The history of LGBTQ publishing is, in many ways, a history of small presses—outlets that showcased LGBTQ life long before mainstream publications or publishers had the nerve to. Now that publishing at large has embraced LGBTQ writing, the fate and function of those presses merit reexamination. What purpose do they serve, and what makes them distinct from their larger competitors, now that everyone has, so to speak, opened the closet?

Small presses, as well as those focused on marginalized communities more broadly, see themselves as a necessary counterpart to big publishers. The act of publishing LGBTQ narratives by itself might no longer be outré, but these publishers, both established and new, all have unique readerships, their own relationships with independent bookstores and libraries, and a continued appetite for boundary-pushing books.

Diverse missions

While all presses focused on LGBTQ or marginalized communities share a mission of increasing representation, they differ in terms of how specific or how aggressively political that mission is and, by extension, what kinds of books they take on.

One new addition to the specialized-press community is Street Noise Books, a publisher of graphic memoirs for young and new adults founded by Liz Frances, a book designer and art director who previously worked for Scholastic. She says she was inspired to launch Street Noise Books after the 2016 election, when she realized she wasn’t doing enough to combat prejudice and marginalization. Accordingly, Street Noise’s books, which will begin publishing this year, include memoirs on race, womanhood, and LGBTQ issues. In August the press will release Bishakh Som’s Spellbound, which chronicles the author’s daily life as a transgender woman.

Frances, speaking from her experience in traditional publishing, says books by or about marginalized figures are sometimes picked up by larger publishers on “the basis of their acceptability. They get sort of cleaned up sometimes.” With Street Noise, she aims to publish books that might make some readers uncomfortable, and she’s been encouraged in this pursuit by librarians. At conferences and in conversations with library organization leaders, she says, she’s gleaned that “librarians are really, really interested in this kind of subject matter. They’re not shying away from it.”

Librarians have also been instrumental in shaping the mission of Arsenal Pulp, a Canadian publisher whose books focus on LGBTQ and BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) issues. Brian Lam, publisher, shifted the press’s attention to those issues when he took the helm there in 1992, in part out of personal interest—he identifies as queer—and in part because he saw an opportunity in the market. Though the U.S. had its fair share of small LGBTQ presses at that time, in Canada, he says, there was “nothing happening.”

In 2012, at the suggestion of librarians, Arsenal Pulp began publishing LGBTQ titles for young adult readers, and in 2016 the press began publishing them for children. In the past 10 years there’s been a growing realization among librarians and publishers, Lam says, that “these books are not only important but they actually save young kids’ lives.”

Arsenal Pulp also maintains a robust adult list: forthcoming books include Corinne Manning’s We Had No Rules (May), a short story collection featuring queer characters; Vanishing Monuments (May), about a nonbinary photographer and the debut novel from John E. Stintzi, who, like their main character, is nonbinary; and the memoir The Home Stretch (June), the first nonfiction title by gay novelist George K. Ilsley, in which he writes about his about his relationship with his father.

Both Street Noise and Arsenal Pulp publish books representing a variety of marginalized voices, but even presses focused on a particular community may find themselves expanding into the conversation around LGBTQ issues. Dottir, for instance, was founded in 2017 as a feminist press; the name is Icelandic for daughter. But this May it will publish Pass with Care, a memoir by Cooper Lee Bombardier, a transgender man, that’s in large part about masculinity.

For Dottir’s founder, Jennifer Baumgardner, the book aligns well with the publisher’s mission. “Feminism to me is totally engaged with manhood, and how men are socialized into themselves,” she says. “I’m really interested in having a lot of space and breathing room, as a feminist and as a feminist publisher, to talk about manhood.”

Another newer press, Amazon Publishing’s Topple Books, is helmed by Transparent creator Jill Soloway. Launched in 2018, Topple specializes in books by women of color and people who identify as queer or nonbinary. Among its forthcoming titles is Raising Them by Kyl Myers (Sept.), an account of the author’s experience of raising her child without gender.

Topple may not have the independent bona fides of other presses focused on marginalized communities, but Soloway says that change can come even from large organizations like Amazon. “A museum hires a woman of color. Amazon hires more women, more queer people. There’s no institutional change where people are just going to—change. You have to replace the people who are the choosers with people are serious about queerness, about race, about feminism.”

