In examining today's LGBT publishing scene from a variety of perspectives, we've asked four industry players—publisher, editor, agent, and advocate—to give us their outlook on this ever-evolving landscape. In the wake of a noted LGBT bookstore's recent closing, we've surveyed retailers whose LGBT stores are going strong; and we take a look at the LGBT publishing scene's 25-year-old awards program.
Don Weise, Publisher, Magnus Books
With the recent announcement that San Francisco's Different Light Bookstore in San Francisco—one of the best shops of its kind—is closing, the Bay Citizen recalled a conversation it had last year with store owner Bill Barker. In describing the difficulties he faced as a gay bookseller, Barker reportedly said, "I think that you can only tell the gay and lesbian story so many times." I asked myself, "What is the gay and lesbian story?" and "Are the same books really being published over and over?"
When I consider new and forthcoming releases, I'm reminded that our stories are not only innumerable but many of us still have not had our stories told. Consider these four notable novels—each quite different from one another, and each breaking new ground in gay fiction.
Leche by R. Zamora Linmark (Coffee House Press, Apr.) follows the return of a young Philippines-born gay man to the motherland for the first time in 13 years. PW's starred review called the novel "a unique, colorful portrait of cross-cultural experience and a view into the complexities of the modern-day Philippines through the prism of an ex-pat's self-discovery and quasi-homecoming." For me, Linmark's perceptive, often humorous work refreshingly stands multiculturalism (not to mention a lot of gay fiction) on its head.
Wayne Hoffman's Sweet Like Sugar (Kensington, Sept.) centers on a young man wrestling with his faith and a man of faith wrestling with his youth. It recounts the tense relationship between an elderly, Orthodox rabbi who's antigay and a young, antireligious gay Jew, and how their unlikely friendship changes them both.
Also coming in September is Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's We the Animals, a debut that offers a new take on the all-too-familiar coming-out story. In it the son of a Puerto Rican father and a white mother living in Brooklyn has his world fall apart when his parents discover he's gay. Author Justin Torres was one of Lambda Literary's 2010 Five New Queer Voices to Watch Out For; author Michael Cunningham calls the novel—selected for the BEABuzz Panel—"heartbreaking" and extolled Torres's "brilliant, ferocious new voice."
Lastly is The Two Krishnas by Ghalib Shiraz-Dhalla (Magnus Books, Sept.), a work praised by author Lisa See as "a beautiful, sometimes joyful, yet heartbreaking exploration of love in all its manifestations," which looks at the closet from the perspective of a married Indian businessman whose affair with a fellow immigrant forces him—and his wife—to confront a life of lies.
It's worth noting that each book takes place within a culturally specific minority setting, something we still don't see enough of. Perhaps the overwhelming whiteness of gay literature would lead anyone to conclude that we've heard it all before. But, clearly, we haven't. In highlighting these titles, I've named only fiction and just works by men because that's the majority of what's sent to me as a new publisher and what I'm seeing in the marketplace. However, if you counted nonfiction along with titles by lesbians, transsexuals, bisexuals, and queer people generally speaking, you'd have a breathtaking cross section of what might broadly be called the LGBT experience. Not necessarily the experience, but one among many.
Raphael Kadushin, Senior Acquisitions Editor, University of Wisconsin Press
In my opinion, the state of today's LGBT market isn't good, at least according to the conventional wisdom. That's because the conventional wisdom is still based on a dated perception of anything identified as a gay work, or anyone identified as a gay author, or that even has any gay nuance. Books in general are being more and more tightly categorized, and it's getting much harder for gay-identified writers, unless they have a proven track record, to get signed because publishers see the gay market as something that's shrinking and marginalized. And because too many publishers are only pitching gay-identified books to a gay market, things look even worse. Because there is the growing perception that gay literature isn't even particularly crucial or interesting, even to a gay market, now that other media represent gay images and gay culture, and gay readership is shrinking.
But that perception is flawed, for two reasons: (1) there is still a large market of committed gay readers; and (2) the best gay-identified books are important precisely because they have a universal resonance, and if they are pitched to a larger market they can often find a readership. It's insulting to assume, as too many people do, that gay writers only have something to say to a gay audience.
