Thursday, January 15, 2009

Gay books rock ... but who's reading them?!

I'm on the run today -- flat out, and must be out the door in about fifteen minutes dead -- so I'll take a moment to answer a reader's question, and then you'll forgive me, if I flee!

It's a good question and well worth some thought, and a thoughtful answer: "Who's reading your books -- is it gay guys, or women who like the Mel Keegan books?"

Damned good question, in fact! (And here's another up-side to the business of marketing yourself: I can actually give you an answer. Back in the days of finishing a manuscript, emailing the files to a "proper" publisher across the world, and then sitting back and waiting and praying for a decent royalty check/cheque, I'd have said, "I'm clueless." But since the last few thousand books have been shipped via DreamCraft, Lulu, Payloadz and so forth, I actually have access to the info.

The answer is: both, in almost equal numbers. I seem to have hit a happy medium. Half the readers who enjoy a Keegan novel are women who have a taste for the "exotic" and the "different" -- the other side of the sensual fence, as it were. The other half are gay guys who, like me, are looking to ESCAPE from the real world into a historical, fantasy or SF romp where we're not doodles in some political margin, and HIV isn't an issue ... and where the good guys can win for a change.

Did I expect so many women to enjoy a good gay romp? Frankly, yes. God knows, gay guys read straight books all the time, and nobody questions it. Why are people so surprised that straight readers might enjoy a gay book? A lot of straight men almost certainly feel "threatened" or "compromised" by certain aspects of the stories (not all straight men, though: straight guys read my books too ... just not a helluva lot of them). But there's no reason for women to feel challenged or compromised -- and, peripheral to this observation, check this out:

Running Press – which published only two gay male fiction titles in 2008, both inherited when Perseus Books (of which Running Press is a subsidiary) bought then closed queer-book-friendly Carroll & Graf - has announced two kind of gay titles for 2009. Why only “kind of”? Both are by straight women, and – according to the publisher – the new line of male/male historical romances is aimed not at gays, but at straight women. The books will feature plots “ripe with forbidden love, exotic locations, and sensual leading men.” Scheduled for April are Trangressions, by uni-named British writer Erastes, and False Colors, by ambiguously named female author Alex Beecroft, also British. In its statement announcing the venture, the publisher said: “Initially, the phenomenon of women reading gay male romances flourished in the anonymity of the Internet, where fans could have instant access to a spirited, diverse, and ever-growing community.” Running Press’s optimism is based, oddly, on non-book research: “The success of 2005’s Brokeback Mountain demonstrated the lure of the subject for a female audience.

So, there you have it: times, audiences, readerships, publishers -- they're all a-changing; and about bloody time, if you ask me. Ask the GLBTI community how many straight books they've had to read over the years because really good gay books can be rather thin on the ground! You might want something that isn't erotica, isn't about the angst of being gay in a homophobic world, isn't a coming out story or a tale of adolescent self discovery ...

This is the whole reason why I write what I write.

Writing "meaningful" gay novels set in the modern era, or in the agonized 19th and 20th centuries, would be -- for me -- an exercise in sheer depression. Sure, you can get deeply into social commentary, the poetry of rebellion, the mechanics of social revolution ... but it takes a looooong time to write a good book. You're looking at a minimum of three to four months of writing, editing, proofing, amending.

The truth is, there are writers who do this material better than I do -- and more power to them. I write for sheer escapism, which is the same thing my readers READ for. Adventure, excitement, sensuality, romance, a bit of scandal, a twist of realistic violence, enough politics to make it "go" and give our heroes a reason for running around doing their thing. Thereafter, we're all out for fun. This tendency in my writing goes way back to ICE, WIND AND FIRE, which was written over 20 years ago now. Various critics and readers picked up on it then, and the same is sill true. Keegan writes for escapism, and those are the readers who enjoy what I do.

The truth? I'm content to leave the social comment and the poetry of revolution to those writers who are inspired to get their teeth into it. I'll be their cheering squad -- I'll even buy their book, if it's a good one, with an upbeat or at least optimistic ending.

And it seems that gay guys, straight women and gay women like what I do. All the old titles sell on a regular basis, and if we ever manage to get the advertising started (I know, I've been talking about this for three years, and we haven't started yet!), I'm fairly sure we'll be selling about 5x to 10x the number of copies that are being shipped right now (which is already by no means an insignificant number), and I can at last give up the day job and write full time.

That's the plan for 2009. Advertise. Finally.

