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Sasha Alyson, 1992

Moving On: Talking with Publisher Sasha Alyson

By Owen Keehnen

Earlier this year [1992] Sasha Alyson announced his plans to retire from publishing in order to donate more time to AIDS work and services. It is difficult to imagine gay and lesbian publishing without him. When he began Alyson Publications in 1980, it was "largely because no one else was doing it"; but over the past dozen years Alyson has become the largest independent publisher of gay and lesbian titles.

In 1990 Alyson Publications began a line of children's books called Alyson Wonderland, featuring kids with gay and lesbian parents. So far it has published ten titles with two more works pending. Lately these books have become the center of considerable controversy, raising the issue of whether public and school libraries should include books about gay families in their children's section.

Recently I talked with Sasha Alyson about his incredible career in gay publishing, the workings of Alyson Publications, his future plans, and of course the children's book controversy.

[Since this interview, Alyson sold Alyson Publications to the publishers of The Advocate in 1995. He created a gay and lesbian travel business, Alyson's Adventures, which is now affiliated with Hanns Ebenstein Travel in Key West, Florida. Under the pseudonym Johnny Valentine, he is the author of children's books. Alyson was also a founder of the Boston Bay Windows, New England's largest gay and lesbian newspaper. Alyson received the first Lambda Literary Award for Publishing and was also honored as Publisher of the Year by the New England Booksellers Association.]

Keehnen: In May you announced your pending retirement from publishing in order to spend time on AIDS-related issues. Would you care to elaborate?

Alyson: First, I need to get the time to do more before I find out what I need to do. I've been doing a little work with Community Research Initiative, which is a grass roots approach to AIDS research. I redesigned their newsletter and tried to get a little more publicity for the things they're doing.

Keehnen: Were you able to sell Alyson Publications, or will it simply continue without your presence?

Alyson: I wasn't turned out yet; we're still on the market. We have a couple of parties that have expressed interest, and we're still negotiating. If nothing happens with that in a couple of months, I'm going to take it off the market and look for somebody to run it for me.

Keehnen: Alyson has always been known for its community service. You published and distributed the free book You Can Do Something About AIDS (1987) and also began a gay and lesbian teen pen pal service. Can we expect that level of community involvement without your presence?

Alyson: It's not something I can require of the new owner. To some extent, if the new owner is going to take it in some completely different direction, it would be silly of them to buy it and not just start something else. I'd hope the new owner would like to keep up some of the things I'm doing.

Keehnen: How has gay and lesbian publishing changed since Alyson published its first book in 1980?

Alyson: The biggest difference is really just quantitative. There are so many more books being done and so many more people aware of them. We used to get letters frequently from people saying, "I just discovered your publishing company, and this is great because I thought the only gay books in existence were porn." I think there are literally ten times as many books being published yearly as there were a decade ago.

Keehnen: Do you know roughly the number of titles Alyson has done with you at the helm?

Alyson: We've done about 200.

Keehnen: Do you have a personal favorite?

Alyson: I don't really have a favorite; there are several that have been landmarks in one way or another: certainly Reflections of a Rock Lobster (1981), which was one of the first books we did and the first one that got wide attention and strong sales; The Trouble With Harry Hay (1990), which we did a few years ago . . . .

Keehnen: At the Outwrite Conference this year, there was a controversy over the naming of the Joseph Beam Award. Could you explain that from your point of view?

Alyson: A year ago I knew I wanted to get out of publishing, but I wasn't ready to announce it. One of the things I enjoyed doing most was breaking ground for books that wouldn't have been done, and I wanted to do something to encourage people to do that. So I decided to sponsor an award, and as I was casting around for a name, Joseph Beam seemed like a logical choice because In The Life (1986) was a very ground breaking book about black gay men. When we announced the creation of the award, nobody had any problems. Then Outwrite did the selection and second judging and so on; and when the finalists were announced, there were no books by black gay men or black lesbians. There was a black woman judge, but no black male judges. Those two things became a big issue for some people. In retrospect, I certainly would have done things differently, but I think it got blown out of proportion. What became of it was an eventual award more specifically related to what Joseph Beam was doing, maybe for a black gay author or for a book dealing with racial issues by someone of any color.

Keehnen: How are women's books doing at Alyson?

