as a reader, I've really appreciated those kinds of events. Bea, you also, in addition to getting married during the pandemic, you've also published a book during the pandemic: Mad and Bad: Real Heroines of the Regency. And you explore Regency romance, actual heroines, actual Regency women. And you find that they're more radical and lively and more challenging and more colorful, and diverse in all kinds of ways - as was the Regency world - than people tend to think. 

Why did you take undertake to broaden out our idea of the Regency with this book?

Bea Koch

I mean, my love of the Regency comes from Romance novels. And I am a “trained historian,” you know, I'm putting that in quotes - because, what is a trained historian? I went to school for it, and I studied it for a long time. But I think, like so many people, I have a real love of history from fiction. And what I was really searching for, as I wrote my book, was a way to talk about the fiction element that I loved so much: What it gets right, and then also, where it could expand. 

And one of those areas, of course, is in featuring more women who are not white, Christian, cis-het women. And there are so many examples of people like that in the Regency who were thriving. And I was so thrilled to have the opportunity to highlight some of them in the book. There are the names that I think will be very familiar to fans of the period, and then maybe names that [you] may think, “Oh, I've heard of them, but I've never quite explored their story.” So it's really fun to dive into some of those.

Plain Jane

Well, who are some of those women who stand out for you?

Leah Koch  

As a reader of the book in many iterations, but in its final iteration, someone I knew nothing about before I read the book was Mary Seacole. So that's my suggestion. Tell us about her.

Plain Jane 

Well, why Leah? Why Mary Seacole?

Leah Koch

I just had never heard of her before. I mean, if you spend enough time around Bea, you will know a lot about queens. And I think there's a real  - correct my history if I'm wrong - but obviously there's a very British focus to the Regency. But it did involve people from other countries.

Bea Koch

Yes, I think the Regency gets a little confusing for people. The Regency refers to a specific ruler and time in England when Prince George took over as Regent for his Father [from 1811-1820]. His father had succumbed to, potentially, a blood disorder and was exhibiting signs of what they called madness. So his son had to take over and there's a [approximately] 10-year time before he actually becomes King that he is the Prince Regent. And that tiny little 10-year period is this time that holds such huge sway in our imaginations for so many reasons. 

And I love that you brought up Mary Seacole, Leah, because I think she's a great example of the way history can shine a spotlight on one woman. And in doing so, unfortunately, we lose the tales of the women around her. And so ... Florence Nightingale is a name that so many of us are raised with - this brave, young, privileged white, Christian woman who went to the frontlines of the war and started modern nursing as we know it. Right alongside Florence Nightingale was a woman named Mary Seacole, who had been trained by her mother who was also a doctor and she owned a boarding house, where she practiced her medicine - traditional techniques. 

And Mary Seacole wrote an autobiography later in life, explaining her training through her mother, her search for education, her whole life and then her own journey to the Crimean War. And her contributions to the war effort, even going so far as to ask Florence Nightingale if she could join her battalion of nurses and being turned down. ...

Mary Seacole was British Jamaican. And Florence Nightingale was white and her battalion of nurses was all white. Mary Seacole was the first woman of color we have evidence [of] that … asked to join and was rejected. And in her autobiography, Mary Seacole writes very movingly of her experiences with racism, and she names it very clearly, what she's experiencing. 

And then later historians kind of whitewashed Mary Seacole’s experience: “Oh, she couldn't possibly have been experiencing racism. … She didn't have the same training or she didn't have the same standing as Florence Nightingale's other nurses.”

She didn't let that stop her. Mary Seacole still went to the front, she still served as a nurse, and was beloved by the troops to the point where when she returned from the war, destitute … the troops organized to raise money for Mary Seacole for her to live on after. 

So to devalue her contributions, not only to the war, but to the soldiers themselves, I think is is really sad. And there have been moves made to kind of reintroduce Mary Seacole into the story. And it won't surprise anyone to hear that some of those moves have been met with consternation by various factions, who see the elevation of Mary Seacole as a way to devalue Florence Nightingale, which I don't agree with. I think two amazing women doing great things can exist. 

One could have exhibited racist behaviors, one could have experienced racism; they both could have contributed to the field of modern nursing. 

And we need to discuss history with a little more nuance and awareness [that] all these different things can be true at once. For Mary Seacole to exist does not mean Florence Nightingale did not exist or did not contribute to the field of modern nursing.

Plain Jane

You know, it is interesting: There is this reluctance to “bother” History. But your book, Mad and Bad, is very lively, very vibrant, and it's contributing to this contemporary conversation about history. In Mad and Bad you talk about so many real women of the Regency that are Jewish, that are LGBTQ identifying in the Regency era, [that] are multiracial, and are living outside the bounds or the strictures. They're scientists as well. And they're thinkers and they’re writers. 

