What The Hell is Feminist Publishing?

Writing, Organizing and Distributing Community Zines

Elly Blue, the author of this piece, posing with a handful of issues of Taking the Lane, her zine about bicycling and feminism. Blue is grinning. In the background a sign for her publishing company is taped to a cinderblock wall.

Every few weeks someone asks me the same question. Sometimes the ask is timid, curious. Other times it’s combative, laden with presupposition:

What the hell is feminist publishing?

Is it only work for women? Is it only work by women? Is it only about women? Is it any work, by any woman? Is it about hating men? Does it have to be angry? Does it have to be about gender issues?

Abstractly, the answer is that feminist publishing can include any or all of these things — but it doesn’t have to be about any of them. Along with contemporary feminism itself, feminist publishing is about a broader paradigm shift: building a movement, reshaping the gender status quo, and changing the culture.

And then there is the practical answer, the personal answer in terms of my work and day-to-day decisions as a feminist publisher. For me, the feminist part of publishing entails mainly things that I try not to do. For example, I don’t publish work that unreflectively reproduces gender stereotypes — you know, the kind of essay or story in which men are active, described in terms of their deeds and decisions, while women are passive, defined by their relationships and appearance. I assume that most of my readers are not men, and make sure that my masthead is not a litany of male names. I avoid gendered grammatical traps, like speech filled with qualifiers and apologies. I speak and act with confidence, and strive to empower the writers I work with to do the same.

Creating Feminist Publications

I run a feminist publishing company, Taking the Lane, with a focus on bicycling. I always planned to be a writer, not a publisher. But the gender dynamics in my chosen field — bicycling — led me to create my own platform rather than joining someone else’s.

In the 90s, I was 15 and I read about zines and knew I had to make them, too. That meant typing essays and poetry out on a typewriter, cutting and aligning the text and magazine clip art painstakingly by hand, getting my mom to drive me to Staples to run off photocopies on recycled paper.

At 32, I found myself returning to the form, this time with a laptop equipped with layout software, an account with the local anarchist offset printer, and a campaign on this new website that a friend had told me about, Kickstarter.

I was unemployed after a yearlong stint as managing editor at a bicycle news blog. My last act on the job had been a scathing blog post, featuring only a small selection of my experiences that year being talked down to, tokenized, excluded, objectified and off-handedly insulted as a woman bicyclist.

The response to the post was huge. I’d never gotten so many comments; an unexpected number of them were even positive. Women shared their own experiences like a long-held breath being released. Men related that they hadn’t thought of things through this lens before.

“You should stick with this women and bicycling thing,” my former boss advised.

I wrote the post up as a longer essay and asked a friend to lay it out for print. At the last minute, as a whim, I put “volume one” on the cover, and a series name: “Taking the Lane.” I was committed.

This first issue, “Sharing the Road with Boys,” was funded by 46 Kickstarter backers who, to my flabbergasted amazement, chipped in $552 dollars—about a hundred bucks more than I paid a local anarchist to offset print 500 copies, and just enough to cover postage and project fees.

Photograph of Elly Blue's zine titled Sharing the Road with Boys. The title stretches across the front and back of the book, in a font made up of dots.

Over the following months, I sold the zines on tour, in local book stores, out of my bike pannier at events, and through a website that I hastily put up. Slowly, emails and postcards started rolling in, a far cry from the instant gratification of posting something online and immediately getting reader reactions. People responded again by pouring out their own stories, and by asking if they could submit content for future zines. Soon I had enough submissions to fill a second volume.

Submissions for this issue ended up mostly being in some way about different kinds of work. A friend wrote about “black cloth tape”: the coded language that was used among staff at a bike shop where she’d worked in the 80s to signal that an attractive woman had walked in the door. I interviewed a local wheel builder whose keen business acumen inspired me. A complete stranger submitted a piece about how she’d increased female participation in her workplace’s bike commute challenge, and another stranger wrote a guide to organizing a group ride.

Things really got rolling with the third issue, and I doubled the print run. The fourth issue was an essay I wrote myself; I’d been reading and thinking a lot about feminism and wanted to work out some seemingly contradictory ideas and theories. The fifth issue, titled “Our Bodies, Our Bikes,” was the first one to bring in a large influx of new readers who hadn’t necessarily thought much about the connection between bikes and feminism, but were excited by the possibilities. After that, I couldn’t have stopped if I wanted to.

