(Originally aired 2021/10/02 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for October 2021.
News of the Field
This month, I’d like to spend a little time talking about discoverability and sapphic historical fiction. Book discoverability can mean a lot of different things, but they all boil down to: how easy is it for the people who want to read my book – whether they know it yet or not – to actually find my book and be able to buy it?
There are two sides to discoverability: distribution and recognition. Distribution is the logistical pathways by which the book makes its way to the reader’s awareness, and I’m not talking about that side today. I’m looking at recognition: the way that a book communicates its nature and content to a prospective reader. The way it waves its arms and shouts “Pick me! Pick me!”
Discoverability is particularly important for a relatively small genre like sapphic historicals. The distribution side tends to create visible categories and structures for a genre only when it grows to a particular size. So a small genre gets lumped in with other books that the distribution industry thinks it’s similar to. If you’re looking for a historical within the larger context of lesbian fiction, you want a way to easily figure out which books have historical settings—which may be less than 1% of the books on offer—and to figure out when it takes place and what sort of story you’re getting. (Not all historicals are romances, and that can matter a great deal whether you’re specifically looking for a romance or not.) If you’re specifically looking for a book focusing on female characters within the larger field of queer historicals you want to be able to skim past the 99% of queer books that don’t have the representation you’re looking for. And if you’re browsing through historical romance titles in general—which is an enormous field—you want to be able to find the vanishingly small number that put two women together.
The author has three main tools for making that connection for you: past performance, cover art, and cover text (which includes both the title and the cover copy). Once the book gets out to readers and reviewers, there’s also word of mouth, but that’s another topic I’m not covering today. Today I’m focusing specifically on what the book itself communicates. And I’m focusing on it because every month when I go to put together the new book listings, I become very aware of the ways these methods of communication can succeed and fail.
Past performance is only available once an author has already published in the sapphic historical field. If you spot a new title by someone that you know has already written books like the ones you’re looking for, it’s an easy win to check it out and see. Authors don’t always stick to one genre—and indie authors often don’t set up separate pen names for different sub-genres the way mainstream authors might—so your favorite historical author just might have written a contemporary this time, but that’s where the other information comes into play. Past performance can trip you up, though. If an author has always previously written contemporaries (or science fiction, or paranormals, or some other genre), then you might need a much stronger signal that this book is different. I had that happen with one of this month’s new releases. An author with a long track record of contemporary romance put her toe into the historical pool, but I only found the book because of word-of-mouth because the cover image didn’t shout “historical” to me (it only sort of whispered it) so knowing the author’s past subjects I hadn’t clicked through to read the description. (Also, the book hadn’t shown up in my keyword searches on Amazon, but that’s outside the scope of this discussion. Right now I’m focusing on filtering through the books that do show up for the keywords, or that are on major lesfic distribution sites, or are included in other people’s aggregate lists of forthcoming queer fiction.)
For me—given the context in which I’m trying to discover books—the cover image (in which I include the title) is the first big gateway a book has to pass. Whether I’m browsing the forthcoming books at Bella or Bold Strokes, or skimming through the aggregate lists at lgbtqreads.org, or working my way through the results of my Amazon keyword search, the art and title are the basis for clicking through to read the cover copy. Why not check out every book I find through those resources? Honestly, because I don’t have time. I’m starting with literally hundreds of possibilities each month, of which maybe half a dozen will pan out. And if that’s the hurdle a book has to make it past just to get on a list, think about how much harder it has to work to get into someone’s wallet.
So what communicates “historical” on a cover? Mainstream publishing has an entire formalized vocabulary to communicate genre that most readers are only aware of on a subliminal basis. The small press and indie publishing field is more fragmented and doesn’t have a unified approach. But if you’re an author with input into your cover design, it makes sense to have an awareness of how to communicate the setting and flavor of your book. Freelance cover designer Sarah Waites explains some of those design principles in her social media and is a great person to follow for tips and ideas. (I should probably have her on the podcast at some point to talk about it.)
There’s nothing quite like a cover featuring a person in a clearly historic outfit to communicate “this book is a historical”. It’s the classic method that mainstream historic romances use. The outfit doesn’t need to be precisely accurate to the date of your story, but it should solidly communicate maybe a general century? The figure on the cover of Elna Holst’s Lucas looks for all the world like she’s wearing a 20th century cardigan. My first impression was “maybe this is a 1950s story?” It didn’t shout Regency to me, but it did say “historical” in some fashion. Conversely, the woman on the cover of Courtney Milan’s Mrs. Martins Incomparable Adventure shouts late 20th century, not the Victorian era and if I saw it in isolation, I might assume the book was a contemporary.
