Steamy Lit Founder Melissa Saavedra Talks Diversity in Romance Publishing

Melissa Saavedra is the creator of Steamy Lit, which promotes diversity in the romance genre

Melissa Saavedra Steamy Lit

Photos courtesy of Melissa Saavedra

Even with increasing calls for diversity and inclusion in publishing, the industry remains slow to actually put it into practice. In a report by Lee & Low this past February, the survey found that 72.5 percent of publishing professionals identify as white, with the Latinx community making up just 4.6 percent of the percentage left over. That is also true of the writers who get published, who are overwhelmingly white and male. This is an issue that affects all genres but none so much as romance novels. Across publishing houses like St. Martin’s Press and Amazon Publishing, the percentage of romance novels written and published by writers of color ranges anywhere from 5 percent to 15 percent, which is low considering the popularity of the genre. In 2011, the romance and erotic genres generated $1.5 billion in sales in the U.S., and that number has only increased within the last decade. But when stories about love are universal, why aren’t the stories about love among people of color reflected in these stories?

That’s why Latina leaders like Melissa Saavedra are invaluable to the movement for increasing diverse representation in romance and beyond. The Miami-based jefa is the founder of Steamy Lit, a literary company that promotes the romance genre through ventures including a monthly book subscription box, a book club, a yearly convention, a young adult and new adult romance subdivision, and now, a bookstore, the first of its kind ever to open up in South Florida.

Born and raised in Peru, Saavedra has been an avid reader for her whole life. Unlike her siblings, she says, she was the one to inherit her mother’s love of reading which gave her a chance to explore new worlds. Her dad supported her too, buying her books published by Disney through the years. Then, when she was 10 years old, her family was planning to immigrate to the U.S. and she knew that reading would help her through the uncertainty and anxiety.

“Books were the one thing that I wanted to make sure I brought from Peru,” Saavedra tells HipLatina. “Because when I moved to the States, I was moving to a different country and learning a new language, so reading became my escape. My mom would take me to the public library in Miami and have me check out books. Reading has always been my safe space.”

That stayed true throughout various periods of her life, from going to college to joining the Navy, as did the kind of storytelling she was drawn to. As a self-described “hopeless romantic,” she found herself deeply resonating with the books that had romance subplots, where a small kiss or moment of holding hands was enough to tie everything together for her. But it wasn’t until she read Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James that she realized that there was actually an entire genre of books where romance was the main plot of the story. They made her feel something, sometimes even bringing tears, in ways that no other book genre could do.

“All I wanted was a love story. I needed a happily ever after because finding happiness and love was something I yearned for,” she explains. But for her, the reasons for this were also cultural. “As a Latina, I wanted stories that were more than struggles and trauma that we have gone through. Seeing happiness, love, and friendship on the page, especially when there’s Latinx representation, was so powerful for me.”

The intersection of love and sexuality is especially important when it comes to diversity in the stories featuring Latinas. Latinas are oversexualized and objectified in media and entertainment but within our own family units, Latinas are often taught to be coy and demure, abiding by the codes of conduct delineated by marianismo. Especially for Latinas who grew up in religious households, discussions about sex and sexuality were often forbidden topics between parents and their children, especially daughters, who then have no one to turn to with their questions, seek medical advice, or learn how to practice safe sex. For Saavedra, this deeply affected her romance reading practice, which inherently carries its own stigma and taboos.

“When I started heavily reading romance, I was feeling these feelings but no one was talking about them in my Latino household. We didn’t talk about me getting my period or being on birth control or having sex even when I was married,” she says. “Black and brown women are sexualized all the time but the minute that we take over that sexuality, we’re shamed for it. And why is that? Is it because it can only be empowering when it’s deemed okay by men, but not by us?”

This was a big reason for how and why Steamy Lit originally started as her Bookstagram known as bookrecsbymel, an Instagram page where she read and reviewed romance books and connected with other readers online. At the time, people in her real life weren’t engaging with her romance reading journey. It was also 2020 — the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic — when her husband at the time, who was also in the military, was deployed, leaving her home alone a lot. So by starting her page, she was able to find a whole community of fellow romance readers who gave her a space to uplift and celebrate books without judging. Suddenly, she found herself FaceTiming new friends, forming relationships with romance authors she admired, and reviewing their books on her page.

One day, she got the idea to start the Steambox, a monthly subscription service that pairs romance books with sexual wellness items like vibrators, all under the umbrella of the Steamy Lit company name. As a result of an overwhelmingly positive response from the community, she was able to go to different pop-ups and book festivals with overstock from the service.

