Of the current top ten bestselling titles from Vancouver publisher Arsenal Pulp Press, four of them are queer titles. This, says publisher Brian Lam, is no accident.
“LGBT titles make up a big chunk of our publishing sales each year,” he says, noting that this past year in particular, despite a difficult book market, has been extremely successful for them. New books by Amber Dawn and S. Bear Bergman were both strong sellers and Lambda Literary Award nominees, while their English translation of Julie Maroh’s graphic novel Blue Is the Warmest Color sold 35,000 copies on the strength of the movie adaptation that won last year’s Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Founded in 1971 by a group of university students reacting to the stuffy and pretentious Canadian literary scene at the time, Arsenal Pulp Press gave voice to gritty playwrights and poets and their admirable commitment to queer literature. After they published Dennis Denisoff’s AIDS crisis novel Dog Years in 1991, the author proposed the first gay men’s literary anthology in Canada and the success of Queeries not only spawned a new wave of queer fiction here at home but established APP as a major press with American booksellers and distributors. Successful anthologies from editors like James C. Johnstone, Karen X. Tulchinsky and Michael Rowe followed to acclaim and strong sales.
“It was an era when there were plenty of LGBT bookstores across North America, and mainstream publishers like HarperCollins even had a gay and lesbian imprint,” says Lam, “It was also the era before Amazon. Times were good.”
During this time, the Vancouver queer bookshop Little Sister’s was fighting for the rights of Canadian readers against the censorious Canada Customs so, in 2005, Arsenal Pulp Press editor Mark Macdonald started the “Little Sister’s Classics” line, reprinting groundbreaking queer novels like Song of the Loon by Richard Amory, The Young in One Another’s Arms by Jane Rule, Empathy by Sarah Schulman and Finistère by Fritz Peters. Though it’s still open to new suggestions of old classics, Lam admits the last few years has been quiet for the imprint, “mostly because publishing new LGBT titles takes up most of our time and energy.”
Indeed, this month alone sees the release of Gender Failure, the first team-up from APP veteran authors Rae Spoon and Ivan Coyote; Artificial Cherry, the new collection of poetry from Billeh Nickerson; God Loves Hair, the previously self-published collection from singer/author Vivek Shraya; and Look Who’s Morphing, the Canadian debut of an indie Australian hit from author Tom Cho.
Lam says that writer Larissa Lai insisted he check out Cho during an appearance in Vancouver. “I was really impressed not only by Tom’s dedication to his craft,” Lam says, “but to how he presents his personal politics in such an entertaining and endearing way, both on the page and in person. It’s interesting that we are also issuing a new edition by Vivek Shraya in the same season, as Vivek has a similar trajectory. Like Tom, he is completely dedicated to his written work as well as to the performance of that work, and he subverts mainstream culture in ways that are utterly charming. Prior to corresponding with each other, we had a mutual admiration thing going; Vivek had performed at readings with a number of our authors, including Amber Dawn and Rae Spoon, and we had heard nothing but good things about him. So when we approached us with both God Loves Hair and She of the Mountains (a new book that we are publishing this fall), it was pretty easy for us to say yes.”
Whether through non-fiction books like their Queer Film Classics series or through their commitment to boundary-breaking characters like George Ilsley’s gay entomologist with Asperger’s syndrome or Suzette Mayr’s vegetarian bisexual vampire, Arsenal Pulp Press has been a great supporter of queer culture in Canada.