If you want a strong signal that your book is an f/f romance, then two women in historic dress is a very efficient way to do that. And although finding historic images that intended to communicate same-sex love is a tough project, I have a whole folder of art ideas that I got by searching a portrait archive with the keyword “sisters”.
Maybe your budget doesn’t include either that type of image or that level of art? Then objects that strongly evoke your historic era are a good choice. Something that clearly says “this does not belong to the current era.” Jeannelle M. Ferreira’s The Covert Captain does this with a closely-cropped image of a cavalry horse showing an archaic style sword. The antique typewriter on the cover of Margaret K. Mac’s A Lady’s Fine Companion definitely communicates a historic setting, even if the cover copy doesn’t narrow it down much between the late Victorian era up through the invention of the Selectric. Images that feature historic architecture can be another budget-conscious approach.
Even something as simple as an artistic design can communicate the date of the setting. A classical Roman mosaic, a medieval manuscript illustration, a William Morris design, an Art Nouveau arabesque—all of these will signal setting to the casual viewer.
The font you use for the title is another easy way to communicate a setting in the past. Obviously, readability is important given the thumbnail size of many cover displays, but a font with historic associations like a copperplate script or one of the simpler blackletter styles can convey an archaic feel. And that brings us up to the question of the text.
So, the cover copy for a book is supposed to hook the potential reader, convince them to care about the characters and their problems, and provide a sense of what type of story they’re getting, right? That can be a big job and it needs to be done with flair, not by simply providing a catalog of information. But for a reader searching for sapphic historicals, the cover copy also has to provide two key points of information: some indication of the romantic orientation of the central character; and some way for the reader to identify the setting in time and space.
For a romance novel, it’s fairly easy to indicate orientation at the same time that you’re providing the clues that it’s a romance. It can get a bit tricky if there’s a gender disguise plot involved, that that’s a whole other topic. But what if romance isn’t central to the plot? How can the cover copy indicate “This is a story about Anna, who likes girls, but that’s a side plot and I’m not going to make a big deal about it”? In a contemporary, you often see casual references to exes, but the same techniques don’t always fit in a historic setting. I’m going to say honestly that I don’t have specific suggestions on this one. All I know is that every month I find at least one book where I need to do some serious research to find out why the book turned up under the keyword “lesbian”. Because that keyword is no guarantee of anything. All I can suggest is that if you’ve written up the blurb for your sapphic historical , you might try it on some test readers to see if it communicates your intentions. There are books I’ve left out of the new release listings because I couldn’t confirm they had any queer content. Or ones I’ve only found a year later through word of mouth. From mainstream presses, this is often a deliberate strategy. They erase even significant amounts of queer content from the publicity to avoid “scaring off” straight readers, while being confident that the whisper network will bring in the queer readers. But if you’re an indie author or with a general LGBTQ small press, then you’re probably counting on reader identification as a major selling point. And those readers want to know what they’re being asked to identify with.
Finally, there’s time and place. It might seem obvious that book publicity for a historical novel would tell the reader where and when it’s set, but you might be surprised. About 5% of books in my database give no clue in the cover copy where the story takes place. If nothing specific is mentioned, it’s a reasonable guess that it’s either set in the UK or the USA, but that leaves a lot of territory. A similar 5% give no clue to even the general era. I can make some reasonable guesses based on other content. “This one sounds like it’s an American frontier story.” “It mentions pirates so maybe sometime between the late 16th to mid 18th century?” One popular technique that locates the setting without using up much space in the text is to start the cover copy with a simple dateline: “China 1826.” “In 17th century Paris…” “Harlem, New York, 1925.” Not all stories are quite so specifically pinned down, and book descriptions would feel a bit repetitive if every one started that way, but you have to admit it gets the information across.
All of these examples are simply by way of saying that people who are looking to read historical fiction want some way to know that a book is historic. And people who are looking to read stories about queer women want to know that the characters in a book are female and queer. Of course, there are people who are simply looking for a good book to read—any sort of good book—but if you’re aiming for the sapphic historical readership, make sure that your book is shouting “hey, over here!” loudly enough.