Part of Topple’s mission, Soloway says, is to make space for an “intersectional gaze,” as distinct from the white cisgender gaze that has historically shaped perceptions of the world. The long list of marginalized communities “actually has its own gaze, its own way of not only saying, ‘This how I feel,’ but, ‘This is how it feels to have been object-ized my whole life.’ ”

Queer enough?

Whether a publisher focuses on the LGBTQ community specifically or on marginalized communities more broadly, it has to formulate criteria by which to evaluate submissions. What belongs and what doesn’t? How focused on identity issues does a book need to be? What if a book has queer characters but is written by a straight author? Can a book be, as many said of Pete Buttigieg, gay but not gay enough?

Candysse Miller, copublisher and director of marketing and communications at Interlude, an LGBTQ-focused independent press, takes a generous view of the matter. Many of Interlude’s books—the publisher mostly releases general fiction, romance, and YA—have an “incidental queerness,” Miller says, meaning they might have queer characters but might not be focused, in terms of plot or theme, on queerness itself. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be Brokeback Mountain,” she says.

For Len Barot, the founder of Bold Strokes, which specializes in LGBTQ fiction of all genres, a book needs to be “queer focused.” That means that, if it’s a mystery, “you would anticipate that the main characters are going to be queer,” or, if it’s a general fiction title, that it would deal in some significant way with aspects of the queer community. The publisher does not, however, make decisions based on the author’s sexual or gender identity.

Both publishers’ 2020 lists speak to their LGBTQ-centeredness and to their genre diversity. Interlude’s forthcoming titles include Tack & Jibe (July), a queer romantic comedy by Lambda finalist Lilah Suzanne, and several titles from its YA imprint Duet, among them the novel The Summer of Everything by Julian Winters (Sept.), in which a teenager named Wesley has an as-yet-unrequited crush on his best friend, Nico. Bold Strokes’ offerings include Drawn, a lesbian romantic thriller by Carsen Taite (June); Jane Kolven’s The Holiday Detour (Sept.), a queer romantic comedy featuring a nonbinary character; and The Dubious Gift of Dragon Blood (Dec.), a gay YA fantasy novel by J. Marshall Freeman.

To label or not to label

By concentrating on specific marginalized communities, publishers can attract authors and readers who come from or are allies of those communities. But publishers also have to decide how explicit to be about their focuses when marketing their books. Should they try to appeal to a wide readership by playing down a book’s queer content, or should they try instead to find an interested readership by playing it up?

In general, small publishers don’t shy away from announcing a book’s subject matter, whether it be LGBTQ issues, feminism, or race. “We embrace the queer label,” Arsenal Pulp’s Lam says. “It’s not something we hide.” Media and booksellers, he adds, are “realizing that it’s everyone, not just queer readers, who are reading these books.”

Interlude’s Miller agrees with Lam that the readership for LGBTQ books is not actually niche. “It’s a much broader audience than people might have anticipated—certainly than the Big Five publishers might have anticipated—five years ago.”

For Topple’s Soloway, the challenge of promoting queer books is wrapped up in the challenge of changing what media institutions prioritize. “Publicity is its own story,” Soloway says. “The people who are writing the PR plans, the people who are thinking about publicity, really have to be invested in the queer narrative, and invested in queering culture, for them to want the books to land in a particular way. That comes with making sure there are queer people and trans people in the PR departments, and at the bookstores, and in the marketing department. These books can be marketed as so much more than ‘Here’s this book over here in the LGBTQ section.’ ”

On the other hand, embracing the LGBTQ label can help publishers find their readers, and help secure a book’s place in independent bookstores or libraries—institutions on which small publishers depend. “I think the best way to reach our audience is to present our works as queer works,” Bold Strokes’ Barot says. “A large percentage of our audience finds us because they’re looking for queer works. If a bookseller or librarian can’t pick our books out that way, they can’t recommend them that way.”

Barot adds that, even as LGBTQ culture becomes more mainstream, LGBTQ presses still have to work to find their readers, and readers still have to work to find them. “At this point in the evolution of queer publishing,” she says, “we still need to be discoverable.”

Daniel Lefferts is a writer in New York City.

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