Speaking of which: LEGENDS is coming along nicely and will be ready to launch next week; THE LORDS OF HARBENDANE's proof copy ought to be delivered next week; and I think Google might have taken a look at the status of this blog ... I'm delighted to be able to report that in the last 12 hours I've managed to "win" three Google and/or blog searches in the USA. It's the first time this has happened in months, so -- here's hoping. The 'bot has to swing by and get us indexed now, but things might just be on the mend.

And now -- gotta run!



Alex Beecroft said...

Hello! I found you by Google Alert when my name came up :)

I suspect that the whole 'by straight women for straight women' marketing thing is aimed not at those of us who already know the m/m world, but at all the other people who still have no idea that this is a genre that also appeals to women. Book sellers know that they can sell gay books to gay men, but this is (I think) a first attempt to tell them they can sell gay books to women too.

As a matter of fact I'm completely with you. I'm aiming to write something entertaining that can be enjoyed by anyone regardless of their sex or orientation (though I agree it's probably least likely to appeal to straight men.) I wish we could get away from all this 'you have to be x in order to read x'. As for me, I'm all for the escapist fun. I must check your stuff out, because it sounds like my cup of tea :)

Mel Keegan said...

Hi, Alex -- many thanks for commenting!

It's amazing how dense publishers and book marketeers have been over the last couple of decades. I went into print 20 years ago, and scored a number of "fan letters" from readers around the world, for this and that project.

Seven out of eight letters were (you guessed) from women. One guy took the time to write a single paragraph and say "thanks for the fun," or words along those lines. So, from the writer's perspective, I've known for two decades -- a lot of women enjoy a good gay book.

Looking back, I can't acctually recall an occidental gay novel that's been marketed specifically to women, but in Asia (Japan especially) it's something of an industry: Yaoi. My books were very popular in Japan at one point.

There was something of a bust-up brewing a few months ago -- I haven't been following it (too daft to be involved with). It was all about "culture misappropriation." The argument went, "You must be a gay male to write a gay male story, otherwise you are stealing someone's culture." By extension, you'd have to be Canadian to write about Canada; a woman, to write about women; a doctor to write a medical story; a lawyer or policeman to write a thriller driven by legal matters.

The jury's still out on this one -- I did blog about it just once, and then left the topic alone:

One can only hope that things are changing. I do know that writers, publishers and booksellers the world over are having a tough time right now. I've blogged at very great legth about this, being stuck in the middle of the situation myself.

If publishers have indeed glimpsed a new(ish) and almost untapped marketplace -- ie, a strong female market for gay novels -- there could be a feeding frenzy coming. How ironic will it be, if big business, in its quest for profits, is the force that breaks down barriers and makes "gay" the next majorly "chic" genre!

Here's hoping...

Best wishes,

Alex Beecroft said...

*g* That's quite amusing, because I find that most of my fan letters are from men! We obviously must be reaching across whatever gender divide there might be.

I do understand the concerns about exploitation and appropriation - it's not nice to be used for other people's sexual pleasure, particularly if those other people are oppressing you at the same time. As a woman, I reckon I know what that feels like! I wouldn't want to do it to others. But on the other hand, not all romance is exploitation, some is just storytelling, and since when have writers had to write only about characters exactly like themselves?

I'm pretty excited about the whole Running Press thing not only because it's my book ;) but also because if it *does* bring gay romance into the mainstream that has to open up whole new markets for every writer of gay fiction, male or female, both or neither. Though I think you said it better yourself :)

Thanks! Nice to 'meet' you :)

Mel Keegan said...

As you rightly say, Alex, sometimes it's all about the storytelling -- be it romance, the ethnicity of a certain character, the location in which a plot plays out, the faith of the players...

The culture misappropriation case is interesting enough, and I'm sure it was well intended at the outset; but it soon gets to the point of absurdity. Consider this:

A murder mystery set in Greece and Italy, about someone who died on a cruising sailboat in suspicious circumstances; the coroner's report is "off," and the family back home in Egypt want action and answers; they hire an (aethetist) French PI...

This hypothetical novel is going to use geographical and social elements from Greece and Italy; a Muslim family back home; a Catholic community on one side, Greek Orthodox on the other; the medical profession; the police and courts in one or both countries and possibly in Egypt also; and the sailing/yachting community; the PI is French, in the aetheist camp ... and then, what about the gender and sexual orientation of the characters?!

If the cultural misapporopriation protesters have a sound case, this novel cannot be written: nobody would qualify to write it. No one person could lay claim to all those qualities!

The bottom line is about fiction, which can be either well researched or thrown together. I used to be known as the "Research Demon" at one time, because I was the only member of a writing group who bothered to do any research! One or two of the others would research a whole novel by popping on a movie set in the era. The results were ... interesting.

Nice to be talking with you -- and a fascinating discussion!

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