Earlier this summer, Martin Arnold suggested in his "Making Books" column in the New York Times that gay and lesbian bookstores are "seriously endangered." Noting last year's closing of A Different Light in New York City, and that other stores catering to a lesbian and gay clientele are "struggling," he speculated that gay bookstores may be suffering from competition from the chains and Internet bookstores, where many of the titles they sell are also available.

As cogent as it might have appeared, Martin's appraisal is not entirely accurate. "The number of gay and lesbian bookstores has remained steady over the last few years," says Julie Schaper, president of sales and marketing at Consortium, an independent distributor that handles books from 70 small presses, including the lesbian and gay publisher Alyson Books. "There's always some shifting, with stores opening and closing. But despite the attrition, a certain replacement factor comes into play."

Just this summer, for example, Different Drummer Books in Laguna Beach, Calif., closed after 15 years, a victim of the community's change from a gay-centered, eclectic arts community to a posh beach resort. Meanwhile, An Open Book in Columbus, Ohio, was revived by a new owner, Jim Criswell, after founder Michael Lindsey ended his seven-year stewardship.

For Consortium, which does business with about 125 lesbian and gay and women's specialty accounts across the country, the main area of concern is women's bookstores, which have decreased by about 50% in the past five years. Those that remain "are struggling and often using creative means to stay in business," Schaper says. While she notes that "gay and lesbian stores are also becoming extremely creative in what they're stocking," and admits their long-term viability may become a concern, she believes they are on more solid footing than women's bookstores at the moment.

As these remarks suggest, the state of gay and lesbian publishing and bookselling is more complex—and often contradictory—than ever. In many ways, the niche is holding its own, though its integration into the mainstream is far from smooth.

Retail Redux

On the retail side, chains and independents take disparate views of gay and lesbian books. Sales in the category "peaked about seven years ago," according to Borders PR manager Jennie Carlen. She reports a slight decline in fiction sales, while gay and lesbian studies titles have remained level. But while the mass retailer—which has been accused of usurping business from independents—is selling fewer gay and lesbian titles, some specialist independents are actually growing.

Ed Hermance, founder and proprietor of 29-year-old Giovanni's Room in Philadelphia, notes that when the chains hit town a decade ago (there are two in the center of the city and 12 in the suburbs), his sales took a blow. But his business has been increasing steadily, if sometimes slowly, since then. More then half his sales come from gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender books, including such diverse titles as Christopher Rice's The Snow Garden (Talk Miramax), the photography book Thomas Eakins: The Absolute Male (Rizzoli), the erotic story collection Hot Spots (Alyson), the novels of E. Lynn Harris (Doubleday/Vintage), and entertainment-oriented books such as Melissa Etheridge's The Truth Is (Random Trade Paperbacks). Sales of videos on DVD and VHS make up another third of his business, with the rest coming from sidelines such as CDs, flags, jewelry and bumper stickers. Insofar as the store also functions as a community center, Hermance is pleased that many of the younger people who come in to buy a rainbow flag or pin also end up buying books as well. "When you are a specialist," he says, "people come to you."

John Mitzel describes a similar sales breakdown at Boston's Calamus Books, which he opened two years ago after Glad Day Books, a thriving lesbian and gay store he had managed for 16 years, was forced to close due to high rents. While Mitzel believes that book sales alone could not sustain his store, he says that the customer base is clearly book-oriented.

InsightOutBooks, the two year-old gay and lesbian direct mail book club, has an even cheerier outlook. David Rosen, the club's editor-in-chief, says the subscriber base is still growing: a recent 450,000-piece direct-mail solicitation increased membership to 20,000. The club's monthly catalog features 200 titles—including 15 to 20 new books—while 400 more backlist titles are available on the club's web site (www.insightoutbooks.com).

Contrary to the common assumption that the club caters to rural readers without access to gay books, the membership (which is two-thirds male) is clustered in urban areas. "Real book lovers use every channel to buy books," declares Rosen, who believes that club sales and store sales don't cancel one another out. "I often hear that people will come into bookstores with one of our monthly brochures, looking for a book. One of our aims is to promote gay and lesbian books. Getting people to buy gay books will always help us."

At InsightOut, Rosen has found that "on a per-title basis, LGBT books from small, independent and academic presses sell as well if not better than books from big houses." For every top-selling title from a major house—like the novels Rainbow Boys by Alex Sanchez (S&S) and The Summer They Came by William Storandt (Villard), or David Nimmon's exploration of gay identity, The Soul Beneath the Skin (St. Martin's)—there is a small press title with comparable sales, such as Rebel Yell, an anthology of gay Southern voices (Haworth) or Queer Fear, a gay horror collection (Arsenal Pulp) or the small-town coming-out memoir How I Learned to Snap (Hill Street), says Rosen. In fact, the club has racked up respectable sales on titles that may not be easily available at chains or general independents. Recent examples include Karen X. Tulchinsky's lesbian erotic anthology Hot and Bothered (Arsenal Pulp Press) and even self-published books such as Andrew Calimach's Lover's Legends: The Gay Greek Myths (Haiduk Press).

