Patricia Nell Warren

Why Literary Agents Pressure Authors to 'Straighten' Gay Characters

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | September 15, 2011 9:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Politics
Tags: book publishing, censorship, gay books, gay censorship, literary agents, publishing industry, US publishers

The outrage of the moment is over that Publishers Weekly post complaining that an unnamed literary agent won't represent a young-adult book unless a gay character is rewritten as straight. As an author, I share the outrage over this form of censorship, but there's a bigger, uglier story that needs to be looked at.

Pressuring authors to change touchy characteristics like race, sexual orientation, gender, etc. books-about-publishing.jpgis not a new thing in the publishing world. What is new - since the 1980s, at any rate - is this: ultraconservative international ownership has been aggressively taking over more and more of the U.S. book industry, and working to expand its control over the marketing of ideas. Agents Michael Larsen and Elizabeth Pomada say, "America's literary industrial complex includes six conglomerates, most foreign-owned, that dominate trade publishing." This is happening on a parallel track with ultraconservative aggression in other areas - government, environment, civil rights, healthcare, jobs.

Indeed, so much of the U.S. publishing industry has been "outsourced" that we no longer publish more books than any other country on Earth. The UK is now #1.

As once-independent U.S. publishers with distinguished histories get bought out or taken over, and become obedient subsidiaries of giant multi-national media conglomerates, the goal is supposedly to "ensure more profit in publishing." But it's often equally important to "ensure that less liberal views get into print."

None of us should be surprised that LGBT authors are among those who feel the fierce pressures - or that agents are freaking out and trying to making their manuscripts "safe" enough to sell.

Most important, let's look at who really owns what. U.S. trade publishing is largely controlled by six conglomerates, the so-called "Six Sisters." Only one is U.S.-based. The rest are based in Germany, the UK, France, Australia and Germany. So U.S. literary agents deal with a lot of policy that isn't even set in the U.S.

The "Six Sisters"

Penguin, the UK conglomerate, is now the world's biggest book publisher. Based in London, it has subsidiaries in the USA and several other countries. It's owned by Pearson PLC, which also owns the Financial Times Group in London. Penguin has sucked up quite a few U.S. publishing houses, including G. P Putnam's, Viking, Dutton and others. Hey, I used to be a Penguin author. Fortunately for us, Penguin is still somewhat middle-of-the-road, ideologically...which means that Dutton still has enough editorial independence to publish Chaz Bono's story of gender change.

Farther to the right is the Australia-based News Corporation, which now owns Harper Collins, one of the biggest U.S. publishers. Some years ago, Harper Collins bought out the formerly independent William Morrow, which had been brave enough to publish my novel The Front Runner in 1974. I doubt that Harper Collins would stick out its neck on such a controversial gay book today. Why? Because the News Corp, 2nd largest media monster in the world, is run by Rupert Murdoch. This makes Harper Collins a political toy of Murdoch's, side by side with Fox News. Oh, and News Corp also owns Zondervan, a big Christian publisher.

The biggest German conglomerate is Bertelsmann AG. Bertelsmann now owns Random House, America's biggest publisher, along with a whole slew of other once-independent U.S. houses -- Ballantine, Bantam, Crown, Del Rey Books, Doubleday, Dell, Everyman's Library, Fawcett, Modern Library, Pantheon Schocken Books, Times Books, Vintage Books, to name a few. And who is Bertelsmann? It started as a Bible printer in the late 1800s, and is now a privately held company, owned by the Bertelsmann Foundation, which is owned by the ultraconservative long-established Mohn family, who supported the Nazi government before and during World War II.

The Bertelsmann buyout of Random House triggered a huge protest ruckus among American liberal and progressive literary figures. But there was no stopping the sale.

Once upon a time, there weren't many U.S. conservative publishers and you could spot them a mile away - like Henry Regnery, which everybody in the business knew was a pipeline for right-wing disinformation. But today these big conglomerates manage to hold down both liberal and conservative battle lines. They do it through diversifying their ownership of imprints.

Indeed, some liberal publishing firms have discovered that they can make lots of money selling conservative books. Example: the French-based Hachette Book Group, who owns Little, Brown and Grand Central. Hachette's current web page features side-by-side author photos of leftie iconoclast Michael Moore and rightie televangelist Joel Osteen. I find this amusing, since pastors like Osteen would like to see people like Moore disappear from the planet. But who cares, as long as the cash register goes ka-ching?

The sole U.S. conglomerate now owns Scribner's, which still has some ideological air space for novels by gay author Chris Rice. Scribner's is owned by Simon & Schuster, which is owned by CBS, whose majority stockholder is billionaire media magnate Sumner Redstone, who also owns Viacom, Paramount, MTV and dozens of other film, TV and cable entities. It could be said that MTV ownership signals a liberal bent. However, CBS keeps its political options open by owning a conservative imprint, Threshold Editions, whose editor-in-chief is Republican strategist Mary Matalin.

Book Clubs and Academe

The book-club sector also has its buy-out dramas. One involved InsightOut, with its array of LGBT titles.

