Philip Rappaport on Introducing Quintessential LGBT Books to a New Generation of Readers
Author: Tom Cardamone
November 6, 2014
Open Road Media, shepherded by Director of Publishing Partnerships Philip Rappaport, has been actively publishing classic LGBT titles in the e-book format. To find out more about Open Road, I chatted with Philip to gain a deeper perspective of his role there, their mission, and their growing list of queer titles, as well as some breaking news on the books they’ll be bringing out in the near future.
Can you tell me a bit about your role at Open Road Media?
First, it’s probably more background than you want or need, but I thought I’d describe the job in my title–Director of Publishing Partnerships–and then turn to my LGBT acquisitions. I started at Open Road the week after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, following nearly ten years with Random House—Bantam, and McClelland & Stewart, their Canadian imprint. I knew Jane Freidman, the company’s founder, through work on the Jerusalem International Book Fair committee. I was an editorial fellow a decade ago and more recently served as the Fair’s U.S. liaison. Open Road’s publisher, Tina Pohlman, wanted someone to focus on the company’s partners, and they thought of me. Open Road handles its partners’ design and digitization, distribution to e-tailers and digital marketing strategies. There’s a lot going on. Our partner list hits almost every category and genre, including e-books for young readers (which are handled by someone else), popular fiction, romance, mystery, and craft. We are now up to thirty-five partners; about one third of these are part of our international translation program.
I joined Open Road to among other things help build out the catalog of LGBT books. Open Road focuses almost entirely on the “vibrant backlist of publishing’s past”—to give an author’s backlist a fresh look and exposure in the marketplace. We market around established milestones such as Black History or Gay Pride month, and an author’s birthday–nothing groundbreaking there—except that our marketing staff spends all day everyday thinking of new hooks and twists on the traditional publishing calendar.
We connected earlier online, during Pride, when Open Road was the guest editor of The Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered Facebook fan page. I understand that the essay in The Lost Library about George Whitmore’s novel Nebraska moved you to bring his work back into print. That was the best news I’d received all year, I found Nebraska to be a startling book–so thank you for that!
You’re welcome, Tom. The Lost Library has been an amazing resource in my “hunt” through the gay and lesbian backlist. It was through The Lost Library that I rediscovered Nebraska and George Whitmore’s other books, the comic novel The Confessions of Danny Slocum and Someone Was Here: Profiles in the AIDS Epidemic. There are several other books featured in The Lost Library that I’m trying to track down. (The Boy Who Picked the Bullets Up is one of them.) Nebraska certainly has haunted me since reading it again for the first time in 25 years. In his The Lost Library essay, Victor Bumbalo wrote, “This is a novel that will not age.” I agree. Nebraska called to mind James Purdy’s novels, which a reviewer on Amazon described as “truly American in characters, truly universal in theme, truly disturbing in effect.” I don’t know whether any other critics ever made such a comparison to Purdy.
I’m also haunted by the reality that too many of our important books have gone out of print and stayed out of print. I’m so grateful to—and in awe of–the presses like Arsenal Pulp Press/Little Sisters Classic line which gave new life to one of my favorite books, The Carnivorous Lamb. New York Review of Books Classics has revised so many pre and post war authors, such as J.R. Ackerley, and Valancourt Press is also up to very interesting things. (Also, a shout out to Felony & Mayhem, a mystery press that has reissued four Valentine and Lovelace mysteries written by Nathan Aldyne, with sexy new covers by Andy Alves.) But these print publishers can only do so much. Primarily because Open Road’s model is e-only for 99% of our list, without the overhead of print, inventory and returns, we’re able to acquire and publish dozens of LGBT books each year. Also, because the author is the brand, as long as we’re able to secure e-book rights to the “tent pole” book, we’re keen to take on an author’s entire catalog.
We all pitch in to grow our verticals, and LGBT acquisitions are no different. Our science fiction editor had Samuel Delany’s backlist in her sights for quite some time, and that finally came to fruition. Mary Renault, Michael Nava, and Joseph Hansen were all in the works when I started. You know, e-books were not explicitly mentioned in most author contracts until about twenty years ago, so I’ve been able to approach the authors (or their estates) whose books I knew very well, and whose books shouldn’t have been forgotten, and to make our case for bringing the work back into the public eye.
