Lethe Press publisher and author Steve Berman remembers his time as a young bookseller at specialty LGBTQ bookstore Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia as a formative period in his life. But, more than that, he also sees it as representing the kind of real-world hub for the gay community that, with the store’s closure earlier this month, has all but disappeared.
“For many gay men and women in their mid-forties and older, the first exposure to queer literature came through the few bookstores around the country catering to the gay and feminist communities,” said Berman, echoing comments he made in a recent essay for Salon called “The Slow, Tragic Death of the LGBTQ Publishing Industry.”
In addition to Giovanni’s Room—believed to have been the nation’s oldest remaining LGBTQ store—well-known bookshops like New York and San Francisco’s A Different Light, Minneapolis’s Amazon Bookstore Cooperative, and Atlanta’s OutWrite have closed in recent years.
It’s undeniable that LGBTQ publishing is in flux and facing a changing marketplace much like the rest of the industry, albeit with unique challenges of its own. But new perspectives on old topics, expanding interest in both adult and children’s markets, and opportunities in the digital publishing and bookselling realms are signs of the category’s ongoing vitality and resilience.
Struggling to Stand Out
Discoverability issues are certainly not limited to LGBTQ works, but shrinking shelf space and store displays and a reduction in the number of readings and events taking place may hit small specialty presses even harder, many said.
“The problem any publisher of trade books is facing now is visibility and discoverability,” says Raphael Kadushin, executive editor at University of Wisconsin Press, who thinks that this is a transitional period for LGBTQ works. “I hope that we are headed for a post-gay world, and the mainstream just hasn’t caught up yet. We’re waiting for a tipping point.”
Among the upcoming slate of titles from the University of Wisconsin Press is States of Desire Revisited: Travels in Gay America (Sept.), an updated edition of Edmund White’s seminal work. Kadushin sees the book’s then and now portraits as a good reflection of how gay culture has largely collapsed into the larger culture. The publisher also has In a New Century: Essays on Queer History, Politics and Community Life by John D’Emilio (May) on the way, and is excited about the first in a gay mystery series, Assault with a Deadly Lie: A Nick Hoffman Novel of Suspense by Lev Raphael (Oct.).
Genre works are a bright spot for the category, aided by the rise of e-readers. Berman says that for the approximately 20 books a year that Lethe Press publishes, revenues break down roughly half from print sales and half from e-books, and that its focus has become queer speculative fiction. Erotica, romance, and urban fantasy work particularly well in e-book for the press.
“Gay readers can enjoy reading books in public that they once would never dare—the scandalous covers—thanks to the anonymity of reading devices,” says Berman.
Lethe released Scottish speculative fiction author Hal Duncan’s collection Scruffians! Stories of Better Sodomites, which earned a starred review from PW, in April. It has two more collections on tap for October, Chaz Brenchley’s Bitter Waters and Peter Dube’s Beginning with the Mirror, along with the second in Melissa Scott and Amy Griswold’s Victorian fantasy series, An Affair at the Dionysus Club.
Likewise, Riptide Publishing has experienced strong interest in its genre titles, particularly contemporary male-male romance and romantic suspense. Its most popular books are the Cut & Run series by Abigail Roux, and the Hell or High Water series by S.E. Jakes—the male/male romance pseudonym of New York Times bestseller Stephanie Tyler—with its third book Daylight Again out earlier this month.
Riptide senior editor Sarah Frantz says that while the vast majority of its readers purchase at Amazon and other third-party vendors, the publisher has also seen success with direct sales from its website. Its best results have come from releasing books on-site Friday evening, two days before the general release to third-party retailers. “For our authors’ truly avid readers and fans, those extra 48 hours make all the difference,” notes Frantz.
Cleis and Viva Editions’ upcoming LGBTQ titles span a wide range, from historical noir with Katie Gilmartin’s Blackmail, My Love (Nov.) to a globetrotting travelogue reflecting on international attitudes with Benjamin Law’s Gaysia (June) to an anthology billed as “where ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ meets DOMA” with editor Neil Plakcy’s Active Duty: Gay Military Erotic Romance (June).
“If you look at the battles of gay liberation, you could say we won,” says Felice Neman, CFO of Cleis Press. “The proof is that our books have been absorbed into the mainstream.”
