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The Challenge of Marketing Gay Books Online
by Mel Keegan
I was asked just recently if there's any real difference between marketing gay books online and any other kind of book. In fact, there's quite a gulf of difference, and you have to take that extra bit of care which writers of most other works don't.
If you've written the most crash-hot book on building garden sheds that has ever been produced in any language, including Ancient Greek, you'll have a comparatively easy time marketing it. Which isn't to say that it's dead easy to market any book, anywhere, at any time! But your book falls into an absolutely clear-cut category, and there shouldn't be one word in it which could be misconstrued by anyone, from any corner of the demograph. Your book shouldn't have the potential to offend anyone, anywhere. Likewise, Elizabeth's Big Book of Brilliant Sweater Patterns; Tom's Top Tips on Classic Car Collecting, My First Treasury of Cheesecake Recipes, Auntie Aggie's All-American Anthology of Aggravating Armadillos ... and so on.
Fiction is different. Any kind of fiction. Fiction is about people doing ... stuff. And as soon as anyone does anything, someone else is going to have a complaint to make about it. Jack's eating a cheese burger with extra bacon, fries and a Coke. Jill's a vegetarian, and grossed out. Bob's a health food aficionado, and grossed out. Ahmed is grossed out by the bacon strips, because of something the Koran says. Roger is grossed out by the beef content, because he's protesting the inhumane conditions endured by domestic cattle in the US. Joyce is grossed out by the dairy content, for the same reason. Sam is grossed out because he's lactose intolerant and basically, any mention of dairy makes him puke. Maria is grossed out by the Coke, because she's a diabetic, and any mention of sugar-water makes her come over dizzy and nauseated. All Jack did was eat a burger. It was a dead boring scene in the book.
Supposing the plot got halfway interesting: he's having an extra-marital affair with the next-door neighbor, who's a single mum working nights at Hooters to pay the bills. Christians are going to be grossed out by the adultery. Muslims will be grossed out by both the adultery and the lady's lascivious profession. Welfare workers will be grossed out because her kids have a stripper for a mom. Feminists will be grossed out because Jack's two-timing his wife for the pneumatic Barbie doll next door. Now, suppose Jack was gay, as well as eating the burger and having a clandestine affair with the gorgeous dude next door. Suddenly, you have a book which is absolutely guaranteed to rub some people the wrong way, and do it biiiig big time.
The fact is, as soon as the writer introduces "mature content" or themes to a work of fiction, it has to be marketed differently. Add in a gay element, and you give yourself a challenge... When you're registering your book at Amazon, you have to choose your categories, and you're in a bind. You obviously choose Literature/fiction as a place to start; then, they offer you a very wide list of thematic material ... unless your book is gay.
If there's a gay element, you're automatically shoehorned into the Gay/lesbian pigeonhole. You're not science fiction, you're not historical, you're not romance or western or anything else. Well, yes you are, but your main content is of absolutely secondary importance to the gay element. And there's an excellent reason for this.
Many gay books (most of them, perhaps) are "gay enough" that there is absolutely no question of what they're about. But there are also books like my own, and they're tougher to categorize. Sure, they're gay. Every one of them has at least two gay or bi central characters, and some of them have a whole group. There will always be gay issues discussed and lived through.
There'll also be scenes of gay sensuality at the heart of the gay romance that drives most of my plots ... But a lot of these books are also hard science fiction. Half a dozen are historicals. Two are vampire historicals. Several are fantasies. Some of the SF tales also qualify as hardboiled detective stories. Several are massive adventure romps. And all of them would qualify as romances.
The tendency, at least for me, is to wax poetic about the broad, technicolor canvas on which I "paint" these stories; to talk about the locations (which might be the Caribbean, Australia, Europe, Alaska...) or the ships or aircraft, whatever. As a writer and a reader both, the "gay aspect" of the story is, to me, only one facet of the story ... and, in fact, it's the part of the book that's probably the easiest to craft. You have two gorgeous guys. Could be four: THE SWORDSMAN has two couples -- Jack and Seb, plus Janos and Luc;
HELLGATE has Travers and Curtis, also Dario and Tor ... also Richard and that little prick, Tonio; and Mick Vidal. The relationships of all these people interweave, get complicated, sort themselves out again. They get together, they have differences, they argue, make up, and so forth. That's life -- and it's the simplest part of any book to write, because every human shares these experiences. We're all on the same page.
So, from my own perspective, I tend to focus on the areas of the work where I put in the most hard labor, either in research or invention. Worldbuilding. Researching a place on this globe where I've never been and have no chance of going (Myanmar, for one). Or, looking ahead to a time when the comet or asteroid him the planet, tearing the climate to shreds and rebuilding a livable environment (WINDRAGE; AQUAMARINE).
