This is not your mother's Feminist Press. The venerable publishing arm of the City University of New York, founded in 1970, is flexing new muscles and producing edgier books with more of a pop sensibility.
Central to this new focus is the series Femmes Fatales: Women Write Pulp, launching in November with three trade paperbacks. First is the 1947 noir In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes, followed by Faith Baldwin's Skyscraper, a 1931 romance about a woman choosing between marriage and work. Then there's The Girls in 3-B by Valerie Taylor, a look at three female roommates in 1950s Chicago, one of whom is a lesbian, that stands out for its happy ending. "It's very unusual for a lesbian pulp of that time," said publisher and editorial director Jean Casella. "Usually the lesbians go mad, kill themselves or marry a man."
Two months before publication, advance orders for the series have outstripped those for the typical Feminist Press title by four to one, resulting in a 75% increase in total sales over the previous season. The titles have also opened new sales channels, such as Virgin Megastores, which recently placed its first order with the press.
"Fun sells, and these books are both historic and fun," said Susan Post, owner of BookWoman in Austin, Tex. "To me, the Femmes Fatales series is genius. It's the kind of thing that's going to take the Feminist Press to the end of this century." As it happens, the press has enough worthy pulp novels to publish three books a year for the next 20 years.
"This season is the centerpiece of a new statement about where the Feminist Press is going," said Casella, who took over the press's top spot from co-founder and longtime publisher Florence Howe in January 2002, after five years as senior editor. "It's very important to us to be relevant to the next generation, and these books are for everyone. Part of the message is: 'Don't be afraid of the F-word.' "
The press's overall publishing strategy is undergoing change as well. "It's such a tough environment out there," said Casella, "We've had to get way more businesslike. We've focused our list in order to build visibility, to be able to plan ahead further and utilize most efficiently our limited resources and limited marketing funds. Our ideal book has always been and remains a book that has some life as a frontlist title to the trade and some life as a backlist title to the academic market."
The Femmes Fatales series seems poised to fill that role. "The Feminist Press used to do more scholarly kinds of things, and now a lot of the titles they're issuing might be used as primary sources in courses," observed Paul Ingram, buyer at Prairie Lights bookstore in Iowa City, Iowa. "The whole notion of what regular people were reading at a certain time in history is extremely important. The content of these pulp books was telling women what life had in store for them."
In a Lonely Place by Dorothy Hughes—a prolific mystery writer who saw three of her novels filmed as movies—has met with an especially warm reception. It will have a 10,000-copy first printing, which Casella termed "very unusual for us." The press has also collected blurbs for the book from contemporary female mystery writers like Sara Paretsky and Val McDermid.
But the press isn't wholly abandoning its academic roots for more mainstream marketing. In December, CUNY will host a conference on pulp novels that will serve as the "academic launch" for the series.