Tea Time with Alexis J Hall and Friends

TeaTime with AJH

Prism Book Alliance would like to welcome back special guest columnist Alexis J Hall for Tea Time with Alexis J Hall & Friends.

Reading, Writing, Publishing and Reading

there’s a hole in my bucket

Bit of a change of pace for teatime this week, in the sense that it’s not really a teatime, so much as me sipping a cup of tea and pontificating. Regular conversation will be resumed next week.

But since this post was inspired by a discussion that took place a couple of teatimes back this seemed to the most obvious place to continue it. The original post was about the popularity of the alpha hero, but in the discussion we drifted into talking about representation in the genre, both in the serious social justice sense and also in the sense of particular types of story that just don’t seem to get written (like queer steampunk and non-alpha heroes).

Something that struck me about the conversation was that the consensus seemed to be that it all starts with authors. Readers can’t read books about people of colour or asexual people or heroes who aren’t alpha dickheads if those books aren’t written in the first place. Obviously, as an author of sorts myself, I had a slightly different take. I felt very much that it wasn’t reasonable to suggest that authors have a responsibility to make a real investment of time and energy producing stories for which there simply isn’t an audience. It’s all very well to say we need more lesbian SF, but if I’m going to spend the best part of a year writing a lesbian science fiction novel, I want a pretty strong guarantee that someone is going to pay me for it at the end. And, more practically, there’s no point in my writing anything if I can’t get it published. That leaves you with the proverbial tree in a forest. If a lesbian science novel is written and no-one is there to read it, does it meaningfully increase the availability of lesbian science fiction?

Lately, I’ve been involved in quite a few conversations with publishers, editors and other authors about the sort of books that the market currently wants and I am therefore likely to be able to get published: basically it’s contemporaries and not much else. The few genre opportunities outside contemps that are available tend to specify cis-gendered male characters only. These conversations have all been perfectly amicable, but I’ve also been quite bothered by them (particularly the fact that some gender-identities or sexualities are excluded from some genres). However, on reflection, I realised that my reaction to publishers was very similar to the reaction that people over at Prism were having to authors.

I had fallen into the trap of believing that publishers have some kind of moral duty to publish representational books, or books in niche genres, even if those books did not sell particularly well, despite having argued only days previously that there was no point in an author doing the same.

The core issue here, I think, is that it is extremely easy to underestimate what things cost other people. This is true of basically everything. The world is huge and complex and frequently inconvenient but we somehow convince ourselves that when our pizza arrives ten minutes late it is because the delivery guy is just plain lazy. We believe everybody richer than ourselves spends all day sitting on yacht drinking champagne which they are able to do because they have such a large amount of money. And that everybody poorer than ourselves spends every day sitting on a sofa drinking lager, which explains why they have such a small amount money. We convince ourselves that teachers, doctors and politicians are all feckless wastrels who don’t do nearly as much work as they claim to.

As a reader, when someone tells you that they aren’t writing their steampunk epic about a genderqueer biromantic asexual because they don’t think there’ll be a market for it, you feel like they’re just making excuses. “If they really cared about this issue,” you say, “they’d do it anyway, and find a way to get it out there.” You might also suggest that they “be the change they want to see in the world”.


As a writer, you have a different perspective. You recognise that there’s no point writing your steampunk epic about the genderqueer biromantic asexual if you’re not going to be able to get it published. But then you get very angry at publishers when they tell you that there isn’t really a market for steampunk epics about genderqueer biromantic asexuals, and that they will, therefore, not publish it. The fact that your publisher would have to spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of man hours turning your manuscript into something fit for human consumption completely passes you by.

Because just as your readers don’t really think that writing a book costs you anything, you don’t really think that preparing a book for publication costs your publisher anything. I mean, rationally you know it does, but other people’s time, effort and money simply doesn’t affect you to the same extent as your own. Put bluntly, other people’s work just isn’t real.


This leads to a farcical situation where everybody is blaming everyone else. Readers are saying they want to buy books that contain under-represented elements, but authors won’t write them. Authors are saying they want to write books that contain under-represented elements, but publishers won’t publish them. Publishers are saying that they want to publish books that contain under-represented elements, but readers won’t buy them. And, of course, the classic comeback here is that publishers are wrong, that they are basing their decisions on their ignorant preconceptions about The Sorts Of Books That People Like.

It would be lovely if this were true. Although it would also imply that publishers are being run abysmally poorly by people who care more about their own prejudices than they do about actually making money. And, obviously, publishers don’t always get it right, and sometimes something comes out of nowhere and changes everything, like Harry Potter or 50 Shades of Grey.

Harry Potter But, generally speaking and sad as it is to admit, when publishers say something won’t sell, it’s usually because it doesn’t sell. This does, however, leave us with a very peculiar picture because there seems to be a lot less demand for books that contain under-represented elements than you might imagine on the basis of what people ask for. There’s a lot of noise on the internet about – to pick an example that’s relevant to my own work – steampunk, and queer steampunk. Indeed, one of the examples that was brought up in the conversation over at Prism was someone looking for genderqueer steampunk, and lamenting that no such thing existed. Which could legitimately have surprised me since I’ve just published a book in a steampunk setting with a genderqueer romantic lead.