LGBTQ publishing veteran Donald Weise currently heads up the Magnus Books imprint of Riverdale Avenue Books and observes that the changes in the field have been almost entirely in where and how books are purchased, not in which books readers gravitate to most.
“From what I’ve seen, LGBTQ readers seem to be buying much of the same kinds of gay books they’ve bought all along: genre fiction, memoir, humor, sex and any combination therein,” says Weise. “Books remain essential to the culture. It’s just that gay consumers, like everyone else, are no longer shopping the outlets they once did, sadly.”
Magnus’s forthcoming list includes The Best Kept Boy in the World by Arthur Vanderbilt (Sept.), a biography of Denny Fouts, a famous male prostitute of the 20th century who was literary muse to Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, and Christopher Isherwood, and Queering Sexual Violence edited by Jennifer Patterson, an anthology of writing by LGBTQ survivors of rape, incest, and other sexual violence.
With the debate over what LGBTQ specialty stores dying out means for visibility, some wonder if libraries could play an increasingly important role. Several publishers mentioned the importance of the American Library Association’s GLBT Roundtable list-serv and associated GLBT Reviews website (www.glbtrt.ala.org/reviews/), and ALA’s Stonewall Awards and Rainbow and Over the Rainbow lists.
Ellen Bosman is professor and head of technical services at the New Mexico State library, as well as a long-time expert in LGBTQ literature who authored a comprehensive guide to the category with 2008’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Literature: A Genre Guide in ABC-CLIO’s Genreflecting series.
“Libraries can and have, to some extent, filled the gap between publisher, author, bookseller, and reader,” says Bosman, pointing to progress in removing stigma around the category in libraries, revising and expanding related subject headings, and the fact that reviews of LGBTQ works now routinely appear in mainstream publications.
But Bosman cautions that availability of LGBTQ materials may vary across libraries, and that studies have also found less ability to search for materials digitally in some libraries when compared to online retailers. Libraries almost always have tight budgets, and may be afraid LGBTQ materials will be challenged or not perceive a community need for them. And, she says, libraries may be increasingly drawn into controversial debates about whether to include materials considered anti-gay in their collections as well.
So, while libraries do already play a role in this arena, Bosman says that there is “always room for improvement,” adding that this also extends to what is on offer from publishers.
“The lack of materials is most evident when it comes to works by people of color, especially works of fiction where the main protagonists are GLBT,” Bosman says. “There is always room for serious fiction featuring bisexuals and transgender individuals, especially the latter.”
Notable work is being produced that speaks to these traditionally less well-served areas of the category. Transgender issues, in particular, seem to be better represented in publisher submissions to PW this year than in past years.
Core category publisher Bold Strokes Books released Queerly Beloved: A Love Story Across Genders by Diane and Jacob Anderson-Minshall this month. Coauthors of the successful Blind Eye Mystery Series, the couple’s new book chronicles their personal history together, including Jacob’s transition from female to male.
Meanwhile, Oxford University Press has a groundbreaking title releasing in June: Trans Bodies, Trans Selves: A Resource for the Transgender Community edited by Laura Erickson-Schroth. The comprehensive resource coincides with a growing movement toward transgender equality, and seeks to create the same sort of impact that Our Bodies, Ourselves had on the women’s rights movement in the 1960s and ’70s.
“While the issue of gay marriage is hardly settled, many people have recently observed that transgender equality and rights appear to be a next chapter in the civil rights struggle,” says Dana Bliss, senior editor at Oxford University Press. “In the last five or so years, transgender identity, individuals, and awareness have exploded into the popular media and our collective discussion.”
The authors have created a foundation sharing the name of the book that is dedicated to the education and empowerment of the transgender
community, and will be donating their royalties to it. Oxford University Press’s other major LGBTQ title is Rachel Hope Cleves’s Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (June), which reveals a piece of history known to scholars but not the general public.
Another important period of gay history is covered in a forthcoming short story collection by James Magruder called Let Me See It. To be published by Northwestern University Press/TriQuarterly in June, the book covers the lives of two gay, Midwestern cousins from 1971–1992, and received a starred review from PW.
