LGBTQ YA by the Numbers: 2015-16

Since 2011, I've been tracking the number of young adult books about LGBTQ characters. Here are my statistics from 20112012, 2013, and 2014, as well as an overview of LGBT YA published by mainstream publishers from 2003–13. I took a break in 2015 and 2016, but this year I've decided to update my statistics to include the last two years. I have not calculated the numbers for 2017, since the year is not over yet.

Anyone who reads these posts can see that the topics I’ve been interested in unpacking have changed and focused, my methodology has been refined, and the language I’ve used to describe gender has changed as I’ve learned more and as the language itself has evolved. Before I begin, let me provide some context and background.

Terms and Sources

This year (2017) I've decided to update the acronym I use from LGBT to LGBTQ, reflecting its current usage in the NLGJA Stylebook. LGBTQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer.

I'm counting YA books with LGBTQ main characters, and by that I mean the following:

  • A young adult book with an LGBTQ main character, or YA book that has a plot primarily concerned with LGBTQ issues.
  • Some books have multiple main characters, and if one of that cast of primary characters is LGBTQ, I count that book as an LGBTQ YA book (e.g., The Midnight Star by Marie Lu).
  • In the cases of books about LGBTQ issues, those issues typically focus around a straight person’s relationship with an LGBTQ person who comes out to them (e.g., Skyscraping by Cordelia Jenson).
  • I do not include YA books with supporting LGBTQ characters (e.g., Conviction by Kelly Loy Gilbert) because I'm focused on books where the LGBTQ person is the star of the story, but I recognize that the dividing line between supporting and main can be pretty blurry.
  • I do not include YA books that have subtextual gay story lines (e.g., Underneath Everything by Marcy Beller Paul) because I’m focused on books where the gay story line is overt. In other words, I’m tracking openly gay YA.
  • For all the reasons above, I may have omitted some YA titles that others would count as “LGBTQ YA,” either on purpose or by accident.

The list of books that I've identified as LGBTQ YA comes from several sources. Thanks first of all to the American Library Association's Rainbow List, particularly the chairs of the 2016 and 2017 committees, for sharing with me their raw data on LGBTQ YA titles published in 2015 and 2016. Thanks also to Rob Bittner for helping me out with this. I cross-referenced this raw data with Amanda MacGregor's blog posts on "What’s New in LGBTQIA+ YA" at Teen Librarian Toolbox. The websites LGBTQ Reads and YA Pride (formerly known as Gay YA) were also valuable resources. Finally, in order to determine whether a book met the criteria for my analysis, I cross-checked the book's jacket copy with numerous book reviews on the internet. It's simply impossible for me to read them all. I take full responsibility for any errors or omissions in my counting, and if you find any errors or omissions, I invite you to email me at mlo@malindalo.com so that I can make a correction.

I'm primarily interested in tracking YA books published by mainstream publishers. By "mainstream" I mean the Big 5 publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon and Schuster); major publishers Disney Book Group, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Scholastic; and general interest publishers that do not focus on LGBT books.

General interest publishers range in size from tiny independent presses to relatively large educational publishers. For 2015-16, the general interest publishers include: Abrams Books, Adaptive Books, Akashic Books, Albert Whitman Teen, Arsenal Pulp, Asymmetrical Press, Candlewick, Chronicle Books, Drawn and Quarterly, Dreaming Robot Press, Entangled: Crush, Evernight Teen, Flux, Harlequin Teen, Jolly Fish Press, Lerner Publishing Groups, Luminis Books, Pen Name Publishing, Riverdale Avenue Books, Running Press, Sky Pony Press, Soho Teen, Sourcebooks Fire, Spencer Hill Press, and Three Rooms Press.

I've also been interested in looking at how major commercial publishers publish LGBTQ YA books. These are the biggest publishers in the world, and they publish the books you're most likely to find in your local Barnes & Noble. They include the Big 5 publishers, as well as the following three large publishers: Disney Book Group, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Scholastic. When I refer to "major publishers," these are the publishers I mean.

Since 2014, I've chosen to not analyze the output of LGBTQ publishers because my interest lies in analyzing mainstream representation of LGBTQ characters. LGBTQ presses still play an important role in producing stories about LGBTQ experiences, and for those who are interested in looking at how LGBTQ presses represent LGBTQ experiences, I encourage you to visit Bold Strokes Books, Dreamspinner Press, Harmony Ink Press, Interlude Press, and Riptide Publishing. Several recent YA books published by LGBTQ presses have received critical acclaim, including Not Your Sidekick by C. B. Lee (Duet, an imprint of Interlude) and Gravity by Juliann Rich (Bold Strokes Books), which were both Lambda Award Finalists; and The History of Us by Nyrae Dawn (Harmony Ink Press), which was on the 2015 Rainbow List.

