YA Publishing Industry De-Gays Books: What Are The Options?

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I’m going to try to do this in a hurry, because if you pay attention at all to the publishing industry, then there’s absolutely nothing new or shocking about Rachel Manija Brown & Sherwood Smith’s revelation in Publisher’s Weekly that various editors and agents attempted to de-gay their Young Adult novel, followed by many similar confessions in the comments of that post–because you’ve just seen it all before. And after a while, you (okay, I) get tired of saying the same things over and over.

So let’s just recap the last 5 years or so of YA publishing, shall we?

  • YA publishers routinely attempt to remove queer and genderqueer characters from books
  • YA publishers also routinely attempt to whitewash the covers of books they do deign to publish, and this has been going on for years–is still going on despite recent outcries and increased attention being drawn to the issue.
  • There is a recurring myth in publishing that non-white, queer, genderqueer, fat, and disabled readers will read books about white, straight, cisgendered, thin, and abled characters. Good for them. However, the myth warns, the reverse is not true: white/straight/cis/thin/abled people have no interest in reading about, much less buying books about, anyone who’s not just like them. And so, the myth urges publishers to face reality, and do the financially viable thing–aka only publish books that white/straight/cis/thin/abled people will buy. (This myth also exists in Hollywood, but with the addition that men won’t read books about women. Oh, wait, nevermind, that exists in publishing too.)
  • This myth is bullshit. The reason white/straight/cis/thin/abled people don’t  read books about non-white/queer/genderqueer/fat/disabled characters is because there are none.
  • But this myth persists and has led to the situation in which we find ourselves today, where more and more readers are questioning why the books they see on shelves don’t actually represent the real world, but are finding that the publishing industry itself is slow to submit to serious self-examination on this issue.

And why should it be, when it can sell books the same way it always has before? Sure, as an industry it’s dying and e-readers have gained nearly 25% of the U.S. market for books over the last year, but the Harry Potters and Twilights that sell ungazilloplexes of copies aren’t pushing the envelope in terms of main characters (fans will have to accept that presenting a character as sexless or closeted and outing them after they’re dead and the series is finished, as JKR did with Dumbledore, does not count)–and if the vast majority of readers are satisfied with that, why shouldn’t the publishing industry be too?

The fact is that more and more writers are turning to e-publishing, not only because of the greater level of control over the finished product, or because it offers environmentally sound publishing methods with extremely high royalty rates–sometimes up to 50% more than a print publishing contract offers–but because of the lack of censorship. After all, as many people have suggested, if there’s a market for books with non-majority characters out there, then that market will find the books it wants to read, regardless of how they’re published.

That said, even if there is a sudden mass movement of authors to self-publish, as POC author N.K. Jemisin points out, many people view self-publishing as a venue for “niche” audiences–“but categories of people are not niches. Thinking of them as such is caving to bigotry, not fighting it.”

So there you have it:

Option one – stay and fight in the hallowed, ever-deteriorating halls of the publishing industry, spend all your time convincing your agents, editors, marketers, and readers that it’s okay for your characters to be gay/trans/butch/black/asian/fat/less-than-able-bodied. And run the risk of failing and either not being able to sell your book, or not being able to retain the characters you loved and have fought for. OR retain the characters but see them be erased or whitewashed on the cover of the book you worked your ass off to sell.

Option two – run to e-publishing and self-publish your book. Self-publish with Amazon and get an 80% royalty fee. Save trees and shell out a buttload for marketing. And then run the risk of no one actually buying your book; or of having it be labeled as “niche” –have people assume that obviously the audience you were writing for wasn’t part of that ideal majority of straight white beautiful perfect readers. Run the risk of being able to retain your authentic voice, but have it reach only a few people, and contribute nothing to the effort to mainstream the values you’ve fought to represent.

I wonder if there is another option.

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