The problem is that the amount of talk that is generated (particularly that is generated on the internet) about an idea in no way correlates with the amount of effort or, more importantly, money that people are willing to put into making that idea reality. It costs nothing to say “I would totally read a book about blah” but it requires a non-trivial investment of time, mental energy and cash to track down a book about blah, buy it and read it.

I should stress here that I’m not having a go at readers. Yet again, it falls into this problem of failing to value other people’s effort. It’s easy to assume that people who say they want to read a particular type of book while failing to realise that such books do actually exist and they could, indeed, buy them are being lazy, hypocritical or in some other way “part of the problem”. But the fact is that most people care about lots of different things and can only act positively about some of those things. And it’s particularly difficult with entertainment media because the whole point of an entertainment medium is that you engage with it for fun. Back when I was at university, I spent about a year deliberately seeking out science fiction and fantasy by female authors. This meant I read a lot of books I wouldn’t have read otherwise, which was nice in that it broadened my reading horizons, but did involve reading quite a lot of books I didn’t particularly get on with, A set of books chosen on the basis of their authors is necessarily less likely to include books I like than a set of books chosen because I think I’m going to like them.

To put it another way, when someone says “I’d like to read a book about blah” what they mean is “I’d like to read a book about blah”. What they don’t mean is “I’d like to do a non-trivial amount of homework in order to find a book that’s more or less about blah, and then read it”.

To put it yet another way: everything is kind of fucked.

Readers want to read a wider variety of books, but only will buy them if they are readily and easily accessible. They will only be readily and easily accessible if authors write them. Authors will only write them if publishers will publish them. And publishers will only publish them if readers will buy them. The hilarious, pointless tragedy of this is that a fairer, more diverse and more just marketplace would almost certainly be completely sustainable and completely profitable for everybody. But it is in no-one’s interests to create it. It isn’t in the interests of readers to seek out a more diverse range of books because they’re harder to find and, being smaller in number, less likely to be something the reader actually wants. It isn’t in the interests of publishers to publish books that it isn’t in the interests of readers to read. And it isn’t in the interests of authors to write books that it isn’t in the interests of publishers to publish.

And, ultimately, this is a mess not a problem. The way things are isn’t the only way they can be. It’s just there isn’t a clear way to transition from the way things are to the way things could or should be. Ideally, there needs to be a 50 Shades of Grey for whatever under-represented element of fiction people want to see more represented. Markets get shaken up by unexpected breakouts that change the way everybody thinks about the material they’re engaging with. 50 made people who would never have considered reading erotic fiction read erotic fiction. It made publishers realise there was a serious market for the genre. And it really did change the publishing landscape. But things like that don’t happen very often and you can’t really make them happen.

Of course, there is another way to look at all of this, which is that fundamentally every writer, every publisher and every reader strikes their own balance between what is safe or easy, and what they actually want to be doing. Obviously I’m writing from a position of relative privilege here because I don’t rely on my books to pay my bills. But, speaking very personally, I am uncomfortable operating in an environment where some stories are so devalued that they simply cannot be told.


About Alexis J Hall

Alexis Hall was born in the early 1980s and still thinks the 21st century is the future. To this day, he feels cheated that he lived through a fin de siècle but inexplicably failed to drink a single glass of absinthe, dance with a single courtesan, or stay in a single garrett.

He did the Oxbridge thing sometime in the 2000s and failed to learn anything of substance. He has had many jobs, including ice cream maker, fortune teller, lab technician, and professional gambler. He was fired from most of them.

He can neither cook nor sing, but he can handle a 17th century smallsword, punts from the proper end, and knows how to hotwire a car.

He lives in southeast England, with no cats and no children, and fully intends to keep it that way.

Connect with Alexis:
Website: quicunquevult.com
Blog: quicunquevult.com/blog
Twitter: @quicunquevult
Goodreads: goodreads.com/alexishall

Farewell Giveaway
I have a number of paperbacks, most of which are signed, to giveaway. Over the between now (11 Mar 2017) and 31 Mar 2017, every comment on the blog (this post and all other new posts), will be entered to win 1 of these paperbacks. There are also some misc swag items, so there will be a few packs of these to give away as well.

Thank you so much for your support over the last 4 years. Prism will be closing its doors on 1 April 2017. All content will remain available, but no new content will appear after 31 Mar 2017. As such all request forms have been turned off. Again Thank you,

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Prism Book Alliance® assumes no liability for the ownership of photos or content used in guest posts and interviews.  The post author assumes all responsibility and liability for this content.

39 thoughts on “Tea Time with Alexis J Hall and Friends

  1. Funny, I have a genderqueer Steampunk thing, too. If only my MC was an ex-CIA operative, shapeshifting, tattooed badass, maybe someone would read it.
    Nah, I’d prolly suck at writing that kind of thing.
    Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to reading your Prosperity stories…

  2. One way I find more diverse books is by recommendations. I used Queer Romance Month to expand my reading list by a huge amount. I wrote down tons of titles at GRNW (and I’m following up to read them). I would add Livrancourt’s book to my reading list or at least to my “let me check it out list” if she’d put the title in her comment. I read all sorts of GLBT books including all letters of the QUILTBAG.

    What I’d love to see is lists! I love lists. Show me a list of queer, outside the m/m norm list of books and I’m a happy camper.

    But let’s step back a minute and realize just how wonderful this problem is to have. We’re basically complaining because our m/m or gay romance is not diverse enough (and I agree). How long ago was it that these m/m and gay romances were so very hard to find themselves.

