What do women want from their magazine? Apparently not what Scarlet magazine offered. Its sudden demise is enough to make me see red (and feel blue). But then again, maybe it wouldn't have ceased publication if more women had known it existed in the first place?
Last week, Scarlet's distributor went into administration. When I started writing for the feminist monthly, which launched in November 2004 with the tag line "The new magazine for women who get it", most of my friends didn't get it – they hadn't even heard of it. "What magazine?" they would ask or, "I haven't seen that in the shops." True, it was never a magazine that was on newsagents' radars. Even my mum tried to order the current, and final, issue from her local shop and was told that WH Smith (their wholesaler) had run out of its allocation, suggesting they ordered very few. Yet ironically, WH Smith was probably the biggest distributor of Scarlet. I asked a spokesperson for the magazine why it was so poorly distributed. He said that was "the nature of a smaller circulating magazine", and "it takes time to build up circulation". Sadly, valid points that would explain the subscription figures being lower than that of a village parish magazine – about 2,000 I was told. No wonder my friends hadn't heard of it.
Of course, poor distribution inevitably has a knock-on effect on advertising rates. Although neither of these factors are representative of poor quality content. Both the Guardian and the Times gave Scarlet positive reviews, and that's what I am most sad about – the magazine set out to be different, and offered original, frank, informative and intelligent copy. This was a magazine that wanted women to feel good about themselves. It even had a "strictly no diets" mantra for its articles and promoted a liberal sex attitude in its steamy short-story section, Cliterature.
But even if Scarlet had been better advertised, marketed and distributed, would it have been able to compete with the more generic women's titles on the market? Popular culture's obsession with the celebrity world, looking good, and being super slim suggests maybe not. What made Scarlet special and unique, I imagine, was too subversive and niche to ever be truly embraced by a mainstream audience and thus considered "popular". Unfortunately, it seems society's reading expectations largely correspond with what most women want to read – the same old recycled content, month after month, year after year, over and over again.
As sad as it is, Scarlet is not the first magazine of its kind to go under. The launch of a more intelligent women's monthly called Frank failed after just two years because it was perceived as too edgy. Yet the market does exist for feminist titles. Spare Rib, a second-wave feminist magazine that examined alternatives to traditional female gender roles, did better than Frank and Scarlet put together, launching in 1972 and ceasing publication in 1993. During this time, it created an underground following, illustrated by its circulation across women's groups and networks pre-internet. Much like Scarlet was achieving with its popular forums on its website, which incidentally, are set to stay while its former free monthly e-newsletter, Harlot, will now go weekly. At least with devices like the iPad coming on to the market, magazines like Scarlet will be given the opportunity to build a bigger and better online following – whether they are stocked in many shops or not.
Despite Scarlet's departure from our shop shelves, I remain convinced that there are enough women out there who do want a smart, sophisticated and sassy magazine like it. Perhaps they just need to be told about it so they know where they can buy or download it. As such, I urge publishers with the commercial prowess and the (unlikely) cash to splash in these uncertain times to bring a similar title to the market for the next generation of forward-thinking females. Just as long as it's "The new magazine for women – and distributors – who get it".