New Chief Named for Queer Publisher

by Heather Cassell

Bay Area Reporter

Wednesday May 29, 2013

The largest independent queer publishing company in the U.S. has a new publisher and the business will remain LGBT-focused even though she is a straight ally.

Brenda Knight, who has more than 20 years of experience in the field, was named publisher of Cleis Press earlier this month. Felice Newman, chief financial officer and co-founder, made the announcement.

Knight, 54, had been associate publisher of Cleis Press and founder of the imprint Viva Editions under the publishing house. She said she is "thrilled" to be stepping into the role of publisher of the lesbian feminist publishing company and the imprint.

"She was so successful and she has taken the company in such a great direction it seemed really clear that she was virtually doing the job of publisher as associate publisher," said Newman, 57. "It made sense to give her that promotion because really she is the right person for the job and she will take the company in even better directions and there will be even more growth."

Cleis founders Newman and Frederique Delacoste, both out lesbians and friends, have been in the publishing industry for more than 30 years. The women are now focused on spearheading their passions and their unique skills at strategically guiding the company into the future while letting go of the daily operations.

Delacoste, who was not available for an interview, will remain president of Cleis Press and publisher of Midnight Editions, the company's human rights imprint. Newman will stay on as chief financial officer.

Newman is the author of the bestselling Whole Lesbian Sex Book: A Passionate Guide for All of Us, with more than 125,000 copies in print, published by Cleis.

Cleis will remain feminist and queer and will have a solid LGBT staff, the women told the Bay Area Reporter.

"It didn't matter how anybody identified," said Knight. "I love acquiring LGBT books and I'm honored to be what I think of as a standard-bearer and carrying it on.

Newman agreed.

"We haven't lost anything," said Newman, pointing out that Cleis' audience continues to evolve, breaking out of the so-called gay ghetto and indulging in all of their various interests. "We've added to it. We see our audiences getting bigger and wider.

"We are all interested in everything, so it just doesn't make sense to me anymore to have a publishing company that only publishes in one very specific area," she added. "The independent presses that are still around have really followed the interests of their audiences."

At the same time, Cleis is still very queer inside its operations. Knight and Newman pointed to the publishing house's list of lesbian and queer books and the staff.

"There are plenty of queer people involved in Cleis," Newman said.

Passionate Publishers

Founded by Delacoste and Newman in 1980, Cleis has done something few other feminist, LGBT and even mainstream presses have done in recent years: thrived.

Newman credited Knight's foresight and smart publishing decisions combined with Newman's financial acumen. The company has a solid financial foundation and no debt, she said.

Knight came from corporate publishing with an impressive pedigree that included HarperCollins, Conari Press, and other respected houses. She authored and self-published Women of the Beat Generation , which won an American Book Award, and other books.

Cleis has experienced unprecedented growth for the past five years since Knight came on board as associate publisher. As of May 1, sales at the estimated $3 million company, according to Knight, were up 42.22 percent from 2012. Sales of paperback books were up 80 percent, according to a company news release.

The company publishes upward of 60 titles a year, the two women said.

Newman wouldn't confirm the private company's value, stating it was "proprietary information."

Knight has transformed Cleis, which was still operating with three and a half staff members when she started. Now the company has up to 10 staff members, half full-time and half part-time, according to Newman.

Cleis is known for being cutting edge and taking risks that other publishers wouldn't, publishing controversial fiction and sexual manuals about taboo topics. It has been an early adaptor, keeping an eye on its audience and jumping on emerging technology. The company was an early converter to e-books, waiting for years until the market was ripe for the transition. Cleis has also been aggressively using networking and social media.

What it didn't have when Knight was hired was more mainstream titles.

They were "real outliers" and "total badasses," said Knight, who was seeking to get out of corporate publishing at the same time Cleis was seeking to spread its wings.

Delacoste attributed "the phenomenal growth in sales to Viva Editions, which is blazing new trails in the gift market," she said in a news release.

The imprint launched by Knight focused on more mainstream and practical titles covering cooking, gardening, inspiration, parenting, and more.

"Five years ago, we never thought we would have books in Costco, Wal-Mart, Hallmark, Whole Foods, or Target, and now we do," stated Delacoste.

Knight added that e-book sales have also given the company a boost, especially with the advent of tablets. The company has seen its e-book sales skyrocket on a steady trajectory for the past five years, particularly in the erotica section.

E-books have become the new "brown paper wrappers," said Knight, especially among the "execubears," well-to-do burley gay men who buy Richard Labonte's series of erotica published by Cleis.

"They are super fabulous, have the shiniest gadgets, and read bear erotica," said Knight. "I just love that."

Another project for which she is proud is publishing a novel that Random House ditched, The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov: A Novel , by gay author Paul Russell. The story is a historical fictional tale about the real-life gay brother of Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov, Sergey, who perished in the Nazi concentration camps.

Knight is committed to maintaining Cleis' high standards set by Delacoste and Newman, and to "up the game," by finding what people want to read before they even know they want it, she said.

Newman believes Knight will take the company in an even better direction and is comfortable leaving it in her hands.

"I want Cleis to last longer than me," said Newman. "It seems very clear that is going to happen."

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