    • Susan, for me QRM also helped finding a lot new books and authors.

      About those lists… Could you start one on goodreads? I’m assuming you’ve already checked if there is one. My thought is that if you like lists, there are other that will, too.

  3. Wow. Just, wow, AJH, that is my first reaction. Excellent, & obviously quite strongly felt, analysis of a real Catch-22 of a situation. Or maybe more a Mobius strip of cause & effect. A mess, yes, exactly. Everything you say is so on the money. Heh, please excuse the unintentional pun 😛

    I agree on all of this. It’s always bothered me, the idea of a “moral duty” to do . . . pretty much anything because, exactly as you say, it discounts the personal cost of doing a thing. And to use a tired old cliché, we really can’t know what something is like for someone else until we’ve walked in their shoes.

    That’s something I always consciously try to do. And while I know I’m guilty as the next person of having expectations that underestimate the cost to others, I like to think that I am at least aware of that. But this piece made me realize that’s not always true.

    I was definitely one of those encouraging you to write more in the Prosperity universe, in comments on that previous Teatime discussion, despite you having just stated there were problems in terms of sales. And while I absolutely understand you’re not “having a go” at readers in this piece, I couldn’t help but do what I do virtually every time I read your thoughts on . . . well, pretty much any subject of substance, which is to put my own perspective under the microscope & go: Was I doing that? And if so, is that a problem?
    And the answer to both of those questions in this case, is kinda, both yes & no.

    I think (or hope at least) you already know, that my reasons for doing that had nothing to do with moral imperatives, the duty of authors, or “being the change.” My apologies in advance, my friend, for any blush inducement (feel free to hide under a blanket while you read the rest of this) but I am about to make this *all about you*. Take your revenge by making fun of me later, for being so sappy 😛

    The thing is, much as I want there to be more diverse stories & characters, much as I love the Prosperity universe & want to read more stories in it, my motivation in encouraging you to “write more Prosperity stories if you want to, dammit’, was something quite different.

    I just wanted it for you. For you to be able write what you love to write. To write what makes you happy. Not to have to turn off some part of what make you *you*, for *any* reason. I was genuinely afraid it would hurt you, in some way, to do that.

    Also, though this is admittedly selfish, I know you have all these beautiful, meaningful things in your head & heart & soul to share with the world, things I think the world needs to hear, & a rare gift for telling them in ways make us not only listen but *feel*. To think of those stories untold & unheard, all that beauty unknown . . . It’s no exaggeration to say the thought of that just . . . breaks my heart.

    I still think those things. But I see now all of that was blinding me to something else. I saw all the cost to you as being on one side, the side of “denying the muse”, so to speak. I wasn’t thinking that, maybe it’s every bit as important for the work you put your blood, sweat & tears into to be valued, monetarily, critically, popularly, as much it is to just . . . purely create. I feel pretty stupid, now, for not getting that. Well duh! Of course it is! How could it be otherwise? Would *I* want to knock myself out on a work project, if I thought no one was going to even notice or appreciate, or pay me for it? Would I want to work a full-time job then spend a significant portion of what should be my leisure time writing something, pour my heart & soul into it, go through the attendant stress of editing, publishing & promo, if I didn’t think people were going to buy & read it?

    Uh, to borrow a British expression, not bloody likely! It’s a question too ridiculous to even ask.
    So, I’m sorry, my dear, dear AJH, because though I didn’t *think* I was underestimating the cost to you, I really *was*, not because I didn’t see it, but because I wasn’t quite looking at it from the right angle. The one from standing inside your shoes.

    It’s just so frustrating. I think what you write is just . . . extraordinary. It’s like . . . treasure thrown away, if people don’t read it. Not just for you, but for *them*. It makes me crazy. Made me think of Van Gogh, exceptional, completely outside-the-box, unpaid & unappreciated while he lived, but creating this amazing body of work anyway. I thought, how awful if those paintings had never come to be. But then again, look what happened to *him*. Hardly a testimonial for being an uncompromising, uncommercial artist.
    Anyway, I still think a large part of the problem is simply visibility. I think you are absolutely right on about the power of “unexpected breakouts” get people to read things they never would have thought of trying & realize they love them.

    I just can’t help but see “Prosperity” in those breakout shoes. Really, I can see it so clearly, it’s like, 3D 😉
    I wish I were a billionaire. I’d buy up all the Prosperity hard copies, display ‘em in bookstores all over the country, even if I had to pay to make it happen (hey, don’t judge me, it’s no different than paying for shelf space in a supermarket :P). If that didn’t work, I’d open my own chain of queer friendly bookstores. Probably do that anyway because: Awesome! I’d run ad campaigns, people with sexy voices reading tantalizing samples of each story aloud. Not because Prosperity needs that to make people like it, but because I’m convinced all it would take is to get people to “open” the darn thing. Give people just a little taste of the magic & those books would sell themselves.

    Then, forget the queer Fifty Shades. Prosperity would be like, the queer, grown-up Harry Potter! Next, Disney would be clamoring to build a Prosperity theme-park for adults. And you would be chauffeured around in a purple Rolls & wouldn’t deign to speak to us anymore.

    Wait. No! Back up.

    *Ahem* Sorry, went a little crazy there 😉

    In my defense, everything I said applies to every other author who is writes good stuff but just can’t get it seen, because it’s outside the self-perpetuating mainstream machine & thus well-nigh invisible. We just have to find a way to make it visible!

