For years, Lana Popovic Harper wrote novels for a pittance that she described as “little jars of money.” So when her new project received bids from seven publishers, she was thrilled. Really stunned: the book was a romance about two women. Two women who happen to be witches.
“It was completely surreal for me,” Harper said. “People really wanted these queer witches.”
LGBTQ novels have been around for decades, but they’ve been silent, self-published or published almost entirely by small niche presses, and often shelved separately from other romances in bookstores. Now they come from the biggest publishers in the industry. They are prominently displayed in independent bookstores and on Walmart shelves and are advertised on subway platforms in New York City. And when Harper’s book, “Payback’s a Witch,” was published last fall, it became a bestseller.
“LGBTQ romance is booming,” said Shannon DeVito, director of books at Barnes & Noble.
In many ways, this reflects a broader cultural shift. Gay characters were once limited to niche markets, or to fringe roles and tragic endings in the mainstream — a tendency that spawned the sardonic slogan “bury your gays.” No longer. An LGBTQ romance novel basically promises two things: it will have LGBTQ characters in the middle, and the main couple (or thrice!) will have a happy ending.
“People want to see themselves,” says Laynie Rose Rizer, the assistant store manager at East City Bookshop in Washington, DC. “Customers will come in and say, ‘I just want something that’s gay and happy.’ And I’m like, ‘I have ten different options for you.’”
According to NPD BookScan, which tracks the sales of most print books sold in the United States, about 850,000 LGBTQ novels were sold in traditional stores by 2021 — a 740 percent increase over a five-year period and more than double. of the number sold in 2020.
The category remains a small slice of the market, according to BookScan — just 4 percent of romantic books sold in print last year. But the growth came even when many books themed about LGBTQ life aimed at children and young adults were banned from classrooms and schools across the country.
Some recent and upcoming titles in the category include “D’Vaughn and Kris Plan a Wedding,” published by a relatively new Harlequin imprint, Carina Adores, which produces only LGBTQ romance; ‘Love and Other Disasters’, about the first openly non-binary participant in a cooking show; ‘The Lights on Knockbridge Lane’, a Christmas book with two men on the cover; and “A Lady For a Duke,” featuring a transgender heroine.
The cover of another, “The Perks of Loving a Wallflower,” is very similar to a typical historical novel — period outfits, elaborate hairstyles — until it doesn’t. The two people wrapped in each other’s arms are women.
Photos for the cover were taken in December 2020 in New York City, a difficult time to capture models hugging, but executives at Forever, the book’s publisher, felt they had to find a way.
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“There’s not much stock, believe it or not, for lesbian regency novels,” said Leah Hultenschmidt, the book’s editor.
Forever hired two models who were a couple in real life so they could snoop for the camera without violating Covid safety protocols. The book was widely sold not only in bookstores, but also in pharmacies, supermarkets and Walmart.
One book often cited by booksellers and publishers as a turning point for the genre is Casey McQuiston’s “Red, White & Royal Blue.” A love story about the Prince of Wales and the son of the US President, it was published in 2019 by St. Martin’s Griffin, with an initial print run of 15,000 copies. The publisher said there are now more than 1.3 million copies in print in various formats.
McQuiston, who uses she/she pronouns, said their books are written for and about queer people, but they’ve also heard a lot: “Oh, my mom and her book club read that.”
“If a book has the ability to cross over and be embraced by mainstream readers and be more pop culture friendly, I think that’s really important,” they said. “It’s sad to say, but there’s still this level of humanization that we need†
McQuiston’s second book, “One Last Stop,” released last year, was also a hit. A novel about time travel and lesbians – featuring sex scenes in the New York City subways – made the DailyExpertNews bestseller list, was voted one of the best books of the year by several news outlets, and was considered Fallon by Jimmy for his reading club for the summer of last year.
“The thought of the random cross section of America watching The Tonight Show and reading about lesbian oral sex on the subway would break my brain,” McQuiston said with a laugh.
Part of McQuiston’s success can be traced back to TikTok, where viral book recommendations have become a major factor in book sales. Rizer, of East City Bookshop, has more than 67,000 followers on the platform and said it makes books of very specific genres easier to find.
“If you want a Sapphic fantasy book of enemies for lovers, you can put all those words on TikTok and find 15 recommendations,” she said. “I don’t have to read a paragraph about why the book is good. I just need to know it’s gay and it hits and they start kissing.”
The best way to sell people a romance, Rizer said, is to sell his tropes. Publishers agree
Not every novel sticks to a trope, but many do — and novel readers often have favorites. For example, countering sports teams is a big one. St. Martin’s Griffin recently bought a lesbian romance about rival soccer teammates called “Cleat Cute.”
Other popular tropes are: enemies of lovers. Friends for lovers. There is only one bed. Amnesia. Time travel. The secret prince. The Secret Millionaire. And the secret baby.
“The secret baby is hard to do in queer fiction,” said Jeff Adams, a novelist and co-host of the Big Gay Fiction Podcast. “But it happens.”
Using figures of speech doesn’t mean these books should be dismissed as predictable or hollow, readers say. Be it rival hockey teams, Regency lords or vampires, these novels can be full of humanity and creativity.
“There’s a lot more going on behind the tropes,” Hultenschmidt said. “But ‘one bed’ is great. Who doesn’t like ‘one bed?’”
Snobbery around romantic novels is a longstanding tradition and one that the industry is trying to shed. Many novels today are published as trade paperbacks – the size of general fiction novels, as opposed to the traditional mass-market format – with illustrated covers, which look great on small screens and are generally more subtle than a picture of a sexy man with his shirt open, a lady in traditional costume clutching.
“We do everything we can to package books so that we can reach the widest possible audience,” said Anne Marie Tallberg, publishing director at St. Martin’s Publishing Group, “and not be tied down by a conceit.”
For years, industry executives say, if you were reading a book about gay people, the assumption was that you were gay. Now publishers are looking beyond readers who identify as LGBTQ
“Here’s to Us,” a romance about two young men, was advertised on the New York City subway this year.
By contrast, about eight years ago, when author Alyssa Cole told her editor she wanted to write a novel about two women—called F/F in the industry jargon, for woman-woman—an editor gave her the green light, but also a warning.
“She said, ‘I’m not saying you shouldn’t write this book, but F/F books don’t really sell,'” Cole recalled. “This was in 2013 or 2014, and she wasn’t wrong.”
But Cole’s most recent book, “How to Find a Princess,” featuring a photo of two black women pressing their bodies onto the cover, was on the shelves of Walmart stores and other major retailers across the country.
Leah Koch, co-owner of the romance-focused bookstore Ripped Bodice in Los Angeles, said that when she and her sister opened their store six years ago, their LGBTQ section was “a bit pathetic” and filled a shelf with mostly cheap — printed books.
“If you look at the publishers individually, it’s still very low,” she said of the output of LGBTQ romance. But, she added, “when you combine them with the self-published and indie publishers that we still have, you’ve got a nice, robust-looking section.”
Len Barot is the president of Bold Strokes Books, which has been publishing LGBTQ romance since 2004. She hopes the increased production from big houses will also be good for her business.
“There will be people who would never have picked up a gay or lesbian romance and who might see an ad in the subway,” she said. “But if they start seeing these books, they’re probably tripping over our books, which is good for everyone.”