Friday, April 24, 2009

Keegan's Week: "proper" gay books. Uh huh.

I fielded a weird question the other day -- and the worst part of it was, the person was absolutely serious, and intended at least half of it as a sincere compliment. "Your work is so wonderfully written," she said, "why don't you write proper books?"

And I went blank. Utterly. For about ten seconds. You might have thought I was having a "senior moment," but in fact the processor was whirring, trying to make sense if the question, only to land back at the hurdle --

What the bloody hell is a "proper" book?

Of course, what she meant was, why don't I write heterosexual books? Or, to slightly rephrase the question so it'll make sense to the rest of us, "Your work is so wonderfully written, why do you write gay books instead of proper ones?"

Deep breath, now. Be calm. Count to ten. In Klingon.

Well ... who in the [expletive deleted] says that gay books aren't proper books? The next thing these people will be saying is, John Barrowman isn't a "proper" singer or actor. And Tchaikovsky wasn't a "proper" composer, and T.E. Lawrence wasn't a "proper" army officer, and Nijinsky wasn't a "proper" dancer. Or that gay people are not "proper" people. And I'm Not. Going. To. Go. There. Period.

Be happy: have a nice day, yes?

In fact, the properness of gay books is increasing greatly -- not exponentially, but nicely. It turns out that 10% of the male half of the population is gay anyway; and about another 15% on the male side of the fence is ac/dc by inclination, which makes 25% of the part of the population that shaves and dreams of power tools would enjoy a gay narrative ... and about 25% of folks on the female side of the fence like to read gay books, for boatloads of reasons. Some are themselves gay; some are straight enough to fancy the hell out of beautiful guys; some get a kick out of the homoerotic; some love a romance but don't like guy/gal romance, because it almost always seems like the gal is getting s/exploited. Some are "modern age" enough to see as far as the romance, and genuinely don't believe gender matters.

That's 25% of the population as a whole, folks.

So, for every million literate people who read, there's 250,000 who would enjoy a gay book, in the highly unlikely event they were ever in a position to see one, and have the opportunity to actuallt buy it.

That's eight times the population of Fairbanks, Alaska. It's about equivalent to the entire population of South Australia that lives outside the metropolitan area. It's about 8.5% of the entire population of New Zealand (I think; if I'm wrong on this one, it won't be by much -- and feel free to give me a kick).

In a country like Australia with something like 20 - 24 million souls, depending on who you talk to, and who's being counted into the complement, you probably have something in the order of about 16 million literate adults, and about 12 million who actually read --

So, three million Aussies would enjoy a gay narrative, if they were allowed to make the reading choice, at the store, or wherever they get their books.

But if you walk into a bookstore down here and look for gay books, you'll soon start to wonder if anyone's publishing them at all. And the reason is that every bookstore down here is an outlet for a chain. It's B&N, it Dymocks, it's A&N, it's the book department in Kmart or WalMart or Target or Myer, or whatever.

No gay books. Why? Because gay books do not sell enough copies, per title, to attract the attention of the distributor. Each individual title might sell 400 right across this country, IF they were shelved with the generosity or impunity with which het books are shelved. But they're not shelved with such catholic generosity...

Why? Many reasons. Management is terribly aware of minors and the elderly, who form a significant part of their customer base; they're equally aware of the religious minority, for whom the "god" books are shelved alongside yoga, holistic food and Relaxation for Uptight Dummies.

Not wanting to offend anyone, Management literally hides the gay books: top shelves, bottom shelves, dark corners, out of reach, out of sight. And -- what a surprise! -- the books sell poorly.

Gay books are seldom advertised on magazine pages or in windows where the average reader would see them. Same reason for not putting a nice, big ad in the window down at Dymocks. And as per magazine advertising --

Do you know what an ad in a major literary magazine costs?!! An ad to run in one issue would put about $2 on the checkout price of each copy of a gay title! Not going to happen, people. (Few mainstream, print media book reviewers will review a gay book ... saaaame reason. Minors, the elderly, and the God Squad.)

So ... gay books don't sell bigtime, and another reason for this is that they're double-marginalized. They're already in the "gay" category at any online bookstore. Then, they're ... what? Gay-SF, or gay-fantasy, or thriller, or western, or historical, or romance, or erotica, or ...

Uh huh. Double-marginalized. So you have someone saying, "Gee, I'd love a new gay book, but I don't want SF, and I've read enough breeches-rippers (the gay equivalent of the bodice-ripper) to last me a lifetime. Uh ... I don't like westerns. I'm not in the mood for a murder mystery..."

Double jeopardy. The gay writer has two hurdles to get over, not one, and if each hurdle is a "filter," then gay books get filtered twice, before any sale is made.

Meaning, a hell of a lot of gay books are sold, but not that many of any individual title.

Another thing that's killing gay book sales, at least in this country, is that books are so expensive. Small printruns make for expensive books, and few people can afford to buy many, when the damned things are $32 and upwards. A lot of readers are landing at the book exchanges, where you can trade something you've read and pay $2 to the store, and get something you haven't read before --

Guess what doesn't often get traded? Right. Gay books are seldom traded (for which the reasons are many), so you probably won't be able to pick up a new one at the book exchange ... and even if you could, the publisher and the writer wouldn't know a thing about it.

Here is where it gets mildly interesting. A few years ago, when readers were still in the habit of sending a few words of feedback, I used to hear that someone had picked up one of my books at a book exchange in, say, Madrid or Munich or Manchester -- Europe, where gay books are treated with a lot more generosity by booksellers. Secondhand dealers in Europe will trade in gay books, where many (most?) of our local dealers are still not quite "there" yet -- inordinately concerned about the minors and elders and religious bods ... which is no bad, thing, in reality. Taking care of kids, and not giving cardiac episodes to others is a laudable goal in itself.

