It’s no secret that the publishing industry, like so many professions, is disproportionately white and male, with women and people of color occupying only a small percentage of the workforce and an even smaller percentage of leadership roles. According to Lee & Low’s Diversity Baseline Survey, nearly 80% of the U.S. publishing industry is white, while the 2016 VIDA Count shows that the number of women and non-binary writers of color is less than 25%. Reports from organizations like ASNE shows that the percentage of minority journalists has only increased from 4% to 14% since 1978, and in the UK, research at City University found similar results, with British media estimated to be 94% white.
Yet while these numbers may account for an industry-wide demographic disparity, within the vibrant scene of indie mags PoC-led publications have long been on the rise. UK-based magazines like Nii Journal explore issues of empowerment and representation within race, while Signatures features the creative pursuits of artists and musicians of African origin. Online and print publications like Sula Collective and gal-dem highlight the stories and voices of women and non-binary people of color, and CRWN magazine seeks to reach “beyond trendy clickbait and #BlackGirlMagic, and create a progressive dialogue around natural hair and the women who wear it.”
While statistics specifically about the indie mag world are nil, it’s clear that this corner of publishing has managed to cultivate and support the kind of diversity that continues to elude the industry as a whole. Progress is happening in the margins, not the mainstream, which is hardly a surprise: anyone with access to a photocopier can make a zine. Save some funds and you can print your own magazine (and with new demand for quality print magazines, you may just get stocked by retailers). Meanwhile, the barrier to entry in the mainstream publishing world is still, in many cases, being able to take an unpaid internship, or work your way up from a very low paying entry level job.
Still, even for the PoC-led publishers who are flourishing, self-publishing comes with its own set of limitations. Production prices can be prohibitive, and starting your own magazine takes a lot of time and energy without much monetary return. And just because you build it, doesn’t mean readers will come; most indies struggle to increase their circulation to reach beyond their specific communities.
To be clear, minority-led publishers in the indie mag world is not a new thing. But PoC-centric magazines doing it right are beginning to get more exposure, and it feels like a sea change is afoot. Is renewed interest in independent print magazines helping the cause? Will mainstream publishers take note? We talk to three publications that are leading the way.
In 2014, Kathleen Tso and Vicki Ho created Banana Magazine to “navigate the blurred Eastern and Western boundaries and create a voice for contemporary Asian culture.” “I’ve definitely seen a rise in PoCs, especially those of Asian heritage, taking on publishing and editorial roles, and personally I’ve seen a huge shift in PoC platforms and print mediums,” says Tso. “I just don’t think there’s been enough press on these magazines to really help shine a light on them and get noticed by a larger audience.”
Tso and Ho credit social media as an invaluable resource for gaining exposure online. But in terms of getting Banana on the shelves of brick and mortar shops, they learned quickly that it was easier to find retailers themselves than try to find a distribution company that understood the value and importance of indie magazines. The pair started going door to door at local NYC magazine shops and cold-calling businesses in Chinatown and the Lower East Side. What helped the most was having a clear point of view and intended audience. “Readers want to buy into a magazine that truly speaks to their experiences and their voice in this world,” says Ho. “Learning how to scale that within the industry would really help create meaningful change in magazine content.”
Banana’s first retailers were the Museum of Chinese in America and Coming Soon. Things got easier after the magazine started receiving press coverage; last year they began distributing in Europe and Asia through Antenne Books, and with Small Changes to cover the Pacific Northwest region of the U.S. They’ve also added Urban Outfitters to their list of retailers, which will greatly expand their reach to new audiences.
Also in 2014, Devin N. Morris started 3 Dot Zine as an extension of the weekly salon-style gatherings he used to host at his home. “We started calling it Social Sunday, and it was a space where we could work creatively together, share food, and discuss pretty much anything,” he says. “I wanted to recreate the environment of Social Sunday in a publication, so the zine for me was a new place where I could still curate a conversation, but within the more structured framework of a design spread.”
While Banana has found a niche in boutique bookstores and magazine shops, Morris takes a different approach to getting his publication to the right customers. He says, “I’ve learned that book fairs are the better place to distribute my work. There’s a more alert audience immediately wanting to purchase something, as opposed to waiting for a book store to sell it for me.”
Morris is also the organizer of his own book fair: the Brown Paper Zine & Small Press Fair, which features Black and PoC artists and publications and has been held at Brooklyn’s Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) and the Eubie Blake Cultural Center in Baltimore. Morris’ goal is to maintain a healthy self-publishing ecosystem, regardless of the problems with lack of inclusiveness and financial instabilities in the mainstream magazine industry. “My interest lies in creating a strong community of independent zine makers and self-publishers. I don’t care what happens to the magazine industry. Not my concern. That’s for the glossies to worry about.”
The quarterly print magazine True Laurels started out as a half-letter sized zine that Lawrence Burney either printed from home or down the street at a Fedex. In 2016, it transitioned to a more conventionally formatted magazine with grant funding provided by the Contemporary, a museum and nonprofit based in Baltimore. Burney is also a music journalist for Vice’s Noisey, and his reason for launching True Laurels was to highlight the music and visual art in his hometown of Baltimore that wasn’t getting covered by the local press.
He explains that other than the city’s long running newspaper the Afro-American, there weren’t any local arts and culture publications geared towards people of color. “The Baltimore City Paper, our only alt-weekly, just got shut down a few weeks ago. I didn’t even know it existed until I was probably 20 years old, which already speaks to how segregated this city is and where the paper was even posted around town.”
“When I did learn about it, I started contributing as a freelance writer, but even then, I found that it was just lacking when it came to covering things that were going on in the black parts of the city. That’s what I really wanted to do with True Laurels: give people in my own community something to be proud of. To know that people are paying attention to what they’re creating, and to make people look good with great photography and compelling stories.”
In terms of creating a future where more PoC publications achieve wider circulation, Burney says that the first step is educating teens and young adults about funding options to show them that starting creative endeavors like a magazine is financially possible. He explains, “I think a lot of people, in particular young black people, don’t really know anything about grants. It’s not something we’re really taught in school. This is kind of the thing that you have to stumble across the information on your own and if you’re lucky enough to know about it, great. If not, then you’ll be struggling to get your projects off the ground. The opportunity to create self-published work is always out there, the real struggle is just who has access to the knowledge to make it happen.”
While mainstream magazines struggle to maintain advertisers or readership numbers, magazines like True Laurels, 3 Dot, and Banana have developed sustainable business models despite the economic and logistical hurdles that come with starting a publication. Aside from their tenacity and creative drive, a key component to their success has been simply to produce meaningful content that is truly representative of their audience. Glossies, take note.