The popularity of literary subscription boxes has exploded over the past five years. The phenomenon of the in-person book club has been partly transformed into the monthly or quarterly book box — a handpicked selection of books delivered to subscribers.
But unfortunately, many book boxes highlight and reflect dominant trends in literature — including a focus on white, straight, able-bodied authors and characters. But thanks to a growing interest in books by marginalized authors with marginalized protagonists, the landscape of publishing is slowly shifting to include more diverse voices.
Enter Gertie. Launched in Sept. 2017, the first queer book box and book club that highlights books by LGBTQ authors and those that feature prominent LGBTQ characters. The first GERTIE box shipped out Dec. 15, 2017, and featured the critically acclaimed short story collection Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, Rabih Alameddine’s novel The Angel of History, and Kate Carroll de Gutes’s essay collection Objects in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear.
Despite the growing interest in diversity in publishing, it's still risky to deviate from the conventions of both genre and society. But Gertrude Press — the queer publishing company that oversees GERTIE — is more than willing to take that risk.
Gertrude Press has a long history of challenging the boundaries and conventions of the publishing industry. Gertrude Journal, its flagship literary journal, has been featuring writing by queer-identified authors since 1998, when founder Eric Delehoy decided he wanted to make room for queer voices in literature in the wake of a rash of anti-gay legislation.
Gertrude Press, like many publications, was shaken up and awoken to action by Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Its brief 2015 hiatus came to an abrupt halt after the election shocked its editors to their core. GERTIE was dreamed up soon after Gertrude Journal’s return.
The curation process for the GERTIE boxes is akin to the experience of wandering through a bookstore — you can stumble upon a book you normally wouldn't have discovered.
“Years ago, readers could leisurely stroll through bookstores — they were everywhere and were filled with surprised,” Gertrude Press publisher and editor Tammy Lynne Stoner says. “While it’s easier to find what you know you’re looking for online, it’s harder to run across surprise gems. Here, we find the gems and send them to you.”
So, how do Gertrude publishers find those gems? Stoner explains that a spectrum of publishers, from Random House and Macmillan to small indie publishers and university presses, send advanced reader copies (ARCs) to be considered for inclusion in GERTIE. Then, Gertrude Press editors and outside readers — from playwrights to PhD students — select a fiction title, a nonfiction title, and a “wild card,” which can be from any category.
While many book boxes are sent out on a monthly basis, GERTIE is a quarterly subscription. This cuts down on cost (currently, the boxes cost $42/quarter, or $168/year for subscribers), and allows the editors to have time to comb through a more extensive selection of books before picking three. That might change, Stoners says, if demand for a monthly box grows.
GERTIE subscribers can choose from three options: The Boy Box (gay fiction and nonfiction), The Girl Box (lesbian fiction and nonfiction), and The Queen Box. However, Stoner emphasizes that these categories aren’t meant to be exclusive in terms of gender or theme, and are instead starting points for readers. “When we say ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ writers, we mean that in the broadest terms,” she says.
Indeed, diversity within the category of “queer literature” is a key component to GERTIE’s selection process, says Stoner. December’s fiction pick, Angel of History, for example, is written “from the POV of a gay Arab man who lived in San Francisco at the height of the AIDS epidemic.” Meanwhile, Kate Carroll de Gutes’s essay collection deals with the author’s identity as a butch woman and her divorce from her longtime wife.
Both of these books, Stoner says, “add dimension to narratives we’ve heard before: narratives around not fitting in and the bravery it takes to be who you are." GERTIE, then, is looking to serve as the market channel for underrepresented queer voices—and a way to get them into people’s hands, onto their doorsteps, and gift-wrapped under their holiday trimmings.