A picture of Elly's Our Bodies Our Bikes zine. The zine is opened to the first page. Inside the front cover reads: I love my bike because it's true meditation in motion. I love my bike because I can go slow or fast, long distances or spins around the neighborhood, time trial races to work or leisurely saunters with friends. And it's all up to me.

Funding and Selling Feminist Zines

Learning the business side of publishing has had some surprises—and also cured me of all traces of math phobia. Here’s a little bit of what my spreadsheets tell me:

Selling 500 copies of the first zine for $3 each (actually, I probably gave half of them away in my exuberance) was a hobby, a fun side project. But by the time I got to issue three, almost nobody bought just one. I was starting to see a trickle of passive income. This has never been enough to support me: in fact, these zines still barely break even. The surplus money gets put into a glacially-increasing fund to pay contributors, while I pay my own bills through freelance writing and publishing books.

But this ongoing trickle of revenue did give me a cushion, an opportunity to take risks, incur a few extra expenses that the Kickstarter wasn’t guaranteed to cover, dream big about last minute essays or illustrations and then pay someone to do them. The twelfth issue just came out, and has been joined by two other zine projects, two books, innumerable stickers and more projects coming on board every month.

I publish in print rather than e-books because digital products are just harder to sell. Many authors and publishers have found major success selling e-books, of course, but I see the path to that and it requires a lot of serious marketing, branding and online hustle. It’s honest work, but it’s a type that doesn’t totally satisfy me. And you can’t hand an e-book to someone you just met in the hallway at a conference where you both just fled the self-satisfied droning of that guy who is giving yet another keynote.

To sell print books, you need a solid ground game, and that’s the part of the job I live for — traveling, putting on events, connecting with readers and authors in person and via email, and shipping every sale off myself. Print publication also means I get to work more with businesses I believe in — a woman-owned print shop in Oakland, the US Postal Service — and less with giant providers of digital services. With print books, you cannot succeed simply by broadcasting your ideas — a stereotypically masculine virtue. Instead, you must build something new, with confidence and skill, with math and muscle, with relationships, ideas and vision.

To sell books, you need a movement.

Without a growing movement around my dual passions of feminism and bicycling, I wouldn’t be able to sell books and zines—and I wouldn’t want to.

The work I publish is almost never just my own. Instead, it’s a collection of voices and ideas, as diverse and contradictory as I can manage. Each issue has a theme, and when things go as planned each theme brings out and galvanizes a different segment of the bicycle movement. One of my favorite issue themes, “Childhood,” brought out the thriving, vocal, increasingly influential family bicycling community. In turn, I hope, it gave them another resource in their toolbox, a point of pride, identity and conversation, another step forward to the advancement of bicycling with kids.

Eleven issues of Taking The Lane zine are lying on a table. They are cheery and brightly colored. Many of them have drawings of bicycles on the cover, including one of a spacewoman bicyclist on a penny farthing with a flame gun.

There have been some surprises, though maybe they shouldn’t have been. For instance, the issue about religion (not the one about sex!) brought out the most content that dealt with sexual orientation. The issue about disasters brought out such a large number of contributors with male names that for the first time I had to go out of my way to find women to contribute. As a partial corrective (and to make a point), I instituted a sliding price scale for the issue when it came out. Buyers on my website are asked to select from a set of prices that coincide with statistics about earning differentials broken down by race and gender. People who self-select the “Latina” option pay the cover price; the scale is topped by those who select “white male,” at about a $4 premium. Choosing from the sliding scale is optional, but so far nobody has opted out or even complained; in fact, a bookstore manager recently told me that a customer had come into their store and asked to pay more for the zine, in accordance with their demographics.

Complexities, Ethics and Growth in Zine Communities

Zines tend to produce and serve tiny communities with strong, far-from-the-norm cultures, home to heated debates that attempt to rework the fabric of society. At best, zines are a technology that can seed a movement and go on to flourish and grow. Zines played a huge part in the growth of the punk movement, and later, within the punk movement, they were the vehicle by which Riot grrrl spread and was widely adopted.

