Monday, May 3, 2010

Agent Says "No Thank You" to Gay Romance

Okay, so just this morning I learned that an excellent writer of gay romance, ZA Maxfield was at the Romantic Times convention last week and bagged herself a NY literary agent. I don't have all the details and I couldn't be more pleased for ZA. I had the honor of meeting (and shopping and dining with) her in New Orleans this year at EPICon and I immediately fell in love with her charming and self-effacing personality. And from what I've read of her work, I know she's deserving of excellent and big-time representation.

But this blog isn't really about celebrating ZA's latest career accomplishment. It's about a stipulation I heard about that was attached to ZA's signing with this agent. I got the news about ZA's coup from my publisher (who also publishes ZA), who said in an e-mail:

"...let me mention that our own dear, sweet, adorable, fabulous ZA Maxfield bagged a NY agent this last week and she wasn't even trying. Nor does she have a manuscript.  YES, she's that good!
They don't want her to write m/m, but they want her and her writing talent, style and voice. How awesome is that? I'm so very proud of her!"

After I got over the feeling of pride and happiness for my new friend, I thought: "wait a minute. What was that part about they 'don't want her to write m/m'?" I confirmed with ZA, who loves writing m/m (or gay) romance and says that she now needs to come up with a "het" book.

And that made me pause. It's not an earth-shattering revelation to me that the NY publishing world is much more equipped to deal with and welcoming to manuscripts that feature straight characters and like their love stories between one man and one woman. It's not even a surprise to me that if you want to really carve out a more lucrative living for yourself as a writer of popular fiction, you are probably better served by keeping your gay characters secondary (if they exist at all) and your "het" characters at the forefront. I know this from my own experience. My first book, a straight horror novel called Obsessed, still has sold more copies than all of my other books put together. I realize that more factors play into Obsessed's success than straight vs. gay characters, but it still made me think about how the old guard--NY publishing--still for the most part embraces heterosexuality in its offerings.

And before you cry "homophobia" I will say something that might surprise you: I understand their "het"'s a business decision, not a socio-political one. ZA's agent is not being homophobic when she says she wants her new client to write straight romance, she's being realistic. Don't kid yourself, agents aspire to make money and while they may work with literature, the almighty dollar is their first priority. And straight romance sells.

It's interesting this news came along when it did, because just last week I was becoming acquainted with another writer of gay-themed stuff and he said, "I feel the homophobia in publishing is pretty pervasive. Not in the traditional sense but more in the literal sense -- they're "afraid" of gay content because they're "afraid" they don't know how to handle it and they're "afraid" publishers will be "afraid" of it and not buy it."

The sad thing, I suppose, from my perspective is that New York is still, for the most part, afraid to give gay themes and major gay characters a chance to even see how well they sell. I know from experience there is a hungry market out there for gay fiction, yet it's really mainly very small presses who are publishing it to any great extent. Maybe it's a niche market with no crossover appeal and I have no idea what I'm talking about. Maybe the average Jane in Peoria, IL likes her romance heavily peppered with "he" and "she" and couldn't care less about two men in love.

Whatever. The bottom line for me is I'm happy for ZA Maxfield and wish her amazing success; I know she deserves it. And perhaps if she becomes a household name for writing straight romance, people will go back and pick up her early work, great m/m books like St. Nachos, Notturno, Drawn Together, and others and they'll see that gay love stories really have a lot in common with straight ones...and she will help open the door to making a niche market more mainstream.

Well, I can dream, can't I? And in the meantime, I'll continue to write my stories about my people. It's what I care most about...even if the potential for big money might not be the same as if I wrote about straight characters.

Success isn't always measured in dollars.

What do you think?
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  1. Good Lord. I love Z's writing, and I find this quite revolting. I do understand someone trying to make money at it-I do. And I wish her all the success. She's obviously talented enough to turn her hand at anything--but like you, I am passionately interested in gay fiction and telling those stories, because there's much yet to tell with gay fiction and romance, and it's pretty much all been done with het, however successful a market it is. But it's a shame--as she is one of the major talents in the field.

  2. Hey Rick,

    Correct me if I'm off the mark here, but while there may be a huge gay market for literature, does that equal huge gay market for Rom Lit? I ask because lead gay characters have been around for decades throughout Horror and Science Fiction. From Robert Heinlein to Theodore Sturgeon to Philip Jose Farmer - and these authors weren't small potatoes in their time either - they were all best selling Hugo winning authors. Much of Heinlein's work remains in print.

    Anne Rice's vampire novels were all about lead gay characters, and while that touched on romance, it stayed mainly with a horror/historical theme.

    Do you know if the gay community (in broad strokes here of course) embraces one genre of literature over another, making one profitable and one a charity?

  3. These days, more than any other, the big New York publishers are all about mega best sellers. If it's romance that means het because I don't think NY knows how to sell gay romances to a straight audience and NY knows they have to if they want those best sellers. It's money, not politics or homophobia that drives them.

    But as far as gay authors not having agents for their gay work, I'd like to point out Neil Plakcy, who has a New York agent.

  4. To each his own, Pat. I have had three NY literary agents in my career and right now, choose to represent myself. To me, GLBT market conditions really do not warrant my having an agent and giving 15% of my earnings to one.

  5. Good on ZAM. Since I'm not entirely sure NY knows how to handle erotic romance, not knowing how to handle gay romance is not surprising either. And it's all about the money there.

