Thursday, April 2, 2009

Something Queer Went On in NYC

I needed a few days to process the past weekend before I wrote this post. The first Rainbow Book Fair in Chelsea went modestly well, I thought. The organizers seemed pleased with the turnout, consider this was their first go at such an event and - well, it is New York - there is so much competition for bodies. The day turned out to be gorgeous, as I noted when I went to get lunch at Papaya King, and I had fun meeting other Phaze authors: Jade Falconer, D. Luis, and Robin Glasser.

A few things I did notice at the fair: Phaze Books was one of three vendors offering romance/erotica, the other two being MLR Press and Dreamspinner Press. One vendor supplied BDSM manuals and video, primarily aimed at the gay male audience, other vendors shopped poetry, literature and criticism, and drama. Far as I could tell, only one publisher represented sold primarily lesbian works. With the exception of MLR, Dreamspinner and Columbia University Press, I was not familiar with the other houses.


One vendor offered entertainment biographies - Merv Griffin stared at me all afternoon from a large book poster hovering over the vendor's table. When I would turn away for a break I would see the demonstration video the BDSM guy had on an endless loop.

Merv. Naked guy being flogged. Merv. Naked guy being flogged. The ceiling offered far less in entertainment value, but it helped to cleanse the visual palate.

A few other things I noticed: the crowd tended to skew older, primarily male. A friend would later tell me that he was not surprised by the demographics, believing them consistant with the make-up of Chelsea. Not being from New York, I can't say for certain, but outside there was a mix of ages and genders. Whether or not they all live in Chelsea, I don't know. As the M/M books Phaze offers are written mainly by women, and targeted toward a female audience, I was curious to see how we would do. Modest crowd, modest sales. We did give away a lot of promo, and I left promo at the LGBT Center, so maybe that will take effect in the future. I would be curious to know how everybody else did at this event.

While setting up our table in the morning, I overhead one organizer mentioned that this event was the "learning curve." Naturally they plan to process what happened that day, how they did, and what they should do for next year. If I had to offer some suggestions, and I will because that is one point of today's post, I would say this:

1) Have the event outdoors. Find a space near the Center where tents and table can be set up. Get some acoustic acts to play during the day, set up big banners. The Center was nice, but we were up on the third floor of a building surrounded by scaffold. From the outside, it didn't look as if anything was happening that day. I saw no outside signage indicating a book fair, and on the first floor a used book sale was going on! Right there, we had competition. People could just buy those books and leave without climbing the stairs.

If you have the event outdoors, you can draw more people. Passersby who wouldn't otherwise come into the building may see, be curious, and check out the books. And (and I'll talk more on this soon), you will open the event to a wide audience. You have the opportunity to capture your intended gay/lesbian demographic and others as well who might be interested in the work you do. A gay/lesbian book fair need not be restricted to just that audience. As often as I'm sure gays and lesbians read works by heterosexual authors, I don't see why the reverse shouldn't happen.

2) Invite a keynote speaker/author of some renown. An event like this needs a name to encourage readers to show. At the annual Waynesboro Book 'Em event they manage to get a few recognized authors in addition to local writers. A city like New York should be able to produce a few noted GLBT authors, you think? I don't know if the organizers were unable to find a name this year, but as they now have a whole year to plan the next event that should be plenty of time to approach people.

3) More press, Internet presence. I don't know how the promotion for this event went over locally - if ads were taken out or media called. I do know when I first heard of the fair through my promo coordinator I had to do some scrounging on Google to get information. The Center has a website, yes, but I didn't recall seeing the fair prominently advertised there. It was on the calendar, yes, but for a big event you want it up front.

This fair was a wonderful idea. I learned a lot. The authors with me learned about attending such an event, and I'm sure the organizers came away with the input they need to put on a bang-up show next year. We'll see if Phaze will be a part of it; I have to plan the year in advance as well.

Now, to get to the point of the post's title - no, it's not just for shock value. SEO, maybe.

At the fair, a panel on "The Future of Queer Publishing" was held. Very fascinating dialogue, covering the status of GLBT publishing and what to expect in a tenuous economy where stores are closing, publishers are downsizing, and print media is becoming more digital. What struck me initially about this program was the use of the word Queer. Growing up, and to some extent in these times, I had been under the impression the term had been hijacked to be used in a negative context - much like the "N" word. The official definition of queer is "odd, out of alignment, strange." As a child I loved reading a series of book by Elizabeth Levy - each title began with "Something Queer". Something Queer is Going On. Something Queer at the Ballpark. Something Queer at the Library, etc. It never occurred to me then that the word might be used in a derogatory way to describe a person.

As I understand it, the best defense was to take the word and use it as positive. On TV we see "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," "Queer as Folk," and so forth. So we have queer publishing. We've always had it, however, but it's changing. What I gathered at this panel (and this is to come to pass for "straight" publishing as well, if there is such a thing) is that GLBT authors and publishers will need to embrace the digital age - take advantage of social media to promote their works, and above all to not give up and think nobody is listening or reading.

A woman in audience identified herself as a bookseller. While I got the impression she liked the idea of the fair, she bemoaned the execution of it. Where were the major publishers? Where were the big names? I won't say I wasn't a bit miffed by the inference that those of us who participated weren't up to caliber, but on the other hand she did have a point. Then I wondered: what does it mean to be a queer publisher, or a queer author?

In college I read books from Naiad Press and New Victoria Publishers. There was a Chapter 11 Books next to the movie theater in this shopping center in Athens, Georgia. You could count the shelves of GLBT books on one finger. But the books were there. These days, Naiad has folded and the Kensington Corp. claims to be the largest publisher of GLBT fiction. Kensington isn't wholly gay and lesbian, so do they qualify as queer? Phaze Books publishes GLBT romance, menage stories, and genres some people might think odd, do we qualify?

I write M/M, am I queer? I have never been with a woman, but if somebody cute (oh, let's say, Kate Winslet) were to buy me a drink I wouldn't say no. Am I even qualified to comment? I see so many people who identify as gay or lesbian integrating themselves into the mainstream, and that's fine, but what happens if the reverse happens? Does the term queer need to define just GLBT people who write GLBT books for GLBT publishers?

I have never been one for labels. It can be a challenge to desire total equality yet still want to maintain an identity that separates you from the mainstream. With my writing I try to encompass the best of all worlds. Sometimes characters come out to me on their own - it happens, if you're a writer, you know what I'm talking about. As for the future of queer publishing...I'd like to see all publishing continue. I'd like to see anybody able to walk into a store or log online and buy what they want, regardless of the logo on the spine or the name on the cover. As for the future of this fair, we'll see. Maybe something queer will happen next year.

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