How Digital Publishing Has Changed Feminist Writing


FROM SUFFRAGIST PAMPHLETS to the xeroxed zines of riot grrl, DIY publishing is one of the oldest tricks in the feminist book. Creating and controlling one’s own method of publication dovetails with feminist values like accessibility and wresting the means of production from the hands of the patriarchy. These days, feminists increasingly choose to publish online, and eBooks have become a way to keep feminist bookstores afloat, and even give forgotten female authors their due.

The ’70s brought a wave of women-centric, women-led presses like, well, The Feminist Press. Founded in 1970, the FP has published books of every genre and contributed to feminist thought for more than 40 years. With the support of these publishing houses, feminist literature came to be understood as everything from a heady book like The Feminist Utopia Project to a book like The G-String Murders — pulp specifically designed for the pleasure of women readers.

Presses also grew out of feminist activist collectives, like Kitchen Table Press, started by one of the founding members of the Combahee River Collective. Kitchen Table enacted the collective’s ethics of foregrounding the voices of women of color and establishing the primacy of race within feminism. They did this by publishing books by authors like Cherríe Moraga and Audre Lorde, cementing both the personal and political power of the feminist press.

Now even almost every Barnes and Noble has a Women’s Studies section. But back in the day, these women-made publications could mainly be found in feminist bookstores, which flourished alongside women-run presses through the ’70s and ’80s, reaching 100 strong by 1990. These days, there’s only a dozen left scattered across the country, but many that have survived did so by virtue of the eBook.

Women & Children First, for example, saved itself from the brink of extinction by partnering with Kobo, a service by which they sell eBooks through their website. Wild Iris, of Gainesville, Florida, also uses Kobo to digitally stock pretty much every title through their website. Capitalizing on the fact that folks will end up on their sites searching for feminist texts, bookstores are able to offer even more of the feminist canon online than there’s room for in a physical store.

The same story applies to feminist presses. The eBook is, at this point, ubiquitous in publishing. This Times article about indie authors who started for kindle and now run their own publishing houses — all of which, incidentally, are women — claims that only 30% of readers engage only with print publications. The rise of the eBook and the internet’s facilitation of the woman-centric literary community has even created new forms of book distribution and literary community-building. Emily Books is perhaps the first of its kind, a chimera-like entity that combines eBook store, book club, subscription, and publishing house, all to a decidedly-feminist end.

Emily Books describes itself as “a project that publishes, publicizes, and celebrates the best work of transgressive writers of the past, present and future.” Later in their mission statement, they specify that they “are passionate about the writing of women, trans people, and queer people,” and their catalog is a testament to the richness of that project. Emily Books was an early champion of the now-ubiquitous Elena Ferrante, and contributed to the re-emergence of poet Eileen Myles. Their new venture has them publishing a couple original books this year, the first of which was a compilation of selected works by the fantastic Jenny Zhang. All this, done exclusively online, with eBooks.
Emily Books is, essentially, an online feminist bookstore. It even hosts a book club of sorts, in its subscription service which comes with access to a community forum. But unlike the websites of pre-existing feminist bookstores, which are strictly for commerce and tend to have a GeoCities feel, Emily is an exercise in feminist taste-making. The selection is tightly curated, and although diversity is certainly one of its virtues, there are also strong threads running through the picks. Many, like Our Spoons Came From Woolworths By Barbara Comyns and Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante deal with inequality when it comes to domestic and reproductive labor. There is also focus on women behaving badly, from the always-badass Virginie Despentes’ Apocalypse Baby to Imogen Binnie’s trans caper, Nevada. And there are especially strong affinities between the body horror poetics of Jenny Zhang, Trisha Low, and Niina Pollari.

As Junko Onosaka points out in her book Feminist Revolutions in Literacy (incidentally published through Kobo), feminist bookstores grew out of cultural feminism, which she describes as “an effort to revalidate undervalued feminine attributes.” While cultural feminists blazed the trail in making safer spaces for women and demanding credit for women’s past and future contributions to society, they also were known to “take an essentialized view of the differences between men and women.” That is to say, feminist bookstores and presses, however important and inspiring, grew out of a movement that excluded many who belonged under the feminist umbrella — most notably trans women.

Online publishing would seem far too democratized to fall prey to such outdated ideologies. However, with curatorial services like Emily Books and the the rise of social media as a primary form of book marketing, taste-making is still alive and well. As feminist texts reach more readers than ever, their distributors have the unique responsibility of deciding who will be known as a feminist voice. Even in online feminist circles, publishing remains overwhelmingly white and cisgender, with Third Woman re-emerging as the only surviving press dedicated to women of color, and trans presses like Topside just beginning to emerge.

Feminism has certainly had its growing pains over the years, but thankfully we can count out adapting to the digital age as one of its struggles. Although feminist bookstores largely fell prey to big chains and Amazon sales, feminist books are more ubiquitous and accessible than ever, and even lucrative enough in their electronic form to support feminist brick-and-mortars. Online publishing has only begun to combine with the feminist ethics that have evolved on the internet, but now that we’re all sitting at the same table, the possibilities are an endless scroll.