Why Don't Gay Books Sell?
Two quick answers:

  • the wrong books are being published and
  • they're marketed to the wrong audience.

In Mikel Wadewitz editorial (see St. Martin's Press, Stonewall Inn Editions Editorial Page), he posed a rather frustrated question: "Why have so many gay men and lesbians abandoned the written word?"

From this editorial, I perceive that even a mega-monster publisher like St. Martin's, which is probably owned by some even bigger conglomerate, is not all that successful selling gay books. We're probably talking sales of only 10,000 to 50,000 copies of their "best-sellers" at most, when other books in other genres can sell, say, a million copies. Mr. Wadewitz and his associates astutely realize that there is a "stalling of gay and lesbian literature." They even list several factors they think contribute to that stalling. I have noticed with growing alarm, myself, the demise of one small gay press after another, and the glbt retail outlets that carry their books. But have gays and lesbians really abandoned the written word, or have the gay media (including book publishers) abandoned those gays and lesbians who read—either by cutting back on the gay titles or by missing the mark on what they publish?

Where Have All the Readers Gone?

My own assessment of this declining readership and seeming growing disinterest by gays and lesbians is, of course, subjective. But I am one of those readers out there, who searches for good gay books. And I'm old enough to remember when one had to settle for pre-Stonewall novels that usually cast the gay character in the roll of villain, neurotic, or loser who, in the end, had to suffer retribution for his affliction. So what has changed? There are literally thousands of titles available to gay/lesbian readers and, at a time when we should all be prospering in our culture, it seems on the verge of bankruptcy.

Books, Books Everywhere and Not a Book to Read!

In 1985, my company sent me to Washington DC to work out of its corporate headquarters as a technical writer. Being from southern New Mexico (far from any real gay scene), I was delighted, knowing I would have a chance to overdose on gay books at Lambda Rising Bookstore, which claims to have available every glbt title in print. (It doesn't, but that's another story.)

Boy, was I disappointed. In the entire year I was in DC, I found very few gay books (perhaps a dozen) that interested me. I couldn't believe it. I thought I had missed something when I was living in New Mexico, thought I hadn't combed every available avenue to find those elusive gay books. But with the stacks of books at Lambda, with titles in the hundreds, I noticed a dreary sameness in them--about gay men whose lives centered around nightclubs and the baths, or who traveled to the gay hot spots around the world and suffered angst amongst the glitterati--something, anyway, that bothered me and was not appealing.

From Mr. Wadewitz's perspective as a publisher, he might be frustrated at this notion that a reader can be surrounded by books and not find anything to read. Yet, I am a voracious reader and have great patience in reading books I don't really care for, just because they are supposed to be good. 

I'm annoyed that publishers give us fiction and nonfiction aimed at a limited market of readers in the gay/lesbian community, apparently those who live in New York, L.A., or San Francisco--just like the characters in the novels. Once those characters make it to the ghettos, they seem to deliberately lose touch with their dreary, boring, conservative, uneducated, uncultured, tasteless families back home in Nebraska, Wyoming, New Mexico, Texas, or any of the other 44 states that publishers of gay material ignore. Yet, again, in real life, for the majority of gays and lesbians, the stories that would appeal, in my opinion, are those that must deal with their hometowns, their life-long friends, their families, stories of how gays and lesbians work to be part of their dreary, boring, uneducated, uncultured, tasteless lives and how they are rejected or loved in return.

Over the years, I have found very few gay novels that set my soul on fire as did Patricia Nell Warren's Front Runner. That novel sold in the millions and is still the best-selling gay novel of all time. But was it chosen to be on the list of the 100 best gay books of all time? Was it ever a Lammie Award Winner? Of course not! It was just a story of a gay athlete, not a gay effete. Those who control the gay media don't consider Ms. Warren's books worthy of their narrow sense of what gay literature ought to be. Even when they admit that gay books aren't selling, they haven't a clue as to why not. 

