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Plume and LGBT publishing in the ’80s

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Helen Eisenbach Plume

Plume and LGBT publishing in the ’80s

Helen Eisenbach Plume
Publishing gay literature in the early ’80s was like hiding your sexuality in the ’50s. It was there, it was alive– but nobody was really talking about it.

For the publishing house New American Library (NAL), that was the time when they branched out with a new line called Plume that catered exclusively to gay titles, according to former Plume editor Helen Eisenbach in an interview with Lambda Literary.

The Accidental Plume

Anybody who is gay and over 40 today will attest to how Plume became their personal bookshelf in their youth. It was the first time a major publishing house acknowledged this thriving, energetic industry.

Eisenbach described the conception of Plume as accidental at best, narrating that the late publisher Elaine Koster was toId by their sales rep that gay books had a profitable niche.

“I have no idea what Elaine’s personal idea about lesbians and gays were– this was the early ’80s, I’d say 1982 or ’83– but she certainly viewed making a profit as a positive, and so she issued an edict for all of us to be on a lookout for such books,” Eisenbach said.

Plume’s head honcho

Whether or not Eisenbach’s sexuality had anything to do with her success, she was so good at finding the right books that she was tapped to run the Plume line.

“I was hungry to find gay books I wanted to read, so my fears didn’t get in the way of my chasing all over town to find ones I could advocate for,” Eisenbach said.

Plume exclusivity?

Although not allowed to publish gay female writers under her management, she was able to publish the likes of Edmund White, Normal Heart’s Larry Kramer, Andrew Holleran, who was an icon with his Dancer from the Dance, and many more.

“For some reason my publisher would not approve any of the gay female books I wanted to publish, so it became a male enclave until after I left, at which time they published some lesbian books (as if to spite me!),” she said.

But once the buzz was out that NAL was publishing gay books, word spread easily and gay and lesbian writers wanted to be included. Eisenback fondly called this “the gay grapevine.”

Ups and downs at Plume

The secret of her success as Plume honcho was she bought titles that she herself wanted to read. She loved getting lost inside a book and she carried this over to Plume’s readership.

Still, not all gay writers were game. She noted being turned down by Michael Cunningham to publish his first book, Golden States, as the author didn’t want it published.

After Plume

Eisenbach, after leaving Plume, engaged in writing her own books. However, she said that working with Plume enriched her life.

“If pressed, I’d say the Plume list brought gay voices into the cultural conversation, opening the door to our being given a place at the table,” she said.

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