Publications on the Blog
And with that, let’s look at what the blog has been up to. I have one more post to finish up Emily Skidmore’s True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the 20th Century. It’s been an interesting journey tracing the study of transmasculine lives across several books and multiple centuries. Most of the scholarship that I’ve covered in the blog that addresses this topic has come from a default point of view of treating female-bodied persons as women, and therefore their romantic and sexual relationships with women as being homoerotic. These recent studies have triangulated from another position: that persons living lives read as male are men. In my view, neither position can be accepted without question and analysis. Even the direct testimony of the people involved—which is more available for recent times—may not give a definitive answer to how they viewed their own identities. And the question of how society viewed and categorized them is much more complex than one might think. And—coming back to the purpose of the blog—regardless of how specific individuals discussed in these books may have identified, anyone planning to write a gender disguise story would do well to study the actual experiences of those who lived and were perceived as something other than their assigned gender. And both Skidmore and Manion’s books offer plenty of study material.
Next I’ll be diving into a book I’ve been very excited about since I first saw it announced: the brand new English translation of Sandra Boehringer’s Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome, previously available only in French. It can be very challenging for 21st century people to grasp the cultural differences that underlie the various Greek and Roman models of gender and sexuality. And much of the material that is available focuses primarily on men, simply because the majority of the surviving data is primarily concerned with men’s lives and behavior. So the luxury of an entire book focused on women is delightful. I’m going to try to finish blogging the book in about a month, so I’ll probably be breaking it up into more and shorter segments to do it justice.
Boehringer is still the most recent book shopping results that I’ve received, but I have a few things on order. So stay tuned!
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
I started this episode talking about discoverability because of some specific experiences in putting together this month’s new and recent book listings. And while I don’t mean to call out anyone to be mean—for goodness’ sake, I do this whole project because I love the field—but some concrete examples can show the difficulties in discovering sapphic historicals even for someone like me who makes it a major project.
I have one July book to mention. Usually I don’t reach quite that far back for the new book listings. If I don’t stumble over a book within two months of it coming out, I just silently add it to the database. I have to have some sort of cut-off or I’d be finding books two years later and debating whether to include them as “recent releases.”
Clare Lydon’s Big London Dreams from Custard Books is the first and so far only historical title in her London Romance series. Two women fall in love in the 1950s but society’s expectations for their lives tear them apart and leave them with lasting regret. This story follows them up to the present day when they once more come face to face and are offered a much delayed second chance at their dreams together.
So why didn’t I find this book when it first came out? Mostly because it isn’t tagged with a history related keyword on Amazon. I have to have some way of filtering down from the entirety of lesbian fiction, so I require a keyword indicating the book is historical. It’s possible I might have missed it even if it had turned up in my search filter. The cover art is a silhouette of two figures against a London skyline, matching the style for the other books in the series. Although the clothing of the figures is dead-on for the 1950s, it isn’t sufficiently different from something you might see people wearing today to pop out as historic. And since I’m familiar with Lydon as writing contemporaries, I could easily have skimmed past it, working on that assumption. As it happened, I spotted the title in a context where the historic setting was mentioned, but that was pure luck.
I’m also catching up with one August book: Missing in Milan by Edale Lane from Past and Prologue Press, the fourth and evidently final book in her Night Flyer series. The series is a bit of a mash-up of Renaissance Italy, superhero adventure, mystery-thriller, and a continuing romance. Our heroine must solve a tangle of theft, abduction, and an inconvenient ex-lover who turns up in the middle of things. I suspect this story is best enjoyed as part of a series, rather than as a stand-alone. But if you’re someone who likes to have the whole series available at once, it looks like this is your chance.
September books include two more that I almost entirely missed knowing about.
Matrix by Lauren Groff, from Riverhead Books came to my attention through a list on Autostraddle. It looks like a rather odd literary pseudo-history, set in Plantagenet England. The protagonist is banished from the royal court by her relative Eleanor of Aquitaine. Deemed insufficiently refined for a courtly life, she is set up as the prioress of an abbey on the brink of collapse. Melding two real-life historical figures about whom little background is known—the author of romances known as Marie de France, and an obscure abbess—this story reconstructs her as a charismatic visionary whose cult-like following raises concerns in the outside world.
