In 2012 I counted how many LGBT YA novels were published. In comparison to statistics on LGBT YA from 1969-2011, it looked like the representation of LGBT characters in YA was continuing to improve. This year there is both an increase and a decrease in the number of LGBT young adult books published. How does that work? Well, things are complicated. Additionally, things don’t look so good for girls. Here’s the overview:
94 YA books published in 2013 include LGBT main characters or are about LGBT issues
29 of those books were published by the Big 5 ((Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Simon and Schuster)) or mainstream publishers ((These are general interest publishers that range in size from small to pretty big: Algonquin Young Readers, Scholastic, Candlewick Press, Carolrhoda Lab, Entangled, Flux, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Kensington, Running Press, Skyscape/Amazon, Soho Teen, and Strange Chemistry.))
65 of those books were published by LGBT publishers ((Bella Books, Bold Strokes Books, Harmony Ink, Prizm Books, Queerteen Press, Tiny Satchel Press))
A Rise in LGBT YA from LGBT Publishers
In 2012, I only found 55 LGBT YA books, which means 2013 has seen an approximately 70% increase from 2012. However, the vast majority of the increase has come from a larger number of novels published by LGBT publishers, and it's not clear to me how widely available their books are outside of the ebook format. These publishers only accounted for 37% of LGBT YA published in 2012, but they accounted for 69% of LGBT YA published in 2013.
The majority of readers may not pay much attention to the publisher of the books they read, but who publishes a book can be an important thing for the following reasons:
Distribution. Big 5 and mainstream publishers are more likely to have their books distributed to more retail outlets, ranging from Barnes & Noble to Wal-Mart and your local independent bookseller. LGBT publishers can certainly be distributed to bookstores, and some of them are, but they’re unlikely to have the reach and ready availability of any book published by a mainstream publisher.
Discoverability. Books published by LGBT publishers are often shelved in LGBT sections of bookstores, which means readers must go specifically to those sections to find them. This can be a great way to discover new books about LGBT people, but it also removes them from more trafficked sections of the bookstore. For LGBT youth in locations where being out is not easy, this could be a barrier to discovery.
Schools and Libraries. The school and library market is extremely important for young adult books, as many teens rely on schools and libraries for their books rather than buying them. While schools and libraries can certainly buy books from any publisher, I’m uncertain how often they purchase them from small, LGBT-specific publishers. Later this week I’ll be posting an interview with Len Barot, president of Bold Strokes Books, an LGBT publisher, in which she acknowledged, “Getting the word out to librarians that we have LGBTQ-focused works available has been difficult.”
A Decline in LGBT YA From Mainstream Publishers
In 2012, 34 LGBT YA novels were published by the Big 6 ((In 2012, Random House and Penguin had not yet merged.)) or mainstream publishers. In 2013, only 29 LGBT YA novels were published by the Big 5 and mainstream publishers. This is a 15% decline from 2012.
Does the increase in LGBT publishers’ YA novels make up for this decline? It depends partly on how effective the ebook market is, specifically whether teens — or those who want to read these LGBT novels — are able to find them online. I can see that reading ebooks on ebook apps or readers might take some of the stigma out of reading LGBT novels, but online discoverability is a huge problem.
For example, I’m sure I didn’t find all of the LGBT YA novels published by LGBT publishers, because many of them do not have easily searchable websites or catalogs. ((Even though traditional publishers have been slow to adapt to new technologies, their websites and databases are clearly superior. This is something that’s changed only within the last few years, so maybe LGBT publishers will catch up in time. Bold Strokes Books, a more established LGBT publisher, has a fairly good site.)) Of course, most readers don’t comb through publishers’ websites to find books; they’re more likely to go to Amazon. A straightforward search for “LGBT young adult books” on Amazon turned up 82 results, which seems great until you start looking at the items listed. One was a vampire’s kiss pendant necklace, not even a book.
For all these reasons, I’m not sure that the increase in the number of LGBT YA books I found this year is a positive thing. While I absolutely believe that LGBT publishers have played and continue to play a significant role in producing stories about queer lives, I also believe that it’s important for LGBT stories to be published right alongside heterosexual ones.
