Mary Altman, senior editor at Sourcebooks Casablanca, says she’d wanted to work on LGBTQ romances since joining the company six years ago. As a queer person, she adds, “I wasn’t finding myself much on the bookshelves” at that time. Most LGBTQ romance was shelved apart from other romance novels, “or it was online or digital first.”
The success of Casey McQuiston’s 2019 M/M rom-com debut, Red, White & Royal Blue (Griffin), gave Altman a comp that helped her make the case for acquiring similar titles. Altman calls it “this fantastic breakthrough moment for print publishing” that showed LGBTQ romance “really does have an audience.” The book, which has sold 89,000 print copies per NPD BookScan and been optioned by Amazon studios, “gave steam to something that had been building.”
In this feature, PW speaks with mainstream publishers about why they see a growing print market for LGBTQ romance.
Thanks to Altman’s efforts, Sourcebooks Casablanca is set to publish its first queer romances, both M/M contemporary rom-coms. The geeky, post-college Conventionally Yours by Annabeth Albert (June) is a “sweet, relatively chaste romance,” PW’s review said, that “will have crossover YA appeal.” Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall (July) “breathes new life into the fake-dating trope,” according to PW’s starred review, with “insights about trust and self-worth that set the story apart.”
The publisher is one of a few houses whose romance lists look a little different this season. In the new Berkley release Something to Talk About by Meryl Wilsner, which PW’s starred review called a “sparkling debut,” a showrunner’s red-carpet appearance with her female assistant fuels relentless tabloid gossip. It’s the publisher’s first F/F romance in print, though Berkley has released F/F romance digitally and M/M romance, including C.S. Pacat’s popular Captive Prince trilogy, in trade paper.
“We’re putting a lot of love behind this book,” says Kristine Swartz, senior editor at Berkley. “It fits the readership for the rom-com but it speaks to the queer audience as well.” Berkley is also publishing a companion to 2019’s Waiting for Tom Hanks by Kerry Winfrey, Not Like the Movies (July), which has a bisexual heroine; PW’s starred review praised its “electric” banter. Until recently, Swartz says, M/M submissions outnumbered F/F, but she’s now seeing “wider representation.”
At Harlequin trade imprint Graydon House, The Secret of You and Me by Melissa Lenhardt (Aug.) is a second-chance romance between two women who’d been in love as teenagers in their conservative town. Graydon House editorial director Susan Swinwood, who likens the story to a Nicholas Sparks novel, says this is the imprint’s first title to focus on a same-sex relationship. “We’re following in big footsteps,” she notes, citing McQuiston as well as When Katie Met Cassidy by Camille Perri (Putnam, 2018). “There’s been a bigger awareness and more of an appetite for the gay experience.”
Independent LGBTQ publisher Bold Strokes Books, which began in 2004, releases 120 titles per year, about 75% of them romance. Len Barot, president and publisher at Bold Strokes, welcomes the competition. “Publishing professionals are hearing the message from authors and readers that more diversity is essential,” she says. “As romance is one of the largest fiction genres, it’s only natural, and good marketing, that publishers would be looking for more diverse romances.”
The sky’s the limit
Other publishers are building on their existing LGBTQ romance offerings, including Avon, home to Cat Sebastian’s queer historicals and Olivia Waite’s F/F Regency series, which launched with 2019’s The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics. Sebastian’s latest M/M historical, Two Rogues Make a Right, publishes in mass market in June and marks a new direction for Avon Impulse, formerly a digital-first imprint. August sees the release of Waite’s second Feminine Pursuits novel, The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows, also Avon Impulse. Take a Hint, Dani Brown (Avon, July), whose heroine is bisexual, is Talia Hibbert’s “phenomenal second Brown Sisters contemporary,” PW’s starred review said, and Written in the Stars (Avon, Nov.) by debut author Alexandria Bellefleur is a queer holiday fake dating rom-com.
