I had a conversation with some friends just the other day about how transgender (or more broadly, LGBTQIA+) works are marketed. It was a fruitful discussion, and a long one, as we decided to take a half-hour hilly walk to go eat after meeting for the first time after the past year and a half, finally vaccinated. The meat of our conversation focused on how trans works are marketed in terms of identity, as well as how some works are seen as more “confrontational” with regards to those identities.
I’m sure that plenty of people have heard things about LGBTQIA+ representation about how it’s “shoved in the reader’s face” or even questions of “why it matters” when a work is said to have LGBTQIA+ representation. I, for one, have heard and read these phrases repeated many times, more often than not used in a cruel way to degrade the value of LGBTQIA+ works in reviews. But I do think that there are people out there–especially those who may not be as familiar with the LGBTQIA+ publishing scene–who genuinely don’t know why book marketing so often includes notes about how one of the characters is transgender. (or gay, or bisexual, or intersex, or…)
From what I’ve seen, this topic revolves around a few key factors. First is how we define what a “transgender” work looks like. Second is the ability to find a trans work amidst all of the works–cisgender and transgender alike–that are published every year. And lastly is who the intended readers are and the pressures (both internal and external) to meet the needs of certain audiences.
As a quick disclaimer, I want to take this opportunity that above all else, this post is just a synthesis of my own thoughts and observations as a trans writer, book blogger, and librarian. It’s not an essay or an article; it’s a blog post. And while I will link to various things I reference, this isn’t a well-researched theoretical essay or review. I know for a fact that I’m doing pretty egregious things when it comes to how simply I’m portraying publishing and book marketing.
Cans of Worms, Piles of Sand, and #OwnVoices
Let’s start with that first one, which is arguably the most can-o-worms one in the bunch. Understanding what “counts” as a transgender book is integral to understanding how those works are marketed and described. But before we start talking about the ins and outs of transness, I want to talk about sand and an ancient Greek dude named Eubulides of Miletus.
Eubulides supposedly posed this dilemma: imagine a pile of sand, and take one grain away. Is it still a pile of sand? Yeah, sure. Take away another, is it still a pile of sand? Sure yeah. The problem is this: if you keep removing one grain of sand and keep calling the result a pile of sand, then eventually you’ll be left with 1 grain of sand and you’ll have to say that it’s a pile of sand because, well, you said that 2 grains of sand were a pile, because you said 3 grains were a pile, because you said 4 grains were a pile, etc. It’s called the Sorites Paradox, if you’re interested in looking into it, and we can approach the “what counts as a trans book” thing in a similar way.
Let’s say you take the most transgender book you can think of. For now, let’s use Transgender History by Susan Stryker as an example. It is a book written by a trans woman about real life trans people doing trans things (like community organizing for trans rights) in history, and it’s been considered by a ton of transgender reader as an important work within transgender publications. This is definitely a transgender book.
Now let’s say we took one of those transgender qualities away. How about Amateur: A True Story about What Makes a Man by Thomas Page McBee. This is a trans man writing about a real life transgender person (himself) doing transgender things. But in this case, it’s not nearly as widely known as Transgender History is (few things are) among transgender readers. This would still be a transgender book.
Now let’s take another transgender characteristic away. How about we make it fiction this time with I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver. It’s a transgender author writing about a transgender character doing transgender things. This time, though, the character is fictional, so there’s no real life transgender person counterpart. This is definitely still a trans book.
Let’s take away the “doing transgender things” part next with Finna by Nino Cipri. It’s a book by a trans author about a trans character (and a cis character, but you take my point). The trans protagonist in this work isn’t actively engaging with their identity or doing things to build trans community or break barriers. This is still a transgender book.
What if the author isn’t transgender, like with the Leo Stanhope series by Alex Reeve, which follows a transgender man investigating various crimes? Isn’t that still a transgender book?
And what if there’s only one minor transgender character who doesn’t really do many transgender things, and the author is cis, like with the Binti series by Nnedi Okorafor? Can we still call this a transgender book?
What about the other way around? What if we took away the character first, but the author was trans, like with many of Yoon Ha Lee’s works? Can we still call these trans books?
I’m sure you’re getting my point by now. This sand pile paradox is one that really likes to get down and dirty with things like community gatekeeping. What counts as transgender? Some people (truscum) say things like how nonbinary people don’t really count as transgender as a form of gatekeeping, because they’ve arbitrarily determined what the correct definition of transgender is and are even willing to harass people based off of that uselessly restricted definition. There are parallels for a number of other communities, like what happens with bisexual and asexual people in the greater LGBTQIA+ community, to name just two examples.