Of course, one year is only one year. Later this month I’ll be looking at the percentage of LGBT YA published by mainstream publishers over the past decade to see if there have been any trends there.
Gender Representation: Fewer Girls, Again
In 2012 for the first time, gender representation among LGBT YA was almost equally divided between cisgender ((Cisgender describes people who identify as the gender they were assigned at birth.)) male and cisgender female characters, though transgender ((According to HRC, “transgender” is a term that describes “A broad range of people who experience and/or express their gender differently from what most people expect — either in terms of expressing a gender that does not match the sex listed on their original birth certificate (i.e., designated sex at birth), or physically changing their sex.”)) characters remained few and far between.
In 2013, it looks like that gender equality has disappeared, and we’ve gone back to a majority of books about cisgender male characters. Among the mainstream and Big 5 publishers, approximately 59% of LGBT YA books were about cisgender male characters, with 34% about cisgender females. Additionally, this year saw one novel about an intersex character (Pantomime by Laura Lam) and one novel about a transgender character (Freakboy by Kristin Elizabeth Clark).
The gender split is even more severe among LGBT publishers, with 75% of the books about cisgender male characters, 20% about cisgender female characters, and one book that included both cis male and cis female queer characters. I couldn’t find any cover copy for two books (3% of all), so I’ve counted those as having characters of unknown gender.
Once again, cis girls are far outnumbered by cis boys. This isn't actually a surprise, because among LGBT media in general, males always receive more coverage. Additionally, LGBT publishers have often focused on lesbians or gay men, which are two quite distinct markets. Among the LGBT publishers I surveyed this time around, Bold Strokes Books, which was founded by lesbians, predominantly focuses on lesbians and thus has published mostly lesbian novels. Harmony Ink and Queerteen Press seem predominantly focused on gay male stories. Notably, none of the LGBT publishers published any books about transgender youth, nor is it easily apparent if any of the books had bisexual characters, so it would be more accurate to identify these publishers as gay and lesbian publishers.
Cover Copy: Not Always Accurate
In 2012 I examined the cover copy of LGBT YA books to determine if they clearly indicated LGBT characters or story lines. This year the results were similar. All the books published by LGBT publishers clearly indicated that the books included LGBT content, if only because the publisher specializes in LGBT books. In some cases LGBT publishers did publish non-LGBT books, and those books were tagged as “non-LGBT.”
Among mainstream and the Big 5 publishers, slightly more than half (15) of the 29 titles had cover copy that clearly indicated LGBT content. Two included suggestive copy, and twelve omitted all mention of LGBT content. Among the twelve that didn’t mention LGBT content, a couple seemed somewhat misleading.
I don’t believe that suggestive copy or omitting LGBT content in the copy is necessarily wrong, because there are cases to be made that a book isn’t about a straightforward homosexual story; it’s about something else. For example, Proxy by Alex London (Philomel) has a queer main character, but the book isn’t about his queerness. Indeed, Proxy is one of the few young adult novels that doesn’t turn on a romantic plot at all. It would make little sense for the cover copy for Proxy to state that one of the main point-of-view characters is gay.
Alternatively, if a book’s story is about a more fluid queer identity, it can be difficult to say that in cover copy, which rarely delves into a novel’s complexities. For example, here’s the cover copy for Amy Reed’s Over You (Simon Pulse):
An intense friendship fractures in this gritty, realistic novel from the author of Beautiful, Clean, and Crazy, which School Library Journal called “compelling and moving.”
Max would follow Sadie anywhere, so when Sadie decides to ditch her problems and escape to Nebraska for the summer, it’s only natural for Max to go along. Max is Sadie’s confidante, her protector, and her best friend. This summer will be all about them. This summer will be perfect.
And then they meet Dylan. Dylan is dark, dangerous, and intoxicating, and he awakens something in Max that she never knew existed. No matter how much she wants to, she can’t back away from him.
But Sadie has her own intensity, and has never allowed Max to become close with anyone else. Max doesn’t know who she is without Sadie, but she’d better start learning. Because if she doesn’t make a decision—about Dylan, about Sadie, about herself—it’s going to be made for her.
