Into the Queerosphere: Resources for Finding Your Next LGBTQ Read

To anyone that’s been paying attention to recent trends in young adult (YA) over the last four or five years, the line-up of books slated for 2019 is both timely and highly anticipated. With the push for diversity in literature and media still going as strong as ever (perhaps even stronger than ever), it seems that publishers have finally started to seriously answer the call. Young adult (and middle grade) lists are heavy with POC leads, and the number of books about LGBTQ characters has doubled since the last few publishing seasons (and that’s just looking at books coming out—pun intended—between January and April! The list for May through June is even longer!). This is extra important when you consider that as recently as 2012, just over 1 percent of YA books had any LGBTQ content at all.

Personally, I’m delighted by this statistic, not only because I’m excited to read all the sweet, sweet diversity of POC and LGTBQ content (especially when they happen in the same book), but also because the mere existence of these books confirms a tangible change in the publishing industry. Publishing is a notoriously (and glacially) slow process, so it’s exciting to finally see the response of publishers to the public outcry for more diverse representation, which has been an ongoing social conversation since, well, forever. Or so it feels.

Of particular interest to me are books that feature protagonists who identify as part of the gorgeous rainbow spectrum that is the LGBTQ community. Not only is 2019 chock-full of queer content, but it’s also filling in some gaps in representation from years before, with a happy increase in trans characters compared to the almost nonexistent quantity from 2018, as well as another welcome increase in aro/ace characters. It is, in short, going to be a blissful year of reading for book-loving queers and queer-loving readers.

Still, with of all this new content (on top of all of the great and fabulous content from the last few years), how is a reader supposed to find the books they’re truly interested in without reading the back cover copy of a million books? Fortunately for everyone, there are several great places to start looking for all this good queer content.

Databases of Books with LGBTQ Characters and Themes

  • Rainbow Books List: An annual list created by the Rainbow List Committee of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table of the American Library Association presented as a “bibliography of quality books with significant and authentic GLBTQ content,” catered to kids aged birth to eighteen.
  • LGBTQ Reads: Perhaps the most comprehensive database, LGBTQ Reads has lists for everything. They’ve broken down the LGBTQ diaspora into genre and then subdivided it several times over for unique searchability. The YA section is broken down by subgenre, pairing, setting, state/province, trope/theme, and YAs with queer parents.
  • YA Pride: (Previously Gay YA) This organization has compiled a series of masterlists organized alphabetically by author. They have lists for seven broad categories within LGBTQ representation: gay, lesbian, bisexual/pansexual/polysexual, transgender (including nonbinary identities), intersex, asexual, and aromantic.

Preliminary Reading Lists for 2019 (Please enjoy the irony of me making a list of lists)

“Straight” from the Source

Great news for anyone with unpublished LGBTQ content! There are many publishers that cater specifically to LGBTQ authors and books with LGBTQ characters and themes. Below are five of said publishers. Another more comprehensive list lives here.

  • Bella Books: The largest lesbian-owned press publishing books written by, for, and about women who love women.
  • Bold Strokes Books: Accepting general and genre fiction, BSB offers a wide selection of LGBTQ content in every conceivable genre and subgenre.
  • Dreamspinner Press: Publishes gay male romances that end in gay or gay polyamorous relationships.
  • Interlude Press: Publishes well-crafted LGBTQ-focused titles ranging from short stories to novels and encourages submissions from authors of all backgrounds.
  • Riptide Publishing: Has three distinct imprints, including Riptide Publishing (adult genre fiction with a romantic or erotic focus), Triton Books (YA genre and literary fiction), and Anglerfish Press (literary fiction with little to no romantic or erotic focus).

Normalizing Queerness: Tips on Inclusive Editing for the LGBTQ Community

The role of an editor is to ensure throughout each stage of the editing process that the writer communicates their view of the world to the reader in the best way possible. With such a responsibility, editors should look at the ways in which the language and manuscripts they edit affect the world around them. Editors should look at how the representation of life and people on the page shape and change society’s understanding of real people in the real world. To gain further distance on the path towards impartial inclusion, here are some tips for inclusive and mindful editing in regards to the LGBTQ community:

