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  • Karen Frost

Here Are a Few Ways We Can Publicize Non-Mainstream LGBT Content

In the literary world, there are three avenues to publication: mainstream publishers, small, independent publishers, and self-publication. Since the early 2010s, the ease of self-publication online has, in some ways, leveled the playing field between all three. No longer are mainstream publishers an almost absolute gatekeeper to the dissemination of finished works. Now where one door closes, a dozen or more windows open. This opening of the publishing aperture has enabled the publication of hundreds of thousands of books that would otherwise never have been released by mainstream publishers, of which hundreds if not thousands contain LGBT content (like mine!). This has been a massive boon for the LGBT community. More LGBT authors are able to publish their work and more LGBT readers are able to access that material. That said, publication outside of the mainstream comes at a cost: visibility. Books published by mainstream publishers are significantly easier for readers to find and are much more likely to be read and nominated for awards. And for LGBT content, visibility is everything.

Let’s look at the difference in process between mainstream publication and everything else. A book that’s published through any of the “Big 5” (the Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, MacMillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon and Schuster) is given a visibility turbocharge by the publisher’s in-house publicity machine. The publicity department uses advance copies to pitch the book to long lead media, hoping the glossy, flashy magazines found at medical offices and at gyms will highlight the book to potential readers. The publicity and marketing departments set up a plan to publicize the book through book tours and signings, negotiate with wholesale distributors, and garner advance reviews from sources like The New York Times and famous authors. After publication, the book ends up on library bookshelves and on display at bookstores like Barnes & Noble, where it will catch the eye of readers who wouldn’t otherwise have actively sought it out.

Books published outside the Big 5, on the other hand, have no publicity department behind them, no magazine ads, no book tours, and no wholesale distribution. They don’t appear in libraries and for the most part can’t be found in bookstores. Authors are left to fend for themselves in the online wilderness, trying to orchestrate social media accounts, manage hashtags, land interviews, and drum up book reviews on Amazon and Goodreads as best they can.

It’s clear that mainstream publishing offers a totally different level of publicity and visibility for authors, but for queer authors in particular, the benefit of a professional publicity machine is that it exposes to book to a broad swath of readers, regardless of sexual orientation, which in turn raises the profile of LGBT content in general. The average self-published author sells fewer than 250 copies of their books. The average mainstream author sells around 2,000. That’s an eightfold difference in readership. Whether they read the whole book or just the back cover, with few exceptions, more eyes will see a book published in the mainstream than anywhere else.

LGBT books need that kind of visibility. We need LGBT books sitting on book stands at book stores, where pedestrians passing by pick them up and read the blurb. We need LGBT content to be normalized in public spaces. We need queer books reviewed by major newspapers, nominated for major awards, and turned into movies.

The long-term solution, of course, is for mainstream publishers to take more LGBT content. In the YA genre, for example, I’ve calculated using statistics from author Malinda Lo and elsewhere that LGBT content was no more than 1% of all mainstream books published in 2018, an underrepresentation rate of roughly somewhere between 77-90% (Given that somewhere between 4.5-12% of Americans identify as LGBT). But absent a massive and concerted effort on the part of mainstream publishers and in the near to mid-term, we as readers and as the larger LGBT community need to figure out how to work together and individually to publicize LGBT books coming from the independent press and self-publication. How can we compensate for the wholesaler deals and celebrity endorsements that seem to be monopolized by the Big 5? Here are a few ideas:

· Become unabashed genre cheerleaders. Romance is by far the most popular LGBT genre, but the community’s focus on that genre is leaving other genres out in the cold. If you like sci-fi/fantasy, horror, crime, etc., become a vocal cheerleader everywhere online. Tell your friends, tell your family, tell the billions of people online about the queer books you love. This is particularly important within genre communities. LGBT books need straight readers to be successful, so tell other readers who enjoy the genre about LGBT books so that they know to read them, too. Demand drives supply, so help create demand.

· Donate. Not everyone has natural access to LGBT books, so give them the chance to see themselves represented. Buy a collection of LGBT books and donate them to your local LGBT center. If you’re allowed, donate them to school libraries, too. YA books are particularly appreciated and not all librarians know where to find them. Give teenagers the gift of visibility.

· Review, review, review! One way to help a book with LGBT content break into the mainstream and get more readers is to post positive reviews for it. For example, the higher the review count, the more likely it will be caught by Amazon’s algorithms and recommended to readers who otherwise wouldn’t know or think to search for books like it. This is another way to help create demand.

· Request books for your library. All libraries allow their patrons to request that the library purchase books for their collection. You can often request tens of books be purchased a year. It’s free for you and gets more LGBT content on shelves. What’s the downside?

· Buy books even if you don’t read them. The average price of an ebook is between $5-10, or the cost of a latte at Starbucks. If we as a community want content, we have to financially support that content. Even if you don’t love the book or you don’t read in that genre, if you believe that LGBT books are worth having, please consider showing that support financially.

Every action makes a difference. The way to more LGBT content in the future is to show there’s a market in the present. If you have additional suggestions, please leave a comment!

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