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Women Writers Find a New Platform

| July 9, 2014

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Shebooks cofounders Peggy Northrop and Laura Fraser

It’s no secret that if you’re a long-form writer hoping to publish in a glossy newsstand magazine, your chances are few and far between. Space for feature-length bylines has all but disappeared in recent years, and if you’re a woman you can almost count the opportunities on fingers and toes.

According to VIDA, which tracks the gender gap in major literary magazines and journals, men typically receive between 57 and 75 percent of byline space (the worst offender was the New York Review of Books, which gave 78.5 percent of bylines to men in 2013), despite the fact that women spend far more than men on printed books and magazines as well as emerging digital sites.

The cruelty of the numbers convinced magazine editor Peggy Northrop and bestselling author Laura Fraser to take a major step to give women writers a voice. In 2013, they partnered with media executive Rachel Greenfield to launch Shebooks, an online site that publishes original journalism, as well as fiction and memoir by women.

“We really did have an ‘aha’ moment,” said Fraser, Shebooks cofounder and editorial director, in a recent interview. She described being at a journalism conference with her friend and colleague of 25 years, Northrop, Shebooks cofounder and president. As they listened to mostly men talking about new digital spaces such as the Atavist and Byliner for long-form feature writers, Northrop turned to Fraser and said, ‘Someone should do this for women.’”

Sites like Byliner publish few women, says Fraser (full disclosure: I’m a Byliner author and have also been invited to contribute to Shebooks). And those they do publish tend to be headliners like Mary Roach, Margaret Atwood, and Susan Orlean—“all wonderful writers,” says Fraser, but writers whose bylines are already found in established venues like The New Yorker.

Fraser wrote for Vogue while Northrop was an editor at the magazine. “At Vogue,” she said, “Peggy and I did five- to six-thousand-word pieces on stories like the last doctor in Minnesota who would do abortions, and the Stanford brain surgeon who was suing for sexual harassment. The kind of writers I want,” she added, “are, honestly, writers like myself.”

And so, they set up shop with a seed grant of $16,000 from the McCormick Foundation’s New Media Women Entrepreneurs project, publishing 48 new e-books since last fall under the tagline “Every woman has a story.”

Shebooks offers both veteran and novice writers a revenue share of 50/50 (comparable to the business model for some other similar sites paying for original writing) as well as a small advance against their earnings. At a time when “journalism in general has been devalued,” according to Fraser, and writers are contributing to what she calls “plantation sites” that pay little or nothing, the Shebooks mission is different. Valuing writers by paying them fairly, says Fraser, was another “one of the wrongs we wanted to correct.”

“The idea that everything online should be free isn’t sustainable,” agrees Northrop, who has kept her day job as editor-in-chief at Sunset Publishing, a division of Time Inc. “It hasn’t worked for magazines, and I think it’s ridiculous, frankly, if we want good content and writers who don’t have inheritances. We need to fix the business model.”

To this end, all three Shebooks founders have contributed their own money to the venture, said Northrop, as well as raising an additional $300,000 from family and friends. In May they also launched an “Equal Writes” campaign on Kickstarter, asking for $50,000 to pay women writers for another 40 e-books currently in the works. Their plan was to fund 100 new e-books in 2014.

While working as editor-in-chief at MORE magazine, Northrop said that women would frequently approach her with ideas for memoirs. Their stories were so impressive that she would have loved to publish a new memoir every month.

“But advertisers hated that kind of thing, frankly,” she recalled. “They asked, ‘Do we have to do a breast cancer story, or talk about the woman who divorced?’” These were “real women’s lives,” said Northrop, “where not everything is neat and packaged.”

Whether in the form of memoir, fiction, or journalism, their site was a natural fit for e-books, says Northrop (pieces longer than most magazine articles but shorter than most books), since women are 71 percent of e-book buyers, in what is already a $3.3 billion market. Whereas a typical magazine article is only about 3,000 words long, and most publishers need at least 50,000 words to print a traditional paper book, e-books are a hybrid form that allows writers to publish in the 10,000–20,000 word range, a length that allows busy women readers to read each piece in about two hours.

Subscribers can pay $2.99 for individual e-books that can be read on Kindle, Nook, iPad, and other mobile devices, or (for iPhone and iPad users) they can pay a monthly subscription fee of $4.95 to $7.95 for unlimited access.

In addition to publishing works of journalism like “Can Men Have It All?” by Suzanne Braun Levine, the former editor of Ms. Magazine, the site gives equal space to fiction, such as “The Wonder Bread Summer,” by Jessica Anya Blau, which made the Oprah’s Book Club summer reading list.

“If the world was working and women were represented,” said Fraser, “we wouldn’t need this.” Apparently, at least 630 of their supporters agree that it is needed. In June, Shebooks announced that it had reached its Equal Writes campaign goal, raising $50,830 in pledges three days before deadline.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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