    The billionaire thing could definitely come in handy! After you, there should still be plenty left-over for everyone else, it *is* billions, after. Now, I just gotta solve that minor issue of how to make my first billion, & everyone’s problems will be solved!

    OK, now, on a more serious note & to get off the subject of YOU, before you die of embarrassment:
    I have to admit I am as guilty as any other reader of wanting to read certain things but not wanting to put much effort into finding them. I have a mountain of TBR in my Kindle that I have serious doubt I can read in my lifetime. So I’m not actively looking for new authors to read. Typically I find new authors anyway, by word of mouth, so to speak, usually when you (yes, sorry, *you*again) or another friend or acquaintance whose opinion I respect, mentions a book or author somewhere on social media. And if some of those books or authors happen to feature major characters who are queer or gay or lesbian or trans or poly or non-white or non-Western or asexual or bisexual or pansexual or genderqueer, or any other color of the rainbow, even better. Beyond that, Queer Romance Month was probably the biggest single factor in raising my awareness of authors & books covering more diverse stories & characters than your standard contemporary, white, cis-gendered m/m.

    But even with all that, it hasn’t always lead to a purchase. There’s a financial component to that, but often it’s more a matter of, not *whether* I spend money, but how I spend it, choosing between, as you said, something I genuinely think I would enjoy reading & something I want to read for less strongly motivating reasons. Like, because I want to broaden my horizons, or support diverse writing. Not that diverse stories can’t be both broadening & entertaining. Obviously I find yours to be, & E.E. Ottoman is another author whose characters & stories I find utterly engaging. JK Pendragon is another recently discovered delight. But, on the other hand, there was an asexual romance mentioned on QRM & then again in comments to that Teatime post on alpha males. I was interested in reading an asexual romance, but based on the story description, wasn’t sure it was for me. Not due to the asexuality but to some other story element. I tentatively added the book to my TBR, but didn’t buy. And obviously, that does nothing to support the author. I felt guilty about that, in one respect, & it calls into question my commitment to reading more diversely. But by the same token as what you are saying above, just as there is a cost to writers & publishers, there is also a cost to readers. The cost of investment, not of ust the reader’s money, & their time, but also a potential emotional cost. I think many people use their reading to manage their moods. I certainly have & do. That’s why we talk about comfort reads. Books elevate our mood, relieve stress, distract us, or even help us connect with our own emotions. And while that can be indulgent, I think it can also be necessary at times, to our well-being, to read what engages or speaks to us. So, as you always say, it’s complicated.

    I think what you said at the end, about striking a balance, is really the only thing we can do for now. But it really is unacceptable, the idea some stories can’t be told. There has to be a way to tell them. Non-profit publishing cooperatives? I don’t know.

    I really think I need to work on that billionaire thing 🙂

  4. Yes this is how it feels and looks to me too. And it sucks, it sucks so much.

    I go back and forth, back and forth on what to do. Is it important that I keep pushing stuff with trans characters, disabled characters, characters of color out there even when it comes out a cost to my career and my publishers well being?

    Or do I write what is marketable even if that’s not the stories I want to tell?

    I used to think that I would be okay were I am career-wise as long as I was getting my stories out there but I’m not okay with that anymore. In some ways that sound selfish but I don’t want to be the author other more marketable authors carry anymore. I don’t want to have to worry that I’m loosing my publishers money and they are taking the hit only because the DO feel the have a moral responsibility. Selfish or not I don’t want to feel like I’ve failed at the whole publishing thing.

    I don’t know, and I wish this was something I could fix, if I were only smart enough, worked hard enough, sacrificed enough, was talented enough.

    But obviously it’s not that simple and I genuinely don’t know what to do.

    • Very well said, E.E. Ottoman. I feel for your dilemma and unfortunately, don’t have any solution to offer. I think it is something most artists in any sphere face – how to remain true to themselves and the art they want to make even if it doesn’t sell well, or at all.
      As fans, we can only support the artists (authors included) in what they do by buying their works and spreading the word about their art and ultimately hope that it all works out for them.
      I feel it’s always a matter of some comprise between what you want to and what the circumstances allow you to do. It applies to most aspects of life, and for me it means achieving a balance that I’m comfortable with. I think Mel has express this way better to me – how even little things matter and change can happen one step at a time.

    • Well said, E.E. It’s definitely feels like a catch-22.

      This is always a sort of difficult question for me to answer because I’m one of those who seeks out and loves to read stories that aren’t considered “the norm”, which is weird enough in itself to think like that because, what the heck is “the norm” anyway? And why do we even need that sort of description?
      A story is a story and I wish I could snap my fingers and make it much easier to get published for you, AJH and anyone else who has one just itching to get out but wouldn’t be considered “mainstream” for one reason or another in today’s publishing environment.

      Thanks, AJH, for another thought provoking train of thought sort of post, it’s always interesting to me to see how someone’s brain works. I like how you make your case.

      E.E., I think we need to rope you into doing some of these LOL 😀
      What say you?

  5. I had also noticed that the answers, provided to the problem on the former Tea Time discussion, were just too easy to be true. So I am actually really glad that you addressed this again, Alexis. When is there ever an easy answer? Things are complicated, and you’ve shown greatly how messed up the situation is.

    In my experience it is very important to not succumb to the often dystopian like broader picture.

