I know what you’re thinking: what business does this idiot have talking to anyone with a PhD? Specifically, what business does this idiot have talking to an extremely hot person with a PhD? Well, turns out, that business is publishing—and it’s hard out here for a homo!
When Dr. Eric Cervini’s first book, The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America, came out in 2020, I, like so many others, ran, with one hand clenching a tattered tote hanging off the shoulder and the other gripping an iced coffee, to the nearest bookstore to purchase my copy. A desire to learn more about queer history beyond Stonewall and Harvey Milk was made apparent, as it instantly became a New York Times bestseller in addition to being named a finalist for the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for History, amongst many other accolades. It has even been adapted into a docuseries called The Book of Queer, which you can stream now on Discovery Plus.
But, before it became a hit, Cervini encountered some challenges along the way, and I’m not even talking about debuting during a pandemic, which is one of the challenges—on top of everything else—we both have had to face. As queer authors, we’ve had to fight even harder than our non-queer and other non-marginalized counterparts to get our books published. It’s been an eventful ride, to say the least, from enduring rejection after rejection garnished with a little more rejection, to finding agents, and finally getting our books out into the world.
My friend and fellow Bulletin writer—whom you would think could spare me at least one brain cell!—and I look back on the obstacle course we’ve crossed paths on a few times, and share some advice for queer writers setting out on the path to publication.
Greg Mania: Tell me about how you got started on your book.
Eric Cervini: I grew up in central Texas, close to Austin, but not in it. Close enough, but not close enough to be cool. I wasn’t out growing up, and thought I had a pretty firm grasp on American history and politics. But, when I turned eighteen, and realized what was going on with me in terms of being gay, I started doing some digging, trying to figure out what I’d been missing this whole time. I watched Milk, which had just come out. I was shocked that I hadn’t heard the story of Harvey [Milk] before, and realized that there must be other stories out there waiting to be told.
Greg: Were you already in college?
Eric: Yeah, this was sophomore, maybe junior year. I took a history class and decided to write my final paper on Harvey Milk. Of course, all of the archival material was based in San Francisco, and I was in Boston, on financial aid, and there was no way I was going to get to San Francisco to do this research. Then I noticed, in the library database, a name I didn’t recognize: Frank Kameny. I came to find out that historians regarded him as the grandfather of the gay rights movement, but there had never been a book written about him. He had died a few years prior, and had donated all of his personal papers to the Library of Congress, so I took a bus down to D.C. and went into my very first historical archive. Cut to: eight years later, I published a book about him and his organization, which was called the Mattachine Society, and tried to put his story within the context of what was happening in the United States during the sixties, like how Stonewall changed everything. That was two years ago, and that was my first book.
Greg: Uh, it was…the opposite. There were no trips to the Library of Congress.
Eric: [Laughs.] Tell me everything.
Greg: I basically wrote the first draft of Born to Be Public on a bunch of napkins across various bars in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. [Laughs.] Honestly, the thought of writing a book didn’t occur to me until after I had graduated from college. It was a barely formed idea; I knew that it would be non-fiction, and that’s it. I wanted to write about growing up twice: once in Central Jersey, being raised by my Polish immigrant parents, and again, in the Lower East Side, being ushered to discover a version of myself that reconciled the internal with the external by friends with names like Breedlove and Lady Starlight. I wanted to immortalize this community—and its impact on me—in a book. But, before I could do that, I had to learn about publishing. I didn’t know the first step towards publishing anything, let alone an entire book.
What was your foray into publishing like?
Eric: I think you put it well: You sort of have to figure it out yourself. There’s no education in undergrad or grad school on how to publish for the general public. Sometimes, if you’re, like, getting your PhD, they’ll teach you how to publish an article, but even then, they don’t really sit you down and teach you how to publish in an academic press. When it came to publishing in a trade press, I had no idea where to start. I did what anyone would do when they’re trying to figure out something they don’t know about, and googled it.
Greg: I mean, that really is the best place to start.
Eric: Right. I found some good guides on things like how to write a query letter, how to put together a non-fiction proposal, and other things like that. But even before that, when I graduated from college, my senior thesis was the paper on Frank Kameny and the Mattachine Society. I thought that that needed to be a book. So, when I went to grad school, I spent a year turning that paper into a book. And then I read somewhere that the first thing I needed to do was to get a literary agent. I took my senior thesis, which was very academic, written by a twenty-one-year-old who thought that that was how history should be written, and just sent it—I don’t think I even wrote a query letter!—to some literary agents that I found after doing some googling. Only one agent responded. He said that it sounded interesting, but thought it read too much like a senior thesis, and offered to consider it when I had written an actual proposal. I didn’t even respond! And then, four years later, in the middle of my PhD and working on this book, I finally wrote a proposal (after learning how to write one from, of course, Google) and responded in that same email thread. And that agent is now my literary agent.