And it’s all useless, in the end, both because everyone sees things from different angles and also because there’s never a real answer to this question other than “it depends”. Would I, personally, say that the Binti series is a transgender series? Probably not. Does that mean everyone else in the world will see it the same way as I do? Definitely not.
There are ways of getting around this issue. #OwnVoices, for instance, does this a bit, which is why I believe so many people latched onto it as an easy answer to this tangled up problem without approaching it with nuance and context. By saying something is #OwnVoices, you could signal that the reader can trust the work with representation without claiming that the work is one thing or another.
But #OwnVoices has never been a perfect answer, not because it’s a terrible term that we should all throw out the window (though there are very understandable reasons for some to stop using it), but because there is no perfect answer that can be so easily handled by a single hashtag. Nevada by Imogen Binnie is #OwnVoices because the main character is a white trans woman and the author is a white trans woman, but there are trans men in the book as well, and cis women, and questioning people, and the bits with them in it can’t technically be counted as #OwnVoices. And when you get into nonbinary, closeted, stealth, and intersectional identities and experiences, it gets even more complicated.
#OwnVoices wraps up everything it can with a nice little bow and sweeps the rest under the rug, unless you add more information, like what kind of representation there is in the work, and what identities the author aligns with. I know I’m guilty of using it in the simplistic way myself, because it made for a good shorthand and because it made it so I could do less emotional and intellectual labor. I’d personally like to advocate for a shift towards using #OwnVoices as any other adjective: use it when it’s relevant so long as your meaning is clear, but don’t mention it nineteen times in the same post–er, well, at least when you’re not talking about #OwnVoices as a concept.
I say that, but that only really applies to reviewing and blogging and such. When it comes to marketing, it’s a bit of a different story.
Where, Oh, Where Are the Trans Books?
When I was a wee tot, one of my life goals was to read all the books in the world. If there’s anything I learned in the last two years at library school, though, it’s that there are probably ten or twenty or even one hundred times the number of books you think there are. So many that it would even be difficult to read all the books in a single mid-sized library branch. Hell, it wouldn’t be possible for me to read all of the trans books by trans authors in one lifetime, especially when you factor in the works that will be published up until I die or otherwise stop posting.
This is how you end up with “in your face” identity marketing and how #OwnVoices ends up being overused.
To make a gross oversimplification of the complex mechanisms behind the publishing industry, there are two primary ways books get sold: people hear about a book and get interested in it, or they go looking for a specific book. The second way is almost entirely out of authors’, publishers’, librarians’, bookstore workers’, and book bloggers’ control (this broad category I’m from here on going to refer to as “booksellers” even if many of them don’t exchange money for books by their own hands, and despite the fact that booksellers does have its own meaning).
That said, there are ways to make sure people hear about a specific book. It often requires a lot of money, time, connections, and/or skills, but it’s doable, especially with the rise of the internet and social media. Before those were a thing, a lot of selling books relied on physical catalogues, librarians, newspapers, etc. (many of which still exist and play an important role in selling books but for now I’m going to focus on social media and the internet).
In order for search engines and social media sites to determine what is popular and, therefore, most likely what a user would be satisfied with most of the time, they have to rely on things like keywords and hashtags. If you know what those keywords or hashtags are, you can use them intentionally to generate more clicks/views/shares/likes. This is part of a larger marketing strategy called Search Engine Optimization (SEO), which I’m sure you can find some very informative articles about online (or just the Wikipedia page).
When books get sold, the people who want to sell them will tend to use popular relevant terms as much as possible. If we go back to the “what counts as trans?” question, authors, publishers, and booksellers have to balance that question with “what will make this book sell?”
In some cases, it may be better not to mention the trans representation in a work. Take the Binti series by Nnedi Okorafor which I mentioned before. There’s a trans character in it, and a person marketing the book to trans people might want to mention that, but to the broader public that would be deemed not a relevant appeal factor. To put it another way: a cisgender reader would not likely read Binti just because there’s a trans girl in one of the later books. It might even turn off a trans reader if Binti was heavily marketed as a book with transgender representation just because of that one trans character. Something similar happens whenever Disney releases an article talking about their “first ever gay character”.
In other cases, the book is inseparable from its transgender content. Take I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver, the plot of which hinges on the main character being kicked out of their house because they came out to their parents as nonbinary. By marketing the book as transgender, the readers know what to expect and the book is more likely to get into the hands of people searching things like “Trans YA books” or “Books for teens with trans characters”.