  6. Holy cow. It definitely is the market conditions.

    My agent loves my m/m romances. They're not selling YET in NY. And I think we all know that. I got that loud and clear at RT and I don't even try RWA. But before when I joked about writing a het book, I really meant, I think, I have to write a MAINSTREAM book. And I'm just being realistic, more about kicking it up a notch and trying to figure out what people who read mainstream novels want, and how they're different, when really, I simply write offbeat, quirky romance so I have little clue.

    The important thing to note though, is that my agent must see things changing, more side characters in romance who are GLBTQ and more acceptance of stories with characters who aren't cut from a certain mold. And when I think about it, when I remember reading all those awful romances in the late seventies when every book had a love-at-first-rape theme, it's apparent that NY catches up, eventually.

    Assumptions aside, this was a handshake deal, no contracts signed and no stipulations about writing except to say that NY wasn't ready for a gay "romance" or young adult, and even that, she told me, wasn't entirely true but that a gay love story was unlikely to find love in NY unless the writer was gay.

  7. Thanks for giving us your input, ZA. I hope I got across that what this was all about was market conditions and nothing more. And that I am very, very happy for you...

  8. Interesting post, Rick. I can't help but wonder if ZA is going to use a pen name.

    I have several books pubbed under different pen names because I've hopped genres a few times myself. And I'm going to do it again in the near future.

  9. Thanks Rick. I also want to mention that in no way was my agent telling me to stop writing m/m romance. I have four contracts in the hopper and never, ever plan to stop writing a genre that I'm passionate about and that makes me happy both to read and to write.

    I'm afraid I was a little flip when I said 'now I have to write het'... LOL that will teach me to think before I make a crack like that, since my agent will no doubt growl at me. (She found me in m/m romance, after all.)

    Seriously, I've always been interested in writing in other genres, mystery and paranormal and even (gasp) inspirational. (My mother wanted me to be Jan Karon or James Herriot but I told her it's probably not happening.)

    My mother would never have read straight romance much less gay romance. And I've always dreamed of seeing a book on the shelf at Borders with my name on it that my mother would have checked out from the library.

    The point is, I hope I can stretch myself and take whatever talent I possess -- if indeed I actually possess any at all -- and see what else I can do with it, without abandoning romance in general and gay romance specifically because that's where my passion lies.

  10. See, this is why I like and admire you so much, ZA.

  11. Right back ATCHA. You'll notice I didn't say I wanted to write horror! Yours is the only horror I read, cause it scares me. But I just LURRRRVE you!

    We need to go shopping again, this time for something I can wear to look like a real writer! *snort*

    What do writers look like? I usually wear pajamas.

  12. My het stuff doesn't sell nearly as well as my GLBT stuff, about 1/3 as well. I don't pretend to understand NY publishers.

    Go ZA!

  13. Congrats, Z.A.!

    Um, I'm a real writer and I usually end up in pajamas all day. *LOL* Sometimes my plain grey ones, sometimes my SpongeBob SquarePants ones. LOL

    Lesli. (aka Tymber)

  14. Tacking on to Pat's comment, I do have a New York agent-- but as he mentioned to me on the phone the other day, it's getting harder and harder to sell a GLBT project these days to the big houses. Five years ago, he would have had a number of editors to send to at major houses, but today he said there is almost no one publish GLBT material, at least in terms of genre fiction.

  15. Hooray for ZA. And my gay romances outsell my straight ones about ten to one, so who knows. Publishing is in such a flux right now, who knows what it will be in five years. Oh well, however it works out, I intend to keep writing what I want.

    T.D. McKinney

  16. I would be interested to hear your experiences with agents, Rick. I'm guessing you feel they aren't worthwhile in the LGBT market because they are unlikely to get you a contract with a major publisher?

    With self-publishing being so easy these days, do similar thoughts apply to small presses? Outside of funding editors, I don't feel that mine did much that I couldn't do on my own.

  17. I thought writers wore T-shirts covered in cat hair and bits of dropped food. (If not, I've got the uniform wrong.)

    Congrats, ZA!

  18. Congratulations to ZA, and thanks to Rick for the thought provoking blog.

  19. I'll read anything ZAM writes. I'm not going to read or not-read a novel because of the sexual identity of the characters.

    The publishing industry does seem to be in a sort of tail spin these days, and they have to play the numbers just like any business. I don't know that its discomfort with the subject matter, after all they read her books, right?

    Anyway, I'm super excited for ZAM and can't wait to get a copy when it comes out.

  20. I read most ZA's works and loved most of them. While I am happy for her... I find it very disturbing. When I read that "now she has to come up with a het book", I have to wonder... is she really enjoy doing this? I know, I know, it's her chance to hit big time. But it's a bit like David Lynch being lured by Disney and now want to direct a Bambi sequel (and there won't be weird animals or little people in it).

    In this internet age, big publishers are like big record labels, they are becoming less relevant to the audience. We don't really need big publishers to tell us what we should read.

  21. Thanks everyone so much. I admit I stalled out for a second when I was trying to think of what to write, but on the other hand, we'll all see if I can write for the mainstream women's fiction market or if I can't.

    Frankly I can't see any writer sustaining the desire to write 85 to 100K that they're not passionately interested in, so I thought this might be my chance to write something different that might interest me equally. After all, I am a wife and mother, and I have a life outside of romantic fiction, although, of course, my personal life DOES read like a romance novel :D

    I'm grateful for everyone's faith in my and humbled by it, even for me, though, it's a wait and see.

    Okay, I've seen Bambi and that flick bummed me out more than any film by David Lynch, EVER.

  22. Congratulations and good luck!!! We'll look for your best seller.

    D.J. Manly