June 23, 2011 at 2:00 pm EDT | by Julie R. Enszer
Publishers ignoring lesbian writers

The announcement of the 23rd annual Lambda Literary Awards in New York City last month was a wonderful celebration of LGBT literature. Within 24 categories, more than 520 books were nominated by 230 publishers; 114 finalists emerged and 26 winners were named (two categories this year were tied and thus had dual winners.) The Lambda Literary Awards demonstrate the vibrancy of our literary culture.

I applaud the winners, finalists and the Lambda Literary Foundation, and, in fairness, I should note that I served as a judge on this year’s panels, am a frequent contributor of reviews to LambdaLiterary.org, I support the organization financially. Obviously, I believe in Lambda Literary Foundation and in the vision it has for queer literary culture.

While there is much to celebrate in queer literary culture, there is something to bemoan as well, particularly for lesbian writers and readers. The lack of attention by mainstream publishers to lesbian writing, particularly lesbian fiction, is appalling.

As it has for more than four decades, lesbian publishing is flourishing in small, often lesbian-owned, publishing houses like Bold Stroke Books, Bywater Books, and Naiad Press. These small publishers are vital and important to our literary culture, but they must operate in conjunction with mainstream publishing. By mainstream publishing I mean (generally) New York-based trade publishers, who market books to broad audiences and sell books through mainstream bookselling venues, now primarily big-box bookstores, but also locally owned booksellers. Mainstream publishing brings us Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling, and Stieg Larsson, but it is also brings us Rita Mae Brown, Jeannette Winterson and Emma Donoghue.

For the Lambda Literary Awards, lesbian fiction is divided into a variety of categories; I’ll consider three. First, Lesbian Debut fiction. In this category, none of the five finalists were published by large publishing houses.

Perhaps debut fiction is more difficult for authors to attract the attention of mainstream publishers. So consider Lesbian Fiction. Of the five finalists in this category, again, not a single one of the books was published by a mainstream publishing house. All the finalists were published by small, independent presses or a university press.

Lesbian Mystery fares a bit better; two books were published by trade publishing houses – Val McDermid’s new book Fever of the Bone (HarperCollins) and Ellen Hart’s The Cruel Ever After (Minotaur/St. Martin’s).

Why are mainstream publishers important? Mainstream publishers tend to sell more books for authors. They have a larger distribution system, more money to support marketing and advertising for the book. More sales of books mean more income to writers. More income, more writing. More writing, new books by lesbian writers. When mainstream publishing works, it supports writers to do what they do well and it provides a stream of books to readers.

So what does the lack of attention from mainstream publishers mean to readers? In short, it means that excellent books by lesbian writers don’t get time and attention from the mainstream publishing industry. It means that it is difficult to find books that have compelling lesbian characters.

In reviewing lesbian books nominated for Lambda Literary Awards, among mainstream publishers there is a paucity of books that have lesbians as their central characters. Moreover, too often, lesbian characters are circumscribed to banal narratives about coming out. What we need and want to read are stories of lesbian life and lesbian experience in a variety of settings; we want characters that are real, struggling with something other than coming out; we want characters that are funny, wise, flawed and fun.

The only place lesbian writers are thriving with mainstream publishers are in books that originate in the United Kingdom. In the U.S., lesbian writers and lesbian readers are overlooked by mainstream publishers. Perhaps they think the market is too small; the audience too niche. This attitude robs us all.

Certainly, mainstream publishers are not a panacea for lesbian writers. But in 2010 and 2011, we have had fewer lesbian novels published. Yes, publishing is a beleaguered industry. But lesbian writers deserve better. And lesbian readers deserve better. While I laud the achievements of this year’s winners and finalists of the Lambda Literary Award, lesbian literature is poorer for the lack of attention by mainstream publishers. We need to take action to change the situation for our literary culture to thrive.

Julie R. Enszer is a writer and activist based in University Park, Md. Reach her at [email protected]

  • Julie, perhaps to others, lesbian writing is not all that good. Why not find out what others have to say about lesbian writing and share those ideas for improving it in your community? Instead of bemoaning the lack of attention/recognition, find out what type of writing style/subjects/themes, etc., would lead others to stand up and applaud. And then set out to meet those expectations. Stop the hissy fit, it’s unbecoming.

    • I assure you that there are many fine examples of lesbian writing. Every genre has its stinkers, but like every other genre, lesbian fiction contains shining examples of strong, emotional, powerful, and/or funny writing. Do you really believe that lesbians cannot write? That if it weren’t for a glut of talentless lesbians, the genre would flourish in the mainstream? Really? ;)

  • Many lesbian authors realized a long time ago that trying to interest “mainstream” publishing in our work was going to be an exercise in futility. Starting with Naiad Press almost 40 years ago, lesbians have had to publish our work ourselves. Fortunately, we are now beneficiaries of the revolution in publishing. Print on demand paperbacks and ebooks are being produced by the above-mentioned niche publishers like Bella Books, and also by the authors themselves. We have always known that we had an audience waiting for our work. Now we can access that audience directly.