Ron Handby, who buys gay and lesbian books for the national wholesaler Bookazine, which serves independent and chain stores, also claims that the market for a wide range of gay and lesbian titles is strong and steady. "While there has been no great growth in sales across the board, the number of titles that are selling well is always growing," he says, adding that he finds at least one new sales venue each week.

Handby also finds it worthwhile to work with the small publishers and self-published authors who constantly approach him. "We try to carry as many of them as we can," he said, "and they generally do well." Among the self-published standouts are two books by Aaron Lawrence, Suburban Hustler: Stories of a High-Tech Callboy and The Male Escort's Handbook. Handby has also done well with Ceremonies by Dwight Cathcart, a novel published by Calamus Books—a new offshoot of Mitzel's bookstore that plans to publish three titles a year (see sidebar below).

Publishers' Perspectives

On the publishing side, it's a little harder to reconcile the contradictory reports on the state of gay and lesbian publishing. Some veterans take a wary view, such as Keith Kahla, a senior editor at St. Martin's. Kahla runs Stonewall Inn Editions, a 10-year-old gay and lesbian imprint for literary fiction and serious nonfiction that was recently discontinued as a frontlist program. (The house will continue to fill orders for Stonewall's 60-title backlist, and to publish gay-themed books outside the imprint.) In a climate where general book sales are down across the board, Kahla has found that literary titles with primary gay content have dropped even further. In 1988, Kahla could have expected a first novel—such as Christopher Davis's Valley of the Shadow—to ship 6,000 and net 4,000 copies. Now, he is happy for a similar title to sell around 2,500. At its best, he said, the Stonewall imprint broke even. But over the past few years, as it began to lose money, Kahla came to believe that "the imprint was actually harming the books associated with it."

Kahla attributes the decline in sales to a number of factors: drastic cutbacks in the amount of review space given to gay titles in the gay press; the difficulty of getting mainstream media to pay attention to gay books; and the challenge of placing gay titles (especially those that might have overtly gay cover art), in the chains and some independents.

These complaints are echoed by Jed Mattes, an agent known for his success with titles like Greg Louganis's 1995 bestseller, Breaking the Surface. "I've taken on few gay projects recently because I can't succeed in selling them. Many books that I could easily have placed 10 years ago are now nearly impossible to sell. It makes me quite sad," he says. Mattes also feels that today's market "doesn't support inquisitive books" and wonders if the feminism of the 1960s was emerging in the 1990s, the publishing industry would be able to support it in the same way it did 30 years ago.

Both Kahla and Mattes agree that while many books still have strong or even primary gay or lesbian content, publishers often shy away from emphasizing that fact. For example, Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Picador), in which Sam Clay's homosexuality becomes central to the plot, makes no mention of gay themes on the jacket. Nor does Fingersmith (Riverhead), by British author Sarah Waters, whose intricate dramas always turn on lesbian characters and themes. The same is true of the jacket for the memoir Running with Scissors (St. Martin's) by Augusten Burroughs, whose affair at age 14 with a 32-year-old man is one of the major relationships in the book. "This re-closeting," Kahla observed, "has been slowly happening for years. What I hear increasingly from agents, other editors, and critics is [that a book is] 'not a gay novel, it's about family dynamics, or about growing up.' "

As someone actively looking for gay content, InsightOut's Rosen finds it a challenge to identify books from major publishers with gay themes. "[Mainstream] publishers looking for a perceived larger audience often end up excluding the core audience," he says. Rosen recently received a phone call from Xaviera Hollander, author of The Happy Hooker, who wanted to let him know that her new memoir, Child No More, dealt at length with her current lesbian relationship. That fact was not mentioned in any of the book's promotional material and had been missed by Rosen and others at InsightOutBooks. "It's fine to shelve books on any number of shelves in a bookstore—categories can and do overlap—but it is a mistake to exclude these books from the gay and lesbian shelf as well," Rosen says.

John Scognamiglio, an editor at Kensington who takes a more commercial approach than Kahla, has a different perspective. He says the house remains committed to the mostly gay commercial fiction that he has edited over the last few years. With a backlist of 46 gay titles and 12 hardcovers and 18 trade paperbacks scheduled for 2003, Scognamiglio is pleased with his progress. "I see myself as a commercial reader," he says, adding, "These are good books but they are not literary books." Given that about half of Scognamiglio's books "scream that they are gay," while the rest aim for a wider audience that enjoys gay themes, their sales may be less dependent on review coverage than Kahla's more literary fare.

While he admits to working on a trial-and-error basis, Scognamiglio appears to be right enough of the time to keep the imprint afloat at Kensington, which is generally content to net between 7,000 and 10,000 copies. Kenneth Soehnlein's 1999 novel, The World of Normal Boys—which Scognamiglio calls "The Ice Storm meets Ordinary People with a gay twist"—began with a printing of 10,000 and has gone back to press twice (for press runs of 2,500 and 3,000 copies). Meanwhile, Summer Share, a collection of four novellas edited by Chris Kenry that's aimed at gay beach readers, has already gone back to press three times since May.