InsightOut is not, and never has been, LGBT-owned. It had been one of several dozen specialty book clubs launched by Bookspan, a company resulting from a merger of Book of the Month Club with Doubleday Direct, Inc. InsightOut had a close call when Bertelsmann started axing some of the specialty clubs.

In 2008, Bertelsmann sold Bookspan to Najafi Companies. Najafi is a growing Arizona-based private-equity firm, started by real estate magnate Jamal Najafi, with an interest in books and music - he also owns Columbia House, once a Columbia Records brand, now a DVD and Blu-Ray club. Najafi was recently the lead bidder for Borders Book Group, which was going Chapter 11 and looking for a buyer.

Academic publishers, too, face the same pressures. This is because more and more of our educational book publishing is now outsourced and foreign-owned - even foreign-printed (because of the high cost of textbooks, and the lure of low-cost printing in the far East). The Texas Board of Education may call a lot of shots in textbook publishing, with creationism at the top of their wish list - but the content they lobby is more and more generated in the mega-corporate sphere.

Plus the conservative political interests are getting ever more traction right in the ivy bowers of American higher education. There are still university publishers that gladly take on LGBT titles, as University of Nebraska did with the recent Brokeback Book - but they are fewer than they used to be.

The Distribution Threat

On another level - one that is not visible to the public, but painfully real to many of us in the business - the last 15 years have seen the demise of many distributors and wholesalers that carried independent books, including LGBT titles.

Companies like Inland, Login, BookPeople, etc. were once the pipeline into bookstores for scores of liberal, feminist and LGBT publishers. Today these companies are gone, and conservative leverage is ever stronger on the shrinking list of wholesalers and distributors. Example: the biggest distributor in the whole industry, Ingram, which is based in the Bible Belt. Ingram carries 7.5 million titles internationally, and even has its own digital-printing company. Ingram's dog is wagged by the tail of its many Christian vendors - as my own publishing company found out at the American Booksellers expo in 1996, when Ingram initially refused to display our gay-themed paperback titles in their booth. Today Ingram has added a special resource division for the Christian book industry.

At the end of that shrinking distribution pipeline, there's a shrinking retail market as well. Many LGBT people used to complain that bookstore chains were driving our independent bookstores out of business. Ironically, those who hate the chain stores never gave them credit for selling millions of books for us - notably Barnes & Noble and Borders. Barnes & Noble used to be fairly liberal and anti-censorship; I gave political support to a number of B & N store managers who stood up to local religious-righters trying to close them down.

But today, B & N is struggling, and doesn't handle nearly as many LGBT titles as it used to. In July, Borders Book Group gave up its search for a last-minute buyer, and closed its doors for good.

Frankly, the ongoing implosion of the brick-and-mortar bookstore chains is another loss for us - it leaves us with a drastically reduced retail marketplace. We still have have the big Internet book marts... of which Amazon is the biggest. But If Amazon were to decide not to carry any of the 30,000+ LGBT titles that are now posted, LGBT authors and publishers would find ourselves in serious trouble.

What To Do About the Agents?

My point is - today, when literary agents try to place a gay-themed book, or a book with a couple of gay characters, they face a vast torn-up cultural landscape where options are narrowing everywhere. No wonder some of them are pressuring LGBT authors to be "less gay."

The LGBT community shares some of the blame for the narrowing options as well. Our own media are mostly not interested in books any more. Our people read less and less, and they buy fewer LGBT books... which is partly why most of our indie bookstores have closed.

So screaming at literary agents who cave in to publisher pressures is not going to solve the problem.

Hurray for the agents who do stand their ground on this issue. But the powerful mega-publishers ignore such solitary displays of courage. To an outfit like Bertelsmann or News Corp, one brave little agent is like a buzzing mosquito that can be downed with a little DEET. There are literally millions of manuscripts looking for homes every year, so publishers can cherry-pick the properties that best suit them ideologically. Agents who don't play ball may find themselves going out of business.

The real enemy sits at the top of the corporate pyramid - as it does with healthcare, home mortgages, food safety, pharmaceuticals, pollution, the war machine, and anything else that is ideologically and financially lethal in our society today. Since the 1980s, we have let ultraconservatism steal a march on us.

For Americans who care about freedom of thought as it relates to literary agents and authors. it's going to take a long time to get back the heady publishing freedom of the Sixties and Seventies -- for the same reason that it's going to take a long time to get back the other freedoms that we've already lost.


Further reading: A more detailed look at the scene

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This article took the words right out of my mouth and put them on the page!
One of the best articles I have read concerning this subject. Thoughtful, frank and succinct. As with any industry, globalization seems to mean mega-corporation. So sad for anything not middle-of-the-road or conservative. Free-thinkers and liberals are on the endangered species list.

It's not just books. I've written two articles for my blog, one about how Hollywood will straigten out characters from pre-existing material (examples: The Lost Weekend, The Mechanic, Fried Green Tomatoes) and another on the near absence of depictions of queer youth on the silver screen.

All in all, the situation is only going to get worse for films as well, particularly as it would be generous to describe independent cinema as being on life support.
-Jeremy