Greg: Oh, my god, I love that.
Eric: It was basically serendipity, because all it took was one person to say yes.
Greg: After ninety-nine people in a room didn’t believe in you?
Eric. [Laughs.] Yeah, it was very much like that Gaga quote. I’m curious: can you sell memoir on proposal, or do you have to have the whole thing written?
Greg: I wrote the manuscript first; I didn’t even know that you could sell a book on proposal. I was learning along the way. Thankfully, my best friend from college actually went into publishing, so she was able to help me put a proposal together. It was a lot to learn. And I’m not even talking about craft—I’m talking about the business of publishing. The market. What’s selling, what’s not. What a midlist is. And the only way I could learn all of that was by trying to get a book published.
It’s not a linear process. You could argue that the writing process is—writing, re-writing, edits, line-edits, copyedits, etc.—sure, but the actual process of getting an agent, getting a book deal, etc. is not. Like, I got an agent, worked on the manuscript and proposal with her for a year, went on submission, got a bunch of rejections, then lost my agent (she accepted a job offer in publicity), and, after many-a-meltdown, eventually sold the book to a small press myself.
What were some surprises—good or bad—along the way for you?
Eric: Yeah, what surprised me was how quantitative the publishing industry is. At the end of the day, the decisions they make are based on the past performance of related books. Unfortunately, back in 2018, when I was selling this book, there had been some queer history books that had come out, but, in the eyes of the publishers, they hadn’t performed to the level of, like, The Da Vinci Code. They had mostly been confined to academic presses, with the exception of a few professors publishing in a trade press. But they were still academic works. Or they were niche. There had not been many queer history books that were accessible to the general public, and, more importantly, they hadn’t been marketed as such by the publishers. So, of course, when we first went out with [it], many of the editors we submitted to said there wasn’t a market for it.
The problem is: if you run a huge marketing campaign for a book, spending thousands upon thousands of dollars promoting it, of course it’s going to do well. If you don’t, if you’re quiet about it, or you only put it on a Pride list, it might not do well. Fortunately, I found the right editor (who was queer), who believed in the book and wanted to help me tell this story, and it ended up doing well.
Greg: I mean, if you can call becoming a New York Times bestseller well…
Eric: [Laughs.] And there was another queer history book just a couple of weeks ago that made the New York Times bestseller list! It’s happening, and I think people have finally gotten it. Now it’s up to authors and historians to keep writing these kinds of books.
What sort of response did you get when you went out with your book?
Greg: It was the opposite for me: I was told that the market was oversaturated by memoirs and essays. Or some kind of diversity quota was already met. One publisher ultimately passed on Born to Be Public because they said they already had a funny gay memoir on their list. And it’s like, queer stories aren’t just one homogenous narrative; we all live different lives. The job of the memoirist is to make art of the mundane, of the everyday—that’s why memoir is my favorite genre to read. Every story is different. And there is room for all of them. To quote Melissa Febos in her latest book, Body Work: “The only way to make room is to drag all our stories into that room. That’s how it gets bigger.”
Eric: Wow, yes.
Greg: By limiting what queer stories get told (and not) because there’s some arbitrary quota to adhere to really does a disservice to the nuance of our lived experiences. There can be space, and there can be opportunity. For example, there may have been a better use of money and resources than making it rain book deals on fired White House staffers between the years of 2016 and 2020.
What gives me hope, though, is these younger editors who are pushing for diversity in storytelling, the ones who used to be assistants and are hungry for the opportunity to shift this industry in the direction we’re supposed to go in. These editors are taking what the business may consider “risks,” but really, they’re pushing for a long-overdue paradigm shift.
Eric: I love that. And I think if there’s anything that publishing my first book taught me is how many people can be wrong within one industry. I was told that it was physically impossible to get on the bestseller list because the publisher wasn’t printing enough books. It was literally impossible, because the publisher only prints a few thousand books, and you need, like, five thousand to get on the bestseller list. So I persuaded the publisher to print more books by getting pre-orders. You start telling people about your project and start getting them excited about your story, and they’ll pre-order your book. Then, it became physically possible to get on the bestseller list because the publisher had to print more copies.
The lesson is: don’t let someone tell you no. Learn about the structures in place that are dictating your success—whatever that means for you—and work around them.
Greg: Exactly. Queers are nothing if not resourceful. And, not to be lewd, but if we can’t get in through the front door, we’ll go through the back…
Eric: [Laughs.] Well said.
Greg: It’s just something we have to do. But that’s the thing: queers are resilient by nature. If you pour cement on us, we’ll grow through the cracks.
Eric: The moral of the story is: don’t listen to the tastemakers, or the powers that be. Listen to yourself, but I also think it’s equally important to listen to the people in your life whom you trust, who won’t hesitate to criticize you from a place of love, and, most importantly, won’t hesitate to tell you to keep going.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.