    To give you another example… I feel also very strongly about fair trade, about working conditions for the people who sew my clothes, who plant my cocoa and coffee, all these things. There was a time where I got really worked up about this, where I thought I could not buy anything at all without doing some wrong. And this is somehow the case. But I, as a single person, can’t change the whole situation of injustice. All I gain is despair if I try to shoulder it all. And I will go down, maybe end in depression, or won’t be able to change anything at all.

    So, here’s what I learned from this and what I try to do with everything else, too. I ask myself what *I* can and want to do and that I do. I don’t want to forget about the whole picture and it is important to talk about these things, but for my daily life, for my decisions I need to bring it down to what *I* can do. What is *my* contribution? What am *I* willing and able to give? And that has to be and also *is* enough.

    As much as we want to change the whole world, we can only start with ourselves. And that is frustrating and that doesn’t feel like enough, but it has to be, otherwise we will go crazy, lose ourselves and our cause.

    But it feels good to change the little things, the things that I can reach. It’s small but it is something and it’s satisfying for me. But only because I realised and accepted in the past that I can only do my part.

    • Mel I totally agree with your comment and have been there myself, unsure which food, which clothes or music I should purchase and it does become depressing and overwhelming. Ultimately, we can only do as much as we can do and chip away at the intolerant, injustice and madness in our world. However, I like to think that whilst I chip away, and you chip away eventually millions all chipping away will make a difference.

  6. Oh, you guys. Everyone else makes such good points here. And in such nice, perfectly normal length comments.

    And then there’s that ridiculous, overblown monstrosity *I* wrote . . . *winces*. Blah, blah, blah, blah. Good grief. Talk about verbal diarrhea. I mean, I meant every word, but that is just . . . kind of appalling. Sorry!

    • Pam, what the heck are you apologising for??? Please, just be you, and don’t stop writing us your lovely lengthy comments. Please! I enjoy reading them very much!

      • Aww! Thank you Mel.<3 I'm so glad you like! And you have no idea how much the kind words mean 🙂

        Sorry, I have gigantic issues about this stuff & often have "commenter's remorse":/ Usually I just freak out privately though! I just have zero objectivity on this, it's either "it's fine" or "omg-I'm-so-weird-end-of-the-world", no in between 😉 I have the misfortune of having this kind of big, thinky, talky, emote-y personality on one side & being uber self-conscious/hypersensitive on the other. It's constant a battle. If I recklessly shove Ms. Self-conscious out of the way to "be me" "she" invariably comes back to crush me later. It's all a bunch of bullshit, internalized voices of looong ago bullies & thus totally stupid, but there it is. Things sound fine when I'm writing them. The instant I put them "out there" I get nervous. If I get positive feedback I'm like, "whew, I guess that's okay then". If I get no feedback (which is totally fine, no one owes me or anyone feedback), worry escalates; I'm all, "oh crap, why did I write that, everyone's probably giving me the side-eye!". If I get negative feedback . . .well, as you might imagine, it's pretty awful. That's partly why I'm extra paranoid right now, that did happen recently & kind of did a huge number on my head. And I shouldn't care, but I do. But, I am working on it 🙂

        Anyway, thanks so, so much for the very kind words. Aaand as soon as I post this I will no doubt freak-the-freak-out about saying all of this here! Gawd. *hides*

        Anyone else who stumbles across this, just, please ignore/don't judge! Just temporarily being a basket case 😛

        • Sweetie, I get it… I think lots of us feel the same in varying degrees. I really like your comments! I sometimes have to plan to read them, though, when I don’t have that much time at hand 😉 But I’ll usually come back to them. See?

          I’m also often nervous about my comments… I only recently feel more comfortable. At least it is getting better 😉

          I can, however, go nuts if I write something personal (more in a mail than in a comment) and have to wait for a reply that might not even come. So really, I feel ya. You’re not alone.

          • <3<3<3 Thanks again, Mel 🙂

            By the way, I always like your comments too. Including the one here. I liked everyone's comments, though, so I was just trying to say so all at once. But I really liked what you said about not succumbing to the dystopean broader picture. Also liked comparisons you made about social justice & what you said about not trying to shoulder the burden of the whole world.

            And, heh, *exactly* same here about email 😉

  7. Since I’m one of those that talked about “being the change” in that past tea time, I might as well invite myself over for tea again. (I fully understand how tiresome I might be as well.)

    For those that don’t know, I lead Gay Romance Northwest (GRNW), a nonprofit initiative in Seattle that’s volunteer-run and organizes events, reader meet-ups and book drives that promote awareness around queer romance and queer genre fiction.

    Since we launched in 2013, we’ve organized two conferences, thirteen public reading events at places like the Seattle Public Library, at bookstores, and at nonprofits, organized multiple reader meet-ups in Seattle and Portland, and three community book drives to build-up queer community libraries in Seattle, gathering more than 600 books, including more than 150 new YA books for a LGBT youth services organization.

    At the beginning of this experience, we started with nothing except for one person (me) having read 200+ gay romance books (and having a background in working with nonprofits.) From that ground zero of nothing—no money, no connections–we hit the sidewalk and through a lot of work, gathered together a crew of authors, publishers, and community organizations to do these events. It took a lot of time and effort and a lot of getting people used to the idea of doing something around queer love stories. (Even queer organizations were wary since romance has such a stigma, and is so less allowed than literary fiction.) We faced elitism, discrimination (let’s not talk about RWA), and even “in-community” discrimination where I would be told that women writers would not be allowed to read their gay romance work. Even with these multiple obstacles some of which we still haven’t progressed past, we moved forward. For no money, and taking up a lot of time, and not always creating a final product that is perfect or achieves everything that we hope for.

