The role of women’s books has been shifting because the role of women in society has been shifting. Long time coming, but finally. That’s not exactly headline news. What the traditional books like Good Housekeeping, Family Circle and their venerable sisters dish up every several weeks still resonates with a sizable and enthusiastic audience — that’s not to be dismissed, don’t get me wrong — but times have changed.
Laundry, linens, LBDs, and linguini recipes, while interesting in their own right, are of lesser importance to many women these days.
All of which has afforded space in the magasphere for books that address women in a different way, at a more profound level. These magazines go right at elemental wants and needs that are largely apart from matters of homemaking.
Oprah’s magazine, O, may have been the first of these books to acknowledge the complex multi-dimensionality of American women. There have been others. Real Simple embodies at least some of the same traits. (Alas, More, after a good run, has just quit print. It’s tough out there.)
But a quick glance at any major newsstand reveals that, to a large extent, the “Women’s” section remains a kind of ghetto of 20th Century-think. The heart-and-soul stuff is still being ignored. As the Commander in Chief is fond of tweeting out, “Sad.”
Fortunately, we now see an uptick in the number of books that approach women as creatures who care less about me-me-me, and more about meaning. Less about celebrities, more about celebrating. They are the un-Cosmopolitans, the flip side of Glamour and InStyle and Woman’s World.
I don’t have a snappy name for this category. Broadly speaking, their premise is that a certain class of women have an abiding desire to connect with their creative, soulful impulses.
I’ve found about 10 books that make this their principal editorial mission. They’re pretty easy to spot. First of all, they are expensive. Average point-of-purchase price seems to be north of $15 — Starbucks double-latte venti territory and then some. You’ll quickly part ways with a hundred bucks if you want to put an armful in your bag.
There are reasons for the steep cover price. First of all, most of these books seem to be coming to America from abroad. (Shocked? I’m not.) Secondly, the books are beautifully and expensively produced — each more or less a work of art in its own right. They are intended to be keepers. How do we know this? Well, some include a bookplate on the opening page. How often do you see that in a magazine, eh?
I imagine these lovely magazines are published in small batches, which seems appropriate. In essence, they represent the ascendant artisanal trend in our business.
Their readers (including men of a certain sensibility too, I suppose) dote over paper. They derive satisfaction from touching it, pawing it, smelling the scent of it, folding it artfully in a million different ways. You are invited to fondle these books. They are vaguely sensual. No, make that boastfully sensual. Most contain tip-ins, pull-outs, posters, pockets and other surprises meant to delight.
As I see it, they lay out for their readers a specific hierarchy of how life’s journey ought, ideally, to unfold: peace over prosperity, joy over jobs, creativity over catatonia.
In each instance, the taglines pretty much nail it.
Some examples from the books I picked up the other day:
Daphne’s Diary — “a magazine full of inspiration and style”
Flow — “celebrating creativity, imperfection and life’s little pleasures”
Breathe — “make time for yourself”
Project Calm — “mindfulness through making”
As if to underscore its insistence on standing apart from the madding crowd, Flow says in a cover burst that it is “A Magazine That Takes Its Time.”
Like others in this newly emerging category, Flow is filled with photographs and illustrations that encourage readers to relax. To find themselves … over time. The book is brilliantly edited. One might liken it to touring a fabulous museum.
There is also a call to action in these books, which sets them apart from most women’s magazines — most magazines of any type. They establish protocols for changing life’s pace, for making things (often out of paper, which is supplied), for living less zestfully but more zenfully.
Our era is stressful and “shaky,” say the co-editors of Flow in their latest editorial. The answer is to somehow embrace the tumult, learn from it, and by so doing become a more creative and whole adult.
This is not for everyone, clearly. Some readers will reject the emphasis on a sort of intensely focused personal peace. There is no overt excitement in these pages, zero partying. (Note: surprisingly, these books don’t point to Buddhism, meditation, or yoga; they guide readers down other pathways.)
Midway through the current issue of Project Calm, one comes to a full stop at a section about weaving. The headline: “May your walls know joy; may every room hold laughter and every window open to great possibility.” There is a strong DIY element to Calm that may especially appeal to the arts-and-crafts set.
Daphne’s Diary, by contrast, counts more heavily on the spectacular curation skills of its staff. Imagine a hybrid of Pinterest, your Facebook feed, and the personal leather-bound journal of an artist.
Says “Daphne” (who, best as I can tell, may not be an actual person) in her current editor’s note: “Every evening, I write about my experiences that day in my diary. About five years ago, I came up with the idea of creating a kind of magazine full of wonderful things and this was the result.”
Publishers appear to be optimistic about growth in this category. The books I’ve mentioned here are branching out with line extensions and specials. Breathe recently produced a one-time special titled List Journal. Stampington and Company, a California outfit that publishes a line of magazines targeted at women, has launched Where Women Create. Think of it as a shelter magazine for readers who are, in the current parlance, woke. To quote Martha Stewart, who has edited some wonderful magazines of a certain kind, “That’s a good thing.”
Here’s hoping this trend continues. While I haven’t come up with a catchy marketing name for it, the underlying concept is in tune with our times. Books that talk to women who want a breather, and who choose to use their time to satisfy unmet creative impulses, are books that may well have a bright future.