Soon, this then led to the creation of Steamy Lit Con, a romance book convention and nonprofit aimed at promoting diversity, spotlighting diverse authors, and bringing readers in-person from all over the world. In collaboration with her friend and fellow Bookstagrammer who is known by her nickname Cookie online, she attended a few conventions for research to learn about what other conventions were like and what she wanted to incorporate into her own. In 2022, she officially debuted Steamy Lit Con in Anaheim, California, recruiting romance writers she’d fostered relationships with over the past two years to participate in panels and signings. But, she emphasizes, none of her ventures would’ve been possible without the support of the people around her and the friends she’s made along the way.

“If it wasn’t for the community, I don’t think I’d be anywhere in the business where I’m at right now,” she says. “Just to get Steamy Lit Con going, the romance community fundraised $185,000 in a month, which was amazing. It all goes back to where I started doing book reviews and creating community in that sense.”

One day, she hopes to use the Steamy Lit Con nonprofit as a way to provide scholarships to authors from underrepresented communities as they write, edit, and publish their books. Marginalized authors face unique challenges in the publishing industry, from being told their work is too culturally specific and won’t resonate with readers, to receiving lower book advances than white authors, to not being marketed enough by their publicity team. Thus, she explains, the scholarship would be a way to remove those barriers and make the process more accessible, hopefully increasing the number of marginalized authors who are published each year.

For some time, Saavedra thought that this was it. She has so many impressive ventures under her belt like the subscription box and the convention, not to mention the book club. She was happy with everything she had managed to create online. And when she was married to a military member, moving around every three years, she didn’t dare to dream that she could ever run her own brick-and-mortar store. Then, everything changed after she got divorced and moved back to her hometown in South Florida.

“The first thing I did was look for bookstores near me,” she explains. “I was surprised that there weren’t a ton of indie bookstores and there was definitely nothing in romance. So I wanted to build a community because this was home for me.”

A lot of things worked out in her favor when building up the bookstore, like finding the perfect space in South Florida. But she has also faced a lot of challenges, particularly with the Steamy Lit name, which many people, she’s found, consider provocative. Sometimes at book festivals, she’ll get dirty looks or men making fun of the company’s products. For a time, they were banned from using the payment processor Clover, which claimed Steamy Lit was an “adult service.” Then, just to get the city to categorize Steamy Lit as a bookstore instead of an adult store, she had to hire lawyers and contact the American Booksellers Association for support. She also had to submit a list of the books that the store would carry, which was terrifying when Florida is the state with one of the highest rates of book banning. One school district pulled over 1,600 books from their library’s shelves alone.

Still, there has been one thing that has pulled Saavedra through every challenge and heartbreak, every joy and success—her culture. As much as she’s grateful for the life she’s been able to lead in the U.S., at her heart, she will always be closest to her Peruvian roots.

“I have learned to tap into my Latinidad more than I ever have,” she says. “I didn’t realize until very recently that there was so much assimilation that we did when we immigrated to survive, to fit in, to not be like the odd person out. Even in a diverse place like Miami, I still found myself growing up assimilating to what American culture was like. As if the less Latina I was, the more I fit into other spaces. And I wish somebody would have told me that I was great just as I was, that my Latinidad was everything I needed to be. I didn’t need to assimilate. It wasn’t until I was supported by the book community, starting Steamy Lit, and reading stories about people like me that gave me the assertion to embrace that Latinidad, that it wasn’t anything to be afraid of, ashamed of, or walk away from. I was exactly what I needed to be. That has given me more confidence and more power in who I am than ever before. Latinidad is our power.”

And from the moment you walk into the Steamy Lit bookstore, that pride is palpable in everything around the store. In addition to offering books by diverse authors, she also stocks books in Spanish and products by Latina-owned businesses including tote bags and pins with sayings from our community. She’s also made it a point to look into donating profits from the store to organizations in Florida that are working against the book-banning movement. The venture has officially become a powerful collective that’s no longer something that operates under the radar.

Looking ahead, she’s currently working to open up a second bookstore location in Miami, as well as launch “Romance Unleashed,” a podcast with her best friend and avid reader Dez to talk about how men can also love and learn from the romance genre. Secretly, she often thinks about writing a book of her own, inspired by everything she’s been able to get her hands on as an avid reader. Interestingly, she jokes that it would probably be a “tragic story” as opposed to a pure romance book, or even a memoir about her life. For now, though, she’s excited to continue on this journey that she feels so much love and passion for, and has been grateful for the community’s support of her work. As much as books have changed her life, every person she’s met along the way has changed her life even more. She notes:

“Books saved me. They have been there in such pivotal parts of my life that being able to provide that community aspect to other people is something that really touches me. It feels surreal. If you would have told my 10-year-old self that this is something I would do, I would never have imagined it. It’s a resistance filled with love, happiness, and joy, and I hope that we can continue letting people know that they belong just as they are. There’s also a great sense of honor and pride to even be in a space like this because reading has been a resistance of its own. I just hope that I can do it justice.”

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books by WOC books by writers of color bookstores latina latinas in publishing Melissa Saavedra peruvian publishing Steamy Lit
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