Seal Press remains committed to “highly acclaimed LGBTQ-interest titles, as well as titles that inspire political advocacy,” says Eva Zimmerman, publicity manager for the press. This fall, it will publish Under This Beautiful Dome: A Senator, a Journalist, and the Politics of Gay Love in America (Nov.) by former Associated Press journalist Terry Mutchler, who was the first woman named an AP statehouse correspondent. Mutchler’s book is a revealing portrait of the result of being closeted in the high-stakes enclaves of politics and journalism, telling the love story of herself and Penny Severns, a member of the Illinois state Senate who mentored President Obama.
And while coming out tales may seem old hat at this point, there are still narratives left to be told. In June, Harper Business will publish The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out is Good Business by former BP CEO John Browne. Browne’s 41-year career at the oil company ended after his forced resignation on the heels of being outed in the British media. Melding his own story and interviews with others, Browne makes the case that businesses and individuals can only be served by shattered the “glass closet.”
Skyhorse also has a fresh take on the coming-out subgenre with Kate Fagan’s The Reappearing Act: Coming Out as Gay on a College Basketball Team Led by Born-Again Christians (May). The author says the big difference in her story and other sports tales is that she’s telling it to readers firsthand.
“Most of the existing titles in the LGBTQ sports landscape are written ‘as-told-to’—as biographies, one degree removed,” says Fagan. “It’s a narrative memoir that takes readers inside the closeted and paranoid world of big-time college athletics, written by an ESPN columnist. The world of women’s sports is not as opening and accepting as some seem to think.”
But what’s perhaps the most significant sign of change and acceptance in the wider culture among LGBTQ titles this season comes from an unexpected source—the American Psychological Association’s Magination Press. Picture book This Day in June written by Gayle Pitman and illustrated by Kristyna Litten (Apr.) provides a child’s eye look at an LGBTQ pride parade. Aimed at children ages 4-8, the book includes a reading guide with facts about LGBTQ history and culture and a note to parents and caregivers on how to talk to children about sexual orientation and gender identity in age-appropriate terms.
Growing Up LGBTQ
With the We Need Diverse Books campaign helping to bring more attention to LGBTQ titles for young readers and a number of new books on the way, it looks like 2014 will be a good year for YA of LGBTQ interest.
“One trend we’ve noticed is a push toward more diversity,” says Nessa Warin, YA coordinator of the Harmony Ink Press imprint of Dreamspinners Press. The imprint launched in 2012 and specializes in LGBTQ YA. Warin says that “librarians and teenagers both” are asking for a wider range of protagonists.
Harmony Ink releases a title per week, and some of its lead books are Winter Page’s tale of a teen starting a new school after gender reassignment Breaking Free (Apr.), Suki Fleet’s story of LGBTQ teen homelessness This Is Not A Love Story (May), Skye Allen’s fantasy featuring a plus-size protagonist Pretty Peg (June), and Harmonious Hearts: Stories from the 2014 Young Author Challenge (Aug., edited by Anne Regan).
There are also several debut novels this year with LGBTQ themes, including the 1950s-set The Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley (Harlequin Teen, Sept.), the fantasyOtherbound by Corinne Duyvis (Amulet, June), and the taut mystery Far From You by Tess Sharpe (Hyperion, Apr.).
“Authors like Malinda Lo, Julie Anne Peters, and Alex Sanchez are the reason that I was able to get my book published,” says Sharpe, citing some of the best-known voices in LGBTQ YA, and whose Far From You features a bisexual main character who must unravel a mystery surrounding her friend’s death. “A YA book is a mirror—and for a teen to be able to see herself or himself reflected within the pages is a powerful, sometimes life-saving occurrence.”
The range of stories featuring LGBTQ for the teen audience continues to expand. For instance, Nina La Cour’s Everything Leads to You (Dutton, May) is part mystery, part love story. When the protagonist discovers a mysterious letter from old Hollywood, it leads her to a romance with the long-lost granddaughter of a famous star, and the fact that two girls are at the center of the romance is incidental. In Jessica Verdi’s The Summer I Wasn’t Me (Sourcebooks, Apr.), the heroine is shipped away to a religious camp designed to “cure” teens of their gayness. Michael Barakiva’s One Man Guy (FSG, May) provides a comic take on first love, tracing the relationship that develops between two boys over summer school. And the third installment of Rigoberto Gonzalez’s gay Latino YA series, Mariposa U. (Lethe Press, Sept.), will take its characters to college.
