Guest Column

A wind blowing from Chicago: An eyewitness report from the American Booksellers Convention
By Patricia Nell Warren

While the Bulls' victory blew the nation's hat off, a quieter breeze of change was sweeping the Windy City. At Chicago's vast McCormick Place, the American Booksellers Assn. convention was held on June 15-17. Up and down those crowded aisles, the growth in gay visibility was as obvious as Dennis Rodman's pearls.

This international event brought together thousands of publishers, booksellers, agents, wholesalers, print firms, multi-media, cyber-companies, for the biggest ABA ever -- three days of hoopla and horse-trading.

While Oprah Winfrey and the Duchess of York signed new books, Ingram ran their noisy chili cookoff. Although bedeviled by industry feuds (Random House didn't come, breaking fellowship with ABA over chain-store pricing), the convention is still a giant among book-trade fairs around the world. It is even a place where a new small press can slam-dunk their first title, if they make the right marketing plays.

The ABA is also a place to spot trends -- as in gay growth.

This year, on the ABA floor, the Gay/Lesbian/Feminist Aisle did show evidence of economic setbacks affecting other aisles as well. Absentees either couldn't afford the rising cost of book fairs, or had lost money in the recent bankruptcy of Inland Book Co., a major small-press distributor. Yet "the Aisle" (as it's known to regulars) has edged out of the "back room", an annex where many small presses are traditionally placed. This year, the Aisle was on the main floor, a stone's throw from The Reader's Digest booth. Its exhibitors ranged from pioneer Naiad Press, who organized the Aisle, to younger forces like Rising Tide Press. Alyson's large booth reflected their move to L.A. and aquisition by PDC (who also own The Advocate). Veteran wholesaler Alamo Square displayed books by major houses, as well as their usual array of small-press titles.

"Some of the big houses are actually coming to me now," Alamo senior partner Bert Herrman told me. "They look to us to help market their gay books."

I also talked with Deacon Maccubbin of D.C.'s Lambda Rising Bookstore, sponsor of the Lambda Awards. He expressed concern about rising costs of bookselling on the World Wide Web, but otherwise seemed guardedly optimistic.

As the Aisle matures, the inevitable mavericks branch into solo booths elsewhere on the floor. Alluvial, who publishes the new Provocateur magazine and is launching a new catalog off the old Shocking Gray mailing list, set up shop in the Art aisles. So did Soho Galleries, who did a brisk business in calendars by rising young photographers like Bradford Noble. Strictly Books Promotion, Dan Vojir's San Francisco public-relations firm, made a solo flight in the Travel aisles, with a monitor displaying his new Web page.

My own publisher, Wildcat Press, gambled on two of the banner spaces -- the first to be rented by a gay imprint. Exhibitors and trade visitors had to ride up the escalators past our 7 x 25-foot signs proclaiming "popular gay novels." Some of the Christian booksellers, who had their own aisle at a "safe" distance from the gay one, were offended. They circulated a petition asking the ABA to not allow any banners or signs that would "promote perverted lifestyles." Meanwhile, our gamble paid off, and the banners brought in orders.

Elsewhere on the floor, many major wholesalers were now visibly marketing gay books. Ingram Book Co. has quietly listed gay titles for well over a decade. Koen and Bookazine now feature gay and lesbian catalogs. On the chain-store scene, Barnes & Noble, Borders and others have gay and lesbian sections in many stores. In other words, despite growing controversies about the place for gays at the U.S. table, gay books are clearly finding their place throughout the U.S. book business.

The ABA itself has taken a strong position on free speech, by joining with ACLU, ALA and other plaintiffs in a landmark lawsuit challenging the new Communications Decency Act, which appears to be headed for the Supreme Court.

In all, this ABA was a far cry from 1976, when I worked as a book editor and my colleagues crawled home from the convention with tired feet and tote-bags full of brochures. As yet, they had little comment on what they called "an emerging gay book market." Indeed, twenty years ago, no world-class athlete would dare be seen in drag! Whether Rodman "is" or "isn't," both the Bulls and gay books are winners right now. In Chicago last weekend, that fact was blowing in the wind.

Patricia Nell Warren wrote "The Front Runner," "Harlan's Race" and other best-selling novels about gay life. She lives in Los Angeles, where she serves on the Gay & Lesbian Education Commission of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Her publisher is Wildcat Press. Visit her Web page here.
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