There isn’t the slightest hint of queer identity in the cover copy, though the title does turn up under my keyword searches. I had to go to some early reviews to confirm that it falls within the scope of this podcast, though the only clear reference is to the protagonist having a major crush on Queen Eleanor. The reviews generally seem to indicate this is a “love it or hate it” sort of book, best suited to people looking for literary stylings rather than uncomplicated romance.
The second September book had to work fairly hard to escape my notice, given that it’s published by Kalikoi, which is on my list of websites to check every month. Complementary by Celia Lake is part of several connected historic fantasy series set in the early 20th century and can be read as a stand-alone. The basic premise of Lake’s world is that of a parallel magical society existing apart from but intertwined with the human world. In this installment, two magically talented women are thrown together to investigate the possible misuse of a magical artifact within an eccentric artists’ colony. Working together so closely sparks some feelings that may complicate what was meant to be a simple partnership. It’s a lovely slow-burn of a romance.
So how did I almost miss this one? This isn’t the fault of the cover art, the blurb, or anything else about the book itself, but simply the fact that it isn’t yet listed at the publisher’s website, despite already being released. I heard about it from a friend of the author who thought it just might be up my alley. (They were right.)
The eight October releases on my list are quite a varied lot. First up we have Longshadow by Olivia Atwater from Starwatch Press, part of her Regency Faerie Tales series. Regency fantasies are becoming a popular subgenre on their own, though quite diverse in their specifics. This one features a young lady with the somewhat improper ambition to become a magician, joining forces with a scruffy street rat who isn’t entirely what she seems—and who soon finds a place in her heart. Together they must defy the menace of a lord of Faerie.
There’s a bit of a theme with this episode’s books having that one book in a larger series that features a female couple. Next up is The Perks of Loving a Wallflower in Erica Ridley’s Wild Wynchesters Regency romance series, from Forever. Like many historical romance series, although the book shares characters with other books, it can stand alone. Thomasina Wynchester uses her skill at disguise to solve riddles and mysteries. Which might raise the question of just who her new client—the well-born Bluestocking Philippa York—thinks she’s falling in love with. Philippa doesn’t believe in love, she just wants her priceless artifact back. Yeah, right, that all she wants. Then why is her heart beating faster?
So you remember how I said that one aspect of discoverability is sorting out what types of identities a book’s characters have? Well one complication of the glorious diversity of gender and sexual identities that we’re seeing in fiction these days is that it can be complicated to determine whether to include a book under this podcast when it isn’t clear whether a character considers themselves to be a woman. In Urchin by Kate Story from Running the Goat press, the protagonist Dor is non-binary but since the cover copy does use female pronouns for her I think we can open the gate. In early 20th century Newfoundland, the arrival of electricity—and wireless inventor Marconi on a secret project—disrupt Dor’s isolated community…and their relationship with the local fair folk. Threaded through is a sweet love story between Dor and a girl named Clare (though I got that part from reviews, since the cover copy makes no mention of it).
The female ambulance drivers of WWI are a very inspirational setting for lesbian romances—perhaps inspired by, but much more successful than the one featured in Raclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. In Suzanne Feldman’s Sisters of the Great War, published by MIRA, two American sisters find freedom from the roles demanded of women in the ambulance corps in Belgium, one finding a chance to practice medicine, the other as a mechanic. There is a romance between the mechanic sister and another ambulance driver—a romance that is nowhere indicated in the cover copy, although it’s encoded in the search tags and I’ve learned to read some fairly subtle hints. The coyness about this aspect in the publicity may not be doing the book any favors as several advance reviews complain about being blindsided by the same-sex romance and wishing they’d been “warned” about it. Discoverability cuts both ways, it seems.
Clear communication of content is not a problem for Ava Freeman’s self-published collection of erotic stories, The Sweetest Taboo. I don’t know whether all the stories have historical settings but the brief summaries mention several that fall generally in 20th century American contexts, including the Harlem Renaissance.
The aftermath of WWI and the American prohibition era are the setting for Of Trust and Heart by Charlotte Anne Hamilton from Entangled: Embrace. Lady Harriet Cunningham is adrift after serving as a nurse during the war and finding love with her fellow nurses. Now she’s been packed off to relatives in New York City with instructions to find a husband to settle down. But one last hurrah in a secret speakeasy derails her intentions to settle down when she finds herself obsessed with the star talent, Miss Rosalie Smith.
