Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The Gay Cult Classic

I’ve not read The Front Runner by Patricia Nell Warren, a gay novel so successful that there are LGBT running groups around the world who call themselves Front Runners. It’s taken on an almost cult classic like status, I’ve found, among gay men. Almost everyone knows about it, though almost no one I know has read it.

Last week, a colleague sent along an article that lamented the closing of LGBT bookstores and the closing of LGBT imprints at publishers. As LGBT literature becomes more mainstream, are we losing something of our collective LGBT culture? The Front Runner is considered the first commercially successful gay fiction book — so it could be considered the front runner for mainstreaming LGBT lit.

I probably didn’t have the reaction to that article lamenting bookstore closures that my colleague expected to hear from me. Having the role of author, editor, and publisher, I have a perspective that may be different than that of a book buyer.

While LGBT bookstores are closing, and LGBT imprints at publishers are disappearing, I don’t think the LGBT book industry is suffering for it.

We all write because we have an innate need to tell stories. Most writers have secondary and tertiary motivations, too. In the end, no matter what motivation we have as writers, we want to get paid for our work. LGBT bookstores are not as much help to LGBT fiction as an industry outsider might believe.

With LGBT imprints and LGBT bookstores, we unfortunately ghettoize ourselves if that’s what we pursue. Yeah, we want to support our community and we want to get our messages out to those who need to hear them, but aiming for such a path limits one’s reach, and thus limit’s one’s earning potential.

When’s the last time you went in an LGBT bookstore? When’s the last time you went into a general bookstore? For me, I’ve never been in an LGBT bookstore — and it’s been several months since I’ve set foot in either Chapters or Indigo. But I do buy books online (but not from Amazon) … and most LGBT bookstores don’t have an online presence (or if they do, it’s a minimal one with no online store attached) so I couldn’t support them even if I wanted to.

And with imprints from large publishers, those come and go all the time — and to house LGBT lit under a specific imprint … well … what happens when that imprint is closed? In a non-LGBT context, Harlequin used to have the Kimani imprint for writers of colour — and when they closed that imprint, they apparently refused to allow the former Kimani authors to write for other Harlequin imprints. Closing imprints is always a business decision — and if an imprint is closing, that means it’s not selling.

By lamenting the loss of LGBT imprints, what are we actually lamenting? They were places to publish LGBT lit, yes, but if it closed, that means it wasn’t making money, which means readers weren’t buying the books. But is it the books’ fault? Or is it the imprint’s fault?

At brick-and-mortar bookstores, book buyers decide what to stock the shelves with. Imprints are part of that decision — they know to trust certain imprints and may decide that other imprints “just don’t sell”. And if an imprint is deemed to be a non-seller, they won’t stock the books, which means they won’t sell as well as they could — which then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And in this changing book industry, where authors are more likely to self-publish and small publishers are more likely to use POD services like Createspace — which unfortunately means their print books are very unlikely to get in physical bookstores — it’s suddenly very hard to have a bookstore presence. A lot of LGBT books are self-published or published through small presses. If a giant national chain bookstore won’t carry indie paperbacks, then a near-bankrupt LGBT bookstore certainly won’t either.

Mainstreaming is good. It’s good for business. And it’s good for getting your message out. (Indeed, I happened to see on Twitter that an LGBT author received an email from someone who accidentally bought their LGBT book, read it, and had their mind and heart opened. Mainstreaming was not only good for that author’s business, but helped spread positive messages — something that would have been impossible if LGBT lit hadn’t been so mainstreamed.)

Writing an LGBT book that becomes a cult classic is certainly a nice thing. It gets known, it gets sales, and it gets a following … but it’s all kind of limited. I don’t want to write a cult classic. I want to write a book — actually, many, many, many books — that captivate hearts and minds and reach across audiences and communities.

I want to build a career out of writing LGBT lit — and I can’t do that by relying on LGBT bookstores, LGBT imprints, or cult classics statuses.

Cameron D. James is a writer of gay erotica and M/M erotic romance; his latest release is Silent Hearts. He is publisher at and co-founder of Deep Desires Press, member of the Indie Erotica Collective, and hosts two podcasts, Deep Desires Podcast and Sex For Money.


  1. I agree that having your books shoved into a niche genre, is limiting. I'd imagine that with the popularity of M/M romance among women readers, that would be especially true. They're used to reading stuff written by other women. But as someone who has judged in book contests for years for the now-defunct EPIC, I could usually tell if the M/M romance was written by a woman or a man. It had a different flavor. So if your books are mainstreamed, as you say, readers who might not have found you, will have a chance to discover a new author to love. Win-win for everyone!

  2. Mainstreaming has its positive and its negative aspects. The more mainstream and "marketable" a subgenre becomes, the stronger the tendency for it to become stereotyped and limited by reader (or publisher) expectations. I definitely think that has happened to erotica in general. Maybe I'm just jaded, but I see a homogeneity in the genre that just wasn't there a decade ago.

    Will that happen to LGBT literature? I hope not, but I do think it's a risk. Indeed, I've read blog posts by gay authors lamenting the fact that with greater public acceptance of gay and lesbian people, LGBT relationships as portrayed in popular culture are being forced more and more into a heteronormative mold.

    I also see big problems in the tendency to label and compartmentalize literature that comes with mainstreaming. My characters sometimes have interactions with their own gender, sometimes with the opposite gender. Are my books LGBT? Who decides? Do I have to take out the het relationships if I want to sell them as lesbian or gay fiction? Do I have to explicitly label my characters as "bi"?

  3. Thought-provoking post, Cameron. I tried to post a reply several days ago, but my words disappeared in cyberspace. In general, various people have lamented the disappearance of physical space (not only bookstores but bars and community centres) for the LGBTQ community, even though mainstream acceptance carries benefits and safety.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.