Hands forming heart with rainbow color overlay

Queer Book Labels: Are They Helping or Hurting Sales?

While cultural movements abound trying to increase queer inclusion and understanding, it’s no wonder that there has been a rise in queer books being published and, according to NPD Bookscan, a rise in queer book sales as well. It seems that being an LGBTQ+ book is a good thing right now, at least for sales. But what if, in some ways, those same labels are losing sales as well?

Consider, for instance, the pros and cons of these queer books ending up on various published “banned books” lists. When a queer book ends up on a banned books list, there is a possibility of the book gaining an audience, rather than being repressed, especially an audience that wants to fight back against this oppression and will go out to buy the books in support. This leads to increased sales of certain books.

Unfortunately, of course, not all books benefit from “banned books” lists in this way. This article argues that many books will just fall by the wayside and be forgotten. This is a tragedy, especially for all those potential readers from wherever they have been banned.

For now, however, many publishers still feel that queer books need queer labels to be discoverable. There are other aspects of the books that can be marketed as well, but according to sources in this article, a large percentage of the audience still finds queer books because they are looking for queer books. And that audience isn’t just queer people, either. This article is from 2020, so it’s a bit outdated, you could say, considering how quickly some things change, but the current trends in LGBTQ+ books being sold suggests this may still be the case.

But, even with this seeming success for the books that are making it, we publishers need to ask ourselves, is this actually what we want? Are these people just buying books because they are labeled “queer” or are they actually going to go home and read the book, process the book, and hopefully even love the book and want more like it? Is this trend actually a sign of cultural change or just a phase that will blow over like so many others have?

There are other things to think about as well, in a less philosophical vein. Are such explicit queer labels on our books actually helping reach our intended audience? For instance, this librarian warns that making queer labels too blatant can scare off some of the very people we are trying to reach because they aren’t ready or feel safe enough to walk around with an obviously queer book.

And what about people who would love these books, but aren’t actively looking for “queer” books? Some people are willing to read books with queer characters, but aren’t looking specifically for queer books. Not to mention, there is more to a book than just being queer. For some books, yes, the main point is being queer, with queer characters, and addressing various aspects of queer life, but for other books, it is the genre, the adventure, the plot, etc. that are more central, with the queer characters/stories being a bonus on the side. Are we doing these books an injustice by labeling them as queer, rather than letting them shine for their more central themes?

For now, yes, it still seems like queer book labels are not only helping sales, but one of the leading causes of their sales, despite whatever backlash might come from that designation.

But, hopefully, someday LGBTQ+ characters will be such a normal, accepted part of culture it will be an expected possibility in the books we read. Someday, we’ll be able to go out, look in any category, and find plenty of queer books right alongside their counterparts because it will be accepted that any book, anywhere, may reflect real life with real characters.

Scrabble blocks arranged to read "Choose your words."

Keeping it in Style: Considering Cultural Style Guides

What do you think of when you hear the words “style guide”? Perhaps APA for the social sciences, AP for journalists, and Chicago for historians. For communications-based jobs, in-house style guides might come to mind—amalgamations of an established style and corporate requirements in order to appeal to a certain audience. It seems obvious that style guides are meant to establish how a corporation presents itself to the world—so how do we address the rapidly changing ways that marginalized people talk about themselves and the world around them in order to present content that audiences find sensitive, accurate, and accessible? The answer is cultural style guides.

Elements of Indigenous Style was written by Gregory Younging of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation (Manitoba, Canada) after he saw concerning portrayals of Indigeneity in the books he edited at an Indigenous publishing house. The resulting book was revolutionary and is lauded as the first published guide to editing and curating work by Indigenous folks. With a title similar to the familiar cornerstone of modern editing, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, Younging’s comprehensive guide addresses ways that publishing can elevate Indigenous voices. Key to publishing’s failure to do this sooner, in Younging’s own words, “comes from a colonial practice of transmitting ‘information’ about Indigenous Peoples rather than transmitting Indigenous Peoples’ perspectives about themselves.” This style guide fills a void—a way to dictate how Indigenous people refer to themselves rather than defaulting to the paternalistic ways that they have often been referred to.

Why are style guides like this so important to consider? While style guides can be considered living documents, edited over time to more accurately reflect the current zeitgeist, there is something relieving about having guidelines written by and specifically for one’s group of origin rather than originally for an exclusive audience. Cultural style guides, while not perfect, consider the culture first and foremost, eliminating the need to have to view one’s own culture (and subsequently, one’s own self) through the lens of neutrality, and emphasizing an Own Voices approach to publishing as a whole.

To see cultural style guides at work in the real world, I had the opportunity to talk to Elliot Bailey, the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Publisher’s Assistant at Ooligan Press, about how Ooligan’s style guide considers cultural elements.

How does Ooligan Press’s style guide currently work with people from different backgrounds—are there any unique considerations taken when working with these books, especially with the press’s commitment to publishing BIPOC and marginalized authors?

E: The Ooligan Press style guide has a condensed version of the Conscious Style Guide to be used when needed. The inclusive style guide within the Ooligan style guide takes into account disabilities, BIPOC identities, queer identities, age, appearance, and illness. In addition to our use of the inclusive style guide, one of the resources DEI has is a collection of other style guides and resources that can be found online, such as the National Association of Black Journalists Style Guide and the Transgender Language Style Guide that can be used when needed.

