Reading gay romance

Two women embracing at the 29th Annual Vancouver Pride Parade
iwona_kellie, "Two women embracing at the 29th Annual Vancouver Pride Parade," Flickr, 2007.

This June I had the honor of teaching a three-hour class on gay romance to students in the Seton Hill University Writing Popular Fiction MFA program. It was the first time the class was offered and fittingly, I taught it on the same day that the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, advancing the cause of marriage equality for LGBTQ people.

While preparing my lecture, I discovered there was not much verifiable data about readers of gay romance. So, I decided to conduct a survey. Using SurveyMonkey, I created 10 questions covering basic purchasing habits and demographic information. I asked what subgenres of gay romance respondents regularly purchased, what other genres of fiction they regularly purchased, and how many gay romance and other fiction books they purchased in a typical month. A question about influences on purchasing decisions offered a variety of options including cover art, reader reviews, and blog tours. I asked where respondents preferred to purchase ebooks and how long they had been reading gay romance. Finally, I asked respondents about their age, gender, and sexual orientation.

I thought a lot about the wording of the questions and tried to make them as inclusive as possible, particularly when asking about sexual orientation and gender identity. I debated with myself about whether to ask about “books purchased” or “books read” and ultimately went with “books purchased” since the class was for aspiring authors of commercial fiction. My biggest concern was finding enough gay romance readers to provide meaningful results.

Fortunately I knew about the Goodreads M/M [male/male] Romance group. With over 10,000 members, all of them readers of gay romance, it was a perfect survey population. The group has since grown to more than 11,000 members and is the largest private group on the social reading site. Moderator Lori Bell featured my survey on the group’s main page, and included it in group-wide messages. Within a month, I received over 1,500 responses.

The comments thread to the survey post made two things very evident. The first was the very positive response by readers that someone was taking them and their genre seriously. People were excited about participating. That didn’t really surprise me because like romance readers in general, readers of gay romance are treated to their fair share of condescension and dismissal, only with that added touch of “why do you read that?”

Many respondents also noted that they read many more books than they buy, in large part due to the free fiction available online and through contests and giveaways. With 44.74% buying more than five gay romance books a month and 38.2% buying at least two gay romance books a month, this is a voracious audience. These readers also buy and read widely in other genres, the two most popular being fantasy/urban fantasy and heterosexual romance.

Graph showing survey responses for the question "How many gay romance books do you usually purchase?"

Most respondents read more than one gay romance novel a month.

In terms of age and gender, readers of gay romance appear to be similar to romance readers overall. According to a survey by the Romance Writers of America conducted in 2011 and 2012, 91% of romance readers are women and 9% are men. The majority of romance book buyers are between the ages of 30 and 54. According to my survey, 85% of gay romance readers are women, 12% are men, and 58% are 30 to 50 years of age. Given that 48% of readers in my survey also read heterosexual romance, this begs the question of just how much overlap there is between readers of gay and straight romance. My sense is a great deal, and that fans of straight romance may easily become fans of gay romance, if they know about it.

Graph showing survey responses for the question "Which of the following best describes your gender?"

85% of respondents identified as women.

Gay romance is a young genre, only existing commercially since about 2004. Many readers are still discovering it. In fact, 74% of survey respondents have been reading gay romance for less than five years. At this point in time, discoverability remains a big issue. With a few notable exceptions, gay romance is not published in mass-market paperback by the big seven publishers. Most brick and mortar bookstores do not carry it and those that do usually shelve it in gay lit or erotica. That is why I asked readers where they prefer to purchase ebooks, but not print books. Yet even online gay romance is poorly categorized. Books are often labeled erotica by default on sites such as Amazon, despite the primacy of a romance plot line. Searching for gay romance can be confusing, and next to impossible if a reader doesn’t already know it exists.

This problem affects both the romance reading and LGBTQ communities. By now it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that 66% of readers who took my survey are heterosexual. However, bisexuals are well represented at 14% and 11% of respondents are gay men. It would be interesting to see if and how these percentages shift over time as awareness of the genre increases both among readers of heterosexual romance and in the LGBTQ community. Along with several local authors, I hosted a gay romance booth at Detroit’s Motor City Pride festival this year. We were mobbed. People were thrilled to learn that there are romance books about gay people. They didn’t know.

But I don’t think it’s going to stay that way.

Gay romance is starting to break out of the ghetto that has kept it hidden from mainstream romance readers and LGBTQ readers for the past 10 years. Members of the Rainbow Romance Writers chapter of RWA are working with representatives from Amazon to properly categorize and tag gay romance books so that readers can find them. Last fall Romantic Times reversed its longstanding position and began reviewing gay romance books. In March, J.R. Ward’s Lover at Last became a #1 New York Times bestseller.

Romance is a genre devoted to committed romantic love and the Supreme Court ruling on DOMA will undoubtedly shape the growth of this subgenre. Just as so many Americans have discovered that gay and lesbian couples are not much different than heterosexual couples, I think that more readers of straight romance will discover gay romance and realize that love is love, and a good story is a good story.

Jessica Freely

Jessica Freely is an author of gay romance and a winner of the Spectrum Award for LGBT science fiction and fantasy. She's been a finalist for the Nebula and Andre Norton Awards and is an instructor in Seton Hill University's Writing Popular Fiction MFA program. You can find the full results of the survey on her blog, Friskbiskit. Find out more about Jessica Freely.

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