You may think that building community awareness around queer romance fiction is limited to gaining social media followers or GoodReads friends, but there are actually a lot of ways to build awareness within your *real life* community as well, and in ways that can have a big impact for other local readers and writers.
We learned this through our activities with Gay Romance Northwest (GRNW), a nonprofit, volunteer-run initiative that focuses on spreading awareness about LGBTQ romance fiction in Seattle, WA and around the northwest region. Since the summer of 2013, along with the GRNW Meet-Up conferences, (the first held in Sept. 2013, and the second held on Sept. 20, 2014), we’ve organized ten public reading events, including at bookstores, nonprofits, and at the Seattle Public Library, as well as local reader meet-ups in Seattle and Portland, and two community book drives. Through these different activities, we’ve come to learn a lot about how one can work with local resources, and how we can better promote queer romance fiction as a part of popular culture that should be celebrated, and not hidden or relegated to only online.
I’m going to focus this post on some key recommendations and learnings that we’ve picked up that you can also take back to your community.
Working with Public Libraries
I’m going to steal some of the main points from Seattle Librarian Marlene Harris’ 2013 GRNW keynote address: How to get LGBT Romance Books into Libraries. They’re good points and we should put them on repeat as much as possible.
If your local library doesn’t have much of a LGBT romance collection, use your power as a patron and request the books for purchase. You have to be a part of that library system to do requests, but requests DO work.
Things to consider:
- Libraries can purchase more at the beginning of their fiscal year than at the end.
- If they have ebooks, that can be easier for them, because some libraries have to purchase more hardcopies of a purchase than they do an e-copy. (For instance, when purchasing new books, the Seattle Public Library has to purchase four copies of a paperback, but can get away with only two copies of an ebook. This means they have way more flexibility with ebook purchasing.)
- To purchase ebooks, they need to be a part of the system that the library buys from. That means in some cases, they need to be in the Overdrive system. If a publisher isn’t making their books available through systems like Overdrive, this means it’s much more difficult to get the ebook purchased by the library. (This is somewhat changing as more libraries are working with Smashwords, but Overdrive is still the leading distributor of ebooks to libraries.)
Moral of the story—if you want more books in your library, help guide your library by telling them what you want purchased. Sometimes the best expert in the community on a specific genre is…You! The librarians may not know what the best books are to buy. You can point them in the right direction, and expand collections, by requesting titles for purchase.
If a library has LGBTQ romance books in their collection, but no one borrows them, the library thinks there isn’t a market for the books, and they have no motivation to buy more.
If books are borrowed, it sends the message to the library that there IS interest in the community, and to serve their community, they should feed that interest.
Borrowing a book is one of the simplest, but still very powerful ways to tell a library that their LGBTQ romance collection is valued.
Reach out to Library Blogs
Again, the person with the most knowledge about queer romance in your community might be you! This means that you could, say, reach out to your local library, and if they have a blog, ask if you could do a quest post that discusses what LGBTQ romance titles that they do have. This is a neat way to spread awareness of the books in the collection. We’ve done this for SPL for gay romance, LGBTQ romance, and queer mysteries.
(Authors: Don’t do this as a way to plug your own book. That can appear shady. Use this as a way to point to others. If you need to mention your book, save it for your short bio at the end.)
Work with Libraries
Local libraries like to work with local authors, and getting a reading event at a local library is totally possible. We did our first officla library event in April 2014, and are preparing for our next one in November 2014. This is what we’ve learned:
1- See if your library does author events. If they do, it’s a lot easier to get the ball started.
2- Find someone who works in programming and talk to them about the potential of doing a reading event. For Seattle, emphasizing that our focus was on LGBTQ romance was helpful here because reaching out to LGBTQ audiences is part of their mission. If your library is also interested in addressing LGBTQ audiences, this will be helpful in approaching them.
3- Plan ahead. These events can take months of planning. First, talking about it can take time, especially in the beginning as people get buy-in. Once approved, you need to get on the library calendar, and that needs to be months ahead. The initial conversations for our April event started in October, and we got approval in January. Our approval for our November 2014 event happened in August. Planning ahead and understanding that the library may need time to decide or get things organized is very important.
4- Be helpful. You might be the most knowledgeable person about queer romance for this event. You will be a better event partner to your library by helping them with drafting marketing text for the event. Also, if you do something like provide them a list of books for the event, you’re helping out, and ensuring that they stock the books for patrons to borrow.
We’ve found the library to be a great partner. The most important things were to 1) reach out to them and talk and 2) plan ahead. After that, it was just the regular things that come with doing an author event.
Planning Queer Romance Author Events
Along with doing events at the library, we’ve also done readings at a local bookstore and a nonprofit that focuses on LGBTQ literary events. We’ll share with you some things that have helped us.
1- Plan Multi-Author Events
Queer Romance is still a small niche, and you will get WAY further and more interest if you plan multi-author events rather than single author events. Partners/venues are more likely to come on board if you say, “I have four writers” than if you have just one. They’ll see that four writers also have four fanbases, and will feel that the chances of a good turn-out are better.
2- Plan Ahead.
Just like libraries, bookstores and nonprofits need months of planning time. Don’t go in thinking you’ll get something next week. Plan 4-7 months ahead.
