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Broadening the Bookshelves: Getting to Know Queer Literature

A literary agent sheds light on her experience struggling for equality with queer literature in the publishing world.

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At the time of this printing, Ellen DeGeneres will have been out for 25 years. Is that an awfully flippant way to begin what is usually a serious literary column? Regretfully, it is what I, a cisgendered straight woman in her mid-40s, can offer in terms of my education about queerness and its place in the creative world. 

It also provides the backdrop for the interview I have with literary agent Sara Megibow of KT Literary, who has been a champion of queer literature nearly since DeGeneres’ famous on-screen moment with actor Laura Dern, in which DeGeneres’ sitcom character inadvertently uses the airport PA system to tell Dern’s character that she’s romantically interested. Megibow’s client list includes writers Casey McQuiston, whose novel Red, White & Royal Blue has been optioned by Amazon Studios for adaptation, and R.J. Hernández, a Lambda Literary Award finalist. [Ed. note: KT Literary’s founder, Kate Schafer Testerman, represents this column’s author.]

In terms of pop culture moments, we have Will & Grace, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Modern Family, and a host of other small-screen nods to queerness; in music, David Bowie steadfastly refusing to conform to one gender or another; and Prince was androgynous. So when I start talking to Megibow, it is with the assumption that queer literature does not need to be defined, that we can start talking right away about the state of queer literature today.

Megibow gives me a little space for grace by carefully framing our conversation. “I think one of the most important things that I feel I need to communicate is that I can’t speak for everybody. I can speak for myself. I cannot speak for other agents. I can’t even speak for my own clients.” She tells me that her queer experience is “a limited piece of the pie,” and reminds me that we need to define both “we” and “queerness” when we ask the question of how “we” see “queer” literature.

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Megibow tells me that her reputation as a “queer-friendly” agent came about organically. She adds that, “In [the late 2000s], I felt like when I pitched a book to a publisher, I was not saying, ‘this is a queer author, this is queer material,’ that there were queer relationships. There was queer sex, there was queer romance, there was queer intimacy in these books. Some of them got book deals, and some of them did not, but there was no hashtag, and there was no identifying.”

It’s at this point that our interview takes a turn I was not expecting. I ask Megibow how publishing responded to these pitches of queer literature. “There was no point where I felt like I wanted to start saying, ‘This is a queer book,’” she tells me. “There was a point where I felt like I started to need to.” Megibow says this moment in publishing – 2014 or so, by her recollection – began to feel as if publishing was wanting to out these writers. “I don’t like the idea of a big company – Penguin Random House is owned by Bertelsmann; HarperCollins is owned by News Corp. – I don’t want News Corp. having a list of queer people.”

But Megibow admits that this point of view must be taken with “a grain of salt: How are librarians supposed to find queer books if there isn’t a list of queer books? But in order for there to be a list of queer books, there have to be authors willing to self-identify in a world that is not always safe to queer people.”

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Megibow has come around to the meat of my quandary about queer literature: Have we not yet gotten to a point where queer literature – and its authors and appreciators – are accepted? And if they’re not, yet – I’m writing this at the beginning of Banned Books Week, and fully half of the top 10 challenged books of 2021 are there because of LGBTQIA+ content, and the FBI reports that nearly a quarter of single-incident hate crimes were committed in 2020 because of a person’s sexual or gender orientation – then what does advocacy look like, in a world where it isn’t safe to be queer? 

Megibow points to some areas of advocacy that can be covered by the publishing industry: Book covers, she says, can be a powerful tool. “In 2014, my queer books had an apple on the cover or one person on the cover. Now, those were the covers that were selling. I don’t remember people saying, ‘Oh, we’re not going to put the couple on the cover because they’re queer. We’re going to put an apple on the cover instead.’ But objectively, in 2014, ’15, and ’16, covers didn’t have queer characters in an embrace.” Megibow then reminds me that she’s talking about genre fiction, which is what she represents, and that in the nonfiction world, things may have well been different. She’s also quick to point out that the appearance of gay couples on book covers is part of what she sees as an evolution: “One of the first publicly queer books that I sold in a very, very big deal at auction was 2014 or 15, for the author Kay Arsenault Rivera. Kay’s debut book, which hit every list for best fantasy in whatever year it was, is [a] nonwhite, queer, epic fantasy, and the couple is on the cover. For that book, the sales numbers in print, eBook, and audio are outstanding and continue to be outstanding. The publisher was Tor. Tor is owned by Macmillan. So, you know, I look back to that, and I don’t remember saying, ‘By gosh, we need queer representation on the cover.’ It was a natural evolution of what was working in covers at that time, and it paid out.”

Megibow points out a few more places for advocacy within the world of publishing – making sure there’s representation within the ranks of publishing companies themselves, from editors to production and sales teams. And she notes that more good evidence of advocacy is seeing how many queer books are physically visible in retail locations: “What happens to [queer] books when they’re at the retailer? Are they spine out or are they face out? Well, when they’re face out, the publisher is paying more money for that opportunity. That’s called co-op. So publishers invest in co-op [for] queer books. To put them face out is a moment of advocacy in bookstores.”

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Megibow reminds me that a key metric of equality is dollars. “If a book is queer, and the author is queer, the advance should be similar to authors writing in that same genre. Not similar to other queer authors. Right? So we look at money, we look at distribution. Another point of advocacy is, are these books also getting subsidiary rights deals or are they getting big audiobook deals or big Hollywood deals? Or are they getting big foreign deals? 

“I’ve done seven Hollywood deals so far this year, five or four books with queer material written by queer authors. I’ve done 10 audiobook deals, nine of which were for queer books written by queer authors. I’ve done 31 foreign deals, of which 27 were for queer books written by queer authors. Those numbers wouldn’t have been the same in 2015.” 

But Megibow doesn’t look at these impressive numbers as being evidence of equity; she seems them as indicators of the path to equity. “Those are all points in the data that help to color in the picture of what’s going on with queer material. In my experience, it’s all improving. And when I say improving, I quantify that by meaning more and more money. Improving is not, ‘Oh, hey, we have [queer] people on the cover.’”

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But I’m still struggling with the idea of what equity looks like in the case of an invisible demographic marker like queerness. When will we get to a point where queer literature is just a part of the canon, say? “A queer person might choose not to self-identify in a way that my African American authors [can’t], in a way that my East Asian authors might not, in a way that my hijab-​wearing Muslim authors might not, in a way that my disabled authors might not typically. So there’s a nuance to the discussion of equity when it comes to invisible versus visible marginalization. [F]or the context of this conversation, we’re calling queerness invisible. Equity is going to be an author-by-author basis,” Megibow tells me. An author may feel their work wasn’t picked up because it intersected with a homophobic agent, say. Or an author may feel a lack of equity if their work ends up not getting published, despite the help of an agent. 

Megibow steers me in another direction: She tells me the question is how to quantify equity. “[I]f we imagine publishing as a pie, the vast majority of money in this pie is made in the nonfiction and literary fiction space. The advances are smaller in genre fiction. So equity in urban fantasy would be a $10,000 advance [for a queer writer] when all the other authors are getting $10,000… 

“When you define equity, I believe you have to rely heavily on the money, but you have to look at that money based on what the genre of the book is, where the author is, and [where they are in] their career. I think my primary data point comes from money, but it is not book versus publishing. It’s book versus comparable books.” 

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Yi Shun Lai is the author of Pin Ups, a memoir. She teaches in the MFA program at Bay Path university and is a founding editor of Undomesticated Magazine. Visit at undomesticatedmag.com.

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