  1. Ask members of that group how they would like to be referred to. Having someone in a position of privilege assign a name or term to a minority group can lead to further misunderstanding and misrepresentation. No one knows how to better represent and write about a group than a member of that group and hearing their real-world experiences will only deepen the authenticity of the story.
  2. Look for manuscripts that show structures other than the typical male-female relationship. The existing representations of gay and lesbian relationship in literature is a step in the right direction but simply not enough to truly represent the depth and range of human sexuality. Editors can look for manuscripts that don’t just normalize homo-sexual relationships but bisexual, transgender, intersexual, asexual, and pansexual relationships as well (to name a few).
  3. Look for manuscripts that don’t solely focus on a character’s sexual identity or how other characters are not accepting of it. If the story focuses on a gay male character’s career, the editor can make sure that the author talks about his sexuality in a way that does not make the reader assume his gayness as a detriment to his career. Unless the manuscript specifically discusses the horrors of sexual prejudice or historical homophobia, editors should look to ensure that the character’s gender identity or sexuality is discussed in a way that does not label it as abnormal.
  4. Try not to assume heterosexuality when not specified. When writing queries to the author or making suggestions in the manuscript, the editor can reference the character’s “partner” or “sexual relationship” as opposed to their “boyfriend” for a female character or “girlfriend” for a male character. This way of normalizing the homosexual and de-normalizing the hetero- will place the terms on a level playing field that does not assume one as superior to the other.
  5. Avoid terms such as “the opposite sex.” This assumes the gender binary of male/female and excludes the multitude of other gender identities that do not fall under the strict male/female understanding.
  6. Employ the use of gender-neutral pronouns. By using the singular “they/their/them” in place of the traditional he/she, the reader will not automatically assume the gender of a character, allowing space for the author to include genders that fall outside the male/female binary.
  7. Avoid referring to transgender peoples in terms of pre- and post-operation and only mention any sort of operation when absolutely pertinent to the story. Again, ask how transgender peoples want to be referred to, and use that name and pronoun. Note that this is usually the post-transition name, even when talking about the person before the transition. Taking this into consideration, editors will want to avoid reducing the transgender experience to a single surgery, as the process takes months if not years, as opposed to the commonly-misconstrued notion of it happening overnight.
  8. Turn the focus from a person’s appearance as the primary indicator of gender or sexual identity. Don’t reduce the character to their appearance and whether they dress as a “typical male” or “typical female.” Instead, writers and editors should allow space for persons to define themselves through behavior and personality as opposed to appearance.

On the Lack of Lady Lovers

I am not Triinu Hoffman. I never went to church; I never had a goth phase; my parents never blithely recited poetry to me in their spare time (how quaint!). I am certainly nothing like Triinu Hoffman in the overarching sense of the word. But we do have something in common, and it’s something both deep-seated and important—something that, before this last week, I had never before seen portrayed in a young adult novel. Forgive Me if I Told You This Before is the first novel I have ever read in which the protagonist is like me, a girl liking a girl and not apologizing for it. It’s just a girl who likes girls and goes to school and tells her parents and loses her footing but, ultimately, finds her way.

The power of representation in book publishing is an underutilized force. There is something quintessentially powerful about seeing yourself in the novels you read. It’s as if you need to see yourself in black and white before you can internally breathe that sigh of relief, that recognition that “oh, there is someone else out in the world like me.” Particularly in those impressionable YA years, it is critical that one sees themselves represented in those moments when they are floundering and wearing goth makeup and lanking their way through a perpetual awkward stage. Those are the years in which a foundation is set for the future, and without a sense of community and inclusion, how can these poor, lost, incredibly awkward souls find their way?

I never had the privilege of representation. Of course, my race was represented. My middle class upbringing was represented. Sometimes even my mixed cultural upbringing was represented, too. I connected to novels in different ways—in countless ways—but never recognized that there was a big piece missing. I tried to figure out, quite fruitlessly, why something about these girl-meets-boy tropes just didn’t settle well with me. Because I was never exposed to it, I couldn’t put a name to the feeling. I’d vehemently argue that because of the lack of lady lovers set before me, it took me eight years too long to venture my way out of that closely confined closet’s door. I’d also argue that I am not the only one for whom this has been true.

As writers, editors, and publishers, we have a brilliant opportunity to promote exposure. We have the means, the methods, and the drive to get things done. We hold the keys to inclusivity and representation for the masses. They seem like big shoes to fill, but this is the true power of the written word. Too many Buzzfeed slideshows and Tumblr rantings have jaded us; we have forgotten what it feels like to find yourself within the stories, and how it feels to see your life laid out before you in a 5″ x 7″ page. That it took me, a voracious reader, twenty-four years to find a character that reflected me is unacceptable. How many other closet doors remained closed because in every YA novel “Jane found love (and herself!) through meeting Michael, a strong and mysterious man who showed her it is okay to cry sometimes”? I know that these are the stories of many. But they are not the stories of all.

I found myself ripping through the pages of Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before, like I used to tear through books when I was small. I found myself connecting, even through the stark differences, and feeling like an old, deep-set hole in my heart had finally been filled. I am certainly not Triinu Hoffman, but I connect so intently to what Triinu represents. As I read, I found myself finally feeling positive, feeling that this lack of lady lovers could one day be just a thing of the past. And when that day came, Jane and Elizabeth could live happily ever after.

