Interview: Amy Schroeder of Venus Zine
Behind nearly every independent magazine’s professional façade lurks a publisher with an intriguing tale of humble beginnings; a tale of late nights, scissors, glue, photocopiers, and compulsion. Amy Schroeder — founder, editor, and publisher of Venus — can go one better: she relays a story of how her publication can be traced to a single idea:
“I was taking my first Women’s Studies course,” she explains, “and one of the topics we were talking about was the whole notion of, ‘women are from Venus and men are from Mars,’ and what that means. So I just started visualizing, what would it be like if there really was a planet where only women lived? What would it be like?”
Borne of that notion during Schroeder’s freshman year at Michigan State, Venus has evolved in the past nine years from a single-page personal zine, to a glossy quarterly periodical spanning 100+ pages. Mature and slick, perhaps even debonaire at first glance, Venus is, at its core, an unrestrained and ebullient reflection of the women it features, as well as the women who work to bring each issue to fruition. As I’ve often stated to anyone who might take interest, “Venus is a magazine about women who do cool things.” More specifically, it covers female musicians, artists, writers, filmmakers, actors, fashion designers, and — to borrow a term from Schroeder — “crafty-types,” all tidily packaged into a staunchly independent tome, equal parts DIY ethic and professional savvy.
I met Schroeder (as well as Venus’s Up Front Editor, A.B. Drea, who publishes a great lit-zine called The Banana King) at the Allied Media Conference in Bowling Green, Ohio in June of 2004. It was a pleasure meeting two of the ladies behind a publication I was already quite familiar with, as they were among a number of friendly, enthusiastic, and helpful people I met during the weekend. After a bit of correspondence over the following six months, I conducted this interview with Schroeder a few days into the new year, 2005 — a perfect time to reflect on the rise of a successful media enterprise built from the ground up, and to look toward what might be in store for Venus. Considering the strength of the foundation that has been built, the “realistic goals” set forth by Schroeder carry much more substantiality than mere speculation.
Like Verbicide, Venus started out as a cut-and-paste photocopied project when you were in college. How many issues did that phase last?
Oh, let me see here…that was in late 1994/early 1995 that I did the first one. I think the first three issues of Venus were all cut-and-paste productions — I did one issue a year.
When you made the leap to offset, “professional” printing, did you go straight into 50-pound bleached paper and glossy covers, or was there an in-between phase of newsprint?
We never did newsprint, but I experimented quite a bit with production quality, and the first issue I had “officially” printed instead of me just going to Kinko’s…it was such a small [press] run; it was about a thousand copies, or something like that.
Same as Verbicide’s first professional printing.
Yeah, it was all black-and-white, and it was heavy paper — I think it was like 60-pound paper, and the cover was black-and-white, too.
Was [the cover] glossy?
No, not glossy, 60-pound all the way through, and saddle-stitched. And that was issue number six.
What inspired you to start Venus in the first place? Was it other zines, zinesters you’d met, or just your own compulsions?
I think my own compulsion. I hadn’t really seen too many zines when I’d started the first issue of Venus — I’d seen zines before, and I liked them and all that, and I probably was inspired by them — but you know, I was just a freshman in college, I was kind of bored, and I went to Michigan State University and there’s not a whole lot going on there…It’s a Midwestern, huge-ass school in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by cows and stuff, so there wasn’t a really good music scene — or any sort of real scene at all! So I was just like, “Ah, I’ve got all this energy and I want to do something creative, so how about I start a zine?” So I just created the first issue in one night; I didn’t really have any sort of mission or goal, it was just a personal fanzine.
Was that the one with your friend on the cover, or was that issue two or three?
Let me think…the first one…I’m trying to visualize it…I should have these out because people are always asking me questions about it, and I honestly don’t even have copies of the early issues around me — they’re at my parents’ house! I feel bad but I can’t remember! But issue number three did have my best friend on the cover! In our 20th issue, I included [an image of] the cover of issue number three.
Is there a special significance to the name of your magazine?
Well, when I was trying to come up with a name, I had a few ideas in mind. At this time I was 19 years old, I was a freshman, and I was taking my first Women’s Studies course: Women’s Studies 101. One of the topics we were talking about in the class was the whole notion of, “women are from Venus and men are from Mars,” and what that means. So I just sort of started visualizing, what would it be like if there really was a planet where only women lived? What would it be like? I was just going with that idea; I needed a name and that’s where Venus comes from.
Were there any alternative [names] that you can happen to remember?
There are, but I’d rather not talk about them because they’re really silly names, and they really have nothing to do with anything! (laughter)
I found a quote from XLR8R through venuszine.com, and it says, “Venus Zine is no cut-and-paste operation spouting half-formed thoughts and pseudo-feminist angst, and thank goodness. The Chicago-based music publication smartly captures the girl-power spirit without resorting to cheap shots or shock tactics.” I thought this is a pretty accurate description of your zine. In what aspects do you think Venus succeeds where other feminist-minded magazines might fail? Do you think there are ideas and conventions in feminist magazines that you try to avoid, or on the other hand, is there territory you cover that you find lacking in other women’s media outlets?
