by Jean Roberta
Let us pause for a moment in our busy lives to remember all the quirky magazines, websites, and small presses that have vanished forever during the upheavals of the publishing business. And while we’re doing that, let’s remember a few people who have either left this world or have gone on to do other things and take on other identities.
During the summer of 2013, I had to move all my books and papers from one university office to another, which meant that I had to sort through approximately twenty years’ worth of material: the useless, the outdated and the valuable (“So that’s where I put it!”). In sorting out and reclassifying, I realized that I needed a shelf dedicated to Dead Publishers, where I keep a few choice pieces of correspondence, old contracts, eye-catching letterhead and other ephemera from publishing venues that went bust from the late 1990s (when I joined the Erotic Readers Association) to the current year.
The publishing biz in our time, or the apparent general shift from paper publications to e-books and resources in cyberspace, is not the only villain that has killed off too many publishing venues. Before I wrote erotica, I was in a collective that ran a local alternative bookstore, and I tried to keep track of feminist publishing in the 1980s, when many a grassroots, kitchen-table women’s press produced a few books and then crashed. In some cases, enthusiasm and idealism helped a small press get off the ground, but a lack of business experience and a political discomfort with the process of selling anything for a high-enough price to pay the bills (not to mention conflict within the press collective) killed the thing off.
Despite many closures and upheavals, niche publishing in general seems to keep expanding. Just as feminist publishing (books by women, for women, produced and circulated by women) amazed and delighted me in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, erotic publishing has amazed and delighted me in the 2000s. Sexually-defined communities that didn’t visibly exist in the social mainstream in the recent past now have a presence in the world because they have presence in cyberspace as well as in journals, e-zines, fiction and how-to manuals. Every small press, website and journal has its own flavour, and words on a page (or even on a screen) have the potential to last forever.
Here are two relatively big, successful presses whose deaths surprised me. I keep souvenirs from them on my Dead Publishers shelf.
– Naiad Press. For many years, this was the only lesbian-centred press I knew of, founded by the late Barbara Grier, who had written anonymously in The Ladder, newsletter of the Daughters of Bilitis, a fairly closeted lesbian organization of the 1950s and ‘60s. Naiad produced numerous lesbian romances, in which the sex generally appears in soft-focus. Bella Books has been referred to as a successor to Naiad, and it produces explicit erotica.
– The Haworth Press, including its Harrington Park imprint. This was the only scholarly producer of fiction and non-fiction on gay/lesbian/bi/trans subjects until its fiction and non-fiction operations were sold off separately, in approximately 2007. Several Haworth anthologies in the pipeline were simply cancelled. Luckily for those of us with stories in Haworth books, several of them were picked up and reprinted by other publishers.
Here are some smaller publishers of erotic and/or LGBT material that I still mourn:
– Masquerade Books of New York. This press seemed very ambitious to me in the 1990s. It had imprints for (among other things) BDSM, gay-male and lesbian material. It also put out a very attractive newsletter illustrated with vintage erotic art. This was the first publisher I ever heard of that focused exclusively on sexually-explicit work. As far as I know, however, Masquerade died before 2000.
– Amatory Ink. This was an e-press run in England by Roy Larkin, who also wrote BDSM fiction as “Laurie Mann.” This press closed shop in 2006 after producing an interesting variety of novels and anthologies. The owner complained after the closure that it was hard to find good literary erotica in the slush pile.
– Black Books, run in San Francisco by Bill Brent, a gay man who also produced a magazine, Black Sheets, and community fundraising events such as the reading series Perverts Put Out (which has continued). I was privileged to take part in one of these soirees in 2001. (There was nothing like this in Saskatchewan, where I live.) The crash of Black Books in the early 2000s seemed directly related to economic factors in the publishing biz. Unfortunately, Bill Brent ended his own life in 2012, but his influence is still felt.
– Suspect Thoughts, run by two San Francisco men with an experimental approach to literature. They favoured the offbeat and the postmodern. They produced a large, meaty newsletter and a literary website that had theme issues. I suspect that economic issues also forced them to close.
– Love You Divine/Alterotica of Ohio. The closing of this press in 2013 has affected me directly, since I had a collection of erotic stories, Each Has a Point, in their catalogue. The larger-than-life owner, Claudia Regenos (who also writes as “Lady Midnight”), finally had to close shop when her serious health problems threatened to destroy her mobility. The LYD group on Yahoo has enabled Claudia to keep in touch with her authors, and apparently her recent surgery has helped immensely, but running a press is not on the agenda – at least, not now.
Here are some dead websites that I miss:
– Ruthie’s Club, run by Desmona Dodds of Ohio. This was an attractive, entertaining subscription site for erotic stories, each illustrated by an artist who worked with the author. Each story appeared for only one week, after which all rights reverted to the authors, who were paid well. (Payment depended on length. A story of 4K + was worth $45 U.S.) All stories were carefully edited, but editors were open to negotiating with authors about revisions. I can only assume that the generosity and professionalism of the owner and editors cut into the profit to be made from paid subscriptions. Alas.
– The Dominant’s View, run by Kayla Kuffs, an ERWA member from the west coast of Canada. As far as I knew, this was the only BDSM site focused on self-defined Dominants as complex human beings rather than deliciously-scary, unknowable characters in erotic fantasies. I was honoured to write reviews for this site, and Kayla provided me with an endless stream of books for review. (Review material did not have to feature a Dominant’s viewpoint.) As far as I know, Kayla could not continue running the site by herself.
There is other cherished material on my Dead Publishers shelf, with a label in gothic font. However, if you’re still reading this post, I don’t want to wear out your interest. I could continue on this topic next month.
I can’t help thinking there should be an actual or virtual museum for erotic publishing venues, much like the sex museums of Amsterdam, where archaic sex toys and erotic art are on display. I hate removing the names of defunct publishers from my own list of publications.
As various cultural pioneers have pointed out, if we don’t remember our history, we are doomed to reinvent the wheel – or our favourite devices.