LGBT Young Adult Books 2003-13: A Decade of Slow But Steady Change

Logo for YA Pride 2013When I wrote my 2011 post that broke down the statistics on LGBT young adult books, I was relying on data collected by other people for other (equally valid) purposes. I wrote the post in one long, late night of number crunching, and I always hoped that I’d have the opportunity to revisit that data because I was pretty sure I’d gotten some things wrong. This year for YA Pride, I’ve decided to look at the data again, but with a different, more specific focus. My conclusions echo what I’ve concluded every year since 2011: There aren’t a lot of LGBT YA books being published, and there is definitely room for growth and change in the kinds of LGBT YA being published. The good thing is, I do think that change is happening, even if it’s at a snail’s pace.

The Data

Since 2011, I’ve realized that the data I used then, which mostly came from Christine Jenkins’s bibliography of LGBT YA and additional information provided by researcher Michael Cart, did not fully align with the goals of my own research. This isn’t necessarily surprising, because Cart and Jenkins, whose data came from co-writing the book The Heart Has Its Reasons: Young Adult Literature With Gay/Lesbian/Queer Content, 1969–2004, were working on a different kind of project.

The Heart Has Its Reasons catalogs any and all YA titles that mention LGBT characters or issues. This makes sense for their book, which was a survey of the representation of LGBT characters and issues throughout the entire history of YA publishing. However, this means their data includes books that in some cases have only secondary or peripheral gay characters, or passing mentions of homosexuality as an issue.

Over the past few years I’ve come to believe that it’s important to define “LGBT YA” more narrowly, at least in the context of my ongoing counting ((Here’s my data on LGBT YA for 2012 and 2013.)) of YA titles with LGBT characters or issues. Specifically, in this case I define “LGBT YA” as titles that include an LGBT main character, or titles that focus on an LGBT-related issue in its primary plot (e.g., bullying, dealing with the discovery of a parent’s sexual orientation, or in some cases other gay rights-related issues).

As a lesbian reader, this makes sense to me because if I’m looking for a book about a lesbian character, I don’t really want to read a book about a straight character who has a lesbian best friend. That best friend — even if she’s important to the main character — is marginalized in the narrative. I’m looking for books in which LGBT characters are the stars.

However, this restriction means that many of the titles included in Cart and Jenkins’s data do not qualify under my narrow definition of “LGBT YA.” In earlier decades, I do think it was important to count all of these mentions, even if they were peripheral, because there were so few representations that eliminating all but main characters could often lead to erasing many books that paved the way for today’s LGBT YA. But starting in the early 2000s, which saw the publication of David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy, Julie Anne Peters’s Keeping You a Secret, Brent Hartinger’s Geography Club, and Alex Sanchez’s Rainbow High (all in 2003 — a watershed year for LGBT YA), LGBT YA began to definitively turn away from the problem-focused novels of the past.

That’s why today in 2013, I think it’s high time for “LGBT YA” to mean YA books about LGBT main characters. A gay best friend no longer makes the cut — and it shouldn’t. LGBT people have the right to be the center of their own stories.

In addition to narrowing the definition of LGBT YA that I’m interested in, over the past few years I’ve also become more interested in how major commercial publishers publish this LGBT YA. Do they publish it consistently? How many LGBT titles do they publish each year? And what kind of marketing support do those titles receive?

In part, it’s the rise of self-publishing and the increasing number of LGBT publishers that publish LGBT YA that has fueled my interest in major commercial publishers. Even though there are many new ways for authors to publish their books these days, the fact remains that distribution is still key in getting those books into the hands of YA readers. By distribution I mean whether books are available in bookstores and school and public libraries. Although ebooks have made many books more easily accessible to adults, and many adults do read YA ((“Young Adult Books Attract Growing Numbers of Adult Fans,” Bowker, 9/13/12)), it’s unclear whether teens themselves are interested in or want to read ebooks. The most recent survey I found was from 2012, and indicated that 66% of 13–17-year-olds preferred reading paper books.

What I do know is that teens — who rarely have the disposable income of adults — still get their books from school and public libraries. Although there are always exceptions, books published by major commercial publishers are generally more likely to be found on those library shelves. Smaller publishers vary in their distribution ((A publisher like Candlewick, which is highly regarded because its books often win awards, will be more widely distributed, but LGBT publishers such as Bold Strokes Books do have more of a challenge in getting onto school library shelves.)), but self-published books are rarely found on library or bookstore shelves.

For these reasons, when I took another look at the numbers I crunched in 2011 with an eye toward updating them with my numbers from 2012 and 2013, I decided to focus on the following:

  • YA novels about LGBT main characters or with a major LGBT-related issue plot;
  • published since 2003;
  • and published by a major commercial US publisher.

