This morning I was delighted to listen to a Publishers Weekly webcast about the history, current state, and future prospects of digital publishing as it relates to LGBT and M/M romance and related genres.
Brief (personal) definition: M/M is simply a romance or other story with a romance subplot featuring male homosexual relationships. LGBT fiction follows characters who fit into the much broader ‘alternative’ communities, and can include but is not limited to queer, lesbian, trans*, bisexual, poly, and kink relationships. The one thing most of their readers agree upon is that the ‘traditional’ romance publishing community has often ignored, insulted, or actively suppressed such forays into its territory. While that is changing now with Big Five imprints getting in on the trend, many dedicated small-press publishers have been created to meet that market demand.
From being a pariah community with roots in Victorian erotica and the fan fiction cultures of the 1970s, M/M Romance was declared in 2010 by Rolling Stone Magazine to be one of the hottest developing literary trends.
This podcast’s presenter was Rose Fox, reviews editor at Publishers Weekly.
The panelists were Laura Baumbach, owner/publisher of MLR Press; Angela James, editorial director at Harlequin’s digital-first imprint Carina Press; Sarah Frantz, senior editor at Riptide Publishing; and Rachel Haimowitz, managing editor at Riptide Publishing.
A brief overview of how each publisher got started helped showcase the different ways the M/M and LGBT romance genres have grown:
Laura Baumbach started out in fan fiction, and has been writing original M/M romance for over 15 years. She started ManLoveRomance Press to address the need for a quality publisher of M/M fiction. MLR can be considered one of the earlier digital M/M erotic romance publishers, and one closely tied to ‘fannish’ origins of the genre.
Riptide Publishing was started by several published M/M authors who also had professional experience with major NY publishing houses. Riptide’s mandate has been to provide a ‘New York level’ of quality writing, editing, and promotion to some of the best M/M and LGBT authors around.
By contrast, Carina Press is the digital-first imprint of Harlequin, one of the giants of the traditional M/F romance industry. Harlequin recognized that the M/M and LGBT markets were not only being underserved by commercial publishers, but that those two related markets were growing at rates that suggested a major opportunity. While Carina Press has focused most on its M/M romance offerings, the publisher has one of the broadest catalogs around, ranging from romance, suspense, thrillers, science-fiction, and fantasy through a range of sexual ‘heat levels’ from explicit through sweet romance to non-sexual.
Readerships: while all three publishers can with confidence state that the majority of their readers and writers are straight women, there is a high degree of participation from gay men, trans* individuals either wanting to read about similar characters or find solace in positive stories, and other members of non-traditional groups.
While having separate publications and readerships set aside to shelter the growth of M/M and LGBT romance has been helpful up to now, all four panelists agreed that their books and authors should embrace inclusion in mainstream categories. Continued self-segregation or industry segregation* not only prevents excellent books from being judged against mainstream peers, it goes against the wishes of the readership at large. Readers, the panelists explained, are no longer always reading for a ‘gay experience’ but easily accept characters who are gay as part of a spectrum of traits and abilities. This strongly mirrors the acceptance of marriage equality and gay-rights issues among the mainstream populace, over the past fifteen or twenty years.
The rise of digital publishing has had several positive outcomes for romance and erotic romance writers and their readership worldwide.
Risk: a smaller digital publisher, expecting to sell fewer than a couple of thousand copies of each title, can take risks that major publishers cannot. Quirky books with interesting plots and unconventional characters have always found homes within the small-press market. M/M and LGBT romance is no exception.
Cost: An e-book costing between $3 and $6, for example, is an easier purchase to justify than a trade paperback at $15 or a hardback edition at $26. Readers can more easily judge sample pages and buy the works of new-to-them authors.
Convenience and discretion: anyone with a debit card, credit card, a PayPal account, and a computer/tablet/cellphone can buy an e-book. Nearly anywhere, and at any time. An e-reader or tablet offers a more discreet reading experience even in liberated cultures. In countries and communities where reading explicit M/M romance or LGBT books in paper form could lead to public ostracism, job loss, harassment, imprisonment, or even death, digital books can offer a safer, more private form of reading.