Alyson: They're less than half of what we do simply because there are a lot more presses competing. If you're a lesbian with a novel, there are six or eight logical presses you might send it to. If you've written a gay men's novel, unless you want to break into one of those large houses, which can be quite difficult, there's just us and a few presses that seem to come and go very quickly.

Keehnen: With many women's titles, you seem to be much more willing to take risks than most presses.

Alyson: Persistent Desire [Joan Nestle's Femme-Butch Reader, 1992], for example. I don't know if any of the women's presses would have done that. We did Coming to Power in 1983, a lesbian S&M book. I don't know if any women's press would have touched it at that point.

Keehnen: In terms of working with other small gay and lesbian presses, what sort of networking do you do to make them all stronger?

Alyson: The most visual thing is that we exhibit together at the ABA convention every year. We've created a group of about 15 to 20 booths.

Keehnen: What's your opinion of the current stream of gay books being done by mainstream publishers?

Alyson: I see it as inevitable. I very much disagree with the opinion that authors should feel obligated to stay with the first publisher who printed them regardless of whether that's in the author's interests. In many cases staying with the small publisher would be the best choice. Small presses can offer more personal attention and in many cases much more publicity. However, the big houses usually have a much stronger sales network.

Keehnen: Tell me what the submissions to Alyson are like.

Alyson: Mostly fiction, a lot of very autobiographical or loosely autobiographical fiction; much less non-fiction, though we try and publish roughly 50/50. So far, surprisingly few children's manuscripts. I don't think we've done any children's books just over the transom. I've always approached the author.

Keehnen: Speaking of that, back in 1990 Alyson began Alyson Wonderland, the first line of children's books to feature gay and lesbian parents. Recently one of your titles, Daddy's Roommate, has been receiving a great deal of press because of the controversy to remove it from the library in Goldsboro, North Carolina. What's been the outcome of that?

Alyson: The library received it and decided to keep it on the shelves; there was a further problem, and it went to a library board, which voted 7-2 to keep it.

Keehnen: Has the community accepted the decision?

Alyson: In several cities people have taken the book out and purposely "lost" it. We've had a number of reports from libraries that say according to their computer it's in stock, but the book is not on the shelf. Or they get in line so the second it is returned, somebody who doesn't want to read it, but wants to make it unavailable, checks it out. It's annoying. Do they really think they are going to stop us by doing that kind of stuff? It makes them feel smug and righteous. When we got wind of all this going on, we offered free copies of Daddy's Roommate and The Duke Who Outlawed Jellybeans to the first 500 libraries to respond. We chose these two titles because they both have won an award; and in a small town sometimes if the library can say, "This won an award," it will make things easier.

Keehnen: Has the library response been good for the free copies?

Alyson: The press release just went out, but requests are starting to come in; and the majority have been from small towns, a lot in Mississippi and Alabama.

Keehnen: Has the controversy caused sales to skyrocket?

Alyson: Yes. Daddy's Roommate is going to have to be reprinted very soon.

Keehnen: Has Alyson Publications or the author Michael Willhoite received any type of threat?

Alyson: Michael actually got a threatening phone call. The worst that we've gotten, and it's a little ludicrous, is that one group initiated a letter-writing protest saying they were not going to buy any more Alyson books. We didn't lose too much sleep over that.

Keehnen: Have you ever had a censorship problem of this sort with an adult title?

Alyson: No. In earlier years we occasionally had trouble with our gay teen books when schools would include them in their libraries or use them in one way or another.

Keehnen: Do you have a proudest moment or memory as a publisher?

Alyson: Certainly, I think publishing children's books is one of the most enjoyable things I've done, and rewarding in a lot of ways. We got a letter from a father out in California who wrote that his six-year-old son carries Daddy's Roommate around with him 24 hours a day.

Keehnen: That must be gratifying. What would you like gay historians twenty years down the line to say about Alyson Publications?

Alyson: I hope they spell my name right. Seriously, I think, with twenty years' hindsight, that the children's books may be the most significant thing.

About Owen Keehnen
Owen Keehnen has worked as a journalist, book reviewer, and interviewer for a number of years. Currently, the Chicago based author is completing a trilogy of interview books on gay XXX stars, finishing a horror novel, and supporting himself as a massage therapist. He is also launching a website which celebrates independent horror films,
Related Pages

Journalism and Publishing

American Literature: Gay Male, Post-Stonewall

Children's Literature

Young Adult Literature

Hay, Harry

Nestle, Joan



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