Approximately a dozen women’s presses are actively publishing in the U.S. today, down from about 30 during the 1990s, when feminist publishing and bookselling were at their peak. There are, additionally, several women’s presses sporadically publishing, and a few others putting out regional titles with limited distribution.
While fewer presses specialize in feminist books, those doing so are holding their own in the marketplace, and a few are thriving. Most of the presses contacted by PW reported that sales are steady, while Aunt Lute Books reported a 20% increase in sales this past year, and Seal Press reported a 23% increase.
Several of these publishers are maintaining their viability by redefining what it means to be a feminist press or expanding their operations. All are focusing on publishing books that do well in backlist, such as Seal’s fall 2012 release of Lynn Fairweather’s Stop Signs, a title about domestic violence that the press hopes will generate the same kind of sales as a related 1982 release, Getting Free (100,000 copies), did.
According to Amy Scholder, the Feminist Press’s editorial director, the press was founded in New York City in 1970 to publish books written by women “at a time when it was difficult to find books by women, particularly in the classroom.” Despite the social advances since the 1970s, some things haven’t changed all that much when it comes to women getting published, said Danielle Dutton, founding publisher of the two-year-old Dorothy Project. Dutton, previously a production manager at Dalkey Archive, said that during her four years there, submissions were “overwhelmingly” from male writers, and she launched Dorothy to address the discrepancy. “I wanted to create a space where women are encouraged to participate,” Dutton said. The St. Louis–based company publishes two books each year, specializing in fiction and “near-fiction” written “mostly” by women. One Dorothy fall 2011 release, In the Time of the Blue Ball by Manuela Drager, was written by a male writer using a female pseudonym.
Dorothy isn’t the only women’s press to include male writers on its list. Feminist Press has published two books by men, including Tango: My Childhood, Backwards and in High Heels a transgender memoir by Justin Vivian Bond.
In contrast, Bella Books, founded in 1999, remains “pure,” said Linda Hill, the company’s director, continuing to publish only books written by women. Bella has two imprints: Bella Books publishes 36 titles per year (including reprints) for lesbians, while Spinsters Ink publishes 12 feminist books annually. While most of the women’s presses reported that e-book sales represent only a small fraction of their revenue, Bella’s e-book sales are exploding. Currently, 70% of its wholesale and retail sales are e-books, and 85% of its direct sales. Helped by its distribution arm, total sales rose in 2010 and 2011, following two down years. While Bella is distributed by Perseus, Bella in turn has been distributing books for 24 small feminist and LGBT presses for six years. “It’s become the biggest part of our business,” Hill reported.
While not aspiring to distribute books on a par with Bella, Aunt Lute is also hoping to enhance its revenue by entering the distribution business. This fall it will launch a distribution arm for five self-published writers. “It’s not a vanity press. We’ll just distribute books we think are important that Aunt Lute can’t afford to publish,” explained Joan Pinkvoss, Aunt Lute’s founding publisher. “We’re trying to create a different model we can live with and make happen.”