Does the press ever use other style guides besides our house style guide and Chicago Style? Would they consider using styles in development (such as from Elements of Indigenous Style)?

E: Yes, we do! When working with a manuscript that has content that needs special consideration, we add that to the individual manuscript’s style sheet. In general, any of these additional style guides are available for use within Ooligan for anything they are needed for, and I add to the style guide resources whenever I find new ones that would be useful for the press.

Cultural style guides offer an interesting glance at a future where people of all backgrounds can take the lead in how they are written into history. This collaborative future is one where we will probably not get things right at first—but that’s okay. According to Younging, “. . . plan on not getting it right. Make your best effort to make informed, mindful decisions about terminology.”

African American woman looking up over her left shoulder, in pop-art background

Colors in Ink: Diversity Among Graphic Novels

As an avid reader, a few years back I made it my mission to venture out of my comfort zones (horror, historic fiction, and poetry) to test the waters in different genres. I picked up my first graphic novel back in 2020—A Game for Swallows: To Die, To Leave, To Return by Zeina Abirached—and fell madly in love with the simple yet beautiful artwork, and the heart-wrenching story. I also enjoyed the fact that it was a quick read. It was beautifully written, and being used to submerging myself in novels the weight of my car, I found the graphic novel was a welcome easy-read to get me through my ever-returning procrastination of my to-be-read pile.

Since then, I have steadily amassed a small collection of graphic novels and graphic memoirs. I have tried to specifically focus on finding ones from the #OwnVoices category, with the intent to one day amass a diverse collection for my own son when he is older.

As such, I thought I’d share some of my favorites that focus on diverse representation. The tales range marvelously from war aftermath to more classic bildungsroman-style narratives, and the artworks encapsulate and celebrate the beauty of diversity in all ranges of color—and some in black and white! If you’re looking to explore the world of graphic novels, then look no further than these amazing suggestions (in no particular order)!

  1. A Game for Swallows: To Die, To Leave, To Return, by Zeina Abirached. This graphic memoir centers on a day in Zeina’s childhood during the civil war in Lebanon. When her parents go missing after crossing to the other half of the city, Zeina’s neighbors step up to make her apartment feel like a safe home for her and her brother. From lessons in cooking to games and juicy gossip, they all band together to get through the chaos of the day.
  2. I Was Their American Dream: A Graphic Memoir, by Malaka Gharib. Focusing on family heritage, discovering oneself, and freedom of American immigrants, Malaka Gharib’s graphic memoir will pull at your heartstrings through the tales of first-generation immigrant children.
  3. Gender Queer, by Maia Kobabe. An autobiography in graphic novel form detailing Maia’s journey through adolescence as a genderqueer teen. From confusing crushes to gushing over gay fanfiction with friends, this graphic novel is perfect for anyone wanting to understand—or relate to—the struggles and triumphs of being nonbinary and asexual.
  4. The Morning Tribe: A Graphic Novel, by Julian Lennon and Bart Davis. A fun graphic novel that centers on twins Dawn and Dusk, two members of the Morning Tribe in the Amazon rainforest, who must gather their courage and their friends to stop the Agricorp mercenaries from destroying their homeland.
  5. Nubia: Real One, by L. L. McKinney. “Can you be a hero . . . if society doesn’t see you as a person?”
  6. American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang. Following three seemingly unrelated tales, this graphic novel weaves together the lives of Jin Wang, Chin-Kee, and the Monkey King in a comical, action-packed modern fable.
  7. Pemmican Wars (A Girl Called Echo #1), by Katherena Vermette. After moving to a new town and school, Echo Desjardins struggles to fit in and find her place. That is until one day in history class, when she is transported back in time to a bison hunt on the Saskatchewan prairie. Echo must find her bearings as she slips back and forth from her time to the dangerous days of the Pemmican Wars.
  8. Squad, by Maggie Tokuda-Hall. When Becca moves to a new high school, she is surprisingly invited to join the most popular clique in school. That isn’t the weird part though: her new friends are werewolves, hunting slimy boys who prey on unsuspecting girls. A funny, action packed graphic novel focused on taking down the patriarchy—one boy at a time.
  9. Generations, by Flavia Biondi. A wholesome, heart-jerking tale of Matteo, a young gay man from a small country town who, after spending years away in Milan, must return to his conservative family and rebuild his life.
  10. Turning Japanese, by MariNaomi. “In 1995, twenty-two-year-old Mari had just exited a long-term relationship, moving from Mill Valley to San Jose, California. Soon enough, she falls in love, then finds employment at a hostess bar for Japanese expats, where she is determined to learn the Japanese language and culture. Turning Japanese is a story about otherness, culture clashes, generation gaps, and youthful impetuosity.” — Goodreads.

While this list could go on forever, these ten will hopefully help you find your next (or possibly your first) graphic novel read. If you are looking to explore even more graphic novels that center on diverse characters and stories, Richard Library has a wonderful list of Great BIPOC Graphic Novels, and Books & Bao have an amazing list of Queer Graphic Novels.