The problem comes in the middle, just like with the sand pile dilemma. Should a book by a trans author be marketed as trans just because the author is trans? This is something that has happened in the physical world in bookstores, where there are (on occasion) shelves specifically dedicated to LGBTQIA+ works. Sometimes, authors’ works get segregated to those sections even if their works aren’t actually engaging with LGBTQIA+ themes or ideas. This often happens with “multicultural” and “urban” works as well. If you didn’t know, not everyone out there is great at bookselling, especially when it comes to works by or about marginalized people.
Unfortunately, even though these sorts of categorization systems cause so many problems, when it comes to SEO and selling books by marginalized authors, these identity keywords are really important. There are a lot of cisgender readers out there who just wouldn’t read books with transgender content. Booksellers sometimes have to choose between being completely silent about the transgender representation in order to market it to cisgender readers, or to be incredibly aggressive and repetitive about marketing the transgender representation in order to get the books into the hands of trans readers, even if the author doesn’t necessarily want all of their books to be tied to their identity. There are of course cases where middle grounds are possible, but they’re difficult, in part because not every publisher out there is an expert in transgender representation and community engagement.
This is where #OwnVoices comes in. The #OwnVoices movement has been really important in getting readers to pick books diversely, even if it was just to be able to say they did it. It has also been a useful tool in getting trans readers to find trans books without having to repeat over and over again that a work is trans. To put it a different way, it’s just another word they could use in their marketing.
But SEO doesn’t care about nuance. It doesn’t care if a work is called #OwnVoices even if the author doesn’t exactly match all of the characters’ intersectional identities. It doesn’t care if an #OwnVoices trans author is racist. It doesn’t care if #OwnVoices is being used out of its initially intended purpose. It just cares about clicks. And so #OwnVoices gets used in unnuanced ways over and over by people who may not have the best cultural competency, or by people who are tired after the hell that has been the last few years, or by people who are just desperate to make a book sell.
That doesn’t change the fact that #OwnVoices is a useful term, though, nor does it change the fact that aggressive, “in your face” identity marketing is a useful approach for many books. Indie authors in particular, who often have to be one-person marketing machines, have to rely on these tactics in the place of larger quantities of resources that traditional publishers have in order to sell their books.
As a reviewer who specializes in transgender works, both the “in your face” identity marketing method and the use of #OwnVoices have been integral for me in finding works that I want to read and review. I get most of my information from Twitter nowadays, but when I was starting out, I did a lot of searching and had to rely on booksellers’ use of SEO to find what I wanted. I also probably wouldn’t have found a handful of the indie works that are currently about to be read on my Kindle if it weren’t for the use of these tactics, and I definitely wouldn’t have found some of the older works.
But if you recall what I said at the very start: selling books is less about getting the unusual cases like me to find a book that I’m specifically looking for than it is about making sure as many people hear about and get interested in a book as possible. This is where the last major factor of trans book marketing comes in: the pressures to meet the needs of certain–often broad–audiences.
Whether you’re writing a book or you’re selling something, you need to consider your audience. When you’re selling a book, then, this goes doubly so. Not every author thinks about their audience in a marketing sense, and not every bookseller thinks about who a work was written for when they try to market it. Depending on what audiences are targeted for writing and for selling a book, different issues can crop up.
We can think about this situation in a simple way by differentiating between “broad” and “niche” audiences. A broad audience isn’t any better or worse than a niche one; there are times when it’s better to target a broad audience and times when it’s better to target a niche audience. It’s just: in a capitalist system like what publishing is today, broad audiences tend to mean more possible buyers and, therefore, more possible sales & more money. It’s a lot more complex, especially considering that sometimes you can be writing for multiple niche audiences (like trans people and their families or trans people and disabled people, etc.), and considering that sometimes a person from a niche audience will buy multiple copies and/or editions.
When it comes to the works we might describe as “transgender”, we can think of trans people as the niche audience, both because of the size of the group and because of their deep investment in the subject matter. When it comes to the broad audience, you’re adding in cisgender people. Sometimes this means targeting only cisgender people, but it can also mean targeting both transgender and cisgender people.
For the sake of this section, I’m not going to talk about transgender authors versus cisgender authors, because that would be a whole different conversation that involves things like supporting marginalized authors and the ways in which the publishing industry restricts the works of trans authors often to trauma and coming out. (I’m also assuming for these examples that all of the works were well-considered, well-researched, and well-written.)
