Lambda Book Report
January 1999
by Jim Marks
One and two men "micro-presses" are carving out a gay man's publishing niche

What do you do when the material you write is sexually too controversial for mainstream presses to publish the way you want it published? Answer: You set up your own company to get your work in print.

While the women's movement and continuing sexism in the publishing industry have helped foster the creation of a good half-dozen lesbian small presses, the story for gay men is different. By the early 80's, mainstream presses had carved out a gay men's publishing niche. The result was that it was difficult for gay male small presses to become established. Felice Picano's Gay Presses of New York, which had printed work not only by Picano but such pioneers as Dennis Cooper, stopped putting out new titles. Amethyst had a short, unhappy life. Only Alyson Publications, and a handful of small companies such as GLP, have continued as an on going operation specializing primarily in gay male writing.

Faced with a limited choice, a number of writers have gone into publishing to get their work in print. Larry Townsend's LT Publications, which began in 1972, is the oldest and best established of these presses. In 1989, Patrick Powers started STARbooks in Florida to publish his writing under the name of "John Patrick." Steve Stewart started Companion Press in 1990 to publish his film and video books. Perry Brass started Belhue Press in 1991 to get his novels blending gay sexual excitement and science fiction on the shelves. More recently, Mark Hemry, already the owner of a busy video production and distribution company, Palm Drive Video, started Palm Drive Publishing, whose initial offerings were works by his partner, Jack Fritscher.

Except for STARbooks, all these presses are two-man operations, in which life partners (in the case of Larry Townsend and his lover Fred Lee, that's 37 years commitment) apportion the writing and business details among themselves. Brass says that if he had any advice to give, it would be "don't do it alone."

While the books these companies publish range from the literary to the mostly prurient, they share in having a common interest in presenting explicit gay male sexuality that is difficult to get into mainstream publishing. Townsend, for instance, has been heavily identified with the leather s/m community. Brass, describing his upcoming "Angel Lust," calls it "real Perry Brass: lots of sex and spirituality." Both Powers and Stewart are present images drawn from the world of gay porn. Fritscher's "Rainbow County" won a national book award for erotica.

Once the presses have been setup, the publishers still have to face the normal hurdles of getting their books into the hands of buyers. Some, such as Townsend, Powers and Hemry/Fritscher, have an extensive mail-order base. All are involved with the regular distribution channels, and work with one or several of the distribution companies that specialize in small (and gay and lesbian) presses. Powers credits Ron Hanby (now with Bookazine) with giving him the advice he needed to really get his company off the ground. All the promotional and other publication duties are also in the hands of the small press owner.

By and large, they've done a pretty good job of getting work out about their works. "Their value to a bookseller," says Richard Labonte of A Different Light, "is that they have identified a niche and developed a brand, so that now people come into the store looking for their books." The number of books sold are relatively modest (print runs of 2,000-3,000 copies are not uncommon), but sales can be much higher, with totals running from 6,000 for Brass' most successful book to 25,000 for Companion's.

The advantages in addition to seeing their work in print the way they want it presented, include a much quicker turn-around time. Brass says that for him, a book can go from proposal to publication in about nine months, versus the two years it would take with a mainstream press. The disadvantages are that small presses are subject to the same economic pressures facing publishers in an increasingly difficult market. It is especially hard for those who rely primarily on distributors, since chain stores, and, increasingly, independents as well, place large orders only to return the vast bulk of the order, resulting, in some cases, in negative sales statements.

Finally, while all these presses began by publishing their founders' work, they are all (except for Brass' Belhue) either publish other writers or are planning to. "I couldn't live just by publishing myself," says STARbooks' Patrick Powers, who add that he enjoys the editing and designing sides of the business. So, if the trends continue, it looks like these micro publishers are poised to join the ranks of small presses.

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