Carol Rosenfeld, chair of the Publishing Triangle, the Association of Lesbians and Gay Men in Publishing, says that the organization has seen more submissions of YA fiction and nonfiction for its awards in the past two years. Recently, Sara Farizan’s tale of love between two Iranian girls, If You Could Be Mine, from Algonquin Young Readers (see our q&a with Farizan on p. 24), a YA title, took the top spot in two different Publishing Triangle award categories, a first in the awards’ 26-year history.
“We’d love to see Farizan’s milestone encourage LGBTQ readers young and old to read books in the YA category,” says Rosenfeld.
In Churches, Change Is Coming, But Slowly
Just as attitudes toward homosexuality have shifted greatly in the wider culture, change is coming in Christian churches too, though at a relative snail’s pace. Churches worry today about stemming the tide of young refugees from the pews, and intolerance toward gays is a key issue: a 2011 survey by the Barna Group found that 59% of young Christians say they leave churches in part because of sexual intolerance; polls by both the Pew Research Center and the Public Religion Research Institute found almost two-thirds saying homosexuality should be accepted by society and the church.
David Maxwell, executive editor at Westminster John Knox Press (of the liberal Presbyterian Church U.S.A. denomination), says those who have grown up in more conservative churches are looking to liberal Christian and general interest publishers for books that reflect their evolving views, citing their June book, The Bible’s Yes to Same-Sex Marriage: An Evangelical’s Change of Heart by Mark Achtemeier (see Reviews, May 12).
More disturbing for conservative Christians are books supportive of same-sex relationships from evangelical publishers. In May, Convergent—an imprint of the Christian publishing division of Penguin Random House—published Matthew Vines’s God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships, in which he explores the Bible in its historical context and concludes that the few scriptural passages referring to homosexuality have been wrongly and selectively interpreted. That drew impassioned responses: Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Press quickly published God and the Gay Christian? A Response to Matthew Vines, the first in its new Conversant e-book series.
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the seminary and editor of the essay collection, deplored Vines’ assertion that Christians can maintain a “high view” of the authority of scripture while rejecting traditional interpretations of its teachings. Mohler also called it “distressing” that an evangelical house published the book, and other groups and organizations have piled on; in May the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) also denounced the book and the publisher. Stephen Cobb, chief publishing executive for the Christian imprints of Penguin Random House, notes that the four imprints he oversees—WaterBrook, Multnomah, Convergent, and Image—have distinct editorial identities and do not all fit under the “evangelical” umbrella.
Taking the conservative position on same-sex relationships is Can You Be Gay and Christian? Responding with Love and Truth to Questions About Homosexuality (May) by Michael Brown, published under Charisma House’s Frontline imprint. One evangelical publisher charts a middle course: Baker imprint Brazos Press has published Generous Spaciousness: Responding to Gays in the Church (May) by Wendy VanderWal-Gritter; PW’s review (Mar. 10) called her stance “open if not fully affirming,” saying she is “gentle in her urging for Christians to be more hospitable and for gays to be clearer about their expectations from any given congregation.”
Read the Spirit, an indie house publishing broadly in religion and spirituality, released Vineyard pastor Ken Wilson’s A Letter to My Congregation: An Evangelical Pastor’s Path to Embracing People Who are Gay, Lesbian and Transgender into the Company of Jesus (Mar.). Wilson writes of his change of heart based on study of the Bible and the history of its times. Another independent press, Skyhorse Publishing, released a memoir, The Reappearing Act: Coming Out as Gay on a College Basketball Team Led by Born-Again Christiansby Kate Fagan (May).
Coming in July from Chalice Press—of the liberal Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination—is Defrocked: How a Father’s Act of Love Shook the United Methodist Churchby Frank Schaefer, a United Methodist pastor who was stripped of his ordination in December 2013 for officiating at his gay son’s marriage. Now a speaker and activist on behalf of LGBT rights, Schaefer has garnered national media coverage. And the conversation continues.—Lynn Garrett