But at their worst, zines can produce an insular, self-policing echo chamber, where much of participants’ energy is devoted to determining who is in and who is out.

By publishing Taking the Lane in small print runs, marketed by word of mouth, I hope to harness the best of zines’ potential, creating something small enough to seem special and even secret, something that readers feel they had to discover, over which they feel ownership and belonging. I was initially inspired by other zines, including the feminist bike zine Dames on Frames; and one of the things I hope comes out of my own work is that other people will be inspired in turn and start their own project, like the new Velo Vixen zine in Kansas City (see below!).

Ultimately, though, my goals are bigger. With these zines, I aim not just to create a new, small culture, but to export it to the mainstream. The movement I’m operating within—and trying to build—is, like the tech movement, in no way marginal. That has brought some unexpected allies. In the last few years, I’ve partnered with major bicycle advocacy groups like the League of American Bicyclists, earned sponsorship from major bike industry players like Planet Bike, and, perhaps squarest of all, written for Bicycling Magazine. This has all come as these companies and organizations have sought to change from within, reaching more diverse constituencies and growing the demand for bicycle transportation.

At the same time, building a movement can’t just be done by working with established power structures. Sometimes this means handing people zines in the parking lot at the cargo bike rally, tabling at the bike craft fair or the anarchist book event, or setting up an impromptu pop-up shop in the lobby at a transportation conference and advertising it on Twitter. It means identifying the women who are doing creative and interesting—but often unacknowledged—work in the bicycle movement and inviting them to write for an upcoming issue. It means hanging out with students, executive directors, polo players, family bikers, getting involved in their work and finding ways to amplify it... and most importantly, putting them all next to each other. If not in the same room, then at least in the same issue of a zine.

Feminist publishing is a movement building tool. It works by creating a space free of the heavy burden that typical gendered stereotypes put on all of us. Sometimes that means publishing things overtly about gender, raising consciousness around sexism, debating feminisms, kicking down the doors of all sorts of other kinds of privilege, taking names.

But mostly it means creating a small world without the casual sexism, derogatory comments, and blatant discrimination that still stands as the norm out there in the larger world. Here, there’s room to relax, to grow, to be yourself, to develop a culture of creativity, confidence, and respect. It’s something you can learn and then export, taking it with you into the rest of the world in the form of a good book.

More feminist bike zines (and books) for your inspiration

Dames on Frames – The original feminist bike zine out of Minneapolis, the Dames on Frames collective put out five issues over the years containing content in both Spanish and English about the joys of biking, the WTF (Women-Trans-Femme) bike project movement, and organizing women’s bike events. They seem to have stopped publishing – but you can still download them all online for free.

Velo Vixen – a brand new feminist bike zine out of Kansas City, Missouri, organized by Rachel Krause. Rachel gets much of her content by throwing parties and inviting people to sit down and write, make art or even fill out questionnaires to print in the zine. Then she throws another party when the issue is released. The result is in classic zine style: spirited, confessional, cut-and-paste. $2.

Women on Wheels – April Streeter went all out – she wanted to help women get excited about bicycling, so she wrote an entire book. When major publishers didn’t bite, she decided to put it out herself. Billed as a “manual and manifesto,” the book is half tips and tricks of biking around the city in your ordinary clothes and half cultural analysis and historical anecdotes about the heroic deeds of wheelwomen of yore. $15.

Spokes of Hazard – The best and worst thing about zines is their tiny print runs and limited distribution. When they’re gone, they’re gone. If you can ever come across a tattered old copy of Cait’s harrowing and hilarious true tales of bike touring and riding Portland’s streets as a bike messenger in the mid-aughts, you’ll be doing fist pumps for days.

Make your own!

What do you need to make your own zine? Not much! Pen, paper, a community (even if it’s just a dozen fellow nerds scattered around the world) and access to a photocopier will do the trick. As for distribution, start by handing out copies directly to people who you think will like them. If you don’t yet know these people, well, finding them is what the Internet does best.

Do you need to be a writer or artist to write or draw for your own or someone else’s zine? Nope! So long as you have something to say, you’re golden. Don’t worry that someone else might have said it before or might say it differently.There’s room for everyone at this table.