The major commercial publishers whose LGBT YA I counted include the Big 6 US publishers: ((Penguin and Random House completed their merger in the summer of 2013, but because I’m looking at data from before the merger, I’m splitting them out here in their former incarnations.))

  • Hachette
  • HarperCollins
  • Macmillan
  • Penguin
  • Random House
  • Simon and Schuster

Plus three additional major US publishers who publish young adult titles:

  • Disney Book Group
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Scholastic

I chose these three because they are larger than other non-Big 6 YA publishers by a significant degree. Disney Publishing Worldwide, which includes the Disney Book Group and the Hyperion young adult imprint, is “the world’s largest publisher of children’s books and magazines with over 700 million products sold each year” (source). According to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s media kit, “HMH has led the pre-K–12 publishing market since 2007, maintaining a market share of approximately 40% in the K–12 addressable space.” And Scholastic also claims to be “the largest publisher and distributor of children’s books in the world” (source). I also chose these publishers because in my years of being active within YA and getting to know the business, it became clear to me that these are the major players. That doesn’t mean quality books aren’t published by other houses — they are — but these are the biggest ones, and I had to cut things off somewhere because I don’t have a research team behind me.

In some ways, I see the largest YA publishers as analogous to the broadcast networks on television. Broadcast networks have historically had the widest reach, even though much quality programming happens these days on cable channels that have smaller distribution in the television marketplace. An analysis of the broadcast networks — or the major publishers — doesn’t negate the contributions that smaller networks (or publishers) can and do make, especially in representation of minorities, but I do think the major networks (and publishers) have a greater responsibility due to their greater reach.

So, what are the results of this more focused analysis?

From 2003–13, an average of 15 LGBT YA novels were published by major commercial publishers each year.

yap13-chart-0313-overall

As you can see by the chart above, the number of LGBT YA novels varied each year, beginning with 13 titles in 2003, and peaking at 25 titles in 2007. The number fell immediately after 2007, dropping in 2010 to a low of 9 titles. In the last few years the number has risen once again, though not as high as it was in 2007.

I suspect that the dip in 2010 reflects the results of belt-tightening in the wake of the wider economic crash in 2008, which was felt well into 2009. YA books are often scheduled up to 18 months in advance, so it would make sense that 2010 would see a retraction overall. ((See “Declining Book Sales Cast Gloom at an Expo,” New York Times, May 29, 2009))

I’m not sure why there was such a high number of LGBT YA titles published in 2007, but given the lower numbers published in each subsequent year, it seems to have been an anomaly. Taking a closer look at 2007, the year included two books in the Drama! series by Paul Ruditis, as well as two titles in the Pretty Little Liars series by Sara Shepard. Additionally, in 2007 Hyperion (Disney’s YA imprint) published two LGBT YA titles (Dramarama by E. Lockhart and Hero by Perry Moore); in other years it has typically published none.

What kind of LGBT book is it?

An analysis of the LGBT content of the books published between 2003 and 2013 reveal that, unsurprisingly given my other analyses, there are more books about cisgender male main characters than about cisgender female or transgender characters.

yap13-chart-0313-content

In this decade-long period, issue books comprised 12% of LGBT YA titles. Those issues include same-sex sexual abuse, bullying, and a straight character coming to terms with a gay parent or gay friend. While these titles address important issues and may be excellent ways for straight readers to engage with LGBT stories for the first time, it bothers me that the LGBT characters in these books tend to be othered, if only so that the straight main character can ultimately accept or tolerate them. I’m not saying these kinds of books aren’t valuable in their own way, but I also admit I’m glad to see that the number of LGBT issue books have declined over the past decade.

yap13-chart-0313-genre

Looking at the genres that LGBT YA falls into, contemporary is the clear leader here, with 83% of LGBT YA being contemporary novels. An additional 4% were poetry or novels-in-verse, which could also be categorized as contemporary. The 4% of titles that were anthologies consisted of short story collections or essay collections focused entirely on the LGBT experience, again largely “contemporary.” Only 10% were fantasy/science fiction, and 2% were historical (two of those historical novels were set in 1990 and 2001, so while it’s not “contemporary,” they weren’t exactly too far back in history). One title, Aaron Hartzler’s Rapture Practice, was a memoir.

Which publishers are most gay-friendly?

Finally, I examined the average and median number of LGBT YA books published by each publisher from 2003–13. What I was looking for here was which publishers appeared to be most gay-friendly.

