As of April, when my novel, Truths, is published by Bold Strokes Books, I am officially a writer. But before I signed a contract I was just an avid reader with aspirations to be a novelist, with no knowledge of the publishing industry at all. Read a book such as The Writer’s Handbook , or a similar publication, and the best general advice is to know your market. Publishers will want to know both who your target audience is and which other authors they can compare your work with.
So, as I was beginning to write Truths, I set out to research my market–and to find new books to satisfiy the reader in me. Call me old fashioned, but I headed to my local bookshop, rather than flicking on my computer. I know I can find any book I want to online, but I was curious what actually made it onto the shelves. There is no independent bookshop in Nottingham–only secondhand and religious ones anyway–so my target was my local big name chainstore outlet–Waterstones. But a bookshop is a bookshop and this one is so huge I thought I’d pretty much find anything there.
So I scanned the shelves. I found general fiction, military history, sci-fi, crime, romance, kids, sociology, poetry, erotica…in the end I gave up and asked the assisstant. ‘Do you have a gay and lesbian section?’
The answer was no. As you would expect, I asked why not. Apparently they used to have one but–and this is a quote–it attracted ‘the wrong sort of people’. It was tempting to ask if he meant dykes and gay boys but he was a helpful soul and I didn’t want to turn bitter and militant. In fact, he told me, he was keen to see the section reinstated, with better choice. For which he was going to have to look to American publishers. Ignoring what this says about queer publishing in the UK (Bold Strokes, my publisher, are US based too), I have to applaud his intentions. Clearly they got him nowhere–nearly a year later there is still no LGBTQ section in the shop.
I’m not saying that Waterstones is discriminating unfairly. I can find nearly every book I want on their website and, if a gay author such as Sarah Waters, has the fortune to cross-over into the mainstream their work can be found in the general fiction section. I honestly don’t know the policy in stores outside of Nottingham. And maybe I shouldn’t want queer books shoved in a special section, a sort of literary ghetto? Maybe I should just accept that if their market isn’t mainstream enough then I’m not going to find them on the shelves of a commercial bookseller–after all, I’m not usually a supporter of postive discrimination. I can just go online and find my books and thank my lucky stars for the internet. Maybe I can even buy an e-book.
However, and it’s a big however, I don’t think anything beats browsing the shelves of a bookshop. The joy of holding a book in your hands–looking at the cover, turning it over to read the blurb, flicking to the first chapter, examining the size of the font, putting that one back and looking at what was next to it on the shelf–is one of the most perfect experiences for any reader. I don’t want to be denied that just because the books I read only appeal to a limited market. As a writer, I want to see my book on the shelf and observe its companions to better know my market. I have to accept that even the bestselling lesbian books don’t sell in the numbers that general fiction books do and they’re never going to make it into that section of the bookshops. So would it hurt to have a shelf–just one little shelf in a huge shop–for queer books? It would make my book buying adventures easier and more pleasurable.
I did find gay erotica books in that particular section. I’m guessing their market is less than the heterosexual books they share their shelves with, but they’re still there and apparently not attracting the ‘wrong sort of people’. How about a few romances by Radclyffe squeezing out some of the Mills and Boon volumes? I don’t ask for every queer book to find a place on their shelves, but what about just some of the bestsellers? Is that really too much to ask?
There is only one dedicated queer bookshop in the UK now, Gay’s the Word in London. But I don’t live in London. I depend on my local bookshop to meet my needs and I’m afraid, whilst I try to be fair minded and understanding of the commercial needs of a high street bookshop, I can’t help but feel my minority status all too painfully when I look for my kind of books on the shelves and can’t find any of them.