One of the greatest pleasures of being a part of a gay bookstore is looking at the new publisher’s catalogues, visiting with sales representatives from the publishers and checking out what is new for the coming season. It was not long ago, sometime in the mid-’90s, that gay and lesbian writing was in vogue and entire imprints from publishers would be devoted to our writers and topics.
I am desolate with loss after desperately searching the fall catalogues, and talking to the few sales reps that have the time to visit in these cost cutting times, to report that the fall-winter list of books is almost nonexistent. While the well of great new writing is not dry, it no longer gushes and can manage but a trickle. No longer can I begin a conversation about new books and rush over to the new arrival section and gush over what is new, why it is good and important and almost a must-read. As a bookseller it seems almost shocking that we have so few new books to fall in love with, and then to share that love with customers who will enjoy and grow as people from the shared experience of reading a great new book with an interesting perspective on living our lives.
Are we just going through some temporary socio-economic adjustment or have we actually reached a juncture in our history where our literature is no longer relevant or important? Have we become so comfortably integrated with general society that we no longer need a literature of our own? Can we grab a pocket book from the best-seller list in an airport kiosk on the way to our next vacation and read about straight people in a predominantly straight world and feel entertained and fulfilled? Is that all there is?
I believe that the most important part of my quest for more gay and lesbian literature is not that the lack of it puts my store in danger of extinction, but that our culture cannot grow and prosper without a strong cultural component that is embedded in our voices, indeed in our literature. If community members are accessing literature through means other than a bricks and mortar store, it would somehow soften the blow. But after reading a recent interview with Edmund White, one of the gay community’s most important authors, I no longer feel that our literature is alive and well and the community is just accessing it through a different venue.
White says that because he was an established mid-list writer, his publisher used to print 30,000 copies of one of his new books. The print run has now been reduced to 5,000. Those are the same kind of statistics that our store is experiencing in reduced sales — dramatic and serious enough to wonder if writers can any longer be sustained by their work.
It is indeed possible that the marketplace is going through an adjustment as larger presses try to survive in a very competitive economy. Not so long ago, before larger presses understood that there was profit to be made in publishing the best of our writers, small presses nurtured our writers. If large global presses now find it difficult and not so profitable to publish gay and lesbian literature, perhaps publishing will again go back to small presses. Though most small presses have gone out of business some remain, including Vancouver’s accomplished Arsenal Pulp Press, which continues to publish important work.
I believe a revival of small presses would do a great deal to ensure that our voices are heard and shared. That’s my dream right now, but it’s predicated on my belief that there will always be community members willing to buy a great new book, and that small presses can survive in the marketplace. Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps we have changed and no longer will one of the great icebreakers of conversation be, “What are you reading?” I always found it a great way to get quickly to the interesting part of people: who you are and what interests you is quickly revealed.
Has this Google era, where information is readily accessible and almost always free, forever changed our communities’ need for books? Actual books, made from wood fibre, books that come in all sizes and weights. Books that you can open and read at your leisure as you slowly digest each idea and image or devour cover to cover in a mad frenzy of sensory desire. My father farmed with horses long after the tractor and combine had taken over the West. At times I wonder if thinking that books are important enough to warrant a store of their own puts me in the same place my father found himself, clinging to the past because he found it comfortable and important.
My concern about the future of books is not the only struggle that is taking place in our new world. The future of magazines and newspapers is now being hotly debated and I think the analogy between books and newspapers holds. Are we willing to pay journalists to go out and search for the truth in all its many manifestations and perspectives and then present their findings in a logical and professional manner to citizens anxious to know about their community and their world? Are magazines and newspapers a part of our past, with the news increasingly acquired on the web, with journalists and newspaper owners struggling to find a comfortable way of creating revenue streams in this era that insists on the free part of freedom?
These are a few of my thoughts that rattle through my head as we prepare for another holiday season. New and important books will be on our shelves and customers will search them out and be more than pleased when they find them. Not everything has changed and our cash register will ring. It is the trend that worries me as fewer and fewer books show up. If one were to graph the change and it continues at the same trajectory, it is my fear that within five years a new gay and lesbian book release will be a very rare, if not nonexistent, occurrence.
If the whole situation were not so alarming, it would be interesting because the future of gay and lesbian publishing will be determined by our community and its need to read or not. The future cannot be blamed on some global conspiracy to end our culture just as it has become so robust and transformative. Rather, our future will be determined by the members of our community and what they believe to be important. In some bizarre way what we choose to read will determine the future of our community.
Jim Deva is the co-owner of Little Sister’s bookstore in Vancouver, best known for fighting censorship by Canada Customs.