July 31, 2014 — As an editor in chief who’d recently transitioned to digital consulting, I was flattered to be asked to speak on a panel at a university journalism conference. The presenters were a mix of print and digital editors, both men and women. But the real stars were two newly minted entrepreneurs. Both men, they had raised millions in funding from venture capitalists and were paying writers to publish long, thoughtful reports and essays as an alternative to magazines.
Laura Fraser—an author and journalist I’d worked with at every magazine I’d edited—stood with me at the back of the hall during their presentations, as excited as I was about these new options for writers and readers. Until one of us turned to the other and said, “They’re not talking about the women’s market at all.” Followed by, “Someone should do this for women.” Finally, we looked at each other and said, “Why not us?”
I already knew that women dominated every major reading platform. They subscribe to more magazines, buy 80% of fiction titles, and read 71% of e-books. My magazine career (at Vogue, Glamour, More, and Reader’s Digest) was fueled by women’s passion for reading. Women’s appetite for thoughtful and emotionally nuanced stories that reflect our lives and aspirations is seemingly boundless.
But if women readers are voracious, their options for reading about women’s lives are actually shrinking. I have presided over some of that shrinkage—cutting staff, page counts, and budgets at every magazine job I’ve had, in an endless battle to shore up a business model that’s overly dependent on advertising. (I was once told that the heartfelt and honest memoirs my readers loved were “too real” for advertisers, and did I have to run so many?)
Laura and I both knew how hard it is for women to be published in so-called “thought leader” magazines like The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Harper’s (titles that not only publish long stories that pay well, but also launch book and TV deals). Every year, the literary group VIDA tots up the female bylines in serious literary magazines and journals. Every year, the count is stubbornly stuck at around 70 percent male and 30 percent female—little better than it was 100 years ago! Not only that, but a Colorado College study recently calculated that women write 60% of the bestselling books, yet earn only 27% of the advances and royalties.
It dawned on us that these disparities were likely to play out in the new media space too—unless someone did something about it.
Eighteen months after our back-of-the-room revelation, we have a company of our own: Shebooks. We won a grant from the New Media Women’s Entrepreneurial Fund and have raised more than half a million dollars. We recruited a third founder with deep business experience, launched a website and an e-reading app, and have published 56 short e-books by established and emerging authors, with whom we share 50 percent of our net revenues. I’m convinced that very few of these stories would have found a publisher or an audience without us—and that’s the point.
Some people have criticized us for focusing so much on the women’s market. Isn’t it marginalizing or ghettoizing to create a platform that’s “by and for women”? The short answer is: we were tired of waiting for an invitation to the party. Instead, we threw one of our own—and are inviting all the talented women authors who are being overlooked to join in.
I know that Catalyst is focused on ways to make change from within organizations, and I’ve benefited from those efforts throughout my career. But there are times when it’s best to build the organization you want from the ground up. There’s a saying I love that sums it up perfectly: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”