This novel was started in February 1973, and completed by mid-April. The agent of record was John Hawkins at Paul Reynolds Inc., who remarked, "This is a subject whose time has come. I don't think I'll have any trouble placing it." A week later, William Morrow and Co. bought The Front Runner. Jim Landis, recently named Editor of the Year, was the editor.
Morrow paid $7500.00 for the English-language publishing rights - a standard advance for a first novel. The publisher had no censorship concerns with any of the gay content. Other than some minor editing, the book was published "as is."
The hardcover came out in spring 1974, accompanied by Morrow's strong promotion of the "unusual love story" (they didn't use the word "gay"). It made the New York Times and Time Magazine bestseller lists for a short time. The book was also on the B. Dalton bestseller list for many months. At that time, B. Dalton was the major bookstore chain; their list was regarded as the "real" monitor of bestsellers, since (unlike many bestseller lists) it was based on actual sales.
Morrow sold the paperback rights to Bantam Books, who came out with their edition in the spring of 1975. Bantam made The Front Runner the first gay book to be mass-marketed into chain stores nationwide. Bantam suspected that there were a lot of closeted gay people out there in the American hinterlands, so they designed a marketing campaign to reach them. The Front Runner went into not only bookstores but also supermarket and drugstore bookracks, in cities and towns where gay books ordinarily didn't appear. The word "gay" didn't appear on the front cover, only on the back. But the eye-catching illustration -- two good-looking athletes in the dressing room, one wearing only a towel and a hint of tension between the two-- sent a clear message.
The strategy worked. The paperback sold millions of copies, and went through 17 printings. Bantam also put out a UK edition that sold heavily in the UK, Canada, Australia, and Asia. That same year, 1975, Paul Newman took the first option on the film rights (see Wildcat Entertainment page: The Front Runner).
The Front Runner has seen both the light of acceptance and the dark of rejection. It received the Walt Whitman Award for Gay Literature in 1978, has been included on many university reading lists, used by many therapists, and was included in a mainstream anthology published by Crown, titled Men in Sports: The Greatest Sports Stories Ever Told. Not surprisingly, however, the book was banned in some U.S. communities -- as well as Ireland and South Africa. It is listed in older editions of ALA's "Banned Books."
In the 1980s, Bantam let the paperback license go to Penguin/Plume. Plume put it in their stable of gay titles, and took The Front Runner through an additional 11 printings. In 1996 the author got the paperback license back through Wildcat Press. Today, counting the four Wildcat paperback printings, The Front Runner now has 32 paperback printings on record.
The hardcover and paperback editions have been popular in other countries: Gay Men's Press in UK, Tiebosch in Netherlands, Droehmer-Knaur in Germany, Presses de la Renaissance in France, Rhodos in Denmark, Atena in Latvia. New editions are forthcoming from Editorial Egales in Spain and Worldson in Hong Kong. Right now the author is negotiating a Russian rights sale.
The country where The Front Runner has enjoyed the biggest and longest popularity is Japan, where there is a strong tradition of homosexual love stories going back to samurai glory days. There, this landmark novel has gone through three different recyclings -- those published by Rippun Shobo, Daisan Shokan and Imaju-club (the latter a serial in a popular manga, or illustrated magazine). Two other magazines -- Esprit in Canada and Revolt in Sweden -- also ran it as an illustrated serial. The Swedish version is highly collectible today because it featured illustrations by Tom of Finland, done shortly before the artist died.
Speaking of collectibles, copies of the original Morrow first edition, if in good condition, go for as much as $150.
The Front Runner is still the top-selling gay book in America, according to the independent trade publishing magazine ForeWord. They determined this in a survey of gay and lesbian bookstores last year. Book of the Month Club made it a "Best of the Paperbacks" selection in April 2001; it was also selected by Quality Paperback Club and Triangle Classics that month.
This novel now is attracting readers among teens and 20-somethings of today, who don't find it dated. One 17-year-old wrote recently:
"As I re-read The Front Runner yesterday, I realized that your work is a very big part of my growth. The Front Runner...helped me become the secure, understanding, artistic and, (most importantly), happy man I am today. So, I just wanted to say thank you! You are one of my few great influences. The tears I shed over Billy's death, the exhilaration I felt over love scenes on the beach at Fire Island...have made me a better person. I identify with very much of what those books contain. Each of the characters has touched me deeply, and for that, I thank you."