If I were marketing the books single-handedly, I might have blundered into strife by now, because I'd be enthusing about the locations, the adventure aspect, the ships, the high-tech, what have you, and there's the faint but real possibility that someone might buy one of these books in error. Let's say you have a 16 year old surfer reading all this fantastic stuff on the website about the NARC high-tech and outrageous adventure on the high frontier. Cool. But in fact these books are not supposed to land in the hands of underage readers, because they're also gay books, and they can be explicit in their language, thematic devices and (!) sensuality.
Marketing has to be pellucidly clear, to make sure old Aunt Maud doesn't get hold of something that's so blisteringly hot, it ought to be handled with fire gloves. Straight or gay -- doesn't matter. Auntie M. will be off to the nearest emergency room with a coronary.
(Incidentally, times change appearances. The book cover at left does NOT indicate lesbian content. "Gay" also means joyous, and this cover from 1936 is about young heterosexual females who ... just wanna have fun.)
And Marketing has to be extremely clear about gay content, because certain readers can either enjoy or turn the page to get past sensual hetero material, but the instant the material tends toward the gay ... the same readers are not just disinterested, they're actually offended.
Now, a number of my books are certainly in the "no underage readers, thank you very much!" bracket. I'd put the NARC series there, plus ICE, WIND AND FIRE, and also WHITE ROSE OF NIGHT; possibly WINDRAGE and BREAKHEART. But there's also a slough more which I'd rate "okay for mature older teens who're gay, bi or gay-friendly." THE SWORDSMAN, THE DECEIVERS, TIGER, TIGER, and such like.
But these decisions are not mine to make. There's a big, gray area where folks of all ages are muddling around together ... the younger reader who's desperately hunting for porn because s/he's already addicted to sleaze, and the 40 year olds who've been so sheltered, profanity and nudity make them faint. Until you're 18 (or maybe even 21, depending on your region ) what you can read is the decision of your parents, your preachers, your teachers. Over that age, you're pretty much on your own. You must make your own decisions about what gets put into your brain, but -- It's up to the folks responsible for marketing the books to give you clear indications of what's in said books, so the decision ... to buy or not to buy? ... can be made in all good conscience.
To some people, the mere mention of the word "gay" or "queer" in a piece of work will immediately rate the book R. (Like this blog, believe it or not. Keegan is rated R, for speaking candidly about reality, though there is no nudity or profanity anywhere in these posts. Go figure.)
In fact, a hint of gayness in a book aimed at children will make a lot of adults go ballistic. It's actually quite amusing. Mom and Dad are running around like a couple of headless chickens, having heart attacks about what's in the little book, and the kids are saying, "Mom, Dad, they're gay, get over it." We have a long, long way to go before a book like, say, DANGEROUS MOONLIGHT will be classified as a historical, simply with an asterisk that offers, "Be aware of same-gender content, characters and romance." Right now, DANGEROUS MOONLIGHT, FORTUNES OF WAR, THE DECEIVERS ... they're gay books with an asterisk offering, "be aware of historical setting and themes."
Spin the treatment though 180 degrees and you glimpse the absurdity. So, yes, it's very different marketing gay books than "any other kind" of books. You really do become aware of being hammered into a category ... politically marginalized.
Gayness was never an issue when plotting, writing, jacketing and publishing, but the instant marketing starts -- yup, it's a challenge. You have to sit down and figure out how to get these books in front of people who enjoy 1) a good gay read irrespective of whether it's historical, SF or fantasy; and/or 2) a good book in a specific genre, irrespective of the fact it has gay characters or themes. Take the NARC books as an example. Many readers are gay guys. Many are straight women who enjoy a good story about gay guys. Some are lesbians who enjoy the stories for their own sake and the gender freedoms I describe. And a few are straight guys who get a huge kick out of the powerful science fiction futures I describe, and at the same time are liberal-minded enough not to get all bent out of shape by the gay aspect.
The trick is in making every aspect of the books pellucidly clear, so that readers can make up their own minds about what they're buying. Marketing on the Internet is not as easy by a long shot as putting books into a store and leaving readers to browse and thumb-through, and choose. But it can be done. A good place to start is with the cover: you can usually give some clear clues about what the book's going to contain ... and when a book is going to be sold via Amazon (where a tiny fragment of textual description is given, and the front cover only), the jacketing becomes critical. Errors could be made via the Amazon marketplace -- and I imagine they sometimes are.
This is something we'd like to avoid at all costs, sooo...
DANGEROUS MOONLIGHT, WHITE ROSE OF NIGHT, WINDRAGE and a couple of others had to be rejacketed into a new edition specifically for this reason, before they "went up" to Amazon. It's a little extra work which will surely pay dividends in the end.