This copy strongly suggests romance between Dylan and Max, but it leads off with describing the “intense” friendship between the two girls. The novel itself is about a character who is bisexual, so the copy isn’t exactly misleading. It simply hasn’t spelled out Max’s sexual orientation.
There are cases, however, when cover copy goes beyond omission and can feel misleading. Two books from 2013 did this for me. Coda by Emma Trevayne (Running Press Teens) is about a bisexual boy, but the cover copy suggests a purely heterosexual story (emphasis added):
Ever since he was a young boy, music has coursed through the veins of eighteen-year-old Anthem—the Corp has certainly seen to that. By encoding music with addictive and mind-altering elements, the Corp holds control over all citizens, particularly conduits like Anthem, whose life energy feeds the main power in the Grid.
Anthem finds hope and comfort in the twin siblings he cares for, even as he watches the life drain slowly and painfully from his father. Escape is found in his underground rock band, where music sounds free, clear, and unencoded deep in an abandoned basement. But when a band member dies suspiciously from a tracking overdose, Anthem knows that his time has suddenly become limited. Revolution all but sings in the air, and Anthem cannot help but answer the call with the chords of choice and free will. But will the girl he loves help or hinder him?
Pantomime by Laura Lam (Strange Chemistry) is about an intersex character, but the cover copy seems to suggest that there are two main characters, not only one:
R.H. Ragona’s Circus of Magic is the greatest circus of Ellada. Nestled among the glowing blue Penglass – remnants of a mysterious civilisation long gone – are wonders beyond the wildest imagination. It’s a place where anything seems possible, where if you close your eyes you can believe that the magic and knowledge of the vanished Chimeras is still there. It’s a place where anyone can hide.
Iphigenia Laurus, or Gene, the daughter of a noble family, is uncomfortable in corsets and crinoline, and prefers climbing trees to debutante balls. Micah Grey, a runaway living on the streets, joins the circus as an aerialist’s apprentice and soon becomes the circus’s rising star. But Gene and Micah have balancing acts of their own to perform, and a secret in their blood that could unlock the mysteries of Ellada.
I understand that cover copy is meant to market a book to the widest possible audience, and it’s also supposed to avoid spoiling the plot itself. So there are plenty of reasons for why a character’s sexual orientation or gender identity might not be revealed in the cover copy.
At times, however, I feel that this kind of omission veers into what could be called straightwashing ((Similar to whitewashing, when a book cover obscures a character’s nonwhite race by illustrating them with a model who passes for white.)). Cover copy that makes it seem as if a book is about a straight character when that’s not true is misleading and unfortunate. While it doesn’t mean that a book publisher is homophobic, it can be a manifestation of homophobia. It also makes it much harder for readers seeking out books with LGBT characters to find them.
The Broader Context
According to YALSA, approximately 4,000 young adult books were published in 2012. According to the Library and Trade Almanac, 57th edition, “the 2011 number of young adult titles published is 4,905.” Neither of these figures include self-published books.
I don’t have a figure for the number of young adult books published in 2013, so I’m going to go with a range. If the number of YA books published in 2013 ranges between 4,000 and 5,000, and 94 LGBT YA novels were published in 2013, then:
1.9% to 2.4% of YA books published in 2013 include LGBT main characters or are about LGBT issues.
This is higher than 2012 (1.6%), so yet again we have improvement! But yet again, that improvement is complicated by the issues I delineated above about distribution and discoverability, as well as what I noted last year:
Centuries of book publishing before 2012 have certainly not fairly represented LGBT people. 1.6% of books in 2012 barely makes a dent in the vast number of books that exist in the world.
I hope the percentage continues to increase.
Update 10/29/13: After I published this post I learned that I missed one LGBT YA title, Replica by Jenna Black (Tor Teen). That takes the total number of LGBT YA books I found published in 2013 to 95. This title has been added to the Google Docs list linked below, but I haven't had time to update the analysis in this post to reflect this one additional title.
The complete list of all 94 of this year’s LGBT YA books is available here at Google Docs.