The following article isn’t about fairness. It’s not a lament about the justice or injustice of life or the capricious arbitrariness of manuscript selection. It’s not even about individuals, really. It’s about the power of advertising. Through an anecdote comparing two authors from similar backgrounds, it’s meant to illustrate the vastness of the divide between the potential advertising perks offered by the Big 5 publishers (the Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, MacMillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon and Schuster) and independent publishers. This, in turn, is meant to call attention to the need for greater representation in mainstream publishing in order to bring visibility to more LGBT authors and books. It is, in short, a tale of two authors.
Award winning, groundbreaking author Malinda Lo and I are, in many ways, twins. Lo attended Wellesley College and earned a Master’s degree in Regional Studies from Harvard specifically looking at East Asia. I attended Mount Holyoke College and received a Master’s degree in Regional Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison specifically looking at South Asia. In brief, we’re both graduates of Seven Sisters colleges with an academic focus on Asia. From 2003-2009, Lo was a contributing writer and ultimately managing editor at AfterEllen.com. She was also the associate editor at Curve magazine in 2006 and wrote freelance nonfiction articles for a variety of publications including Girlfriends, The Gay and Lesbian Review, and the Lesbian News. I wrote for AfterEllen.com from 2016-2018 and have written freelance nonfiction articles for sites such as tello Films, LezWatchTV, What About Dat and GayBaeCo.
When it comes to fiction writing, our similarities continue. Lo and I both write Young Adult (YA) fiction. Lo is the critically acclaimed author of six YA novels, including “Ash” and Huntress,” which feature queer female protagonists in high fantasy settings. My first YA book, “Daughter of Fire: Conspiracy of the Dark,” was published in September and its follow-on, “Daughter of Fire: The Darkness Rising,” in November. The books are part of a quartet featuring queer female protagonists in a high fantasy setting.
This is where our similarities end, because Lo has been successful enough to be a full-time author while I…well, let’s just say it’s a good thing I still have my day job. Obviously, many factors both controllable and uncontrollable go into the success of a novel, but one factor in the success of “Ash” and “Huntress” was likely their path to publication. Lo is represented by Michael Bourret of the Dystel, Goderich & Bourret literary agency, who secured her publishing contracts with Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Based on how mainstream publishers work, Lo likely had a marketing manager who designed a marketing plan with advertisements, discussions with wholesale distributors, and even book reviews from the likes of The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and Meg Cabot, best-selling author of The Princess Diaries and Airhead series. Little, Brown was able to get “Ash” and “Huntress” on bookshelves around the country through its existing marketing channels so that thousands of teens would have access to the material. In short, Little, Brown leveraged its considerable marketing channels to maximize the visibility of the book in an effort to make it a commercial success.
I, on the other hand, like almost all authors writing LGBT content, failed to secure a literary agent and eventually found a home with the small, independent lesbian publisher Ylva Publishing. Ylva has few resources comparable to Little, Brown. Its books rely heavily on Goodreads reviews and word of mouth to generate groundswell rather than glossy ads in commercial magazines. No celebrity authors provide reviews or blurbs for Ylva’s books. And outside of individuals requesting copies of my books for their libraries, there is little chance of them ending up on shelves. My books are unlikely to make it onto genre-specific sites or even most major LGBT book review sites, since they’re generally geared toward books published by the mainstream. Overall, my books will likely struggle to gain visibility even among the intended audience.
Although the 108 YA books with LGBT content published in 2018 is the most ever for mainstream American mainstream publishers, this is still less than 1% of the total number of YA books. And given that somewhere between 4.5–12% of Americans are LGBT, that’s an underrepresentation of about 80-95%. The situation is worse than that. When the number of total YA books published by the mainstream is broken down by what percent have LGBT content, a startling fact emerges: mainstream publishers are not actually publishing significantly more LGBT content—proportionally, that is—than they did a decade ago even if the absolute numbers have risen in recent years. I call this phenomenon “a road trip on a Mobius strip.”
By my best guess counting, in 2018, mainstream publishers published 11 YA high fantasy books with queer female protagonists. In 2017, there were four. In 2016, three. In 2015, 2014, and 2012, there was one. With statistics like that, it’s no wonder almost all LGBT YA fantasy manuscripts like mine have been turned down by mainstream publishers and a miracle that in 2009, Lo was accepted. As they say, it’s like passing a camel through the eye of a needle. But the point of this anecdote is to argue that we desperately need more queer YA content to be published by mainstream publishers because of the publicity benefits they offer. The average self-published author sells fewer than 250 copies of their books. The average mainstream author, on the other hand, sells around 2,000. That’s an eightfold difference in readership. Content produced by independent publishers or though self-publication can easily slip through the cracks and fail to reach its intended audience. If it’s not on “Best Of” lists (which are almost exclusively geared toward mainstream publications) or library shelves, how will readers know it exists? 250 readers aren’t enough to create groundswell, but 2,000 might be.
Another benefit of mainstream publication is that it inherently exposes a larger pool of potential readers to LGBT content than the niche LGBT publishing market can. In other words, the more LGBT content in the mainstream, the more that heterosexual readers are likely to be exposed to it and the more the public will become desensitized to it. Straight readers won’t go to a small lesbian publisher’s website, but they might be tempted to pick a book up from a Barnes & Noble bookshelf if it has display appeal.
Every year, hundreds of LGBT books are published by independent publishers or through self-publication because the authors failed to find a home with literary agents or mainstream publishers. There’s no dearth of queer content being produced, it’s just not making it into the mainstream. Obviously, it’s a highly competitive industry in which every agent and publishing company is looking for the next JK Rowling or Rick Riordan, but there’s also a statistically demonstrable bias against LGBT content that has historically acted as a gatekeeper to publication of that content. When we list mainstream authors of queer female YA high fantasy, there should be more than just 22 names. And we should remember to list the authors not published through the mainstream, as well, lest they be forgotten. Because of the promotional advantages of publication through a mainstream publisher, we need the Big 5 to look introspectively at this LGBT content gatekeeping problem and find ways to mitigate it. And until that happens, we need as a community of readers to work extra hard to champion, promote, and cheerlead books coming from independent press and self-publication.
Karen Frost is a pop culture pundit, blogger, and LGBT YA fantasy fiction author. Her “Destiny and Darkness” series, of which “Daughter of Fire: Conspiracy of the Dark” and “Conspiracy of the Dark: The Darkness Rising” are both out now, places strong female protagonists front and center of an epic fantasy adventure. Read more at karenfrostbooks.com or follow her on Twitter @Lez_Dish.