Adventures in publishing, continued – the Rainbow Book Fair

After participating in the 7th annual Rainbow Book Fair in Manhattan April 18, I now understand the meaning of the phrase “flush with success,” not just because I sold a lot of books and made a lot of contacts, but because I had an altogether enriching experience.

Fashionably “flushed” was the state of many of the faces as it was the first warm day of spring, and the Holiday Inn Midtown, site of the fair, was in the midst of making the change from winter heating to summer air-conditioning – no easy task for modern buildings. Fair co-founder Daniel Kitchen explained that the event is usually slated for cooler March. (Rumor has it that it was bumped to April this year for a previously slated bar mitzvah.) Kitchen suggested that March is a better moment for the fair, but this author, no fan of winter, was perfectly content to spend a beautiful Saturday in her favorite month of April indoors talking books.

It helped that I was accompanied by my dear friends Mary Azzuriti and Wendy Pandolfi – my “bookends” as Mary called herself and Wendy – dressed in yellow sweaters and blue pants to complement my tennis ball yellow-green and navy outfit. Colors, naturally, reflected the colors of this blog and my book series “The Games Men Play” and its debut novel “Water Music,” about four gay athletes – two swimmers, two tennis players – and the way their professional rivalries color their personal relationships with one another.  

These hues become the team colors of the New York Templars in the second novel I’m now refining, “The Penalty for Holding,” about a gay, biracial quarterback’s quest for identity, acceptance, success and love amid the brutal beauty of the NFL. Chartreuse and deep blue then become the colors of Linwood Farms, which owns Criterion, the racehorse trying to win the Triple Crown in the planned third novel, “Criterion,” told in part from the horse’s viewpoint. (The fourth book returns us to the heroes of “Water Music” – older, sadder, wiser as they confront life’s greatest rival, death.)

By sheer coincidence – but then after I bought the navy bolero and tennis-ball green sheath I figured there are no coincidences – I had found some navy and lime green tissue paper in Rite Aid. Wendy, an organizing dynamo, soon had our table festooned, adding little cups of mini Snickers (which coincidentally, not-so-coincidentally figure in “The Penalty for Holding”), and Hersheys. Mary, our caretaker-in-chief, kept nervous me grounded. And I worked the room as vendors set up, intuiting rightly that by the time we got to the wrap party everyone would be too tired to network.

This year the fair had some 70 vendors drawing a couple of thousand bookworms. Many of the exhibitors were independent authors like me. But some of the heavy hitters of gay publishing were there, too, including Next Publishing; The Gay & Lesbian Review, in which I’ve advertised; Queer Comics and Interlude Press, with which I shared prime real estate in a corner left of the entrance as a sponsor; and the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, whose exhibit catalog on classical nudes I couldn’t resist. (More about that in a future post.) Even Penguin Random House had a display table.

A book event is a case of Hurry Up and Wait. You feverishly prepare and then sit and wait, smiling expectantly, for grazing customers to stop and chew the fat. “I’m the author,” I said, rising to shake hands and look readers square in the eye. It’s a sign of respect and it keeps people engaged.

So does making your pitch succinctly and listening to their stories. Everyone has a story, Shakespeare said. A former restaurant critic had cared for his mother while she was dying of brain cancer (“We do what we have to do”), became a boxer and dropped 200 pounds. A young woman joked that her twin sister liked to boss her around, even though the sister was only about a minute older. The artsy young woman, sporting cluster earrings, bought “Water Music” rather than her athletic-looking, complementary sister.

A reviewer named Amber said she had been more than a little indignant to learn that there was a 1940s romance novel and film with her name in the title – “Forever Amber.” I told her it had been condemned by the Roman Catholic Church. Looking at some of the romances at the fair, I couldn’t help but smile at the thought of how far we’ve come. There were vintage gay and lesbian pulp fiction works that sold from $40 to $2,000. Many of the covers, featuring pinup types, are now highly collectible, proving that one man’s pornography is another’s Picasso.

Speaking of pornography, a man in a lime green T-shirt began his inquiry at my table by saying, “You couldn’t possibly be offended by this question,” and then wanted to know if my work was pornographic as he couldn’t abide pornography. I ensured him that the homoeroticism of “Water Music” laced what I think of as a complex psychological story. Satisfied, he circled back to buy the book. I assume he didn’t spend much time at the table whose work dealt overtly with BDSM, which involves bondage, dominance, submission and role playing – activities that ensnare Quinn Novak, the hero of “The Penalty for Holding,” as he becomes increasingly inured in a world of violence on and off the gridiron. (I’m not suggesting that BDSM activities are in themselves coercive and violent only that they are for Quinn, who is blackmailed into them.)

One woman wanted to know why I chose to write about gay men instead of lesbians. I can only assume she assumed I was a lesbian, but I’m not and thus have more in common with gay men, who also see men as erotic objects. As one participant – a blog on male/male romances, perhaps the hottest subgenre in romance novels – put it at the fair: Because Two Men Are Better Than One. This reflects a post-feminist and post-gay rights cultural shift in which women can express their sexuality not only in traditional romances but in erotic works that imagine two (or more) men together. One sex no longer dominates the other.

The difference, however, is that women are in general more verbally than visually driven, whereas gay men like images of male private parts, the bigger the better.

Still, size – or at least the visual – does matter. I must admit I ran around like the proverbial kid in the candy store, collecting all the postcards, bookmarks, magnets and pins with images of beautiful men.

What drew people to my book was the cover. Visitors commented on it, fondled its velvety feel. So I must acknowledge a debt of gratitude to my publisher, Greenleaf Book Group, for a beautifully designed book that draws readers in.

Still, it’s something I struggle with as a magazine editor, the balance between the visual and the verbal. But I figure it’s like beautiful man or woman. A face and body might draw you in. A captivating mind and spirit are what’s going to keep you there. As demonstrated by the readings, in which I also participated, words matter, too.

We are all storytellers, weaving our tales into the overarching story of life. And we have an obligation to the lives of others and their stories.