Guest Post: Dating a Small Press

I struck out. I had written a terrific novel. I got a dynamite agent, and … she couldn’t sell my book.

I wasn’t really surprised. The Admirer is a thriller about a serial killer with an amputee fetish. It also contains a lot of lesbian sex. I understood why mainstream publishing did not bite.

“Why don’t you self-publish?” people suggested.

Even my agent suggested it.

“It’s a good book,” she said. “It will make money. It just won’t get in at Random House.”

Self-publishing is a very reasonable option for a lot of writers. Some self-publish and then move to a press. Others, like John Locke, just make millions of dollars as self-published authors.

Nonetheless, self-publishing wasn’t right for me. I am an English professor early in my career (it’s really more like midway through, but I’m optimistic about how long I’ll live). In my profession, you don’t get a line on your resume if you self-publish.

I still believed in the book. I wanted readers to follow beautiful, tormented Helen Ivers into the abandoned asylum pursued by the killer. I wanted readers, so I started exploring small presses.

The asylum

The asylum that inspired The Admirer

Joke: What does a lesbian bring on a first date?

Answer: A U-haul.

That wasn’t true for me and my wife, but it was true for The Admirer. The book was acquired by three small presses, one after the other, in the course of a year. The first two were rather like the relationships I had in college. These weren’t bad people, but we were fundamentally incompatible.

Sapphire Books—the press I finally published with—was, not by coincidence, the first one I submitted to. I had done my research, and I really liked them. However, Press A offered me a contract before Sapphire Books could respond, and I jumped on it. Then, too embarrassed to admit my mistake, I dated Press B until they went out of business.

I probably would not have been bold enough to approach Sapphire Books again, but one of my friends, author Linda Kay Silva, did the groundwork for me, and Sapphire signed me on.

It’s been great. Sapphire is a small press, but it’s growing. They provide marketing and publicity support. They encourage their authors to get to know each other. I hope to make a lot of money on The Admirer, but regardless of that, working with Sapphire is just plain fun.

The same is true for Ooligan Press. I don’t think of them as a small press in the same way. They are small in terms of books acquired but large in organizational terms. But they have some of the same small-press traits, including a willingness to consider non-mainstream content and a wonderful, hands-on approach to working with their authors.

Karelia's writing desk

My writing desk

When I first looked into the publishing industry in the late 1990s, I read that the cost of getting a book on the shelves was no less than $50,000. Now with e-books and print-on-demand, anyone with a computer and wifi can start a press. However, starting a press and running a press are two different things. It still takes a hell of a lot of time, energy, savvy, and some capital to run a successful press.

What does this mean for the author?

It means that publishing with a small press is a lot more like dating than one might think.

Many small presses are run by one dedicated person. That personality drives the press more than any one person at Norton ever will. That is not necessarily a bad thing. One person can be more open-minded than a large institution. Small presses are often willing to consider unusual content.

I told the publisher of Sapphire Books that my sequel was about conjoined twins and S&M.

She nodded. “We won’t have a problem with that,” she said.

Even a larger small press may open this door. My novel, Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before, tells the story of Triinu, the daughter of an Estonian immigrant, who comes out during the violent anti-gay politicking in Oregon in the 1990s. Ooligan seeks “. . . regionally significant works of literary, historical, and social value . . . [and] . . . traditionally underrepresented voices.” Could I have found a better match? I doubt it.

Finding the right small press can challenging, but the rewards are personal. I was looking for a line on my resume; I got supporters, mentors, editors, and friends.

So if I may offer a bit of advice to the writer interested in small press publishing:

  • Look for a love match. As tempting as it may be to accept any offer that comes your way, don’t. You would not do that if you were looking for a spouse (I hope!). Don’t do that with your literary career.
  • Ask questions. Don’t be shy. If it’s important to you, ask the publisher before you sign a contract.
  • Avoid publishers who offer no help with marketing and promotions. That is, indeed, the author’s job, but the publisher should want to help out, and they should have connections that aid in this regard.
  • Avoid first right of refusal contracts (contracts that guarantee the publisher first dibs on all future work) unless you feel really confident in the press. None of the presses I worked with asked for first right of refusal.
  • Avoid contracts that bind your work for life. Somewhere between two and ten years is reasonable.

Finally—and I am serious about this—look for a publisher you like. Unless you write the next Harry Potter, you probably won’t become a millionaire, so why not reap the intangible benefits: opportunities for self improvement, coffee shop dates with interesting people, and a whole army of new Facebook friends?

Palm Springs

Hanging out with Sapphire Books at a conference in Palm Springs

For more about Karelia Stetz-Waters, visit her website. Karelia is dedicated to helping aspiring writers find their way in the world of publishing, so feel free to contact her via email.