    What pushes me forward, for no money, even as I try to do this “on the side” of a 50+ hour “real job”, is the people. It’s the readers who come to the events, it’s the writers who are having their first public reading ever (even if they’ve written multiple novels before then), it’s the homeless queer youth who came to the conference for free and were overwhelmed with all the free books they could take with them, and it’s the community organizations that were first wary, but now are so *excited* about doing more things. It’s about the incremental changes, some we see immediately, and some that take months or years to see. It’s so many meetings, and follow-up emails, and sometimes me pleading or getting angry.

    Sometimes it’s not worth it.

    But why I say, and still say, it starts with writers, is that I see the readers. They come to these readings and they say, “This was great, but what about _________? Does someone write _________?” They look at me expectantly and wonder why I didn’t just give them an event of just lesbian sci-fi. (This has happened.) As much as we want to provide the “full rainbow” at every event, we are limited by who is able to make the time, and every event that I have a reader come up and say, “this was awesome, but where I am represented? Where is ____ or _____?”, I feel it every time.

    And the ones we talk about often when we have these #WeNeedDiverseBooks discussions—trans*, genderqueer, the bisexual romances that celebrate bi people without forcing them to “take a side”, the lonely asexuals, characters of color, characters with disabilities, characters who are not 20-something, cis-white guys with 8-pack (!) abs—are often times groups that are, in general, underserved. People who are so used to not being represented or having their needs met, that often times don’t know they can have their needs met, or that they should have expectations. Why are we waiting for traditionally and systemically underserved people to start their own kickstarter to fund people who they don’t have faith in yet?

    The best thing that I can do at my end, with what I can do, is give them action—is show them that things can happen. “Look, we CAN be in a library! Look, we CAN be in a bookstore! Look, lesbian sci-fi! It CAN exist!” And then from there, as we build experiences, we build expectations. At this stage, at least for us, we have to show the books first, before people can believe that they can exist.

    I was the one who said I ran into the writer working on a genderqueer steampunk at a recent conference, and when I heard about their project, I told them, emphatically and repeatedly, to finish their work. “I can’t do anything until you publish.” Since we started, I’ve met so many writers who are in the middle of lesbian-this or trans-that, and we can’t do anything with them until they finish. We are the people-facing, tail-end of the process. We are there with the expected readers, waiting.

    It is a thankless, costly, tiring job to be first out of the gate, the ones writing when everyone tells them there is no market or, worse, laughs at them. “Hahaha, gay romance. Who reads that?” As Susan’s point above, there was no evident market for gay romance not long ago, but writers in the mid-aughts, 2003, 2004, 2005+ just wrote them because that’s what they wanted to see, even though the market and number of readers was much-much smaller.

    Does this mean that three years from now, trans* romance will be more popular and easier to find? In 2017, will I not be made fun of because I dare hope or ask for an asexual romance?

    I hope so? But I also know that we can’t get there unless things happen before that. Those writers had to publish gay romance (no matter what you think of those “early” works) in 2003-2005 to help get us to the “boom” that hit later. There’s no boom without them starting those sporadic little fires before then.

    And as a tail-end person, I cannot do this alone, even on sheer force of will. I cannot go to the library to do something without books. I cannot go to the community without books. I cannot set the stage for authors to get in front of excited readers without the books. Without the books in hand, we are an unmet promise.

    I am not in your shoes. I do not understand the turmoil that you go through to go from first page to last page to publication. I can only tell you how hard it is to come face to face with a reader who is, once again, disappointed that they do not see themselves reflected.

    And that’s why we’re here—to try our best to give them what they most want.

    But again, we need help. We can’t do it alone.

    • Tracy, I think your work is very admirable and precious.

      What I think Alexis wanted to say is that we all–in our different roles–are responsible and that it is difficult for all of us.

      I am glad you found your place and that you fill out your role, that you move forward because you can see in the people you help why you are doing this.

      Your post feels to me like you are laying the responsibility on authors alone, or at least the most amount of it. I believe that we can only move forward together.

      • I 100% agree with you and everyone who says that we have to move forward together. From our vantage point though, if we’re moving at the tail end, but we don’t have movement from the the beginning part of the cycle (“creation”), we can’t move that far, and people don’t believe us because they don’t see physical examples about why we’re moving. I meet so many readers who don’t believe these things exist until they see it themselves.

        What this means for us is that we can only work with those writers who are publishing (either with a publisher or on their own) because that is what we can physically show to readers who want to see it. That, and when we meet writers in the middle of their project, we say, “Please finish.”

        I don’t mean to sound precious. This is just my view “on the ground”. Maybe what we’re doing here means very little in the big scheme and for publishers who prefer only sell-able contempories, is meaningless.

        • Just to be sure, I didn’t mean anything by my choice of the word ‘precious’. You don’t sound precious, I think your work is. Disclaimer: I am no native speaker, so any weird phrasing might result in that 😉

          • Ah, I see. Thank you. My reading of precious was different (and often compared to that of children or in some cases, much loved and very powerful rings) so I appreciate your clarification. 🙂

        • It’s not that publishers prefer to sell contemporaries – it’s that only contemporaries sell.