Fact is, the Internet is a far better place to do business. The people who find you deliberately came a-hunting. One seldom has to deal with folks who arrived on a gay page by accident.

There's also a "book swap" subculture out there, where books are changing hands in every direction...

And a writer has to wonder how many sales he or she has actually achieved. Say, 5,000 or 10,000 when the book was new (depending on the printrun -- and they're all over the place, there's no "norm"), plus an extra 1,000 or 2,000 per reprint ... and then, the swaps, the trades, the book exchanges -- for decades.

So, actual "sales" might be way ahead of anything the publisher knows about. Think about that. Nice. I mean, we don't earn royalties on the swaps and trades, but it's so nice to know that new people are buying the old books.

The last thing that makes it tough for gay writers is the sheer volume of the competition. It's astonishing. There are so many gay titles being published these days -- it's a a lit-fest. Heaven on a stick for anyone who has an ebook reader gizmo -- most of these books are available digitally, thank heavens. Makes them reachable for Aussies and Kiwis, because there's no shipping to pay. Postage across the Pacific. Yee-ouch!

Speaking of ebooks and gizmos, I'm still looking for just the right deal on a bit of hardware to do the job, and my hunt has brought me to this quarry:

The Acer Aspire One netbook. It's at least as functional as even the most advanced dedicated ebook reader, with a color crystal brite screen, and a keyboard that some reviewers say is a joy to use ... and it's less than half the price of a good, dedicated ebook reader. On sale, you can get the thing for A$350, which is just about right for my budget. So my fingers are itching to reach for the credit cards... 8" screen, weighs under a kilo, like handling a hardcover book. Boots up in 8 seconds, loads a browser in another 10, wireless, 2 card readers, 3 USB ports and VGA out. And you have GOT to like that. Yes, I know, the battery life is about 2.5 hours, running the browser and modem with the screen at 60% brightness. Now, turn the screen down to 30% and run just the Mobipocket reader on the local system -- no connectivity, no graphics. Ebook reader. Check. Should go about 4 hours between recharges, even with the silly little 3-cell battery that ships with the machine; and that'll do fine.

Still on the subject of ebooks -- I've been busy in the last week, making more available at Smashwords:

$10.95, for iPhone, Mobipocket, Palm Pilot, and more...

$10.95, for iPhone, Mobipocket, Palm Pilot, and more..., there you are. Proper books for your proper ebook reader. Proper gay books, at that. Somebody try telling John Barrowman that he isn't a "proper singer," and his albums are not "proper" albums, because when he sings a lovesong, he's singing about a guy he adores not a gal. I'm not saying JB would bestow a black eye; but if he did, I do believe Scott and Mel would be standing there shaking hands, patting backs and saying, "Well done, mate."

I mean -- seriously!



Anonymous said...

I get this from my Dad, bless him, and my mother used to think it was a phase I'd grow out of.


Mel Keegan said...

Grow out of? Gotta smile there. You have to love 'em. I am sooooo lucky: my mother is probably the biggest fan I have -- Swordsman and Deceivers and what have you are among her favorite books of any genre, any writer ... and I'm smart enough to know how lucky I am.

Anonymous said...

So true about the lack of gay books in australian bookshops. When i first got into reading gay novels and literature i found that my local public library was the place to go. So far i have managed to get my hands on some really good novels. But if i just wanted to read trashy eye-rolling romance of heaving chests and muscled *thighs* A.K.A bodice ripping novels i have to go on the internet to slake my thirst LOL!!!

I also like BDSM and these type of books the local library does not carry for gay books but they do for heterosexual characters funnily enough.

But thanks to authors like u who kindly put up free e-books for people like me who are always whinging about the high price of books it definately makes things so much easier.

I have just finished reading your book Legends which was a very enjoyable read and i look forward to reading the second book when u post it. The only criticism i have about the book is that it did have a few spelling errors and one or two grammatical errors but other than that the story was well developed and executed.

Thank you again for putting it up.

Mel Keegan said...

Remember, LEGENDS was uploaded "on the fly" -- meaning,little in the way of proofreading. It's just me and the keyboard, no traditional process of publishing. I'm the first to admit, these eyes are tired enough to miss things -- and I don't have too much time to devote to free fiction (got a living to earn, and so forth).

In fact, LEGENDS was intended as an experiment, to see if people would support the project via advertising. If they had, I could have afforded a lot more time to spend on proofing.

Alas, support was very poor, and LEGENDS had to be done, as I said, "on the fly." Read: typos and all. (Hey, it was free -- the price was right! You can't complain too much about a few typos when it was done for free. Well, you can, but...!)

Incidentally, the errors you refer to are actually typographical errors ... I do know how to spell, and if there's anything I know, it's English language grammar. But as soon as you start hitting wrong keys, weird things happen -- and tired eyes don't see the typos!

If you're interested, LEGENDS is currently being properly proofread, prior to being issued as an ebook and paperback. If you're up for a couple of bucks in support of the project, you can have the proofread, fixed version, upon which five pairs of eyeballs have worked!

I'm organizing a "web special," where people who've read it free on the blog can get the ebook in exchange for a small donation -- would help to cover the sheer investment in time and effort.

Have you checked out my other books? The ebooks are quite affordable -- which is a good thing as, like yourself, I've been harping on the subject of paperback prices for years. Can't do a damned thing to sweeten paperback prices, but ebooks are a whole 'nother ballgame.


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