Clubs and contests: contests and writers’ groups who shut out M/M and LGBT romance writers are finding they either have to justify or change their stances because of wide-spread feedback from their members. Even RWA (Romance Writers of America), which has been one of the most staunchly traditional romance writers’ organizations, now has chapters dedicated to and run by M/M and LGBT Romance authors. The panel participants offered the hope that authors in these genres would continue to enter mainstream publishing contests, even those still nominally or outwardly unfriendly, with the goal of becoming familiar to the judges and using quality entries to wear down or subtly shame opposition.
Shelving and stocking in bookstores and libraries: the isolation of the M/M and LGBT genres was compared to the ongoing industry conversation over where to place African/American and Interracial Romance. In both cases, being shelved with their respective ‘interest’ platforms may lead to a dedicated, if small, number of sales from that community. But shelving among the larger genres (gay suspense within the suspense stacks, M/M fantasy with fantasy fiction, etc) offers access to a broader readership that just wants a great story.
In a related issue, the panelists and one audience member expressed frustration with the wider industry tendency to conflate ‘M/M’ and ‘LGBT’ fiction with ‘sexually explicit material’. All four panelists offered examples of works that had little to no overt sexuality, but still featured characters who happened to be LGBT. This is one reason why many publishers now offer ‘heat level’ designations in their books, to direct buyers to the desired experience. Having less-risque books with sympathetic portrayals of LGBT characters, one panelist noted, would be of immense help to school librarians looking to stock age-appropriate Young Adult material.
(Personal observation: it would also help grow the market for more adult books, as that readership matured.)
Marketing: the panelists were committed to offering the best possible marketing and promotions they could to their authors, while stressing that a writer’s job didn’t end with getting published. The panelists noted especially effective examples of cover design, again stressing the need to compete and win against similar mainstream books.
In closing, the panelists offered advice for newer authors wishing to get into the M/M and LGBT Romance field: read voraciously inside and out of chosen genres, write as much as possible, make meaningful contacts with fellow writers and readers on social media and through writers’ groups, make meaningful social media contacts (ie. through forum discussions) with publishing professionals (without stalking them), finish and submit stories, accept reasonable criticism, and build a backlist (for published writers.)
They also warned there is no ‘magic bean’ – like any authorial career these days, writing and publishing in the M/M and LGBT Romance field is more than likely to be hard work.
It was a fascinating hour, and worth the effort for the free registration.
The webcast will be available for registered listeners and PW members-only download at Publishers Weekly until late June 2014; after that time, it may become available to the public.
Added 4-2-2014: author Julie Bozza has a great essay on why it’s still A Good Thing that the M/M romance genre is a niche market not beholden to the Big Five and their midlevel competition.
* Added 4-20-2014: M/M Erotic romance author Damon Suede has an older but very topical post on the dangers of the M/M and erotic romance ‘ghetto’ here. (Added 8-29-2015: link broken, so I’ll try to find it again for you.) Basically, he warns that keeping M/M romance in safe niches for dedicated readers only ghettoizes it.
While I have in the past somewhat disagreed with engaging the staunch traditionalists of the RWA (from the sheer cost alone, as well as the sometimes Sisyphean nature of that campaign), I see Damon’s point – and support it. It’s had a real effect on publishing and markets.
Wider readerships don’t want to read about a gay character just for their ‘gayness’, they want that a facet of a whole character. More-experienced readers are getting bored with cookie-cutter plots, characters, and settings. I’ve noticed many reviewers over the last couple of years taking some M/M romance publishers to task for ‘churning out’ poorly-written, badly-edited books in order to feed what can seem like a voracious but uncritical readership. I think that problem will be self-correcting, as larger Big Five and independent publishers join in offering M/M romance of all genres. These publishers can often offer substantial advances, better editing, and usually have strong marketing departments and far broader distribution. The better authors of the genre will wait out their e-rom contracts, buy back rights, then self-publish or go on to the big leagues.
The first wave of largely digital erotic romance publishers – het as well as LGBTQ – are in danger of becoming irrelevant, if they don’t shift with the times. (See my post on Ellora’s Cave.)