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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 30b - The State of Lesbian Historicals in 2018

Saturday, January 12, 2019 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 30b - The State of Lesbian Historicals in 2018 - transcript

(Originally aired 2019/01/12 - listen here)

One of the things I’d like to do this year with the podcast is to start looking more broadly at the field of publishing lesbian-relevant historical fiction. I’ve also started using the phrase “lesbian-relevant” to describe my topic because it seems to better sum up my organizing principle of using the lesbian gaze. Both in the blog and the podcast, my content isn’t defined in terms of historic facts or personal identities, but rather in terms of topics, individuals, and texts that are likely to have resonance for lesbian readers. Not that I have any problem with having non-lesbian readers and listeners too!

One of my back-burner projects has been to try to compile a comprehensive list of current lesbian-relevant historical fiction. Quite a daunting task! I started off with the contents of my own library, a list from another long-time collector of lesbian historical fiction, and several Goodreads lists on relevant topics, as well as mining the back catalogs of lesbian presses. But at this point I can’t claim my database is anything close to comprehensive except for the last year, when I stared hunting down new releases systematically.

With those caveats in mind, here’s an overview of what’s getting published in lesbian-relevant historical fiction and who’s publishing it. Keep in mind that I include historicals that have fantasy elements as long as they’re set in an identifiable time and place.

For books released in 2018, I’ve identified a total of 83 titles. Slightly more than a fifth of them don’t have a named publisher (other than Amazon Digital, which is not so much a publisher as a distribution service). Many of the named publishers are one-author shops, but I’m not in the business of evaluating the line between micro-presses and self-publishing.

The remaining 65 titles were put out by 46 different named publishers, with 3/4 of them putting out only a single relevant title. Some of those are major publishers, but I’m only interested in the historical titles with lesbian relevance. Only 3 publishers put out 3 or more relevant titles in 2018, and it won’t surprise anyone familiar with the field to know that those were Bold Strokes Books, Bella Books, and Regal Crest Enterprises. But together, those three presses only put out 14 historicals in the year. Just a smidge more than one a month.

How does that compare to the last couple decades of publishing? Publishing via Amazon Digital may have increased substantially, but self-published books are the ones I’m most likely to have missed prior to this past year. The overall rate of singe-title publishers seems fairly constant. And when looking at the top producers for my entire data set, the top three come in the same order, with Bold Strokes Books at double the number of its nearest competitor, Bella Books, and Regal Crest coming in about half of Bella. The next competitor is Naiad Press, which is a pretty strong showing given that Naiad closed in the mid ‘90s!

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So when and where are the stories being set? Several popular topics emerge: stories set in a mythic early Greece, pirate adventures in the 17th and 18th centuries, Westerns generally involving a woman passing as a man or simply dressed like one, Victorian-era steampunk adventures, women who find a chance at love during the two world wars.

About 80% of the stories published in 2018 are set in the 19th and 20th centuries, with the vast majority being generally from the “wild west” era through World War II. I use those landmarks advisedly because the settings cluster strongly around key events and genres. And where are they set? Other than a cluster of stories set in the Greco-Roman mythic past, settings are dominated by the British Isles up through the early 19th century, after which American settings take over. Settings outside the British Isles and US are mostly related to World War II and its aftermath.

In my complete data set covering the last couple decades, the distribution is about the same, except that we’re currently getting a bit more coverage before the 19th century. There’s a lot of literary territory there for the claiming if you want to write something other than British Regencies, American Civil War and Wild West stories, and books set during the two world wars.

I have a more detailed breakdown by geography and timeframe, but currently a lot of this data is my best guess from the book blurbs, so I’ll spare you. Eventually, I hope to keep track of themes and tropes, which should make for some interesting analysis of how people imagine the lives of lesbians in the past. I plan to continue adding to my master database and will try to find a way to make it a searchable resource once the meta-data is a bit more complete.

What does all this mean for readers--and for authors, for that matter? With 83 titles, there’s certainly plenty to read. I’ve only read a tenth of the 2018 books, though several others are queued up on my iPad. But with the titles distributed across so many publishers -- most of them either self-published or micro-presses -- it can be a full-time job to try to track them down. Hint: that’s why it’s a great idea to follow this podcast!

For authors, I think one of the take-home messages is that if you want to stand out from the crowd, pick a setting before the 19th century or somewhere other than America or the British Isles. Of course, there are reasons why those settings are popular. They’re familiar, or they match popular genres in mainstream romance, or they match our own family backgrounds. But there’s so much more to explore!

For publishers, I think one message is that authors of lesbian historicals aren’t finding a place with you. I have no idea whether historical authors prefer to go independent, or whether publishers generally aren’t picking up historical titles. For that matter, I don’t really have the comparative data for other genres to know how the numbers compare. But I do know that readers who are hungry for historicals find slim pickings from the more recognizable presses and that creates a downward cycle. In mainstream romance, historicals are a booming business. I’d like to think that there’s a similar potential for people looking for romantic lesbian stories set in the past. And someone who focused on that might find a wide-open market niche.

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