Editors as Censors 

I remember the sense of frustration I felt when trying to find a NYC publisher for my first novel, which had been published by a small press. It went out of print when the publisher went under. Even though I had been published in two of John Preston's most well-known and award-winning anthologies (Hometowns and Member of the Family—both by Dutton/Penguin), I still couldn't get a serious reading of Common Sons. One editor at Dutton actually said "a small town in southern New Mexico is an odd setting for a gay novel." I knew she was wrong. What is true is that gay people are everywhere, and there are (or should be) many viable and well-written stories coming out of every village, town, and small city, with their own unique flavors, plots, and conflicts. It's just that many, if not most, NYC publishers and their editors fail to recognize this. 

Another editor opined that "coming-out novels are old-hat." Again, I knew that editor was wrong. Old-hat for whom? Even in 2000 there are thousands upon thousands of gays and lesbians who are struggling for the first time with the issues of coming out, and they need books that speak to that issue, and which speak to them, not their big city cousins.

The Gay Media Don't Support the Gay Presses

But perhaps even more frustrating than being rejected for publication is being ignored by the gay media and not being reviewed once a book has been published. By 1997 Common Sons had been published--twice--and, in the second edition had sold out of its initial 10,000 copy printing within the first few months. It was a "best seller" even by a large press accounting for a gay novel, yet I found very few gay periodicals willing to review it--certainly not The Advocate or the other mainstays of the gay press. I don't want to belabor the trials and tribulations of my first novel, except to make the point that the gay media are partly to blame, in my opinion, for the very demise of gay literature and the lack of readership that NYC editors are complaining about. The successful periodicals and slicks just won't review small press books; and even more of them don't include a book review section at all. There is a sense of snobbery about them that is really unfortunate, too bad for the hopeful author with a good story to tell, and too bad for all those readers out there who search in vain for books that have meaning and relevance in their lives. That snobbery is this: if it's not published by a big, fat NYC publisher it must not be good. Nothing could be further from the truth. Small presses are on budgets so tight, they must carefully screen every book they publish. They must be able to target their audience with even greater precision than the large houses, especially since they can't get free publicity through reviews in the gay media.

Cosmopolitan Provincialism (not an oxymoron)

Again, why is gay readership slipping? The problem is the attitude that if it comes out of New York or L.A., it's "literary," "cultural," and "cosmopolitan." If it comes out of Texas or... or... Indiana it's hokey and provincial. In reality, however, those hip and hot publishers and editors are provincial in their attitude, apparently under the mistaken impression that gay people only live in the large urban centers. We really don't have to look much further than that to know why gay books aren't selling. The wrong books are being published and they're marketed to the wrong audience. What's being published is mostly too narrow in scope, too vacuous and pretentious and ephemeral and "literary" to catch on much past New York.

There Really is Life Outside New York

The vast majority of us still live in the small cities and towns between New York and L.A.; we still hold closely the values of our families; we're still romantic and like a good book that makes us cry or leap for joy at a good ending. Of course there's room for the kinds of books currently coming out of the Big Apple, and some demographically astute editors and houses do have a wider sense of the gay "culture," but too many editors seem only to count among their potential readers those gays who live on either coast, tailoring their lists to a couple million gays, forgetting (or perhaps truly not knowing) that there are ten times that many readers out there in the middle of the continent just hungering for literature that more nearly reflects their values and expectations.

So, to reiterate: I suspect that there is a "stalling" of gay and lesbian literature, because many potential readers out here in the real world are simply not in-tune with the narrowly focused offerings of the mega publishers. But I don't think NYC editors really understand this point. A gay kid in Podunk, Idaho, who wonders how it would feel to kiss another boy or hold hands with him is not a likely candidate to read an S/M novel (sorry John Preston), or to identify with jaded main characters who look bitterly upon their lives (forgive me Andrew Holleran). And if the kid from Podunk did read the "gritty, realistic" accountings of life in the gay ghettos--or the unsatisfying sex-hunt novels of John Rechy, it might convince him to bolt his closet door shut from the inside and slowly die an internal death of despair over his feelings for the high school track star.

As the question about declining readers indicates, many editors know there's "something" wrong, something that continues to erode the gay/lesbian reader base--but it isn't only that the bars, baths, and bushes are stronger lures to potential gay readers than the written word. It isn't entirely a problem with "men who prefer to go clubbing instead of reading." More precisely, as I have already indicated, it's that most potential readers have little in common with much of the fiction and non-fiction presently dominating the brick and mortar bookshelves.