By the way, Of Trust and Heart is a great example of successful discoverability. The cover art signals the theme with an image of two women in flapper-era dresses in a semi-embrace. The cover copy elegantly lays out the time and place, confirms the protagonist’s past and future desire for women, and signals the expectation that this is a romance novel. There was never any possibility that I’d miss finding this book with even minimal effort.
And then there’s the technique of appending “A Lesbian Romance” to the book’s title which, while inelegant, is at least unambiguous! In Warm Pearls and Paper Cranes: A Lesbian Romance by E.V. Bancroft from Butterworth Books we trace the parallel stories of an older female couple, separated when they need nursing home care, and the granddaughter of one of them, struggling with her own relationship, who may be their only ally, if they can mend the wounds of the past to join forces. Starting in 1939 and continuing up to the present, this story shows how the legacy of secrets and prejudice continues to disrupt lives even today.
There have been a couple of historic fantasy series that I started including when they felt solidly grounded in actual history, but that have moved more and more into the fantasy side as the series goes on, to the point where I’m not sure I would have included the current installments if I’d encountered them on their own. Vesna Kurilic’s Ranger Paraversum series from Shtriga is one of those. The latest installment, Girls Back Home, continues the adventures of parallel worlds doppelgangers Lina and Karol as they romp through portals and solve crises. But we aren’t really rooted in real-world history any more and while it may be a lovely fantasy series, I don’t think it really falls within the scope of this podcast from this point on.
What Am I Reading?
As for what I’ve been reading this month, I got quite a boost from reading books for the Jane Austen episode. In addition to those mentioned last month I read Kate Christie’s Gay Pride and Prejudice which I confess I found disappointing except in concept, because it relied heavily on simply recycling the original Austen text with minor revisions. I was much more impressed with Molly Greeley’s The Heiress: The Revelations of Anne de Bourgh which was gorgeously written and I felt very realistically depicted a possible explanation for the sad life (but later happiness) of Anne de Bourgh.
I finally fit in the second of Olivia Waite’s “Feminine Pursuits” romance series, The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows which I found quite delightful. And thanks to the recommendation of a friend, I gulped down the bite-sized Complementary by Celia Lake, discussed in the new releases previously.
I’ve been taking advantage of my new Audible audiobook account to check out some books that come with the subscription at no extra cost. Unfortunately that category doesn’t overlap much with my existing to-be-read list, so in those times when I need audio rather than print—like when I’m riding my bicycle—I’ve been going a bit farther afield. I listened to Sherry Thomas’s female Sherlock Holmes interpretation, A Study in Scarlet Women, having heard interesting things about it on the Smart Bitches Trashy Books podcast. I think it’s a book that would have worked better for me in print—not that I’d have ever found the time to fit it in that way—because the constantly shifting timelines, unreliable viewpoints, and non-linear revelations left me rather adrift in the plot. I’m actually rather comfortable with being adrift in a plot, but without the chance to flip back to an earlier chapter once something has been revealed, I never quite got the whole picture.
My latest listen came from browsing through the LGBTQ category hoping that maybe there would be some sapphic historicals available. Alas, no. But I decided to try a K.J. Charles gay male historical. I enjoyed KJ’s one f/f book Proper English and I really like following her social media so I figured I’d give An Unseen Attraction a chance. I really enjoyed the characterization and the plot. I was decidedly meh about the multiple extensive sex scenes, but then I’m pretty meh about sex scenes in lesbian books as well, so it was just a different degree of meh. But the characterization—oh my god. Proper English had not conveyed to me just how amazing a writer KJ is. Now I want her to write more books about lesbians and put some of that same amazingness into her female characters.
The Fiction Series
It’s that time of year when I need to be starting to beat the drums if I’m going to do a fiction series again next year. And I confess, I’m just not sure. Part of it is that I’ve slipped up in my scheduling and while I’ll be producing all the stories I bought for this year, I feel like I’m not being as on top of things as I want to be if I’m going to claim to be a professional market. Part of it is that I don’t feel like the fiction program has taken off the way I hoped it would. Maybe I’m just having one of my down periods about the podcast. I’ve done the fiction series for four years now, and it would be a lovely milestone to complete five. So I’m still thinking about it.
Your monthly roundup of history, news, and the field of sapphic historical fiction.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online