Apr 13, 2011
How hard is it to sell an LGBT YA novel?
I have been doing a lot of interviews lately since Huntress was just published, and I almost always get a question along these lines: Did you have any problem getting your gay YA novel published? Have you experienced any homophobic backlash to your books?
I always find these questions a little jarring, because from where I stand (in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2011), I basically live in Gay Utopia and homophobia only pokes its head up in my life when I file taxes and am unable to file federally as married. So: Yeah, homophobia exists in my life, but not in my professional career, only in my personal life. ((And yes, it really pisses me off.))
In my professional writing career, I got my start in LGBT journalism, which means I was paid to write about queer people for years (and particularly queer women). I worked for lesbians; I went to their events; I promoted them; I interviewed them; I eventually got to a point where I could hire them. I went to parties where everybody was queer and the biggest question was who was the hottest. This is Gay Utopia Living at its finest.
Because I started my writing career in Gay Utopia, I went into mainstream book publishing with a kind of double vision. I was accustomed to my sexual orientation being treated as totally normal (and even cool). But I did have some residual, pre-Gay Utopia fears that straight people might not think that way.
When I began writing Ash (before Gay Utopia) and realized I had to turn it into a lesbian Cinderella, I did think it would make it unsellable. But as I worked on Ash, I also began that career in Gay Utopia, which ultimately taught me that: (1) there are tons of queer women out there in this world, and (2) they really want to read books/watch movies/TV that feature queer women. Essentially: Go for it and who cares what the straight people think!
In retrospect, I’m really glad I sold Ash while I was still working in Gay Utopia, because it gave me the nerve to have that “go for it” attitude.
Sometimes, now that I’m working in a predominantly heterosexual industry (commercial book publishing), that attitude is hard to maintain. Especially when everybody asks me whether I have faced or am facing homophobic reactions to my books. Basically my answer is “no,” but the questions do get me thinking about whether I’m mistaken. Am I missing something here? Is the world really so homophobic?
Sometimes I start to search for homophobic stories to tell to reporters and bloggers. This, I realize, is a little weird. But it seems like that’s what people want to hear about.
So, yes, a few times I have experienced some homophobic responses to my novels. Once there was a librarian who told me her students couldn’t come to my event because their parents objected to my biography (this has always been so weird to me, because I guess they objected to the fact that I won an award from the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association). Once a newspaper did a story about me featuring an illustration of two Disney princesses dancing together, and a bunch of moms wrote in complaining that the illustration meant they’d have to talk to their little girls about gay sex. (This was unrelated entirely to my book, but still, WTF?) And of course there are some one-star reviews on Amazon that object to Ash because of the lesbian relationship.
But largely my reaction to these situations has been: So what? They’re so marginal to my daily experience of being a writer or being a lesbian. They’re kind of like blips on the side of the highway; they make me look, but then I just keep going.
I would like to advocate this as an attitude that writers of YA novels with LGBT characters should adopt. Because I think it’s better to go into the business expecting the best than expecting the worst. Usually, you find what you expect to find.
I know that homophobia still exists (especially in my personal life, see gay marriage situation), but in publishing, well … Commercial publishing in the United States is so gay-friendly it’s practically Gay Utopia. I mean, children’s book editors are, frankly, notoriously liberal! (Or else, open secret, they’re gay!) And they live and work in New York City, which is second only to San Francisco in Gay Utopicness. ((I say this because I love San Francisco; I’m sure New Yorkers would object and claim the No. 1 spot on the list of Top 10 Gay Utopias.))
Yes, sometimes there are exceptions, such as the recent debacle with the Wicked Pretty Things anthology, but I actually think that is an exception that proves the rule. The response to it pretty much shows that most publishing folks do not tolerate homophobia. However, you also have to be realistic.
Here are some things to keep in mind about book publishing and LGBT issues right now in 2011:
1. There are fewer LGBT people than straight people. That means a book with LGBT characters/themes is likely to be seen as potentially less commercial than a book focusing on straight people. Why? Because there are fewer LGBT people to buy it.
2. Straight people, on the whole, are probably less likely to read books that are advertised as “gay books” because they might assume that the book is not for them. Do I blame them for this? No. Honestly, I’m less likely to read books that are advertised as “straight books.” ((That would be all those aggressively straight YA romances selling love triangles featuring hot straight boys and/or societies that mysteriously do not include a single gay person.)) I do read them because it’s hard to avoid them (they are the MAJORITY OF BOOKS), but I do seek out queer novels.
3. Smaller potential audience for a book = lower potential sales = lower profit for the publisher. If the publisher is acting like a rational player in a capitalist economy, it will probably look very hard at an LGBT YA novel it’s considering acquiring, because in a way, it has to outperform a heterosexual one in order to make money.
Do I like No. 3? Hell no! But I don’t think it’s active homophobia. I think it’s reality. ((Which, yes, is based on centuries of homophobia, so you could argue against me, but I do believe there is a difference between active bigotry and dealing with institutionalized homophobia.))
That doesn’t mean I think we should sit back and accept the status quo. There are many ways we can change No. 2 above ((I don’t think we can realistically change No. 1!)), which would lead to changing No. 3. My favorite method of change? Writing awesome LGBT books!
In this area, I find inspiration in authors such as Sarah Waters and Jacqueline Carey, who have turned out massively successful novels about queer women that are also read by tons of straight people. Obviously not every writer is going to be Sarah Waters or Jacqueline Carey, but it’s important to have goals, right? And I like to aim high.
That’s all we can do, really, as writers. Aim high and try our best to hit the target. The target will always be a good story, straight or gay. If it’s good enough, I believe that readers will read it, no matter their sexual orientation.
P.S. Don’t forget! Huntress signed bookplates available here until May 1.