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  • Karen Frost

Publicity, Book Reviews, and the Invisibility Problem

Yesterday, a relatively well known figure in certain parts of the queer female community lamented that although she's spent over a decade deeply (professionally, in fact) involved in the lesbian community, her lesbian romance book was never reported on by queer media. On the one-year anniversary of its publication, she couldn't help feeling disappointed that the professional side of the community hadn't supported her despite her years of being an active member of it.

In November, I wrote an article for the blog "Women and Words" about this very problem. Or rather, what I believe to be the problem. The problem has to do with the separate and vastly unequal treatment between books from "mainstream" publishers (The so-called "Big Five": the Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, MacMillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon and Schuster) and books from independent publishers/self-publication. To summarize a complex problem, books that come out of the Big 5 mostly get the perks of being represented by a corporate publishing powerhouse: a marketing manager who establishes a marketing plan, sales to wholesale distributors, book reviews from best-selling authors, advance reader copies to key influencers and, most germane to the aforementioned author's distress, press release packages that go to international LGBT media outlets like Curve and The Advocate. Books that are not released by the Big 5 generally have none of that. Why did the above-mentioned author's book receive no mention in LGBT outlets? Probably in part because it was published by an independent, lesbian publisher. Had it come from HarperCollins with a whole marketing team behind it, it might have been the talk of the town.

This is, of course, a real problem for our community. If major LGBT outlets are only highlighting books from the Big 5 (among The Advocate's 26 best LGBTQ novels of 2019, none came from a lesbian publisher, as just one example. Among Autostraddle's 55, if any come from the lesbian press, they're fewer than a handful.) it means there's a reinforcing bias toward those publishers that comes at the cost of the LGBT-specific publishers. Put another way, a book with LGBT content from MacMillan will likely end up on library shelves and on "Best of" lists whether Curve or Autostraddle reviews it or not. A book from the lesbian publisher Bywater Books, on the other hand, will never be sold to wholesalers to find its way to library shelves, but it could benefit immensely from the visibility an international-level lesbian outlet could provide it. (We see that problem in national book awards, as well. Independent, lesbian publishers were evenly represented in the 2018 Golden Crown Literary Society Awards, and yet in the Lambda Awards that year, only an author from Bywater Books won an award (Lesbian Romance) despite five lesbian literary categories and several generic categories.)

Last I checked, there are at least seven exclusively lesbian publishers. Shouldn't queer-female oriented media outlets be proactively trying to support them? And yet based on a quick search, Curve has only reviewed one book from Bywater Books, seven from Bella Books, and 11 from Ylva Publishing. It reviewed none from Desert Palm Press. It's absolutely true that it's not Curve's job to be a book reviewer, and in fact the lesbian book review sites The Lesbian Review, Lez Review Books, I Heart Lesfic, and The Lesbrary (a bit more hit or miss on what it reviews) all cover these publishers and more. But the problem remains that our community is largely unable to amplify quality books from the independent lesbian publishers to catch the attention of the queer female community worldwide. There seems to be an embedded assumption that books published by the Big 5 must have better plots, tighter pacing, and a higher standard of writing and thus they belong on "Best Of" lists. But is that really the truth?

Authors spend a lot of time brainstorming and discussing the publicity problem. What does it take to get a book noticed? This is a universal problem. Unless you're Stephanie Meyer or JK Rowling or Stephen King, no matter what you write about and no matter who publishes it, getting the public to hear about your book is a challenge. But in the queer community, we hear the complaint all the time that there's not enough queer content. There isn't enough representation and there aren't enough role models. This isn't entirely true. There are many lesbian books out there...they're just not always being promoted by the most-read lesbian sites. Out of sight (or site, in this case), out of mind.

So I pose this non-rhetorical question: what can national-level queer female-centric sites do to help spread awareness of content coming from publishers outside the Big 5? Once we begin to solve that problem, we may begin to chip away at the representation problem.

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