Click to enlarge

The results show that Simon and Schuster has consistently published more LGBT YA than any other major commercial publisher. There are a couple of ways to interpret this.

First, some context: A major commercial publisher publishes a variety of books every year; these books are referred to, overall, as the publisher’s “list.” A list is shaped by the editorial vision of the publisher and editor in chief, meaning certain kinds of books are more likely to fit on that list. For example, Tor Teen publishes science fiction and fantasy for young adults; you’re unlikely to find a contemporary realistic romance on the Tor Teen list.

If a publisher is not overtly homophobic — and I truly believe that none of the major commercial publishers are — then you might expect a list to include a number of LGBT YA books that fit within the publisher’s broader vision, simply because some books happen to be about LGBT people. You might also expect a larger publisher, which publishes more YA books, to publish more LGBT YA books simply because it’s putting more books into the market.

What’s interesting about the results above is that I don’t think Simon and Schuster is the largest YA publisher in the US. I’m not certain about this because I’ve been unable to determine how many YA titles are published annually by each of the major commercial publishers. ((The only way I could figure out to do that would be to count the titles in their catalogs, and honestly I don’t have the time to do that.)) However, I did have data on the overall size of the major commercial publishers, both from the publishers’ public statements about the number of titles they publish, and data from John B. Thompson’s Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century.

According to Thompson, in 2007–8 the 12 largest adult trade publishers in the US were:

  1. Random House
  2. Penguin
  3. HarperCollins
  4. Simon and Schuster
  5. Hachette
  6. John Wiley and Sons
  7. Scholastic
  8. Holtzbrinck Book Group (which owns Macmillan)
  9. Rodale
  10. Thomas Nelson
  11. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  12. Sterling

Random House itself claims that it “publishes approximately 10,000 new books annually in print, digital, and audio formats, and sells more than 400 million books a year across the globe.” Simon and Schuster states that it publishes approximately 2,000 titles each year. ((Simon and Schuster Corporate Overview))

I think I can safely conclude that Simon and Schuster does not publish the highest number of LGBT YA titles annually because it publishes the highest number of YA titles overall. No — I think that Simon and Schuster actually is gay-friendly. Among its authors who have written multiple LGBT YA books are Alex Sanchez, Ellen Hopkins, and Ellen Wittlinger. Additionally, while I didn’t count books about secondary LGBT characters in my analysis, I do think that secondary LGBT characters can contribute significantly to LGBT representation, especially if those characters are part of a bestselling series of many books. One of those series, Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments, is published by Simon and Schuster’s Margaret K. McElderry Books imprint, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard teens mention those books as the first time they encountered gay characters. The gay characters in Clare’s series have become so popular that one of them now has a New York Times bestselling series of ebook-only short stories, The Bane Chronicles, which are counted in my 2013 numbers. I can certainly see the success of those books contributing to an environment at Simon and Schuster that is welcoming to books about LGBT characters.

yap13-chart-0313-publishers

I also want to note that publishers are usually divided into smaller entities called imprints. These imprints have their own vision, their own list, and can vary in terms of gay friendliness, even within a publisher. For example, Random House has more than 200 “editorially-independent imprints,” meaning that each imprint has its own editorial vision. Among those 200 Random House imprints, only a few publish YA: Alfred A. Knopf, Delacorte, Random House Children’s Books, Wendy Lamb Books. Among those four imprints, Knopf has published the largest number of LGBT YA books by far — 15 — in comparison to 9 at Delacorte, one at Random House Children’s, and zero at Wendy Lamb Books. One of Knopf’s star authors is David Levithan, who accounts for 8 of those 15 titles (some of them co-written).

Counting down the various imprints in the nine major commercial publishers, here are the top five imprints in terms of the number of LGBT YA books published from 2003–13:

  1. HarperTeen (HarperCollins) - 26
  2. Simon and Schuster (Simon and Schuster) - 17
  3. Alfred A. Knopf (Random House) - 15
  4. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (Hachette) - 15
  5. Simon Pulse (Simon and Schuster) - 14

What’s interesting here is that HarperTeen comes out on top with 26 titles. Among those titles, 15 of them are Pretty Little Liars books, some of which address the character Emily Fields’ bisexuality, and some of which do not.

What does this all mean?

Looking into the numbers of LGBT YA being published by major commercial publishers in the US today, I can only conclude that yes, major commercial publishers do publish LGBT YA — but not very much of it. An average of 15 LGBT YA titles per year from the US’s nine biggest publishers is very low. I think there are many factors that, in conjunction, contribute to this low number, including:

An imprint’s list typically shows some variety. No publisher is going to put all their eggs in one basket because nobody can truly predict which books will take off. Therefore, each list will probably include a few LGBT YA titles at most. The rest of the list has to hit other targets, such as what’s hot this year (dystopians? contemporary?), or new books from tried-and-true authors.