Erika Tsang, editorial director at Avon, says the publisher has received more LGBTQ submissions recently; retailer support has helped make those titles more accessible. “Booksellers are seeing with the success of Casey McQuiston that they can sell these romances,” Tsang adds. “They’re asking us to publish more.” That said, she hopes LGBTQ stories in romance “become so commonplace that the label becomes irrelevant.”
In June, Harlequin digital-first imprint Carina Press, which publishes in various romance and mystery subgenres, is launching Carina Adores, described as “a trope-driven LGBTQ+ contemporary romance line.” Unlike most Carina Press books, Carina Adores titles will be released simultaneously in trade paper and e-book. On the imprint’s fall slate: Better Than People by Roan Parrish (Sept.), a M/M romance with a neuroatypical hero, and Full Moon in Leo by Brooklyn Ray (Oct.), with a nonbinary transmasculine gay main character.
Forthcoming Carina Press titles include High Heat by Annabeth Albert, part of her M/M Hotshots series; the e-book pubs July 27 and the mass market edition follows a day later. “A large part of our list is LGBTQ romance, as it has been for some time,” says senior editor Kerri Buckley. “We don’t allocate a certain number of spots for LGBTQ romance or put a cap on how many we publish.”
While Red, White & Royal Blue marked what many see as a watershed for LGBTQ romance, author Annabeth Albert says readers have for some time been flocking to the genre from YA and fan fiction, where such stories are more prevalent. Also, when an author highlights an LGBTQ romance in a popular ongoing series, as Suzanne Brockmann did with 2007’s All Through the Night—a M/M story in her Troubleshooters series—readers “realize that they enjoyed the pairing,” Albert says. These titles were “their intro to LGBTQ romance, and from there, they explored further.” When bookstores shelve LGBTQ titles within romance sections it’s a major step toward discoverability, she says, rather than “being lumped into gay studies,” as they’d been in the past.
Author Cat Sebastian has found that visibility beneficial, citing a 2018 Barnes & Noble promotion featuring her LGBTQ historicals on endcaps in the romance section. Sebastian says being published by a mainstream house “can help LGBTQ romance be seen as romance, first and foremost,” and may make some readers “more inclined to read it.”
For their part, booksellers are eager to see even more variety from mainstream publishers. Since the Ripped Bodice romance bookstore opened in L.A. in 2016, says co-owner Leah Koch, readers have been requesting LGBTQ romances, which are shelved in their own section, broken out into F/F, M/M, and the recently added trans/nonbinary subsections, and then shelved under relevant subgenres as well. “Everything that exists in romance people want with LGBTQ characters,” she adds. “I get people asking for queer fantasy, queer werewolves, queer Victorian.” Asked about the readership for these titles, Koch says age is a key factor. “The generation under 40 doesn’t care about the sexual orientation of the characters matching their own in the way that the older generation does. They’re more inclusive readers.”
Billie Bloebaum, buyer and bookseller at Third Street Books in McMinnville, Ore., says her customers are open to any pairings, especially if recommended by staffers. “People just want a feel-good happy ever after,” she notes. She plans to handsell Written in the Stars to readers in their 20s and 30s as a modern Bridget Jones’s Diary and says the latest wave of mainstream LGBTQ romances is welcome but overdue. “It’s easier to stock a diverse bookshelf when there are a lot of options available for representation, and we haven’t had that.” As more queer romances publish, it may mean there are “fewer male/female pairings on the shelf because there are other, better stories.”
That variety Bloebaum and others seek is on its way: all the editors consulted for this article are eager to publish more LGBTQ romances. Sourcebooks Casablanca already has two slated for 2021, and Altman says she’s only getting started: “I’m not just interested in looking at one letter of the acronym. I want to find trans romances, asexual romances, rom-coms that cover the entirety of the community.”
Rachel Kramer Bussel is a freelance writer and editor of the Best Women’s Erotica of the Year series (Cleis).