How Many LGBTQ YA books were published?

In 2015, mainstream publishers published
54 LGBTQ YA books.

In 2016, mainstream publishers published
79 LGBTQ YA books.

These numbers have increased significantly since 2003, when my data set begins. Among mainstream publishers (all publishers except LGBTQ publishers), the numbers have risen sharply since 2014.

This sharp upturn is even more pronounced among major publishers.

In the past I've sometimes attempted to determine what percentage of YA books published were LGBTQ books, but I've since concluded that it is too difficult for me to accurately determine the total number of YA books published. So, I don't know what percentage of YA books in 2015-16 have LGBTQ main characters, but looking at the charts above, you can see that the number of LGBTQ books has doubled in the last decade.

Gender Representation in 2015-16 LGBTQ YA Novels

Since I began counting LGBTQ YA novels, I've been struggling with how to analyze gender representation. Initially, I wanted to track this because the experiences of lesbians, gay boys, bisexual people, and transgender people differ significantly in real life, and I suspected that all too often, "LGBTQ" books were solely about gay boys while being counted as representing other identities.

As I've learned more about gender, I've learned that separating out lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender is not the best way to understand this. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual are sexual orientations, not gender identities. And transgender people may identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, among other identities. That's why I now examine books for whether they feature cisgender girls or boys, transgender girls or boys, or nonbinary or genderfluid characters (for more on these identities, see the Wiki entry on genderqueer).

As our understanding of gender in contemporary American society continues to change, determining and counting a character's gender identity presents unique challenges. Terminology that was believed to be accurate and respectful even five years ago may have since become dated, inaccurate, and even offensive. I understand that the way I count these books may not hold up over time. All I can do is count them to the best of my knowledge right now.

I have chosen to not count characters' sexual orientation; that is, whether they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, or other sexual orientations. Counting sexual orientation is too complex an endeavor for me to do on my own. It would require reading all the books, for one thing, and in cases where characters don't state their sexual orientation on the page, it would require guessing. In these LGBTQ YA novels, characters who are cisgender female typically identify as lesbian, bisexual, or queer. Similarly, characters who are cisgender male typically identify as gay, bisexual, or queer. Transgender characters are fewer in number, and they may identify as heterosexual or queer.

I've sorted the LGBTQ YA novels from 2015-16 into the following categories to track gender representation:

  • Cisgender Female Main Character — A character who was assigned female at birth and continues to identify as female.
  • Cisgender Male Main Character — A character who was assigned male at birth and continues to identify as male.
  • Transgender Female Main Character — A character who was assigned male at birth but whose gender identity is female.
  • Transgender Male Main Character — A character who was assigned female at birth but whose gender identity is male.
  • Nonbinary or Genderfluid Main Character — A character who does not identify as male or female; or a character who does not have a fixed gender identity.
  • Gender-Destabilizing Main Character — This is a category I've invented to count characters who change gender, usually in a speculative fiction context, but are not necessarily transgender.
  • Multiple Characters of Multiple Genders — Books that are about more than one LGBTQ main character.
  • Intersex Main Character — Books that are about a main character who is intersex. For more on whether intersex people believe that intersex is a gender, read this post. I've chosen to include intersex in my gender analysis because I believe it's important to highlight these books, and they don't quite fit into the other categories I'm tracking.
  • Problem Novel Relating to LGBTQ Issues — I realize this is not technically about gender, but I've had to create a category to encompass novelsthat are about a cisgender, straight main character's engagement with LGBTQ issues. The plot is typically about a straight teen's LGBTQ parent or friend.

How did the last two years track with regard to gender representation? Here are the results when examining books published by all mainstream publishers:

In 2015, for the first time there were two books about nonbinary main characters: Lizard Radio by Pat Schmatz (Candlewick), and What We Left Behind by Robin Talley (Harlequin Teen). Talley's novel includes multiple LGBTQ main characters (the other is a cisgender female character), and thus is counted in the Multiple category. There was one novel about an intersex main character, None of the Above by I. W. Gregorio (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins).

In 2016, for the first time there were six novels about transgender main characters: four about trans girls, and two about trans boys. Also in 2016, there were two openly trans authors: T Cooper, co-author with Allison Glock-Cooper of Changers Book Three: Kim (Black Sheep/Akashic); and Meredith Russo, author of If I Was Your Girl (Flatiron Books/Macmillan). Changers Book Three: Kim features a gender-destabilizing narrative and main character, and If I Was Your Girl is about a trans girl. This was really a record year for books about trans characters. In 2016 there was also a novel about a nonbinary main character, Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin.