Heteronormativity, even more than homophobia, can limit the ways that non-LGBT people view LGBT books. I see this throughout all aspects of publishing, from acquisitions through reader reviews online. The fact remains that LGBT people are a minority, and overcoming this in the eyes of the mainstream continues to be a struggle.

The pervasive belief, delivered to me every time I do an interview or an event, that LGBT books do not sell. It’s true that there have been few bestselling LGBT YA novels, but people often overlook the fact that certain bestselling series do include LGBT characters: Pretty Little Liars, for one, and The Mortal Instruments, for another. I’m not sure how to combat this widespread belief.

The word on the street is that publishers are struggling to figure out where they fit in a new book market that includes ebooks, and part of that struggle is looking carefully at their lists and figuring out where to put their money. I’ve heard — and take this with a grain of salt because it’s clearly gossip — that publishers are focusing more on potential bestsellers and potential award-winners. Books that tend to fall in the middle are being cut. LGBT YA has a problem in that few decision-makers seem to believe it can sell well (see previous point). If an LGBT YA novel has book award potential, that may help it get published, but this creates different kinds of problems.

If you look at the LGBT YA novels that have gotten big marketing pushes from their publishers in recent years, they’ve all been marketed as award-worthy. In retrospect, I see now that my first novel, Ash, received significant support from my publisher, Little, Brown (Hachette), because of its award potential. In 2012, emily m. danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post was heavily promoted by its publisher, Balzer & Bray (HarperCollins), and it did wind up being a finalist for the William C. Morris Award as well as a number of other awards. In 2013, David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing has been heavily promoted, and was long listed for the National Book Award. ((David Levithan is also a consistently well-received and bestselling author, so that’s no doubt part of it too.)) Also in 2013, Sara Farizan’s If You Could Be Mine has been promoted significantly by its publisher, the new, independent Algonquin Young Readers, as an award-worthy book.

The marketing and review coverage of these titles all have a similar sort of angle. They emphasize the novel’s significance in tackling a serious, controversial issue, or they note the book’s groundbreaking status. Whether or not this is true (“groundbreaking” can be in the eye of the beholder), it can contribute to an atmosphere in which an LGBT YA novel is marginalized even as it is held up as outstanding. In other words, the book is outstanding because it’s about abnormal people.

Where do we go from here?

For authors who want to write LGBT YA, I think it’s important to go into this knowing that there can be obstacles in your path that books about straight characters won’t face. This means being savvy about which publishers are receptive to these books, and recognizing that the very low number of LGBT YA books being published annually means that you’re fighting for a tiny portion of an already pretty small pie. Getting published by a major commercial publisher is already really difficult, even without LGBT characters or story lines, so it’s also important to look outside those major commercial publishers for opportunities. It’s not fair, but the only way to make it fairer is to keep pushing for more inclusivity by continuing to write LGBT YA and trying to get it published.

For readers who want to read LGBT YA, don’t forget to look outside the major commercial publishers. That means when you’re at the bookstore and you don’t see LGBT YA on the shelves, don’t assume it’s not out there. It does exist, but you may have to look elsewhere — and today, “elsewhere” is in many cases the internet. There are many online resources where you can find LGBT YA books, and you can ask your local library to order them.

For publishers, I think it will always be difficult to balance between good intentions and financial reality. This is the case for all media producers, including television and film. The good thing is, one person can make a difference. From the outside, publishing seems like this huge, murky thing, but decisions are made one person at a time. If you drill into that data on which publishers and imprints are publishing which books, I bet you’ll find that certain editors have been consistently championing LGBT YA for years. For example, David Gale at Simon and Schuster has edited Benjamin Alire Saenz, Alex Sanchez, and Ellen Wittlinger alone.

Despite the struggles that go into publishing LGBT YA, I don’t think the prognosis is entirely grim. The number of LGBT YA books has been rising, albeit slowly, and the kind of LGBT YA books being published has been changing. There are more LGBT YA books being published in which the LGBT aspect is not situated as a problem to be overcome; more LGBT YA is simply about a character who is LGBT; and recently there have been more science fiction and fantasy LGBT YA novels. When you look outside the major commercial publishers, there are many more ways to get LGBT YA published today than there were ten years ago. I'm an optimist, so I'm going to interpret all of this as ultimately positive, even if it's not changing as fast as I'd like.

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The list of books LGBT YA books published by major commercial publishers from 2003–13 that I used for this post is available here at Google Docs.

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