3- Don’t expect to sell a lot
We’ve had books sold at author readings, but it’s never a BLOW-OUT sale, or the things that people dream about. You’re not going to make it rich. You WILL be pushing queer romance forward at a public event though, and you are providing a free opportunity for local readers to meet you. That’s really the main takeaway. Some readers prefer ebooks only, and won’t buy anything, but they will come out to say “Hi!” Use these opportunities as a chance to be visible and meet readers. Don’t use it only for sales, or keep your sales expectations low. (e.g. 1-4 books.)
4- Market the event!
Besides building the relationships with your event partners and getting on their calendar, marketing the reading is the most important thing to do. If you do not help market the event to your readers, you are basically helping it fail. Readers have so many options to spend their free time—help sway them by letting them know that you’ll be there and that you’d love to see them.
We’ve had events where authors did not do a single thing to help market their own reading, and we’ve felt it every time. If you get the time and space to do a public reading, don’t waste it. Tell people about it. Invite your friends. Invite readers. Spam your social media about where you’re going to be and when. This is so vital, and why someone doesn’t help market an event that took six months of planning baffles me to no end.
5- Outside circumstances will affect you.
Beautiful weather. Terrible Weather. Bad Traffic. Competing events. All these things can wreck your reading and bring in a small audience. We had 5 people at an event one time that was on a day that had 1) gorgeous weather and 2) a tragic and terrible school shooting that afternoon in the city. We had a very low turn-out that day. It happens. Even when you market, it happens. Don’t let it get you down and move on.
6- Don’t give up.
The reason why we have had the most traction in our region is that we keep trying. We’ve done readings on queer romance, sci-fi, mysteries, comics, more sci-fi, biographical writings, etc. The partners we love working with, we keep working with, while still trying out other venues and options.
The more you also do, the more people start to trust you as someone who does things. They’ll ask you to do more things. They’ll see you as reliable. They’ll see you as a partner they can depend on and work with. They’ll create opportunities for you. They’ll recommend you to others. You’ll become their go-to person on that topic.
So, even if you have a low turn-out event, don’t give up. That’s how we ultimately lose visibility. If we stop trying to be visible.
Go to Events
Now that you’ve seen how hard and time-consuming events can be to plan, you probably understand how important it is to go to them and be an attendee. Because otherwise, if people see all that work, but no attendees, they’re going to think that doing more events isn’t worthwhile because a market doesn’t exist.
Even if you fill seats with your friends and family, by showing a full room, you’re giving an impression that there’s a market. Libraries, bookstores, and other venues will see that and think, “Huh? I didn’t think people would come, but they did. Maybe we should do this again…”
Going to an event is like going to the voting booth or buying a book. You’re showing visible interest, and that’s so important when we’re trying to say that queer romance should be included. If no one shows interest, people won’t bother including it.
And we’ve had introverted readers who have gone to an event, but don’t want to be the first person to sit down. Having people there is like a silent allowance for others to join. As more people sit, others come by and wonder, “What’s this? What are people gathering for?” And it snowballs and gets bigger. That’s why even if you have to drag your friend and get them to sit down, it can have a huge impact in having others come join in.
Think outside the Box
You don’t need to do what we’re doing to interact with your community and spread awareness. Two examples that are smart and affordable as community engagement activities are:
1- Visit a city? Organize a reader lunch!
Back in July of this year, author Heidi Cullinan organized a lunch meet-up with readers while visiting Washington, DC. This is a super smart idea to take advantage of a trip to also meet readers who one may not have the chance to see normally. Also way more inexpensive than say, a ticket to RT. This idea should totally be stolen/replicated by other authors visiting cities. (Especially cities that have other authors. You could organize multiple lunch meet-ups!)
2- You don’t need a big conference to organize
The UK Gay Romance group in September of this year gathered a bunch of local authors to do a reading and author signing at a bar one Saturday. Again, inexpensive venue option. Free to join for readers. Ultimately, a super smart idea to bring readers and writers together. This idea should also be totally stolen/replicated. (Seattle? Portland? What do you think???)
Ask for Inclusion
As we wrote recently in Lambda Literary, we’re still at the point in the queer romance genre evolution that we have to ask for EVERYTHING. The “mainstream” or status quo, or those that don’t have to think about queer romance don’t recognize when we’re left out, but we do, and we can help in these instances by standing up and asking for inclusion. In some ways, this means writing irritating letters to Jeff Bezos at Jeff@amazon.com. In other ways, it’s just asking your local library to purchase an ebook.
In the end, so much of our success isn’t about someone else asking us to be counted, but us saying “Count me in.” We have to make ourselves visible to be noticed, and we have to ask (or demand) for what we want. Otherwise, if we don’t ask, or if we don’t attend, or if we don’t try, people will continue to just see an empty shelf or an empty room, and not recognize that something is missing. You see, they’re already used to not seeing us.
So let’s be seen.
Tracy Timmons-Gray is lead volunteer for Gay Romance Northwest. Their next event is the “Gaylaxy Quest” queer sci-fi and fantasy fiction panel at GeekGirlCon in Seattle on Oct. 11-12, 2014.