          So if you want to be published then you kind of have to write contemporaries.

          That’s just … realistically the way it is right now.

        • You see, if someone told me they were writing a genderqueer novel I’d tell them … write something else. I would consider the only kind and ethical thing to do.

          There is literally no market for queer steampunk right now. Trust me, I wrote a queer steampunk novel, I know of what I speak. And it’s across the board – even accounting for the fact mine might just have sucked, queer steampunk by well-established authors, popular authors hasn’t done great either.

          Even if you could get a publisher to take it (of which the likelihood would be very small), sales would likely be minimal. Which would make selling other books *of any queer genre* more difficult (because publishers look at that kind of thing). So essentially, by taking a punt on a diverse book in a niche genre, an author is likely damaging their future career.

          Of course, they could self publish, taking all that responsibility, time and money onto themself and, while, of course there are smash-hit self published novels, it’s still a huge risk for any individual to take. Especially on a niche genre that established publishers are wary of.

    • TTG, you are always welcome at tea.

      Look, I have saved you a biscuit and everything.

      No, I always appreciate your comments and your thoughts. And I thought this was such a complicated and – while depressing – interesting topic, it was worth thinking about and talking about some more.

      And, of course, I think your work for GRNW is amazing – and I think you’re an amazing person in general, and I deeply appreciate everything you do for the genre.

      But, look, I understand how disappointed readers feel when they can’t find the books they want. I have spent my whole life feeling the same way. I don’t feel represented by the mainstream and I don’t’ feel represented by the genre that is supposedly about and for people like me. This is genuinely hurtful and frustrating, and it makes me angry.

      But … telling a writer to just write and hope for the best is … basically telling someone to waste their time. If a publisher have told you that they will not contract historical trans* fiction or lesbian SF … then writing historical trans* or lesbian SF is costing you time and money and not even getting to those disappointed readers.

      This isn’t about not wanting to be a sporadic little fire. This is about wanting to be any flame at all.

      It’s not about incremental change. It’s about there literally being a wall there that I can’t break down. You can tell me xyz is a thing that needs to be written – and it’s, honestly, a think I would want to write – but if my publisher tells me they won’t/can’t publish it, then … there’s no point me writing it.
      And I honestly feel it’s … really rather cruel to tell a writer just to write even knowing there is no market or no hope of publication for their book. That does nobody any good, it doesn’t increase the availability of diverse books, and ultimately it just makes everybody feel bad.

      Also, do you think it doesn’t disappoint me? As a writer, and as a reader, that I can neither write nor read the stories that speak to me and reflect me?

      • It isn’t really something any one person can accomplish alone–50 Shades notwithstanding–nor any particular group of authors or readers or publishers or conference organizers. Of course progress seems frustrating and excruciatingly slow from an individual perspective. As a reader (and a remarkably lazy one, when it comes to writing reviews and such), it seems as though when I buy and read a certain book, it does nothing useful in the larger scheme of things, because my $7 or so doesn’t contribute all that much towards the costs of publication, nor is it adequate recompense for the author’s months of work writing it. I can write a review, but unless I write a lot of reviews in an interesting manner and establish a following, not many people will be convinced thereby (and if I write it on amazon or whatever, people will only see it if they are already looking at that book). I can–and do–buy extra copies for those of my acquaintances who might be interested, but I don’t actually have any friends or relatives that are really into queer romance, so it is difficult to get them to read it, much less spread the word.

        AJH, you, as an author, have established a pattern in the past year or two of publishing an impressive variety of queer stories–high-quality ones, too–so you have a better chance of getting more diverse queer fiction into print than a brand-new author or one who is more or less locked in to a particular niche or readership (their fans only read m/m, or whatever). I have no idea how well or poorly all of your books have been selling, but you have said that you don’t depend on book sales for your living, and you seem to have a fairly receptive publisher, so please do keep trying. TTG, you have conducted two successive years of a quite interesting convention that has received a decent amount of attention in a relatively short time. I attended both of them, and from my perspective there was considerable growth in prestige, attendance and variety/interest of programming in only one year. It also seems as though there is more attention on the issue of diversity in queer romance than there was a couple of years ago, and also more authors attempting it and publishers willing to look at it. It would seem that your efforts and those of other people are starting to gain momentum.

        AJH, when you say there is “literally no market” for queer steampunk, or that “only contemporaries sell,” it sounds very bad. However, you have indeed managed to publish your queer steampunk Prosperity, even if you had to publish a contemporary m/m story first (but that one contributed to “diversity” as well, didn’t it, with the class issues and all). And I have a lot of queer (mostly m/m) historical, fantasy and/or SF in my library, most of which is not self-published. So you must be speaking in general, not absolute, terms. I suppose you mean that “only contemporaries sell in huge numbers, with a few exceptions, so that is what to write if you want to make money” and “new authors would be advised to write contemporary m/m if they want to find a publisher, because publishers will be more likely to accept works that fit the desires of their largest customer base.” An unfortunate state of affairs, but perhaps not quite so bleak as you frame it here, and it is getting better.

