In a bind: GLBT publishing’s back is breaking, but it’s still got spine
Published Thursday, 10-Jan-2008 in issue 1046
The GLBT publishing world is a tough nut to crack.
Although there are exceptions, most GLBT books don’t fly off the shelves. While best-selling gay authors such as Augusten Burroughs, David Sedaris and Armistead Maupin sell up to 5,000 copies of their books weekly, most GLBT books achieve only “mid-list” sales, or upwards of approximately 20,000 in annual sales for hardcover.
Another obstacle to a GLBT book’s success is the demise of GLBT publishers and imprints. This past year, Carroll & Graf, an imprint of the Avalon Publishing Group, Inc. went out of business, as did Harrington Park Press. Insight Out, a book club that catered to 50,000 members monthly via a catalogue, also bit the dust.
Yet, while GLBT publishing is vulnerable, it’s also adaptable. Publishers, booksellers and authors are finding ways to beat the odds.
Several mainstream publishers, including Random House, Inc., Simon & Schuster, Inc., HarperCollins Publishers and Kensington Books publish GLBT books as niche titles. But, as Publisher’s Weekly noted last May , “There’s no shortage of light gay fare from mainstream publishing, but university presses are increasingly doing the heavy lifting,” and mainstream publishers can’t afford to be “intellectually rigorous.”
Smaller publishers of GLBT books, at least those that can manage to stay in business, may, however, help bridge the gap.
Cleveland, Ohio-based Suspect Thoughts, for example, was able to launch several new GLBT imprints last year. Diversity is key, says publisher Greg Wharton, citing Suspect Thoughts’ multigenre catalogue, which includes anthologies, queer studies and fiction – all of which are still in print and some of which have received Lambda Literary Awards.
The need to diversify also means broadening the way GLBT is defined.
“Our definition of queer is very, very wide, and includes not just LGBT – but straight as well, with a skewed world view. Sometimes if you do a book that’s not queer in the sexual way, and you’re a press that’s been around quite a few years, like Suspect Thoughts [which opened in San Francisco in 2001], it’s got that automatic gay and lesbian stamp on it, even if it’s not.
“[We] also try and have sales that compliment each other,” Wharton says. “It’s not always the most across-the-board best-selling titles – they are a little bit outside the best seller list.
“Or, if you have a certain type of book that sells a lot, it helps pay for underground poetry, which isn’t going to sell a lot, necessarily.”
GLBT fiction titles, for example, have a shelf life of three to five months, Wharton says – a reality he suspects contributed to the closures of Carroll & Graf and Harrington Park Press.
Yet despite the challenges, Wharton is optimistic about some of the trends in GLBT publishing.
“Some of the positive trends, though, are some really feisty, wonderful gender-focused books,” Wharton says. “And, not just trans, but some really good questioning gender books, and class focus books; stuff that’s more like old fashioned gay and lesbian studies. But, the areas are focusing on race and class and gender, as opposed to just gay or lesbian. And that, I think, is a really great trend.”
One of the best ways to experience GLBT publishing is to tour a local GLBT bookstore. Clicking on Amazon.com just can’t compare to traveling down the aisles of Obelisk, in Hillcrest, browsing the shelves of A Different Light Bookstore, in West Hollywood or San Francisco, or finding a cozy nook in the world’s oldest gay and lesbian bookstore, The Oscar Wilde Bookshop, in New York City.
But booksellers say browsing is less likely to end with buying these days.
Mark Hernandez has been Obelisk’s manager for close to a decade. “I don’t know that the trends have changed, but the volume definitely has,” Hernandez says. Although he says “passionate readers” still come in and can never get enough, “The volume of fiction sales has gone down. ... [W]e have so much information coming at us from so many different directions. … [I]t’s causing people to get used to consuming more bite-size bits of text here and there.”
That’s especially true among young people, who aren’t especially interested in reading and are less apt to risk a book purchase, Hernandez says. Sales of non-fiction fare, such as biographies, are also waning, he says, although politics and same-sex marriage remain sturdy.
But one of the draws for the GLBT book store is always reliable: “The whole world of gay and lesbian is based on sexuality. And, sex is always interesting to people, no matter what. So that’s one of the big reasons why we stay afloat. Especially for men, who are the ones who fork over the cash, sex always sells. So, we do sell quite a bit of men’s erotica fiction,” Hernandez says.
Emerging non-fiction titles can also be good sellers. “Every once in awhile there is something new and fresh that comes along, like … Androphilia [Jack Malebranche]. The author is putting out the idea that loving other men doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the gay subculture. So his book has been getting a lot of attention.”
And patrons are always intrigued by Obelisk’s variety of movies, periodicals and CD-ROMs, Hernandez says.
“In our particular store, as it is with most bookstores, if you are a book-only store, you have a big challenge. And the way that you stay relevant has to do with acknowledging the fact that you should not be just in the book business but the media business.
“When you look at Barnes & Noble and Borders, they sell music and movies, as well. But for us, the gay and lesbian bookstore, has a better chance of making it, because it’s not just the books – you are in the business of capturing the gay culture, in your little store, and everything having to do with same-sex orientation,” he says, adding, “The name of the store should be ‘Obelisk Gay Culture Store,’ because there’s nowhere else in town where you capture all of the gay-related stuff. And, that’s a big responsibility; it goes way beyond just books.”
Despite competition from online sites and from chain stores, Hernandez believes Obelisk has an edge. “We haven’t fallen off the radar. … [E]ven though you can find gay books at Borders, even if Borders moved in across the street, we still wouldn’t have a problem. We carry tons and tons of stuff that they would never touch. …[T] here’s no way they would carry the depth and the breadth of the items you would find routinely in the gay bookstore.”