I guess the question is: You mentioned whitewashing - what has contributed to this whitewashing? And you probably feel like you're just scratching the surface here. What do you want to see happening as we go forward, when we talk about the Regency and when we write romances and talk about romance novels?

Bea Koch  

I mean, “scratching the surface” is a perfect example. 

It's when I was doing the research for this book, there are 10 chapters on the cutting room floor … There could be so much more to be said about so many different women. And I think the popularity of the Regency in romance is something that is not going to change. And so what I would encourage is current creators who are engaging with that world: Do some research and understand that this whitewashed version we've been told is not the full story. And, in fact, in the stories that haven't been told, there's so much that would be just like catnip to modern audiences. I think about some of the stories in my book, and some of the stories that I didn't even get to talk about in the book. And the way they could be adapted into film or TV shows, I just think there's so many stories. And the idea that the Regency has been done and done, because we've seen so many versions of white and purely white casting adaptations, is just leaving so much history behind.

And so what I would encourage is current creators who are engaging with that world: Do some research and understand that this whitewashed version we've been told is not the full story.

Plain Jane 

This is such an exciting and interesting conversation right now. … Let's unpack a little bit of these discussions that are going on: You say that so many of these are good screen stories. I agree, and [you two] are the people who turn these into the screen sometimes! So I want to talk about that role of development that you have in a minute. But let me first just ask: So what do you think of Bridgerton? And the diverse casting going on there? And what do you think of the [Georgiana] Lambe character, and Sanditon? What do you think of contemporary adaptations? And what are you seeing with all this right now? 

Leah Koch

I think we're, we're just at the beginning. … I think I don't want to get too into a discussion of how Hollywood functions, because we'll fall asleep and be here for three years. But, you know, things just take so much longer to come to the screen that I think the average person realizes. So when somebody sees something like Bridgerton have a lot of success, and they're like, “Oh, great! Everything I see for the next year is going to be a romance novel.” Well, unfortunately, it's going to take a little bit longer than that. But I would say, it's a toss up for me. I enjoy seeing interesting adaptations of work. … I tend to fall more on the side of being interested in sort of newer creators. And in particular, you know, giving Black people the chance to tell Black stories and queer people the chance to tell queer stories. But I think both can coexist.

Bea Koch

I agree that we're just at the beginning. And it is certainly where we've always wanted. Since we opened the bookstore, we made no secret that we were looking for particularly historical stories that were more diverse. Because that's what our audience was asking us for. And that's literally why I wrote Mad and Bad. People would come into the bookstore, and I would recommend a romance novel to them and explain, “Oh, it's inspired by X, Y, or Z woman.” And then they'd say, “Oh, do you have a biography about her? I'd love to learn more about her.” And it just seemed like in romance, there's this real interest in the real history of the time, and in understanding that it has pushed boundaries forward in so many ways. And there's also so much more we need to do. So we can continue to ask for more historical romance novels that are not set in Regency England, 19th century, great. … there's so many stories to be told. I'm always surprised that we don't see more of that traditionally published. There is quite a bit that's independently or self published. But, I don't know, I would think that the publishers would really see that there's a huge market for interesting historical stories that haven't been told before from a different perspective.

Plain Jane

All right, let's hope along these lines. 

The Ripped Bodice has started publishing the State of [Racial] Diversity in Romance Publishing report. Why did you so quickly jump on this report? What made you feel like it was needed and that this was something you had to do?

Leah Koch

Just to be clear, it is [on] racial diversity. We always want to make sure we're clear about that. Because we don't look at other ... forms of diversity. It has a quite narrow, focused goal. And I think we started because of exactly what we just said: It was really what our customers were asking for. And I think it was a very big change, for us to go from being enthusiastic romance readers to professional romance readers. That is essentially what we do. You just have such a larger picture … you might not be looking as widely at all the different publishers and sort of how the imprints function within them and who's doing what. It's just not something that most regular people pay all that much attention to. So when we entered the professional realm it was so obvious, so fast, that the supply was not meeting the demand. 

[I]n Romance, there's this real interest in the real history of the time, and in understanding that it has pushed boundaries forward in so many ways. And there's also so much more we need to do.

And … I felt like for a long time, and to be clear, there has been improvement in the last five years. But I feel like when we first opened, that anything that someone would ask for, there'd be like … one. So it'd be like, “Do you have anything with a Black heroine and an Asian hero?” We'd say, “Yes, great, here.” And then they'd come back and be like, “Okay, what's next?” And we'd be like, “That was it.” That's just one specific example. 