Kensington's relatively small list (500 books a year, compared to 700 hardcovers and 200 paperbacks at St. Martin's) allows Scognamiglio to give each title more individual attention than he could at a larger house. But while Scognamiglio's line is successful on its own terms, it's unclear whether it will grow enough to induce larger publishers to consider starting similar publishing programs.

At the small press level, there are also positive signs. Consortium, which distributes the British presses Milevin Books, Prowler Books and Gay Men's Press in addition to Alyson, has logged annual growth in the category, according to marketing manager Susan Doerr. Chain sales currently account for about 32% of the distributor's business, while general independents and gay and lesbian specialty stores contribute about 21%. The rest comes from wholesalers, libraries, Internet and other channels, says Doerr.

With 50 new titles a year and a backlist of 200 titles, Alyson is one of the largest publishers Consortium represents. The house is particularly pleased with the performance of Chastity Bono's The End of Innocence: A Memoir (June), which shipped 15,000 copies. Overall, Alyson considers sales of 5,000 copies acceptable, and 10,000 copies or more a significant success. The house has managed to steadily increase its annual sales, according to Schaper, in part by branching out from traditional topics such as self-help, romance and HIV and AIDS. Most notably, Alyson has done well with humor titles, such as Michael Thomas Ford's The Little Book of Neuroses and That's Mr. Faggot to You.

Whither the Category?

Many people, including Martin Arnold, argue that the gay and lesbian liberation movement has achieved its aims, and that there is no longer a need to "ghettoize" books as gay or lesbian. Borders' Jennie Carlen puts it this way: "as gay and lesbian lifestyles become more and more mainstream (e.g., featured in the media and on TV programs), we've seen a greater inclusion of gay and lesbian characters and storylines in mainstream fiction."

If that is the case, then why are gay characters and storylines so often obscured on book flap copy from large houses? There is a curious paradox here—if there is no need for a "gay and lesbian" category because societal and cultural homophobia has tapered off, then why not mention the fact of gay or lesbian content when it's relevant?

Kahla does not believe that homophobia has waned. For the past few years, his sales reps have told him more often than they did 10 years ago that chains and general independent bookstores in many regions across the country are saying, "this isn't a title for us, we don't have gay customers" or "our regular customers will by offended by this title." While Kensington's Scognamiglio claims not to have encountered that kind of resistance, he admits that Kensington once altered a book cover to make it less sexually explicit, on the advice of a rep.

Kahla suggests that it is possible that gay and lesbian publishing, which emerged 30 years ago with the birth of the contemporary lesbian gay liberation movement, "might either be a historical moment that is now over, or it might be part of a large cyclical motion that is just waiting for its upswing." But the future of the "gay book" is not easy to extrapolate from cover designs, sales figures, store placement, and distribution patterns. It is intricately tied to the complex, ever-changing social and cultural status of homosexuality. While there is more tolerance and even heartfelt acceptance of gay and lesbian people in the culture than there was three decades ago when gay publishing first began, only the delusional or the completely optimistic would claim that homophobia has been completely banished.

Having spent most of his career promoting gay literature, Kahla notes, "I had hopes when I first started in this business that gay and lesbian literature might be taken very seriously as an important body of work, like the postwar Jewish novel. At this point in time, that doesn't look as though it's happening." It's a striking comparison, because post-war Jewish writing—much of which grew out of a complex cultural and ethnic identity that was often scorned and even reviled—did maintain its distinct voice even as it became integral to the broader category of "American fiction." As time has passed, the mainstream has come to consider the work of Bernard Malamud, Cynthia Ozick, Philip Roth and Normal Mailer as distinctly American as well as distinctly Jewish.

But Kahla's vision of a body of gay and lesbian literary work may not be realized, in part because gay identity is conceptualized very differently than that of other minorities in the U.S. While Jewish or black authors can maintain dual citizenship in both American literature as well as the literature of their specific identity—does anyone ever write about Toni Morrison and not mention that she is African-American?—the luxury of maintaining a connection to a specific history and identity is often denied to gay and lesbian writers. The novels of Sarah Waters, for instance, are rarely described by their publishers or the mainstream press as "lesbian novels," even though Waters is quite consciously connected to a tradition of lesbian writing that includes Radclyffe Hall and Sylvia Ashton Warner. To call her a "lesbian novelist"—as one would call Ozick a Jewish novelist—is to contextualize and give added depth and meaning to her work.

We appear to be at a point in history where describing the work of such fine literary writers as Mark Merlis, Carol Anshaw, Paul Russell, Christopher Bram or Sarah Schulman as "gay novels" limits both their popular appeal as well as their sales potential. The results of such thinking is palpable.

In the past four years, two major American novels with primary gay content have won the Pulitzer Prize for literature—Michael Cunningham's The Hours and Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Positioned as mainstream literary books, they were not categorized as gay novels by the chains or by general independents, and sold handsomely. Would this have happened if these two books had been published—with identical cover art, jacket copy and text—as "gay novels?"

As long as the discussion is always framed by economic considerations—why would anyone want their novel to be labeled a "gay novel" if it is going to hurt sales?—and by ever-shifting perceptions of homosexuality, the niche will remain a conundrum.

Click here to see our list of "Selected Gay & Lesbian Titles, June 2002—January 2003"