Sisters in Crime released its report on diversity in publishing on Monday evening this week, and it makes for fascinating reading. You can find it here here.
I’ve been writing and publishing “gay” fiction for almost seventeen years now. (This month, actually, is the sixteen year anniversary of my first two short stories, “Full Nelson” and “The Wrestling Match”, seeing print.) The world of publishing has changed exponentially since those first two stories saw print; as has the world in general. At that time, my first novel was under contract with Alyson Books, and a number of gay mysteries were being published by major New York houses—this list is by no means meant to be comprehensive; I am merely pulling these off the top of my head—including Michael Nava, John Morgan Wilson, R. D. Zimmerman, Mark Richard Zubro, Michael Craft, and Fred Hunter, among many others. Lesbian crime writers weren’t as well-represented in New York as the men were, but I remember at my first attendance at the Lambda Literary Awards, four of the five lesbian mystery finalists were all with major presses: J. M. Redmann at Norton, Katherine Forrest and Mary Wings at Berkley, and Ellen Hart at St. Martins/Minotaur. But the big midlist purge was lurking on the horizon, and once it happened many gay and lesbian crime writers lost their contracts. I myself was about to go to Kensington with my second series, and both of my series remained at their original publishers for a number of years.
Writing and publishing gay crime novels is challenging at best; incredibly frustrating at its worst. I generally don’t like to talk about the challenges of being a ‘gay’ author primarily because I know I have been incredibly lucky with my career: I have found a readership, I have never had an issue finding a publisher for my work, and I have gotten not only peer recognition but also award recognition (14 Lambda Literary Award nominations and two wins; at last count; two Moonbeam medals for excellence in young adult mystery/horror; a Shirley Jackson Award nomination; etc.). There’s also a sense that any time I talk about these issues it may come across as self-serving whining. I realistically knew when I published the first Chanse and the first Scotty books that I was limiting my reach and my potential readership by writing about gay men; even the most voracious readers have limited time and money to spend, and every reader is going to gravitate toward the familiar.
And my novels have always had sexy, borderline lurid covers. Take Bourbon Street Blues, the first Scotty, as a case in point:
I got a lot of emails from people telling me they were glad it was a hardcover because they could slip the dust jacket off to read it in public, otherwise they wouldn’t have—and I had several people tell me that in person as well. There has always been a sense in gay publishing that sexy covers were necessary to sell the books; when I was first getting started there was a lot of talk about this, and many authors bemoaned the ‘bare torso’ cover (periodically, I see this same topic come up with the m/m romance writers today, and it always makes me smile a little bit; the more things change….). With my third Chanse novel, Alyson moved away from the ‘bare torso’ covers for me and tried to make the covers more crime-fiction centric; I loved the cover for Murder in the Rue Chartres/.
They also reissued Murder in the Rue Dauphine with a similar style cover; they were going to do the same with Murder in the Rue St. Ann with its next print run. The fourth book in the series also got one of these covers, and then there was a complete management turnover at Alyson. The fifth Chanse also didn’t get a torso cover, but it got a different style—a New Orleans style cover.
I always had the sense that the bare torso covers, while they might have appeal to gay readers, were scaring off the straight ones. I don’t have much of a straight male readership, outside of people I actually know; I do have some women readers…but there was always, in the back of my head, the sense that we (me and the publisher) were doing the marketing all wrong. I still believe that crime novels with gay protagonists can sell—maybe not in massive numbers; maybe never make the bestseller lists—but I do think there’s an audience out there who would read them.
But how do you find those readers? How do you reach them?
That has always been the problem. I don’t know how to find them, and neither do the publishers.
Over the years I’ve heard gay and lesbian authors claim that it’s homophobia in the publishing houses in New York that keep our work from being contracted with them; I don’t think that’s true. I think the truth is they don’t know how to sell our books. They don’t know how to find our audiences, and based on their history with publishing gay and lesbian books, they’re right. If Simon & Schuster published a crime novel by a gay author with a gay protagonist and it sold over 50,000 copies, they would publish more—and the other publishers would as well. It’s all about the money. Maybe that seems cynical, but it’s true. The days when publishers would take a financial risk on a book they don’t know how to sell simply because they believe in the quality of the book are long gone—if they ever really existed in the first place.
As I said earlier, even the most voracious readers have limited time to read, and limited budgets to buy books with, so they tend to go with the familiar—is there anything more frustrating than spending the money and time on a book you don’t enjoy? If you know you like private eye novels, you’re going to buy private eye novels—you might read books by men and women with male or female private eyes, but if you’re straight are you going to want to take a chance on a lesbian private eye novel or a gay one? Should I pick up this highly acclaimed novel with a straight white guy main character, or this gay one I’ve never heard anything about?
It’s understandable. Maybe a bit frustrating, but it’s understandable.
Hell, the whole reason Sisters in Crime exists in the first place is because of misogyny in crime publishing, and despite all the hard work they’ve put into combatting misogyny for three decades, there is still a lot of work left to be done.
But it is absolutely terrific that they are now looking at diversity issues, for writers of color, LGBTQ writers, and writers with disabilities.
Every little bit helps.
And as I said, I know I am lucky. I am very grateful to have the career I have, the publisher I currently work with, and the readership I currently have. I am luckier than most, and I am very well aware of that.
And now, back to the spice mines.