That relates directly to our list in the sense that I always look for books that go beyond simple identity politics or a single market. In terms of our gay fiction, that means I'm looking for the same thing I'm looking for in all the fiction we do, and that's the quality of the writing first. And in the gay memoirs and nonfiction, we tend to have success with gay books that have multiple markets.
Holly Bemiss, Literary Agent, Susan Rabiner Agency
Though industry statistics are always disputable, for the sake of argument let's agree with R.R. Bowker that there are about 175,000 books published annually. Not many of them are gay, and of those that are, very few are published by large publishers that offer sizable advances (or any at all).
With my background as manager of A Different Light Bookstore and as publicist for the very successful Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, countless aspiring LGBT writers seek me out and hope, sometimes beyond hope, that I can help them strike a lucky deal, preferably with a big press and for a huge advance.
In my three years as an agent, I'm happy to say that I've successfully sold books for a few LGBT authors (and I've failed a few, too), but more often than not, I choose not to represent these books in the first place. No matter how much I'd like to champion them, as the old agenting joke goes, 15% of nothing is still nothing. And, sadly, oftentimes publishers just don't feel that the numbers add up for these books. I know. I've read the rejections.
Of course, gay writers get published all the time. In fact, they probably make up a very large percentage of published authors. The publishing industry is also filled with gay editors and agents, but that doesn't always translate to the page. The sole focus today ("the sky is falling," in case you haven't heard) is on sales, and publishers want to buy only books with massive audiences. There aren't enough gay readers, they argue, so there just isn't a market for gay books. Therefore, any book with LGBT content must be held to a higher standard: the story must be "universal."
However, consider this: nine million Americans identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or trans. To put that in perspective, a comparable (and astounding, really) 8.4 million viewers watch Jersey Shore every week. Yet Snooki, bless her poof, earns a lucrative advance while authors of LGBT stories must fight to survive. Why? If I had the answer to that, I'd likely only tell my soon-to-be-wealthy clients and wouldn't share it with you. But I will say that perhaps there is something missing here in the way we all think about "niche" publishing. One man's Fire Island is another man's Jersey Shore, and there are good stories to be found everywhere.
Tony Valenzuela, Executive Director, Lambda Literary Foundation
On May 26, the Lambda Literary Foundation will host the 23rd Annual Lambda Literary Awards in New York City to honor the best LGBT books published in 2010 (www
.lambdaliterary.org/awards/). For nearly a quarter-century, the "Lammys" have set out to recognize excellent writing in a range of genres that explore the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Past winners have included some of our community's most celebrated writers, such as Dorothy Allison, Mark Doty, Emma Donoghue, and Alan Hollinghurst.
Despite numerous dramatic advances in gay rights, relatively few LGBT writers and books, regardless of merit, are recognized by mainstream awards. The Lammys fill that role by shining a light on queer stories with LGBT protagonists that may otherwise be marginalized in mainstream publishing and culture.
Lambda Literary sits at an intersection of literature and LGBT community, of mainstream publishing and the do-it-yourself spirit championed by many LGBT writers today. Over the past two years authors and publishers have nominated a record number of titles for Lammy Awards consideration (over 520 in 2010).
From my perch within the foundation, LGBT self-published books and publish-on-demand LGBT presses are clearly a part of this swell, as are an increased number of gay-themed books coming from independent and mainstream publishers. Add to this the continued burgeoning of LGBT YA books, gay m/m romances, and books with transgender characters, and it feels like we're in the midst of a dynamic era in LGBT literature.
As a literary nonprofit with advocacy in its mission, the work of the foundation, like that of similar organizations such as the Publishing Triangle and the Saints and Sinners Festival in New Orleans (sasfest.org), helps to advance a publishing industry in which LGBT writers can launch and sustain careers, cultivate emerging voices, and promote their work within institutions with a vested interest in preserving LGBT literature. We do this because we have to, because our stories still need to be told.components/article_pagination.html not found (No such file or directory)