Toronto
5 min

Business & pleasure

Queer women's magazines struggle to strike a balance

RAGS & RICHES. Publishers of lesbian magazines are often caught between making a statement and making a profit. Credit: Xtra files

First Toronto’s Siren succumbed, and then veteran publication Girlfriends announced a “hiatus” to redesign and rethink. What is going on? Why is it so difficult for lesbian magazines to survive in North America? Is there a secret to successful Sapphic publishing or is it just a matter of luck?



“It’s 10 times worse for lesbians than it is for gay men. When they say that national advertisers are interested in the gay market, they mean gay men,” says Heather Findlay, owner of Girlfriends and On Our Backs, two of the most prominent lesbian magazines in North America.



Findlay explains one of the biggest hurdles she faces in keeping her publications alive and profitable: “My average reader has a household income of $40,000 to $50,000 a year. They wear makeup. They’re mainstream consumers, but try explaining that to Procter And Gamble.”



For Annemarie Shrouder, the last managing editor of Siren, the challenge was to keep producing the magazine her readers and contributors wanted without giving in to the pressure to go more mainstream. Siren ceased publication this past summer after an eight-year run.



“We were pretty conscious about who we approached for advertising,” she says. “There was a bit of a political statement. We chose to stay with smaller, lesbian-run, queer-friendly advertisers, for obvious reasons. If you want to make a dent on the scene, look who you’re competing with. We talked about it, but didn’t have anyone to do the leg work to attract big advertisers.”



In that last sentence may lie the key to Siren’s death, and to the survival of her glossier sisters: advertising revenue. Siren was produced by a collective of volunteers – who eventually just burned out – and distributed for free around the city; Curve and Girlfriends, for example, are produced by paid, professional staff and have international distribution.



It costs money to publish a magazine, money that must be found from selling ad space unless you have another source of funding like a grant or a wealthy benefactress. And once you’ve produced the magazine, it takes more money and effort to get it into your readers’ hands.



“We had a lot of people who wrote regularly, but it was hard to find support staff,” Shrouder remembers. “We love these publications. We love to read them, and some of us love to write for them, but it’s hard to find people to roll up their sleeves.”



In other words, it’s fairly easy to find people eager to do the “glamorous” work like writing and photography, but difficult to find volunteers with a passion for administration – or selling advertising.



Girlfriends, says Findlay, has always been a business. “I was one of the first lesbian magazine publishers to approach [the product] as a professional publisher. I was part of a generation that wasn’t just publishing a mag for lesbians because I wanted to inform and entertain lesbians: I wanted to have a staff and pay salaries and reach our advertisers.



“I saw the mission not only in political terms, but also in business terms. That meant focussing on building ad pages, working with national distributors, non-gay bookstores and a non-gay market in a way our predecessors had not. That really made it for us.”



She acknowledges that her success came from standing on the shoulders of her predecessors. “You couldn’t go to a distributor in the States before the late ’80s and say ‘I have a lesbian magazine.’ There was no market until magazines like the Advocate, On Our Backs and Bad Attitude. They were the ones that built that whole market.”



Findlay bought the lesbian sex magazine On Our Backs in 1996 and she’s clear about the distinctions between the two publications. “A big part of Girlfriends was toning down the sex. When Girlfriends first launched, we had a centrefold. We thought of ourselves as Playboy for lesbians.”



All that’s changed. Now the explicit material goes to On Our Backs. “Any advertiser should be able to pick up [Girlfriends] and not be shocked, even the homophobic and the homo-stupid. It’s censorship, but it’s also a survival strategy.”



Findlay says it is this view of the lesbian community as a “market” and of the readers as “consumers” that editors and publishers must accept if they expect to reach more than a small, local audience.



Conversations with Toronto booksellers revealed that all of the lesbian magazines available here do fairly well, with On Our Backs and Shameless (a sex-positive but not exclusively lesbian magazine) being particularly popular.



Recent changes to the magazine distribution business in Canada have made it harder for alternative titles to reach a mass market, although Sandra Alland of This Ain’t The Rosedale Library noted that the Canadian Magazine Publishers Association does a lot of work to support small Canadian titles.



Toshiya Kuwabara of Glad Day Bookshop pointed out that zines are a particularly vibrant type of queer publishing at the moment. He provides space on his shelves for lots of quirky, queer publications. “As far as I’m concerned, if it’s a queer zine, I’ll carry it,” he says.



Alexander MacFadyen, the magazine buyer for the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, agrees. “I make zines myself,” says MacFadyen, “and they sell really well here.”



**

In spite of the need to keep an eye on the bank balance, all of the editors interviewed talked about the importance of building, and being a part of, a “community.” Although most women’s magazines have lesbian stories here and there, it will never be enough to satisfy a queer female readership.



“We want to engage the community,” says Frances Stevens, the founder and editor of San Francisco-based Curve magazine. “Our message is that whatever you want to be, it’s okay. If you don’t conform to the lesbian norm, it’s okay. For us, that’s been a big thing. We don’t have to conform.”



Stevens describes a very personal connection to Curve. “We take a different approach to magazine publishing. We really count on the response and interaction with our readers to know what steps to take. We produce a product that comes from our heart. It’s what we want to see out there.



“Our thing has always been to try to do a lot of positive stuff in print. We want to highlight the interesting women that are making our community move forward. We do look at things with a critical eye, but we’re the nice girls of publishing,” she laughs.



Findlay says a magazine that isn’t controlled by lesbians “isn’t going to deliver what lesbian readers need and it’s not going to make it as a business model.



“It’s about the money and it’s about building a community. I think it’s really important that the lesbian media be done by and for lesbians. It’s so important to readers.” She dismisses magazines like HX For Women, published by New York’s gay scene magazine HX as “a pity fuck.”



Shrouder agrees that it’s important for lesbians to have their own press, but also wants to see inclusion in mainstream publications. “I think it’s really important to have a queer women’s magazine just as, as a woman of colour, I think it’s important for women of colour to have their own spaces. But it’s important and necessary for our presence to be felt in general magazines.”



High-end or low-tech, lesbian publishing can be a risky business. But think back to the first time you picked up a magazine or a newspaper that reported news from a queer women’s perspective, told you where to find other dykes on a Friday night or gave serious consideration to the relative merits of different brands of dildo, and you’ll know why for many women it’s more than just a business.



* Gillian Rodgerson is the former editor of Britain’s Diva magazine.