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Who's Publishing Lesbian-relevant Historicals?

Wednesday, March 27, 2019 - 08:19

As regular readers (all six of you) know, every month my podcast does a round-up show that includes a list of new and forthcoming lesbian-relevant historicals (including historic fantasy). I get the content from three primary methods: 1) Buzz on the net; 2) Searching on Amazon using "released after" and keywords = "lesbian" + "historic"; and the topic of today's blog 3) checking the websites of those publishers who release relevant books often enough that they're worth checking individually.

But group 3 isn't actually a very efficient method and seems to be becoming less useful all the time. Why? Let me lay out some numbers and specifics.

I've talked previously about my aspiring database of relevant books. The older material in it is gleaned largely from goodreads lists and similar sources, so I know it's incomplete but it's likely to include the better known titles (and is more likely to be missing self-published book than ones with publishers, which latter is today's topic). But for the last year and a half or so, it's as complete as I can make it. Let's look at who's publishing these books and how often.

When I put together a "state of the field" survey at the end of 2018, I had 151 named publishers in the database (which includes single-author imprints, as long as they have a "publisher name" they're using). Of those, 94 (60%) only had a single title in my database. Obviously these are not candidates for checking in on regularly.

25 publishers have only 2 titles in the database, and only half of those published anything relevant in the last 5 years. These are spread across mainstream publishers (Harlequin Teen, Harper Collins), smaller queer/feminist presses (Less Than Three, Lethe, New Victoria), and singe-author imprints or at least, imprints where the only books in my database are by a single author (Golden Keys, Grove, Little Red WIngs, LZ Media, Riverdale Avenue, Sans Merci, Three Bunny Farm). So, again, not worth checking every month. I have to hope that their relevant books come to my attention by other means.

A similar pattern appears for publishers with 3 and 4 titles:

Three titles - 9 publishers, only 4 with any titles in the last 5 years, 1 mainstream (, 1 small queer press (Riptide, though only one author from them shows up in my list), 2 single-author (Broad Winged Books, LoveLight).

Four titles - 8 publishers, 4 with titles in the last 5 years, 1 mainstream (Little, Brown and Co.), 2 small queer press (Shadoe - though only a single author appears, Supposed Crimes), and 1 single-author (Venatic).

That leaves us with 14 publishers for which I have 5 or more titles listed, of which 3 don't have anything in the last 5 years. That takes us down to 11. 1 mainstream publisher (Riverhead), 8 small queer/feminist presses (Bold Strokes, Bella, Regal Crest, Ylva, Affinity, Bywater, Spinsters Ink, Sapphire) and 2 single-author presses (AUSXIP, A-Girl Studio).

So those 8 small presses are my best bet for regular monitoring, right? Let's look at the logistics of their historical output and their website interface.

  • Bold Strokes - recent average is 0.5 relevant books per month. Website has new and forthcoming pages will full  schedule as planned.
  • Bella - recent average is 0.3 relevant books per month. Website has new and forthcoming pages with full schedule as planned.
  • Regal Crest - recent average is 0.15 relevant books per month. Website has new and forthcoming pages with full schedule as planned.
  • Ylva - recent average is 0.06 relevant books per month (nothing in the last 2 years). Website has "new releases" page but not forthcoming.
  • Affinity - one book in the last 4 years. Website has "coming soon" page but not very useful.
  • Bywater - 2 books in the last 4 years. Website has "forthcoming" page.
  • Spinsters Ink - no books in the last 4 years (the one book 5 years ago gets them into this category at all). Included in Bella new/forthcoming pages.
  • Sapphire - recent average is 0.08 books per month. Website has "forthcoming" page.

All told, that's 8 websites to check, for an overall average of 1 book per month as output. During 2018, the year I started doing my "new and forthcoming" podcast feature, I averaged 8 titles presented each month. So even the combined output of the most prolific queer/women's presses only constitutes 1/8 of what I'm identifying. If there are publishers with a more significant output, I'm not finding their books at all (which would hardly reflect a good publicity strategy!).

When I started doing a systematic search (not only of new books but of past releases I might not have in the database yet) I identified 45 presses, based on both what I already had in the database and on the current state of lesbian publishing. A quarter of those 45 don't seem to have ever published anything historic, but 75% of them have at least one title in my database.

I started this analysis today because I was Twitter-brainstorming other presses I should add to my list. But the conclusions point out something else: most queer/lesbian presses seem to have published occasional historical titles, but nobody is putting them out with any regularity, much less focusing on them. One of the things that helps raise the bar in a field is having a publishing team that knows the genre -- that knows how to identify and develop promising talent, that knows the field and reader wants and expectations, and that know how to market that specific genre. Nobody in the queer/lesbian publishing field has that expertise currently, nobody is developing that talent, and nobody--absolutely nobody--has any clue how to market lesbian-relevant historicals, even within the lesbian reading community, much less across the entire reading public.

We're starting to see mainstream publishing have more openness to featuring queer female protagonists. There's an explosion of queer historic fantasy coming from mainstream SFF publishers. And mainstream historical romance publisher are starting to dip their toes into the water of allowing their current straight-romance authors to put out the occasional f/f novella. But those shifts aren't going to open up the field to authors of lesbian historicals who either don't have access to those markets (e.g., authors who aren't going to start by establishing a career writing m/f historical romance) or don't have the genre-familiarity and skills to sell to them. And at the same time as this shift, we're seeing some of the main queer/lesbian presses appear to lose interest in the genre. Those "top 8 publishers" discussed above? In the first three months of new/forthcoming lists on my podcast for 2019, they've only provided 2 books for the lists. Below the average for the last 5 years. And the ones that have significant "forthcoming" web pages suggest that rate may drop more for the year as a whole. Lesbian/queer publishing has never been strongly invested in lesbian-relevant historical fiction, and the situation looks to be getting worse, not better.

And yet readers are clamoring for the genre. Readers are begging for these books. Somewhere, there's a disconnect.

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