Are Publishers Ignoring Lesbian Writers?: Or, Why Do We Need Mainstream Publishing Anyway?

In her Washington Blade piece, “Publishers Ignoring Lesbian Writers,” Julie R. Enszer, raises an oft heard lament—there isn’t a lot of lesbian literature being published by mainstream publishers:

     “While there is much to celebrate in queer literary culture, there is something to bemoan as well, particularly for lesbian writers and readers. The lack of attention by mainstream publishers to lesbian writing, particularly lesbian fiction, is appalling….

     “So what does the lack of attention from mainstream publishers mean to readers? In short, it means that excellent books by lesbian writers don’t get time and attention from the mainstream publishing industry. It means that it is difficult to find books that have compelling lesbian characters.”

Is mainstream publishing actively “ignoring” excellent lesbian writers? No. Each manuscript is judged individually and if a manuscript isn’t being acquired it’s because the house doesn’t think it can successfully publish it—and by that I mean, make money on it. Is it “appalling”? It’s business, not personal.

Does this lack of attention “make it difficult to find books that have compelling lesbian characters?” It’s certainly not difficult to find books by lesbian authors or with lesbian characters thanks to google, amazon, small indie publishers, and self-published titles but whether those characters are compelling or not, who knows? There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of what I’d call “literary fiction” so maybe that’s the condition for compelling.

So, I disagree on the main points here but I do know how frustrating it feels to be unable to find something good to read or more books like Tipping the Velvet and Babyji or simply not to see more lesbian books with a borzoi on the spine. So no matter the reasons, I’ve bemoaned this situation for years and done lots of things with every stripe of publishing person from big time writers to those who walk the halls of indie and mainstream publishers to booksellers to try to address it: finding ways to support lesbian writers, raising awareness about lesbian books, planning parties and fundraisers for lesbian writers and organizations that support them, buying books by lesbian writers.

(That last one is really important: If you haven’t bought a novel by a lesbian writer in the past year, well, look to yourself for the lack of lesbian novels being published. If you haven’t bought a hardcover physical book or hardcover priced ebook by a lesbian writer in the past year, then you should rethink your position on the importance of mainstream publishing which in most cases is ruled by frontlist hardcovers. And, if you haven’t bought any kind of book by a first-time lesbian writer at any time, well then please just go do it now. How can you expect publishers to support work that you don’t?)

And yet after all of the good intentions here we are still: very few lesbian writers being published by mainstream houses. Enszer urges us to take action in order for “our literary culture thrive.” I’m all in—but what action would that be precisely? A few suggestions:

            –Write lesbian fiction with compelling lesbian characters. If you don’t write it, no one can publish it.

            –Buy the lesbian books you’d like to see more of. Any for-profit publishing is about that: profit. If a book makes money, a publisher will want to publish more books by that author or in that genre. There’s no conspiracy—it’s about money.

            –Promote the lesbian books and authors you like. Most people hear and buy books based on a recommendation from someone they know or trust. So, talk books up, give them a shout out on FB and twitter, create a book club, start a blog (who would have thought?), do whatever you can to raise awareness.

            –If you’re a writer, show there’s a market for your work. Publishing and especially mainstream publishing at the big 6 is not just about fine writing; it’s about an author’s platform. Does the author have enough of an audience and the capacity to reach that audience to make publishing his or her book financially viable? Amanda Hocking did not attract a seven figure advance because her paranormal romances blew the socks of an editor at SMP. She attracted their attention because she’d sold thousands of copies of her ebooks already. She worked her fingers to the bone to gain an audience and show publishers that there was a market for her writing. Go out there and find your readers.

But wait. Why is it so important to be published by a mainstream publisher in the first place? What’s the draw?

–To reach readers? Once the big 6 had the unparalleled power of bookstore distribution but now foot traffic in bookstores is down, a major national chain is going under, and the number of indies has fallen. Physical distribution doesn’t mean as much; you can reach readers online just like the big 6.

–To be successful? The advance may be sweet but lots of books never earn out their advance or sell more than a few thousand copies. Publishing is a tough business and few writers support themselves solely through their books.

–To get publicity and review attention? You’ve definitely got a better shot but there are dwindling major national outlets and limited review space. Most books simply don’t get reviewed or covered. If you’re willing to do the leg work, build up a strong social media presence and make friends with the influential bloggers, you’ll get a lot of the same attention your marketing manager or publicist would secure.

–To have all of the resources a big publisher brings—from editors to designers to publicists? That’s a definite draw but there are lots of talented folks at smaller publishers and great freelancers out there, too, many of them former staff at major publishing houses. And, budgets are getting slashed everywhere so you can’t assume you’ll have a huge marketing or publicity budget for your book.

And, be careful what you wish for. That mainstream publisher is looking for the widest possible audience to sell the most books possible. You may find, like Sarah Waters and Malinda Lo, that your lesbian content isn’t used as a selling point or even mentioned. From a piece in the Atlantic: “Malinda Lo noted her publishers try to “disguise” the fact that the main character in her retelling of Cinderella is a lesbian by not making it clear in the jacket copy or beginning of the book. While many readers are surprised to discover the identity of the character’s love interest, “some are okay with it” even though they might not have picked up a novel marketed as LGBTQ.”

–To be validated by mainstream publishing? There is a certain cache to being published by the mainstream houses and I know that’s very appealing (I admit it: I’m an imprint snob) but I still like to think that the purpose of writing and publishing is to make us think and to make us wonder. You don’t need mainstream publishers to do that.

But you may just need a facebook page

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2 Responses to Are Publishers Ignoring Lesbian Writers?: Or, Why Do We Need Mainstream Publishing Anyway?

  1. mstiptress says:

    I love this post. Very informative and helpful.

    Here is my thing, I so have read a few lesbian books in my day and.. much to my dismay.. I find that I do not like them that as much.. (and I am a lesbian)..

    Most of the characters I come across are so.. blah.. I guess not much excitement to them.
    My partner and I have vowed to watch more lesbian movies too.. and gosh. those kind of suck to.. But we watch b/c of the women. I have the same attitude toward the books. I’m striving to find more books by “lesbian” authors.. I’m tired of the same old same old.

    Although I have read a few that I absolutely love and have bought two copies of those (hardback and paper). And I totally agree with the money part.. it is all about that. Its a business decision, would I myself want to waste money…. NO!

    Hopefully there are more of US out there that can bring more light to this subject…

    Awesome post.

  2. Robin says:

    I agree with mstiptress. From what Val McDermid, author of the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan Mysteries indicates, it was suicide to write lesbians as main Characters as mainstream authors. Now she is in a place to write more and is writing some with Lesbians as a main character. Her writing is excellent. As lesbian is more accepted, I hope to see a genre of excellent writing come into the main stream such as Sara Waters. It is bigotry that this is happening, but more and more, the younger generation is seeing homosexuality as nature, not nurture–a happening done in birth, not a choice. Perhaps we will see more mainstream movies with lesbians a a main character as well, but as the pattern seems to be–men will first be more mainstreamed before women. Our first president will be a man of color before we see a white female as president. I hope to see these evolve before I die. Much has changed as I am now 60, but will I see these changes before I die. I hope so. I so much want to read good literature with lesbians as main characters.

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