Are there any personal favorites you’ve been able to acquire?
You don’t ask an editor that! Not to dodge it, but I’m personally attached to a much of our LGBT list. There are favorites for one reason or another though. Without exaggeration, I’ve read The Gold Diggers by Paul Monette fifteen times. I read somewhere that Paul dismissed his pre-AIDS novels as “glib and silly little novels,” but I don’t buy that. Doris Grumbach’s The Ladies, which we’ll publish this fall, is a novel based on a true story of an 18th-century couple who make a life for themselves. It is a charming story that I put into many customers’ hands in my bookstore days. I had to so some basic detective work in search of this book’s rights and its author, who is ninety-four years old and living in a retirement community in suburban Philadelphia. Ultimately, we made a deal for ten books with her agent. Lisa Alther’s Kinflicks is a coming-of-age story that was as popular as Rubyfruit Jungle in its day. Ned Rorem’s The Paris Diary and the New York Diary; Jane Rule’s The Desert of the Heart; Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh; David Wojnarowicz’s Memories that Smell Like Gasoline; Samuel Delany’s Dalgren or anything he’s written–I could go on, but that’s all I’ll say about favorites.
I was happy to see Christopher Bram’s backlist revitalized. Hold Tight is such an interesting read; it really reclaims and explores a part of our forgotten history.
Chris has an uncanny ability to get under the skin of both his characters and the worlds they inhabit. I think it is safe to say that he’s written a novel for each post-WWII decade, from Father of Frankenstein to Hold Tight in wartime New York City to the Vietnam War era (Almost History) to the convergence of late-90s politics and gay life in Gossip. Years ago George Chauncey (Gay New York) took me on a walking tour of gay landmarks of WWII: the long gone bars, speakeasies, parks, bathhouses, streets, cafeterias, and movie houses. You have to squint to see the thriving gay culture along 72nd Street between Amsterdam and Columbus; the sailors walked up from the ships that docked along the Hudson River.
Consenting Adult, by Laura Hobson, gets name-checked as something of a game-changer in gay literature. Why is that?
I can’t believe the TV movie adaptation debuted nearly thirty years ago! The book’s author, Laura Hobson, was truly a trailblazer. Her earlier novel dealing with anti-Semitism in post war America, Gentleman’s Agreement, garnered her lifelong fans among liberal Jews like my parents. Consenting Adult was based on the author’s coming to terms with her son Christopher in the 60s and 70s. The story just felt authentic, and that’s still true today. I’d sell it as part of a coming-out starter kit for newly out gay guys or gals to give to their parents—or to help them understand their parents. Consenting Adult, Betty Fairchild’s Now That You Know, and either The Front Runner or Rubyfruit Jungle. There, you had the complete gay or lesbian experience! Open Road includes the novel in our gay pride and gay history campaigns each year, because we think it holds special resonance today. By the way, it is also a very good read.
Back to Paul Monette, a National Book Award winning author: how do you go about introducing him to a new generation of readers?
Indeed, it is one thing to secure the rights to a major backlist—the Monette acquisition took nearly two years—but it is another thing to bring the work back into the public eye. In Paul’s case, many of his books were still in print but didn’t have digital editions. That shows, of course, that there are readers who are supporting them in the print format and presumably will be happy to see them in digital as well. The younger fans of his memoirs Becoming a Man and Borrowed Time are barely aware of his older works, his poetry, or even his later novels. So now, we can zero in on Paul’s fans and make sure that they know there’s much more available from their favorite gay author.
Jane Friedman, our COO Chris Davis, the marketing folks and I have had many long conversations about the state of LGBT bookselling. We’re focusing on strategies that rebuild the (lost) community atmosphere of LGBT bookstores in a new way. We’re convinced that it is possible to harness the energy online, to hone and expand the tools that we’re already using to bring our books to reading communities and those communities to our books.
Monette is a writer who could appeal to three distinct readerships: gay, literary and, for his early novels, mystery and thriller. It can be difficult to market an author to all of the diverse readers who might enjoy him/her, but that’s one of the things Open Road can do more easily than a traditional publisher, who you basically has to pick a core audience and go for it. For example, for Net Galley reviewers, we offered Monette’s National Book Award winning Becoming a Man and his poetry book, Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog.(Our goal with Net Galley is to build up fresh reader reviews.) Love Alone went out in Net Galley’s special poetry e-blast; Becoming a Man was part of the Gay/Lesbian e-blast. Then, we had retail promotion for The Gold Diggers and The Long Shot on Google Play in the New Arrivals in Mysteries & Thrillers category.