The Wrong Audience

Publishers and marketers are attempting to sell to a segment of the gay market that doesn't read. Hel-lo! It's just a fact of life that kids between the ages of 16 and 25 just aren't going to read as much as their older counterparts; they're too busy listening to CDs (which they can download for free from the internet) and going to the nightclubs and messing with their bodies. Books should be marketed to people whose hormones have begun to settle down and whose brains are functioning again, or to the young gays and lesbians in the hinterlands of America and Canada, who have access to the internet, and yet don't have access to gay nightclubs. Again, gays and lesbians have not abandoned the written word. We have historically read much more than our heterosexual counterparts; publishers just have to hit us where we live--not where they think we live. We gays and lesbians have always turned to books to legitimize our lives, since we're fringe members of society at large, without in most cases the social institutions of Church, School, and even Family to provide guidance. In the little out-of-the-way towns and cities of middle America, we have also turned to books for companionship, and we hold most dear those books that tell us that there's hope--not those that drive us to despair.

What Kind of Gay and Lesbian Books Ought to be Published?

We need books about gays and their relationship to the Church, and books that show that gays can develop loving and long-lasting monogamous relationships. (I know it's not hip or politically correct--especially among many urban gay men--to value monogamy; but many many gay men do value it and want nothing more than one love partner to grow old with.) There is, in fact, a nonfiction book on the market, published by Haworth Press that deals with long-term gay couples, entitled Longtime Companions: Autobiographies of Gay Male Fidelity. The essays include some couples who have been together for 50 years. This one is a gem and is about real gay couples.

Another issue that I find treated with very little depth, except for the sensational side, and one that is ugly in the extreme is the ex-gay movement and the lives it destroys. it's ugly because the villains in the real-life stories of the ex-gay movement are self-loathing gay people, who want company in their misery. A companion issue to this is the fundamentalist Christians anti-gay agenda. For the most part, those among us who have suffered at the hands of either the reparative therapists or the anti-gay fundamentalists surely have stories to tell, and there may well be plenty of manuscripts languishing on the slush-piles of the NYC publishers about these issues.

We Need Books in Many Genres

Another avenue of meeting the needs of the gays and lesbians out there who do read is to offer books in the traditional genres, such as science-fiction/fantasy, romances (for those of us who probably gushed over The Lord Wont Mind and other rare gems), westerns like the current best-selling Frontiers by Michael Jensen (Pocket Books), and we need books in historical fiction/non-fiction that show us that there were gays before Stonewall. And we need simply good, entertaining murder mysteries and horror stories to round out the mix.

We also need simple stories, simply told. Why, for the love of Pete, do the gay media (editors, publishers, and reviewers) attempt to make every novel worthy of their notice some sort of literary achievement? Sprinkle in a few bon mots, place the story in Naples, use the word "nocturnes" in the title, create a totally unlikable or vague main character, or write in the immediate present tense and give the character and his fleeting acquaintances absolutely no true substance, and come to no real ending, and you have great literature? I don't think so. Maybe the next runaway best-seller will come from a small press with an editor who has the courage to break with tradition and publish a novel about a kid from Podunk, Idaho, or Verona, Indiana, who does fall in love with the high school track star; and they don't run away to the big city.

Readers Over 25

Finally, publishers and the gay media ought to widen their reader base by expanding their universe to include the other 48 states and anyone over 30. For the millions of us Baby Boomer generation, books have been our lifeline. We don't go to the bars (are not even welcome there as a matter of fact), and those of us who escaped AIDS are inclined to settle down with partners, now that we've sown our wilder oats. We Baby Boomers are numerous and we not only vote, we READ. If publishers of gay literature seriously want to break the 10,000 copy limit, they should probably consider looking to this generation and the interior of America if they want to appeal to a wider readership.

This article is copyrighted by Ronald L. Donaghe (2000, 2002, 2003). It can be reprinted in its entirety or quoted from, but please give full credit when reprinting or quoting from it.

Ronald L. Donaghe, Las Cruces, New Mexico
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