We felt like there was still this mantra from the publishers, and … it's kind of contradictory. It's on one hand, “This isn't as big of a problem as you're making it out to be.” And then on the other hand, also, “We're working on it. We are improving…”. And we felt like they weren’t improving or weren’t improving fast enough. 

Bea Koch

I think we also realize that this is such a large, complicated conversation, and so many people are having it on so many levels. And our question was, “What is the piece of information that we can add to the conversation?” And to us, it seemed like, what we could do was count the number of books that each publisher - each major publisher - puts out by women of color, and by white women, which is just a part of the [process], that we've always viewed the report as a part of the conversation. This is a way to present these numbers, and then talk more deeply about what we're all doing to change those numbers. If that's something that we say we want to do, which many publishers continue to put out statements saying, “Yes, we really want to focus on this. This is something we really care about.” And then when it comes time, to really have the conversation about how best to do that - maybe, I'm sure those conversations are happening internally - but they also don't seem to be moving the numbers as quickly as maybe some people thought they would. So we're just suggesting that we might need to try other things.

Plain Jane

Yeah, it's like a very, very simple but yet powerful way of just drawing attention to something. And like you say, sparking conversation; giving people something to look at and just counting. Journalists know, counting can be a very powerful thing.

Leah Koch

Right? It's really, it's really simple. It's literally two numbers. … And we hope that's just the beginning. ...

Plain Jane

You both said, you've seen the needle moving a little bit. And I looked at the report, and it looks like there are some publishers like Kensington and St. Martin's Press, maybe? Maybe Carina? [that] have increased the numbers of BIPOC authors? What are these publishers doing in order to do that? If anything?

Leah Koch

It's a good question. First of all, you'd have to ask them. I think it's a variety of things. Carina specifically has different people in charge than it did several years ago. So, a lot of times, that's what you need. 

Bea Koch 

I think Kensington is always an interesting one. People always kind of ask us about that. And all we know from Kensington is that they really are a part of the conversation. They always engage with us about the report.

Leah Koch

They're super open. … I think it was last year, Publishers Weekly did a piece. And I think last year Kensington was either number one or number two. And they'd interviewed one of their editors. And she was like, “We have so much more work to do.” And that was, like, the number one person and then the number like 15 person is like, everything's fine. You know, a question I've always personally struggled with and don't know the answer to. Kensington has a lot of dedicated lines for Black authors, and just more generally authors of color. And people feel really differently about that. I think there's some people who who like it and some people who don't like it.

Bea Koch 

… Harlequin for years had a separate line, called Kimani, where they published all their Black authors. They got rid of Kimani and said that they [merged] all their Black authors into their regular lines, which we've seen many Black authors appearing in regular Harlequin series.

I don't know how Kimani authors felt about that particular change. And I think those are the people who really are most important to talk to. I think it's important to ask  - not that anyone is required to say this - but this is a business. We're talking about money: Were you paid more to write for Kimani, or were you paid less? 

When #publishingpaidme came out, we saw very few white romance novelists share how much they are paid. … There's a huge part where we're encouraged to remain silent. “Don't talk about money.” Especially for women. “It's rude. It's vulgar.”

Why? … I mean, I could go on and on and you've heard it all before. 

But if we're going to have a conversation about equity, It's probably helpful for people to have this information. And for people to continue to say, “I'm not going to share that for X, Y, or Z reason, when it felt like our Black colleagues were asking us to share that. It was a choice. I don't know. … I wish more people had agents, they felt like would back them up and that kind of thing. Because as authors, we're so siloed and isolated ...

Plain Jane

And I think that's been being encouraged, you know, throughout our culture right now. And so you two,] are tapping into a lot of these things. And just applying them in a very powerful way to the business of romance.

---

Thanks for listening/reading, friends - and guess what! There’s more, with Bea and Leah Koch. In next week’s podcast episode and letter (which if you are a subscriber, will arrive right in your inbox) - we’ll talk with Bea and Leah about feminism, romance, LGBT and other Austen retellings, and complicated love interests.

Until then, have a romantic, wonderful week,

Plain Jane

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More reading and references:

The Ripped Bodice website: https://www.therippedbodicela.com/

The book! “Mad & Bad: Real Heroines of the Regency”: https://www.therippedbodicela.com/product/mad-and-bad-real-heroines-regency-bea-koch-signed

Ripped Bodice State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing report: https://www.therippedbodicela.com/state-racial-diversity-romance-publishing-report

J Stor Daily on the Regency era: https://daily.jstor.org/why-are-so-many-romances-set-in-the-regency-period/