My first two columns were somewhat effusive in their enthusiasm for all the great strides writers and publishers of LGBT romance have made. I do think it’s worth taking the time to celebrate our accomplishments, but there’s still work to be done, so I thought this month I’d talk about what more can be done to really bring LGBT romance to the mainstream.
First, I think we have to reframe the way we think about this industry.
You may have heard about the University of Missouri football player Michael Sam, who came out of the closet in early February. The reactions in the immediate aftermath (i.e., when I’m writing this column) have been mixed between “yay, good for him!” and “the NFL is not ready for a gay player.” The latter argument goes that—despite the fact that this player has been out to his teammates since last summer—football players are a homophobic lot and putting a gay player in the locker room will cause the straight players to be uncomfortable, and maybe someday in the future professional sports will be ready for gay players, just not right now. The coaches interviewed for articles all backpedal and go, “It’s not that I’m homophobic…” but there is an insidious homophobia to the assumption that NFL players can’t possibly cope with a gay player in what is arguably the butchest of sports. *manly grunts*
I think also underlying the assumption about professional sports being ready for gay players is an assumption that everything is as it always has been and so it ever shall be. But it’s not. Young people are more accepting than their parents. Marriage equality is becoming the law of the land across the US and the world. Gay athletes (and recently a Navy SEAL!) are tentatively starting to make the truth themselves known publicly.
Such is the case in publishing as well. I think sometimes that we all labor under the delusions that the publishing industry will keep on trucking the way it always has been, that the lack of success for LGBT fiction means it will never be successful, that conventional wisdom is true.
In order to make progress, we must challenge these old assumptions.
For the sake of keeping this column from being 84 pages long, I’ll pick one assumption. A hot-button issue is reviews in the trades. For romance writers, this primarily means reviews in the big magazines like Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal, and RT. Those reviews are super important because they help booksellers and librarians determine what to put on their shelves. Very few LGBT romances are reviewed in the trades; that’s changing slowly, but it’s still pretty rare. I can usually count on one hand the number of LGBT romances reviewed in any given issue of RT, for example, and even then, those are pretty much limited to m/m.
They’re homophobic! the conventional wisdom goes. We can’t send our books to those publications because they’re not ready for LGBT books! Sound familiar? It’s also not true.
The real issue is that almost all LGBT romance is still being put out digital-first. Even at the Big Five, LGBT romance is mostly relegated to the digital imprints. It’s progress, yes, but we’re not really there until there are two men clutching each other on the cover of a mass market paperback, you know?
One drawback of the digital-first model—with some exceptions—is that it operates on a compressed schedule. Books typically take about six months from contract to publication, in my experience, and cover and editorial changes are still being made in the weeks leading up to the pub date in some instances. But the trades, in order to commission reviews, edit those reviews, lay them out in the magazine, and get the magazine printed, need about four months lead time. Very few digital-first publishers can or will accommodate that need. Thus LGBT romance isn’t getting reviewed much in the trades because the publishers aren’t able to get them books in time to be reviewed.
This is changing. Some digital-first publishers are already working with schedules that allow them to send books to RT and the other trades. To me, this is an important step in getting more LGBT romance into brick-and-mortar spaces. But we’re living in an Amazon world, I hear you arguing. Who cares if the books are in print? Well, sales numbers indicate that print and e-books help sell each other. That, and we’re not living in an all-digital world (yet). There are still a lot of readers we’re not reaching by not making print books available. And buying a POD paperback from an online store is one thing, but it means your book can’t be discovered by library and bookstore browsers.
Don’t assume the old ways are still true, in other words. Talk to your publishers about your book’s schedule if you want a review in one of the trades. See what they’re already doing to get word about your book out there.
To be clear, I’m not expecting LGBT romance sales to rival Nora Roberts’. And, sure, there are plenty of conservative romance readers. I have an acquaintance who still won’t read my books because—no offense, she always says—but she’s pretty squicked out by gay sex. Lesbian romance has this problem as well; I can’t tell you how many blog posts I’ve seen that ponder why lesbian romance isn’t catching on the same way gay male books are, only to get a dozen comments that are basically, “Two girls together are gross” or variations on the same. (That is a whole other side rant, but suffice it to say, I disagree, and also I think we just haven’t had a big breakout book yet, but it’s coming. And there is great lesbian romance available already if you know where to look.) Some readers will never be interested in LGBT romance, and that’s fine. I’m not even trying to put a book in everyone’s hand. I just want to get books distributed through as many channels as possible so that all readers who want these books can have access to them.
I talked in my very first column about people at parties who tell me I’d make more money writing heterosexual romance. This just happened again last weekend when I was at a bar. “You’d be so much more successful if you wrote heterosexual characters,” a friend argued. Sure. And maybe Michael Sam would get less grief if he stayed in the closet. I don’t think I’m even doing anything nearly so subversive or risky as Michael Sam. I’m a (mostly) straight white lady who likes writing books where men fall in love with each other. Personally? I’m just trying to carve out a writing career for myself.
But I believe that these stories, even the less potentially-lucrative ones, deserve to be told, and that the writers who choose to write them should be able to make a career of it if they so choose. That means we still have some work to do to get our books into the marketplace.♥
Kate McMurray is an award-winning author of gay romance and an unabashed romance fan. When she’s not writing, she works as a nonfiction editor, dabbles in various crafts, and is maybe a tiny bit obsessed with baseball. She’s currently serving as President of Rainbow Romance Writers, the LGBT romance chapter of Romance Writers of America. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. Visit her at www.katemcmurray.com.