        • Replying to AJ Pina: If it’s not out of line for me to jump in here (if it is, I’m sorry, just smack me AJH) but you may not be aware that in the Nov. 20 Teatime discussion, in this comment: http://www.prismbookalliance.com/2014/11/tea-time-with-alexis-j-hall-and-friends-special-guests-e-e-ottoman-julio-alexi-genao-and-beverley-jansen/#comment-55529 AJH told us this:

          “Writing books that don’t sell is lethal. If you don’t sell enough, your publisher won’t keep contracting you, so your voice *isn’t heard at all*. Like my Prosperity-verse, which I love and loving writing, and is full of all the queer has come to the end of the line. There’s another anthology of stories I could write, there’s a whole other trilogy about the events of Liberty – no point out writing it, publisher doesn’t want it – it simply hasn’t sold enough to be worth it.”

          So the problem is that while AJH does “seem to have a fairly receptive publisher”, there are limits to that. The contemp he wrote, “Glitterland”, may have paved the way to getting “Prosperity” & company published, but at some point the publisher expects/needs those books to perform up to a certain level, sales wise, & if they don’t, then even the most receptive publisher is going to say, don’t write any more of those for us, we won’t publish them.

          Which is plainly an extremely hurtful thing to hear if you wrote them & love them & believe in them & want to write more. It hurts *me* just to *read* that paragraph, & I’m not the one who put my time & effort or my heart into writing them. As much as I want to read those things & originally urged AJH to write more, just speaking personally here, at this point it feels more like rubbing salt into a wound than encouragement to keep saying that.

          • Maybe. If it’s too depressing to think about, maybe leave it for a few years and try again. Or do a kickstarter sort of thing for expenses and self-publish, or just check out other publishers. I don’t think Riptide’s main focus/audience is for spec-fic anyway. They seem to concentrate on contemporary romance and erotica, and there may not be a lot of overlap between those readers and people who like queer steampunk. As TTG said below, Blind Eye Books would probably love this, and Lethe Press too. Or he could try mainstream SF publishers, as a few of them would be interested in queer stuff these days. (I know Tor occasionally has blog posts about queer SF/fantasy.) I don’t know how much of this AJH has already thought of or tried, and I really don’t want to rub salt into the wound, but I also don’t want him to give up sooner than he has to just because Riptide can’t sell his books. I do care about how he feels–even though I don’t know him as well as you do, Pam, or at all really–but I am a bit selfish too because I have had the same favorite author for ten years–Sarah Monette–and I think AJH is right up there with her and writes exactly the kind of thing I like to read (meaning the SF, not the contemporary, although that is also excellent.) Anyway, I will shut up now and I really am sorry if it makes anybody feel worse. 🙁

          • Awww, no, no, no, sorry, wow. I got a little, uh, passionate there . . . but I didn’t mean to make you feel bad, & that totally wasn’t my place at all 🙁 Omg, please don’t feel you should shut up, really, if anybody should shut up it’s me :/ I was being an overprotective friend. I just . . . kinda love that guy to bits, y’know? But that’s no excuse, please forgive me. (Ack, sorry AJH, don’t kill me please!) I know exactly what you mean & I’d love to see more of that glorious stuff from AJH too. I haven’t read Sarah Monette, maybe I should try her 🙂 but I’m ready to agree AJH is right up there with . . . anybody you can name 🙂 I don’t want him to give up either. You really might have some good ideas there. I don’t know if he’s considered those other places you’ve mentioned either. Maybe they *are* options, if so it would be awesome!

      • Thanks, Alexis. I always appreciate the chance to join the tea time, even if it’s just blah-blahing in the comments. 🙂

        I think we might have to just agree to disagree on some things, just because of the differences in our perspectives and experiences. I think we’re coming from two really different places. (Our whole purpose is to have community impact and spreading awareness while keeping costs low to free, so we’re not going to have the same market concerns as others in the field.)

        My one thought though is this–at the publisher panel during GRNW 2014, the leads of Bold Strokes, Less Than Three, Harmony Ink, and even eXtasy Books, Radclyffe, Megan Derr, Anne Regan, and Tina Haveman, all said that they are interested in receiving manuscripts that show less represented parts of the spectrum, beyond mm, but they’re not getting the manuscripts or the submissions. But they all said publicly that they’re interested in publishing them.

        If your current publisher is focusing on contemporaries, then I would ask around. I KNOW Less Than Three would go for all the shades of the rainbow and for non-contempories, and Bold Strokes would be very much worth checking out as well. Also, Blind Eye Books is an excellent place for LGBTQ spec-fic. They are a smaller house so have a longer publishing timeline, but their whole mantra is quality spec-fic. Lethe Press is another small press option that does excellent work. There are more than one option out there, beyond self-publishing, and I’ve heard directly from publishers that they’re not seeing the submissions. (This goes back to my point about “it starts with the writers.”)

        If it’s something you really want to see, then talk with those who are publishing it, or who want to publish it. End of the day, it’s up to what you most want to do and what will fulfill you and keep *you* going.

  8. Dude, you totally took the words out of my mouth about this. I write super niche fiction too. People keep saying that they want (culturally) diverse stories and that they are ok with non-traditional endings, but those stuff simply don’t sell. My sales figures are abysmal. Maybe it’s also because I suck as a author, but if it weren’t for my own lofty goal of sharing my culture I don’t think I could persist.

    I’m pretty grateful my publisher contracted my stories and had editors help me polish them, but I always feel bad that they’re basically just doing this out of a moral obligation….

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