Interview: Publisher, Writer Steve Berman Sits Down with TNG
This post was submitted by TNG contributor, Philip Clark
Steve Berman: I would say that my involvement began when I came out of the closet, which has been over a decade. My early writing had some homoerotic elements but I was
never true to myself until I came out to others.
TNG: Can you tell us more about how your writing changed from before you came out to afterward?
SB: Well, pre-coming out, I was a very cautious writer. I did not understand the benefit of taking risks with character and plot arcs. I played safe; I sought to express myself through very traditional, if not downright clichéd, tropes. Ever since better defining my sexual identity, my default protagonist is now most decidedly queer in nature if not orientation. I’ve also been more aware, perhaps hyper-aware, of the need to tell stories for a younger market that go beyond the “coming out” tale—gay teens and young adults are desperate for “what happens next,” after they have established some sense of identity.
SB: In 2001, I was working on a novel, Vintage, and because I lacked an agent, I
thought releasing a short story collection might help garner me some attention. I was employed as the marketing director for a small press in Philadelphia. Lightning Source approached me to revive that press’s backlist, so I quickly became familiar with print-on-demand technology. I then bought a thousand ISBNs from Bowker and released a few books, including that collection (Trysts). I never planned on creating a gay press, but that was what happened.
TNG: And how did you come to adopt the mythological river of oblivion for your
SB: Originally, I conceived Lethe to re-release titles that were in the public domain but out-of-print. Forgotten books = River of Oblivion. Of course, so did many other investors/new publishers. A glut of these books swelled the market. By pure luck, I met Toby Johnson, one of the foremost names in gay spirituality. His books, which won Lambda Literary Awards, were out-of-print from Alyson, and I offered them new life. The results were so successful for both of us that Toby helped bring other gay authors who had been dropped by their publishers into the fold. Without Toby, Lethe would not be the press it is now.
TNG: Can you give us a sense of how Lethe has developed over the years?
SB: Lethe has co-opted some of my personal interests, mostly in the field of gay speculative fiction. Most of the fantastical works that are released for gay men are really paranormal romance. I have tried to offer readers a wider variety of stories by publishing the collections of Tom Cardamone, Jameson Currier, and Craig Gidney. Wilde Stories is an annual anthology that presents what I view as the best gay spec fic published the prior year and has featured some of the more prominent names in fantasy and horror fiction. And then there’s our quarterly magazine, Icarus, which is a great way for new writers to break into the field.
Lethe is also committed to filling niches within queer culture that are oft-overlooked by larger presses. So we have a Bear imprint, Bear Bones Books, which offers books that feature hirsute and masculine men in positive roles. That line has been very financially successful because no other publisher is meeting that sub-culture’s needs. We’re also starting an imprint, Tincture Books, which will publish and promote work by gay people of color. Our spirituality and wisdom culture line, in partnership with the White Crane Institute, continues to release books that inspire gay men.
TNG: Do you see this kind of niche marketing as being the future of gay writing and publishing?
SB: I think that publishing is a bit cyclical. In the early days of what we might call “gay publishing,” the needs of readers were met by small presses. Then larger publishing companies and university presses began releasing work by gay writers. I remember when St. Martin’s had their Stonewall imprint. But the economics of publishing today have swung back in favor of small press, with print-on-demand technology allowing companies like Lethe to devote energies to authors who sell less than a thousand print books annually.
Perhaps the real benefit of writing and selling to a niche market, such as Bears or queer spec fic, is that your readership will eventually seek out you, the author, the press, for forthcoming titles. I’d like to think that when a reader picks up a copy of a Bear Bones Book release or a fantastical Lethe Press story collection, they know what they’re getting and have several of our books on their bookshelves.
That said, without booksellers, and I’m talking about brick-and-mortar bookstores here, I think a lot of readers would not have been introduced to our titles. A smart bookstore will have a Bear shelf, will have sections devoted to spirituality or science-fiction as they do with mysteries or erotica.
TNG: With the shrinking number of physical gay bookstores, though, is there much hope to be found along those lines? Will so-called “mainstream bookstores” carry Lethe or other small, independent press titles?
SB: I’m always concerned whenever any independent bookseller vanishes. In the past, gay bookstores served not only as retailers but also places where gay men and women could safely congregate and express themselves. And despite growing acceptance, I still feel that is needed.
Lethe makes the majority of our titles both affordable (deeply discounted) and easy (as in returnable) to meet the needs of these stores. I know some small presses rely almost entirely on online vendors, such as Amazon. I think that is short-sighted. We have seen several booksellers, such as Books, Inc. in the Castro, and Skylight Books in L.A., better develop their gay inventory and buy direct from us. I hope this is a trend.
SB: My mother loves fantastical stories and spooky movies. Growing up, I would sit next to her on the sofa and watch the old Universal horror films or the Sinbad [the Sailor] movies. As a kid, reading books by John Bellairs and Lloyd Alexander was as natural to me as sports or music is to other boys. I think what really draws me to the fields of weird fiction is the sense of wonder—anything can happen in these stories. The knight can choose the prince over the princess, the ninja can text message his boyfriend before the next mission, King Kong could want Fay Wray as his fag hag. And what makes me gay gives my perception this queer twist. I see the world differently and spec fic allows me to share that with others.
TNG: What new publishing projects do you have in the pipeline? And what are you currently writing yourself?
SB: This fall we’ll have what may be the most unique gay erotica anthology ever—a circus-themed book edited by Jerry Wheeler. Sean Meriwether, who TNG just interviewed, has a crazy story in the book—it’s post-apocalyptic with clowns. Halloween will see a book of ghost stories from erotica author Dale Chase. We’re hoping to release a Hal Duncan short story collection next year. I adore Hal’s unique style of gay fantasy. Another writer I admire is Jeff Mann, who has written a Civil War novel. A gay one, of course. That should be spectacular. Lethe also will be releasing more poetry titles, as well, with the help of Charles Jensen as acquisitions editor.
Additionally, I’m hopeful that Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories, a collection of Sandra McDonald’s queer work, earns attention from the Lambda Literary Award and Tiptree Jr. Award jurors. And in March, we’ll release an erotic horror collection by Livia Llewellyn.
As for my own writing, I’d like to finish two new short story collections – one illustrated and aimed at the young adult marketplace, the other more post-modern. And my guilty conscience is trying to convince me to finish a Victorian-set fantasy novel. I write very slowly, which works against my grandiose schemes.
TNG: What haven’t I asked about that you’d like to talk about?
SB: Why am I single? I hope the answer to that is some reader’s fantasy. Frankly, it’s become a rather dull tale that I’d like see have a different ending.
TNG: I’m not positive a TNG interview can help that situation, but thanks for talking to us just the same!
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