Let’s get started with Scenario 1: writing for a broad audience and selling to a broad audience. In this case, the two audiences are aligned, which can make things a bit simpler. An author approaching transgender subject matter for a broad audience will likely add in more educational elements to the story, things like using an uninformed narrator in order to explain terms or avoiding certain complex issues so as not to confuse or overwhelm uninformed readers. A bookseller, on the other hand, might approach the work by marketing it as useful for families and friends of trans people, or by reaching out to cisgender reviewers to give their opinions on the work.
Trans people who have been out for a while and know a thing or two may find those sorts of educational elements uninteresting or annoying or even alienating, but because of the way the book was marketed, they might be more inclined to forgive those sorts of things. It probably wouldn’t be my favorite book, but at the very least I probably wouldn’t be mad at it. The educational elements might even be useful for newly-out trans people and trans people who haven’t yet sorted out their identity(s), so I might keep it in my back pocket as a recommendation.
Scenario 2: writing for a niche audience and selling to a niche audience. An author might write a work like this with more slang and community-influenced language. They might also ignore things that need explaining for a broad audience (like, for instance, a binder or HRT). They might also dive deeper into more complicated or “messy” matters within the community. A good example of a work that’s written with a trans audience in mind might be Nevada by Imogen Binnie. The seller, on the other hand, might do things like highlight the transgender or #OwnVoices elements of the story, and they might try to include the work as part of a Pride event or other LGBTQIA+-specific gathering.
Trans readers will be more likely to enjoy works like this because their experiences would in most cases be represented well. Cisgender readers, though, may feel alienated by the perceived barrage of identity terms and markers, because this may be the first time their identities aren’t at the center or forefront of a work. In some cases, those cisgender readers may go on to do bad things like give negative ratings to the book without reading it because the transness of the book was “shoved in their faces”. Largely, though, since the work isn’t marketed to them, they can (and often will) just ignore these works.
Scenario 3: writing for a niche audience, but selling to a broad audience. I’ve seen this happen only a few times, and it has almost always come from a debut work. (I won’t be naming names though!) The author for a work like this might do the same things mentioned before about using more culturally-advanced language, exploring more difficult topics, etc. But when it comes to marketing, there may be external (or even internal) pressures for the author to conform in order to meet the needs of cisgender readers. This is where you get works that engage with complicated gender things that bend over backwards to find chances to teach cisgender readers little things like pronouns. It ends up feeling “forced” because it sometimes is.
A similar but different example would be what happens with non-English languages printed for predominantly English-speaking audiences. In many cases, the author is pressured (whether by their editor, their publisher, their readership, or even–in a few cases–themselves) to include a translation or to otherwise differentiate it by using italics. This especially happens for languages of regions and demographics that monolingual English speakers (especially in America) have prejudices towards (for instance, while you may see French terms or phrases italicized in some works, it often goes untranslated). A lot of work has been done to try to change this from being the norm, but it is still unfortunately commonplace that marginalized authors are under pressure to conform to the needs of privileged audiences.
This audience misalignment can also cause issues where the readers’ expectations for a book are betrayed. A transgender reader may feel that dissonance between the deeper subject matter and the trans 101 educational content, which can lead to a lack of trust in the author to be handling those deeper moments with care and consideration. A cisgender reader, on the other hand, may once again feel alienated, but this time because of the betrayed expectations, they may feel more confronted with that alienation because of their own lack of preparation. (That’s not to say that they can’t be assholes, though. If they’re basing their 1 star reviews only off of their own false expectations of identity in a book, they’re bad reviewers who can’t handle not being at the center of a story.)
In each of these cases, pressures can cause really frustrating things to happen. These pressures do often come from shitty people, yes, but they also come from larger systemic issues like the problems with the publishing industry and with SEO, which are fed into by even larger systemic issues like racism, transphobia, ableism, sexism, and more.
Because of these grander entanglements, there’s no easy way to “solve” the problems I’ve presented in this post. There are little things we can do, like supporting marginalized authors when they write what they want, or like calling out people within the industry who only pick up marginalized authors when they write works about trauma, or like requesting marginalized books at our local libraries, or like thinking carefully about what terms and hashtags we use, or even like reading diversely so that we don’t have to classify what counts as “trans” and so that we don’t feel as alienated when marketing pressures cause problems. Ultimately, though, we need to talk about these things more and deconstruct them so that someday we can hopefully sort it all out.
What are some other ways you can think of that we can try to address these problems?