    While there must be some self- or niche-published lesbian authors who would gladly sign a contract with a traditional publisher, many, I know, would not. We are not interested in giving up control of our work or sharing our success with the folks who shut us out for so long.

    I think it’s time that we stopped according “mainstream” publishing so much respect. By their own reckoning, most of the books they publish don’t make money, so it would seem they’re not doing a very good job of offering what the reading public wants to read.

    Perhaps, instead of trying to interest the behind-the-times traditional publishing industry in lesbian fiction, our GLBT media should seek out the best of lesbian fiction and let people know about it. They could help our lesbian authors be more successful, and success will most certainly attract the attention of mainstream publishing.

    Like most of the fiction being published under the new paradigm, some lesbian fiction is dreadful, some is excellent, and most falls somewhere in between. To laurelboy2, and to anyone else who is skeptical of the quality of lesbian fiction, I offer my own work. You can download a free ebook of Book I of my trilogy, When Women Were Warriors, from my author website. It isn’t just for lesbians. It isn’t just for women.

    You can find it here:

    Catherine M Wilson
    Shield Maiden Press

    • Thanks. Admittedly, I don’t know anything about “lesbian writing” (and how it’s different from straight gal writing – is it just a matter of changing names from Tom loves Jane to Mary loves Jane?), and quite frankly I’m not inclined to indulge myself. But, returning to my original point, if you and other “lesbian” writers think you’re dreadfully and harmfully overlooked and denied a chance to visit the dais and accept the trophy for “Tome of the Year”, then I think you need to find a way to better produce and market your product.

      • laurelboy2
        Thanks. Admittedly, I don’t know anything about “lesbian writing” (and how it’s different from straight gal writing – is it just a matter of changing names from Tom loves Jane to Mary loves Jane?), and quite frankly I’m not inclined to indulge myself.

        I’m glad that you don’t feel that should hold you back from commenting and deducing that “Apparently, the “folks” don’t think lesbian writing is that good!”.

        Stop your own hissy fits, they’re unbecoming.

  • I was under the impression that mainstream publishers did give lesbian fiction a chance in the 90s. But it didn’t sell widely enough. The question should be, Why don’t any of the books from the small publishers break out? In many cases it may be that these books don’t leave much room for readers other than lesbians. Neither do they appear to be marketed to anyone other than lesbians. On a side note, Naiad Press no longer exists — their catalogue is held, I believe, by Bella Books who periodically releases older titles along with their new offerings.

    And laurelboy2: sweeping generalizations about the quality of an entire category of fiction isn’t really helpful.

  • I posted a long rebuttal to this article — why was it deleted?

    • Thanks for reading Lori — we don’t post overly long responses to articles. There’s no ironclad word count rule, but more than a couple hundred words tops, and we delete them automatically. The comments section is designed to be succinct and interactive — not a place for lengthy dissertations or complete articles copied and pasted from other places. Thanks, Joey DiGuglielmo (Blade admin)

  • I’m curious, how are you 100% sure that lesbian writers are being ignored? Are you only looking towards those that write about the hardship of being a lesbian or lesbian romance and such or just the writers themselves. There could be many lesbian writers being published and you just don’t know because they aren’t publicly outed for being a lesbian, more they want attention for their writing. As for publishing writing about lesbians and their lifestyle it all follows a trend. Whatever is in style is what gets published that’s not to say their writing wont be something wildly popular in a few years. Lastly, just because you self publish or go through a small publishing company doesnt mean a book wont still reach an audience and become a popular book. Often times its better to stick with the small ones so that they will focus on you more and treat your work like its important to them.

  • Im sorry I also forgot to ask, does it matter if the lesbian fiction isnt written by a lesbian? Or are we simply on all lesbian fiction must be written by lesbian writers to be a valid lesbian writing.

  • Purchasing lesbian fiction is tricky. I’m personally tired of the same plots with undeveloped character arcs, boring character personalities, stereotypical butch/femme bore bore bore. And I’ve also read a handful of wonderful writers too….like I said…tricky.

  • Maybe it’s the type of Lesbian Literature that’s been pushed in the past where there is such a scarcity now. I do agree with many people who’ve commented before me–I’ve never bought a Lesbian book because the stories don’t look interesting. I’m not interested in hearing about coming out stories, or butch/femme dynamics. I want to see real people, with real problems, overcoming them in real ways–oh, and it’s be cool if they just so happen to not be straight.

    I think the Lesbian lit focuses too heavily on the cliche lesbian narrative. We need more stories. Different stories with more true to life characters. Maybe then they’ll get a little more attention.

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