Getting the word out (literally) about any new book, GLBT or otherwise, is a huge endeavor. But the advent of self publishing offers new options to the traditional process of piquing a literary agent’s interest and sending the manuscript to a publishing house (where it likely either ends up on the “slush pile,” or is returned to the agent, who begins the process all over again). While putting a book through its publishing paces still takes steely nerves fortified with a thick skin, self-publishing services such as BookSurge, iUniverse, Vantage Press, Inc. and Lulu Publishing provide an alternative way for authors to venture forth.
Rhonda Winchell, director of corporate marketing at iUniverse, says self publishing is especially attractive for GLBT authors. “It’s harder for GLBT authors to get published. It’s a captive market; those folks who write in the market are also those that read in the market. [GLBT writing] doesn’t necessarily fit the mass market, traditional publishing retail market,” Winchell says.
iUnivers publishes many GLBT authors, especially now that there’s less stigma associated with self publishing across the market. “Self publishing has democratized the publishing process. If you’re a CEO or a public speaker or an expert trying to publicize your information, it doesn’t always make sense to go the traditional publishing route [because] as the publishing cycle gets faster, authors need to get to market more quickly.”
Breaking into print
For Marc Harshbarger, creator of Deep Dish, an online serial he began in 2002, self publishing took about four months.
His foray into self publishing came about when friends recommended he try Lulu Publishing, Harshbarger says, although at first he “sort of ignored it. I thought, ‘Oh yeah, you have to go there and pay them lots of money to publish your book.’ But upon further investigation, he realized the cost of self publishing wouldn’t be as much as he’d expected.
So last May, as a present for his partner’s birthday, Harshbarger took the plunge, and was so taken with Lulu Publishing’s Web site that he utilized it to revise Deep Dish several times.
“[I]t took awhile to get [the book] in a state that I was happy with, but it was a learning process,” he said. “I spent the summer revising the book a number of times. If I hadn’t kept finding so many things that I wanted to change, then it may have taken a shorter time. You can revise your book over and over again. It doesn’t cost anything.”
In fact, Harshbarger says it didn’t cost him a dime to put his 276-page book on the company’s Web site. That service is free, although “if you want to buy a copy, it costs – depending on how many pages it is – mine was around $10 a copy,” he says. There is also a fee for other services, such as having the company assign the book an international standard book number (ISBN) so that it can be sold via online venues such as Amazon.com.
“Through Lulu.com, you can get an ISBN number, and then they will go ahead and put it on Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble.com and Borders,” Harshbarger says. “And to do that, at the time was a special deal - it was $50 for Lulu.com to go in and send out the book and arrange it with all of those places. So I went ahead and did that.”
“It’s exciting to see the book out there, and that people are buying it. I’m not making any money from it, but that’s the only downside. I’m thinking that if the right person reads it, or it gets into someone’s hands – you never know what might happen.”
Also self published, through iUniverse, is author Addison Paisley, Canadian writer of the lesbian-themed novel, Broken Rules.
Last December, when Paisley was looking for a change from her life working in her family business, she decided to write a book by literally taking the old school route of putting pen to paper.
“I just started writing. I just picked up a pen, really, and started writing one day and that’s how it happened,” she says.
Once she completed the book, after toiling for four months, Paisley, opted to send it to a traditional publisher.
As I was waiting, my mom actually bought me a book on self publishing. It was from iUniverse. After I read it, I was pretty impressed with what it had to offer. So, I decided to take that route – Well, the traditional publisher [had] rejected it anyhow.”
Paisley found the self-publishing experience a positive one, although she has a few reservations.
“I struggled with the fact [that] I didn’t know who I was dealing with.
“When the editor would send back the reviews, you don’t know who’s reviewing it – especially with a gay book, you don’t know who that person is, or if they’ve experienced anything [of a gay nature in their life.]”
But Paisley says she’s glad to have avoided traditional publishing.
“For the three months I sat and waited for my answer (from the mainstream publisher), I could have had my book out,” she says.
As for profits, Paisley says she won’t see any figures on that until the end of this month, since the book was published so recently. But, she’s so pleased with self publishing that she has two books already in the works through iUniverse.
Writer Arthur Wooten is one of the lucky authors to have self published a book that a major gay publisher has later acquired. Alyson Books negotiated a multi-book option (an agreement that gives it the right to publish any sequels) for Wooten’s first novel, On Picking Fruit (2006).
“Before being published through Alyson, people were not even opening my book, because they knew it was self published. I will always be grateful to them,” says Wooten, who, in 2007, published Fruit Cocktail through Alyson.
“For [traditional publishers, self publishing provides] a great test market,” says Winchell. “If an author has published a book and it’s selling, that’s sort of the proof in the pudding. The risk is less for them. … [The book has] proven itself in the market or not.”
Unfortunately, even the additional security of acquiring a pre-published book did not save Alyson Books from having to cut its publicist services, leaving Wooten and other authors to promote their books themselves.
The move is a sign of the times, Wooten says. “The boutique gay agencies are all challenged right now financially.”
Still, he looks on the bright side. “I’m blessed that having to self publish myself, I had to teach myself how to write up a press release – and [to learn] who should I target, and how is the most professional and creative, yet persistent, without being pushy way, to reach these people and say, ‘Please, just open it up?’ So, I think I’m kind of ahead of the game with the amount of self promotion we need to do for ourselves nowadays in gay publishing.” (TP)