When I was counting the 2016 books, I was initially surprised to find that more books about cisgender girls were published than about cisgender boys. However, upon closer examination of the data I realized I hadn't fully understood the situation.

Historically, more books about cis boys than cis girls have been published. Here's a chart I made in 2013 covering LGBT Content (this was the terminology I used then) in books published by major publishers from 2003-2013:

As you can see, 45% of LGBTQ YA books were about cis boys, with only 33% about cis girls. That doesn't tell the whole story, however. When I looked back at the data I have on major publishers going back to 2003, I discovered that the number of books about cis girls vs. cis boys has fluctuated year to year.

Usually, more books about cis boys are published, but from 2010-2012 there were more books about cis girls. Since 2012, the number of books about cis boys has outstripped the number of books about cis girls — including in 2016, when major publishers released 22 books about cis boys, and 20 books about cis girls. Remember, this data is only for books published by major publishers, which are the Big 5 plus Disney, HMH, and Scholastic.

When you add in other general interest publishers, more books about cis girls were published in 2016: 32 books, compared to 28 books about cis boys. I only have data on general interest publishers going back to 2012. Taking another look at that data, you can see that the number of books about cis boys vs. cis girls has also fluctuated.

My takeaway from this situation is that while publishers (major and general interest publishers) have historically published more books about cis boys, they are beginning to publish more books about cis girls. The increase in books about cis girls only dates back a few years, though, and it remains to be seen whether the trend for cis girls continues to go up.

Genre Representation in 2015-16 LGBTQ YA Books

Genre breaks down a bit more simply than gender. Here are the genres I've sorted the books into:

  • Contemporary — Realistic novels set in the contemporary world
  • Science Fiction and Fantasy
  • Mystery/Thriller
  • Horror
  • Historical
  • Cross-Genre — Novels that don’t fit squarely into one genre
  • Graphic Novel or Graphic Nonfiction — I realize this includes both fiction and nonfiction, but I've decided the illustrative aspect predominates
  • Nonfiction — Not novels!

What interests me most is that in the past two years, LGBTQ YA books have branched out into several different genres, even beyond science fiction and fantasy. For the vast majority of the time that LGBTQ YA novels have been published, they've predominantly been in the contemporary genre. I think it shows that LGBTQ YA books are moving away from problems and issues, and LGBTQ characters are increasingly depicted in stories that aren't focused on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

In Conclusion

It's clear to me that the discourse on diversity in YA publishing, especially fueled by We Need Diverse and other diversity advocates, has had a measurable impact on the number of LGBTQ YA books being published. I can't explain the significant spike in LGBTQ YA books in any other way.

The downside is that some of these books include story lines that seem incredibly questionable and likely offensive. For example, Look Past by Eric Devine (Running Press) is about a murderer taunting a trans boy and demanding that he "repent for changing his gender identity, or he will be the next one killed" (quote from book jacket).

I am conflicted about counting books like Look Past in these analyses. They do count, technically, but I would not recommend a book like that to a queer or trans teen. At the same time, I believe that writers need the freedom to push boundaries and to write about horrific experiences. It's undeniable that LGBTQ teens do experience horrific things, and I don't think that books about LGBTQ teens — or any teens — should be limited to positive stories with morally upright happy endings.

Ultimately, I think the increase in the number of LGBTQ YA books being published is a good thing, as long as we are mindful of the complexity of LGBTQ experiences and identities, and recognize that not every book can appeal to every reader. And of course, some books are terrible. There is no escaping that. However, I feel strongly that the positive growth in LGBTQ YA cannot be denied, and it is not diminished by a few bad apples. It's important to keep in mind the broader context of decades of publishing, in which LGBTQ books were initially not published at all or were limited to problem novels without happy endings for their queer protagonists. We have truly come a long way.

If you're interested in the books I used for this analysis, here's the list of LGBTQ YA published in 2015 and 2016. While I've made every effort to avoid mistakes, at the end of the day I'm the only one working on this, and errors may have slipped through. If you find any, please feel free to tell me about them by emailing me at mlo@malindalo.com.

Finally, this kind of analysis takes a lot of work. Over the years, I've spent weeks working on these statistical posts. It's been really fulfilling to me to know that they're useful for librarians and academics and general readers and the publishing industry. I'm happy to share them with the public for free. However, they take a lot of time to put together. If you find these posts useful, please show your support by buying a copy of one of my books. In fact, my next novel, A Line in the Dark, comes out Oct. 17. You can preorder it here, or buy it at your online retailer of choice. Thank you!


Update 10/12/17 at 2:44 p.m.: Due to a coding error, None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio was initially folded into the wrong category and thus an earlier version of this post did not count any novels about intersex characters. That has now been corrected and the charts and text have been updated to reflect this.