Two local LGBT publishing companies, Tiny Satchel Press and Lethe Press, have similar goals in reaching underserved LGBT readers and consumers.
Well-known journalist, writer and editor Victoria A. Brownworth founded Tiny Satchel Press last year because she felt there was a lack of books being written for tween and teenage LGBT readers, especially ones that feature ethnically diverse authors and main characters.
“I had been working as an acquisitions editor for a mainstream publisher for the previous six years,” she said. “I was getting frustrated when I would bring other LGBT stories or stories with main characters of color to the committee and they would say, ‘Well, I don’t think there’s a readership for this.’ Everyone else that I spoke to in our community was saying to me we really need books that address this age range of queer kids. And they just weren’t there. I know when I was a kid, there was no such thing as tween and teen books. You went from children’s book to adult book and there was this big gap in between. The intention when I founded Tiny Satchel was to address that demographic and to focus on books for LGBT kids and kids of color. And whenever possible, combine those two things.”
Steve Berman, author, owner and publisher of Lethe Publishing, founded his company in 2001 to publish books for LGBT readers in specific genres.
“Right now we focus on a few niche parts of the LGBT literary world,” he said. “We primarily do speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and horror. We also have an imprint for gay people of color and we have an imprint for bears. If it’s a book that is aimed at one of those readers, then I’m interested. It’s just that it makes the most sense to approach one of those types of books.”
Both Brownworth and Berman agree that one of the biggest challenges their businesses face is the declining number of LGBT bookstores that support independent LGBT publishers.
“Yes, it’s a problem because it means that there are less of our titles in the bookstores,” Berman said. “But for better or worse, Amazon has stepped in as well as TLA Books. The Internet has pretty much stepped in for people buying gay books at bookstores. I would rather they buy at a gay bookstore, but people go online for their books.”
Brownworth agrees that closing bookstores is a major obstacle but doesn’t see Amazon in such a positive light.
“It’s a disaster, especially since the main focal point for books in America is Amazon. Last year, Amazon accidentally deleted all their gay titles. They got them back but they regularly do all kinds of censoring of the books that are available. That is how the majority of people get their books. When there isn’t an alternative to Amazon, there isn’t a way to get your titles out there. I had a problem with two books with Amazon. One book, ‘Dreaming in Color’ by Fiona Lewis, a well-known black lesbian writer, they took the book down because they accidentally transposed numbers in the ISBN [International Standard Book Number]. They told us they couldn’t sell it until they had the right ISBN. We had the right ISBN initially anyway. It took over two months to repost the book. That was two months of sales that were missing. A book by a black lesbian writer for kids just off the grid. You can’t get an actual person on the phone with Amazon like you can when you call Giovanni’s Room. Every time you close down a gay and lesbian bookstore, you close down access to queer books across the line. Adults will be able to find gay and lesbian books elsewhere but kids will not. The age range that we focus on will have no access to those books because they won’t know how to find them.”
Brownworth added that teenaged and tween LGBT readers, especially the ones that are short on means, are hit hardest by vanishing LGBT bookstores because oftentimes those are the only places they can find literature that they feel represents them.
“Everybody is just struggling when it comes to books and booksstores and publishing,” she said. “In our community, despite the image of the rich white gay man, it’s not the case for the majority of our kids out there. There’s not a lot of discretionary income out there. Every other day, there’s a teen who’s posting on YouTube about feeling suicidal. We know how desperately kids need images of themselves available to them. I just know from my own experiences coming up, I would have killed for lesbian books when I was a teenager.
“It’s been a huge struggle getting our books into [mainstream] bookstores. It’s not that our readership isn’t out there, but connecting with the readership is a struggle as well. The economy is what it is. I feel strongly that kids should have access to books and, unless you’re a wealthy kid, you don’t have an iPad or a Nook or a Kindle. You don’t have access, even if you do have those things, to buying your own books and not having your parents check what you’re buying. So I think that it’s important to have print books out there.”
Berman has a slightly more optimistic outlook on the impact of e-books on the LGBT community.
“Because we’re a small press and we print on demand, we rely on Ingram [Book Company] for most of our distribution,” he said. “It’s still very difficult for independent bookstores that are primarily gay bookstores to find out and discover our books. Not only have e-books provided new outlets and introduced new readers, but it has also helped the cash flow because there are less returns and costs per title because the production is near minimal. E-books have really helped our bottom line.”
Brownworth admits e-books do have their advantages but the importance of the actual physical copies of LGBT books cannot be stressed enough.
“We know we have to do them,” Brownworth said about e-books. “All of our books are in e-book form. But we’re not just doing e-books. We also do print books. Part of the problem with e-books is that they really address a more moneyed demographic. We’re trying to reach kids across the economic strata. We want kids to share books, which unfortunately you can’t do with e-books. There’s no used e-book store. So we are trying to promote books in libraries because that’s where a large percentage of teens and tweens of color who are not middle class are getting their books and their computer access. Being able to have our book in print and e-book means we are reaching a larger segment of the population. We have to be doing the books in print because otherwise we can’t reach the kids we most want to reach. They have to be able to pass these books around.”
Berman agrees that word of mouth, whether it comes from libraries, bookstores, personal contact or the online community, is key to the success of independent LGBT publishers.
“We recently had two titles that received star reviews: a lesbian zombie novella called ‘Eat Your Heart Out’ and a bisexual graphic novel called ‘A + E Forever.’ We’ve received many library orders,” he said. “They have also spread out to some mainstream bookstores. Primarily once you get a starred review, it’s pretty much telling the libraries that this is something of quality. The old standard [of success] is 100,000 copies sold for the mainstream press and 1,000 copies sold for a small press is a success. For us, I would say that if we sell around 500 copies in a year, it may not seem like a lot, but that’s a good book for us. We’re hoping for reviews or a Lambda Literary winner as we had last year.”
For more information on Tiny Satchel Press, visit www.tinysatchelpress.com. For more information on Lethe Press, visit www.lethepressbooks.com.