Makes Best-Seller List Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The first gay-themed novel to make The New York Times best-seller list, The Front Runner helped open the door for publishers to promote other gay and lesbian books.

Summary of Event

The manuscript of my novel The Front Runner happened to be in the right place at the right time in 1973, when the U.S. publishing industry was starting to promote gay- and lesbian-themed books openly. Since 1964, I had been working at Reader’s Digest as a book editor. The digest staff reviewed virtually every English-language title, searching for material to condense. So I was positioned to see the trend develop. [kw]Front Runner Makes The New York Times Best-Seller List, The (1974) [kw]New York Times Best-Seller List, The Front Runner Makes The (1974) [kw]Best-Seller List, The Front Runner Makes The New York Times (1974) Front Runner, The (Warren) Literature;gay Publishing;and gay books[gay books] New York Times best-seller list, and first gay novel on [c]Literature;1974: The Front Runner Makes The New York Times Best-Seller List[1030] [c]Publications;1974: The Front Runner Makes The New York Times Best-Seller List[1030] Warren, Patricia Nell Hawkins, John

After World War II, gay- and lesbian-themed fiction had emerged low key. Unwritten rules dictated how—and if—they would be presented, marketed, and published. One could not use the “G” word or “L” word on the cover. Big publishers positioned important works such as Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar (1948) City and the Pillar, The (Vidal) as “art.” Or they stuck to safer subjects—like ancient times, as in Mary Renault’s Fire from Heaven (1969). Fire from Heaven (Renault) Under this policy, gay and lesbian pulp fiction had flourished since the 1950’s. It was the small, hip, independent houses, notably Grove Press, that started publishing edgier works such as John Rechy’s City of Night (1963). City of Night (Rechy)

In the early 1970’s, as the post-Stonewall GLBT-rights movement gained momentum and more Americans realized that GLBT political issues were here to stay, the big publishers finally took a giant step. “Niche marketing” Marketing;and GLBT books[GLBT books] had been emerging, and the “gay book niche” would likely be profitable. Initially, I think, publishers saw this market as a fuzzier, more generalized crossover phenomenon: anybody, gay or straight, who would buy a gay book. They did not see it as the certifiable GLBT-only demographic of today, complete with hard figures on spendable income.

In late 1972, in my own closet, I started writing The Front Runner on my lunch hours. It came out of my experiences as a long-distance runner. I had run into other closeted amateur athletes Athletes;gay and lesbian like myself and realized that the subject of gays in sports was a powerful one, still unexplored. I did not think of it as a “gay novel”—I merely hoped that many people would read it.

The book was completed by April, 1973. After literary agent John Hawkins read the manuscript, he told me, “This is a subject whose time has come. I don’t think I’ll have any trouble placing it.” A week later, William Morrow bought the world English-language publishing rights. Significantly, Morrow was the last major U.S. trade publisher that was still independent, so it was free of any pressure from corporate bosses to reject such a book.

The hardcover edition came out in the spring of 1974, supported by Morrow’s strong marketing campaign. Morrow was still paying lip service to the rules—the word “gay” was omitted from the blurb and ads. The book was log-lined simply as “a love story.” Indeed, the cover art avoided any sexual suggestion—it simply showed a young athlete sitting on a locker room bench. Morrow wanted a dignified approach that avoided any comparison with pulp fiction. The ads ran in The New York Times and other mainstream media.

Because of this marketing support and because of the shock value of the theme (real-life athletes would not start coming out until David Kopay in 1975), the book went right onto The New York Times best-seller list, becoming the first gay-themed novel to do so. Though it appeared only briefly on the Times and Los Angeles Times lists, it stuck on the B. Dalton chain store list for some months. The book also had heavy sales to libraries, thanks to a good review in Library Journal.

Next came the paperback. Morrow had sold the English-language paperback rights to Bantam Books, which scheduled its mass-market U.S. edition for the spring of 1975. In a letter to my agent, Bantam confided that The Front Runner would be its first title to be openly mass-marketed as “gay.”

Bantam had looked beyond the GLBT enclaves in big cities, where gay and lesbian (feminist) bookstores were clustered. They suspected, rightly, that there were closeted gay and lesbian people everywhere in the American heartland. They also noted the straight people with a potential interest, like parents of the many GLBT college students who were coming out (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, PFLAG—now called Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays—was already active). Bantam designed a marketing campaign to reach them. The word “gay” was in the back blurb. The front illustration went a daring step farther than the Morrow cover—it showed two athletes in that locker room, one wearing only a towel, and a hint of tension between the two. The picture sent a clear message.

The paperback not only went into chain bookstores but also on book racks in supermarkets, drugstores, airports, and other popular outlets. Gays and lesbians in the Midwest or the Deep South or rural areas of the West could find the book in a local store. Most amazing of all, GLBT people in the military were finding it in their local PX (post exchange), as I learned from a number of fan letters. Military book buyers ordered in bulk and initially paid no attention to the marketing message.

Bantam’s strategy worked. The U.S. paperback sold millions of copies in seventeen printings. Bantam also published an edition for the United Kingdom that sold well throughout the Commonwealth market. In the mid-1980’s, Penguin/Plume took over the paperback license and issued an additional eleven printings.

Significance

Today many older women and men buttonhole me at events to describe their feelings on seeing that paperback cover for the first time. One young man from east Tennessee told me how he had bought an old car, and was clearing junk from under the seats, when he found a battered copy of the paperback hidden there. He told me, “All the feelings that I’d had about men for years suddenly crystallized around that book cover, and I knew I was gay.”

Meanwhile, I was personally out too—not only on the long-distance running scene but on the Reader’s Digest staff as well. Surprisingly, the conservative Reader’s Digest seemed rather proud of my best-seller and wrote it up in the company magazine. Front Runner, The (Warren) Literature;gay Publishing;and gay books[gay books] New York Times best-seller list, and first gay novel on

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bergman, David. “American Literature: Gay Male, Post-Stonewall.” In Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Encyclopedia. http://www.glbtq.com/literature/am_lit3_gay_post_ stonewall.html.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Warren, Patricia Nell. “Changes in the Wind.” The Advocate, August 18, 1998, 37-38.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Front Runner. 1974. 20th anniversary paperback ed. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Wildcat Press, 1996.

July 4, 1855: Whitman Publishes Leaves of Grass

May 25, 1895: Oscar Wilde Is Convicted of Gross Indecency

1924: Gide Publishes the Signed Edition of Corydon

1939: Isherwood Publishes Goodbye to Berlin

1947-1948: Golden Age of American Gay Literature

1956: Baldwin Publishes Giovanni’s Room

1963: Rechy Publishes City of Night

June, 1971: The Gay Book Award Debuts

1975: First Novel About Coming Out to Parents Is Published

1980-1981: Gay Writers Form the Violet Quill

May, 1987: Lambda Rising Book Report Begins Publication

June 2, 1989: Lambda Literary Award Is Created

1993: Monette Wins the National Book Award for Becoming a Man

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