From a young age, Kit Willihnganz knew romance novels were made for more.
“I grew up watching my mom—one of the smartest, most wonderful people on the planet who was the provost at University of Louisville for 13 years—read romance novels,” shares Willihnganz. “My father always said, ‘You’re so smart, and you have such a big job. Why do you read such crap?’ I found it kind of offensive that people looked down on women’s literature.”
Decades later, Willihnganz is doing something about it as one of the co-founders of BeLonging Books, a Cleveland-based publishing company that launched in early September. With the motto “Love as you are,” the new publishing house is focused on inclusive and feminist works with the goal of “diversifying and modernizing the romance genre.”
L.S. Quinn at the Bookstagram launch partyAccording to Willihnganz, the imprint is actively seeking submissions from people of all ethnicities, abilities, sexual orientations, and walks of life with the goal of releasing its first collection in 2020.
“Romance has a huge problem with diversity,” Willihnganz says. “It’s been very white, very hetero for decades. Instead of giving this very narrow, specific depiction of what love should be, we want to amplify and promote new voices that have been ignored by traditional romance publishers.”
And as someone who lives with mental illness, Willihnganz is personally invested in the mission. “I want to see people like me presented as romantic and sexual interests,” says Willihnganz.
The concept for BeLonging Books was birthed almost two years ago when Willihnganz met The Reading Room founder L.S. Quinn and literary talent scout Anna Risher during a meetup for Nanowrimo, an annual national novel-writing challenge. Now the three of them are setting up shop at the Gatewood Work/Share as the home of BeLonging Books—with Willihnganz acting as the primary book editor, Risher acting as a scout, Quinn doing copy editing and marketing, and Gatewood Work/Share owner Robert Gatewood doing graphic design.
As part of the launch, the BeLonging Books team held a “Bookstagram” party at Gatewood Work/Share on Sept. 6, where attendees learned the art of taking flat-lay photos to promote their books. “‘It's a pleasing visual arrangement of books in which you surround the books with objects that relate thematically or color-wise,” says Willihnganz, who plans to host similar parties once a month. “It’s an art form that has emerged on Instagram.”
One of Willihnganz's published titlesNow that BeLonging Books is officially accepting submissions, Willihnganz says the next step is to identify and publish 12 titles for release in June 2020. As a published author herself who has written three YA novels for St. Martin’s Press (under the pseudonym Kit Alloway), Willihnganz has a unique understanding of what authors need and desire from the publishing process.
“Even if I reject [your idea], I’ll be really nice,” says Willihnganz. “I’ve got my own folder of rejection letters at home.”
Looking forward, Willihnganz hopes BeLonging Books will help lead a larger movement toward rewriting romance publishing.
"Romance has become very formulaic," says Willihnganz. "It has been traditionally very focused on white cis[gender] straight people and not reflecting where the culture in this century is. A lot of people want to read a romance novel and see that love can look like something other than your parents’ relationship."