Open Road’s video director arm sent a film crew to interview David Groff, Carol Muske-Dukes and Monette’s biographer Christopher Freeman. The resulting mini-documentary about Paul’s writing and life is an integral element of all ongoing marketing. The video’s been pitched to literary sites, LGBT sites, poetry and book community sites over a multi-month campaign.
Chris Davis wrote a post entitled “A Reading List for a New Generation of Gay Men,” which was featured on the books section and home page of the Huffington Post. Towleroad picked up announcement of the Monette launch, linking to Chris’ article on Huffington Post. The article had over 600 likes/shares on Facebook, saw lively discussion on Huffington Post, and was tweeted by dozens, etc.
We advertised in a variety of places including the program of the Saints and Sinner literary festival, The Lambda Awards, and The Paris Review (specifically for the poetry books), and we took a one-day sponsorship on Longreads, which was supported by sponsored social media posts on Facebook and Twitter. Ads ran on blogs such as Fiction Writers Review, Largehearted Boy, LitStack, The Nervous Breakdown, and The Rumpus.
The launch segued into Open Road’s “E-books with Pride” campaign, which ran throughout June. Among the thirty Open Road authors included in this campaign, Monette saw his books frequently spotlighted in our retail promotions through Amazon.com, Oyster (as apart of “Oyster Pride Month), Scribed, Apple, 3M (the library e-tailer) and Google. Monette’s books will be marketed in several campaigns through the fall including National Coming Out Day, “Essentials” National Book Awards and AIDS Awareness.
So much gay literature is set in New York City or San Francisco, but as Edmund White wonderfully demonstrated in States of Desire, we are everywhere, equally, and rightfully so—so can you tell us about some of the Open Road books that explore life in Texas, death in North Carolina, love in WWII Britain, etc.?
Hmm, it sounds like you may know some of our books better than I do. But the first is fairly easy: Edward Swift’s Splendora and his character Timothy John Coldridge, a.k.a. Miss Jessie Gatewood, the new town librarian of Splendora, East Texas. Are you thinking of Jay Quinn, who has set several novels in North Carolina? Quinn’s books came to us with the recent acquisition of EReads, but I haven’t had the chance to read them yet. Love in WWII Britain could only refer to Mary Renault’s The Charioteer, about the romance between a wounded soldier and a conscientious objector working in a military hospital. You could easily add another dozen or more to this list, like Desert of the Heart set in late-1950s Reno, Nevada; Michael Craft’s Mark Manning mysteries in Chicago and Wisconsin; Barbara Wilson’s Pam Nilsen mysteries set in Seattle; and Dan Kavanaugh’s four Duffy mysteries set in the UK. (Dan Kavanaugh was Julian Barnes’ pseudonym for his crime fiction.)
By the way, we’ve just released Valerie Miner’s All Good Women, a novel about four vastly different women who experience WWII in different ways. One of the characters is a lesbian from the Dust Bowl. Another is a San Francisco native who is sent to a Japanese internment camp in Arizona.
What gay books will you be bringing out in the near future?
We have a strong, diverse line up this fall. In late September we’re bringing out 10 books by Gordon Merrick, including the Peter and Charlie trilogy. The Lord Won’t Mind was one of my first gay book purchases at Lambda Rising bookstore in Dupont Circle. I think we’re going to have great fun introducing Merrick to readers who devour gay pulp and romance. William Mann novels, including The Men From the Boys. In November, the first several e-books by Doris Grumbach will come out, including Fifty Days of Solitude. December releases include four of Diana Souhami’s biographies that have dealt with lesbian relationships of writers and artists such as Radclyffe Hall, Gertrude Stein, Natalie Barney, and the lesser known Lesbian painter Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein). We’re continuing our roll-out of May Sarton’s 55-volume strong oeuvre with more poetry, novels, and journals. Also, we’re reissuing two books by Helen Eisenbach: her novel Loonglow and nonfiction book Lesbianism Made Easy. And Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story will close out the year.
This interview has been edited and condensed