A lot of people ask me those kinds of questions, and, you know, I don’t put a whole lot of thought into [the idea that] we have to follow a certain set of rules, or only adhere to one feminist theory. I think what I’m basically trying to do with Venus is cover women in the arts, women who are doing interesting things, and a lot of the women that we’re covering are feminists or call themselves feminist, but a lot of the women we cover don’t necessarily call themselves feminists. And whether or not I agree with why they don’t call themselves feminists, I think their work is interesting. And that’s the basic mission of what we’re doing. A lot of women that we’re covering do things independently or are running their own businesses, and we’re all about that! But I appreciate a lot of the other feminist magazines out there: I like Bitch magazine, I like Ms. magazine — I think we do things differently, and I think that’s cool. I think it would be boring if all the feminist or pro-women magazines covered exactly the same people and did it in the same way.
What are your feelings on the way women are often portrayed in mainstream publications, such as Rolling Stone or Blender? Do you find it to be misogynistic and exploitative, or do you see it as being a reflection of the product that mainstream society of both sexes wants — and maybe expects?
That’s a good question. There’s been research done [that shows] magazines with women on the covers tend to sell better than magazines with men on the cover. So I think Rolling Stone, for instance, knows that, and they also know that sex sells. I get kind of frustrated when I see a cover of Rolling Stone and there’s a female musician or actress, and she’s half-naked or naked, just covering up the “key areas,” you know what I mean? Whereas, a lot of times, when you see men on the cover of Rolling Stone, a male musician or actor, he’s not naked — or half-naked. And why is that? Why? (laughter) What happens during the production of that? It’s not just Jennifer Aniston making the decision to be on the cover of Rolling Stone, it’s a staff of people: there are managers, and publicists, and stylists, and photographers, and all kinds of people who are involved! And I just kind of wonder, how much she gets to say, “I really want to take off all my clothes, or just wear a corset” — and maybe she does, and if she does, cool; I always just kind of wonder about that.
We never do that with Venus. We always try to, if we can, talk to the artist directly; sometimes, if that doesn’t work, we have to talk to their manager or publicist. But we always want to make it clear that the artist gets to do what she wants to do. Where do you want to have the picture done? What do you want to wear? And a lot of times the artist will say, like Janeane Garafalo, “I don’t want any makeup, I don’t want anything, I just want to show up how I am. I’m not going to change my outfits or anything.” And that’s cool! (laughter)
How much importance do you place on the existence of alternative, independent media? You know, just the fact that we’re here; that there’s a world outside the crap you see on the shelves at Walgreens.
I think it’s absolutely important; I think that’s one of the main reasons why Venus exists. To be honest, I would rather that Venus would not need to exist. The reason why I think Venus exists is because I don’t think there’s enough good coverage of women in the arts, or women doing their own thing — running their own record labels, putting out their own music and all of that — in mainstream publications. I think that men tend to get covered more in mainstream publications — or, at least, I like the way that men are covered a little better than women sometimes. And that’s one of the main reasons why I created Venus. And I think that if the coverage was more equal, then I don’t think Venus would need to exist.
It’s pretty cool, though, that you have a small section dedicated in your magazine to men that are doing good things, and to be honest, I don’t think that a lot of the men that are covered in your magazine would get much attention from mainstream media either.
So it’s neat when you’ve got features on people like Ted Leo, for instance—he gets maybe a blurb here and there, but Venus has [coverage that is] a lot more thoughtful, I think. You can tell in a lot of magazines, whether it’s a paid advertisement or it’s a feature article, it’s always about publicity, about trying to move units. The independent media puts a much more personal touch on it, and with that thought, is the “community” aspect of independent publishers something that you enjoy?
I love it! It’s probably one of my most favorite things, the sense of community and so many different kinds of communities. With independent publishers, I think we all need to get along with each other and not see each other as competitors. And I also love the sense of community with our readers and the women musicians, filmmakers, artists, and “crafty-types.” It seems like such a community to me — it’s much more than a magazine.
While I’m sure that the prospect of working for yourself was a big motivating factor for you to take the leap from producing Venus as a handmade zine to its current “professional” state — I think it’s every zinester’s dream to do their zine for a living — but what else motivates you?
A lot of things. I’ve been doing it for so long, and while there’ve been many different things that have inspired me over the years, I think I constantly have to find new inspirations, too. What I try to do is set new goals all the time. It can be really small things or really big things.
Like a couple years ago, I thought, I would really like to see Venus get some serious distribution. So I’d work really, really hard to do that, just keep on going. And then I would get that, and I’d say, “Well, that’s cool,” and I’d have to set a new goal for myself. You know, we just moved into a real office space in April , and before that I was working from home, and it was cool, but I made it a goal for myself to get a real office space, and now I’ve made that goal. It’s one thing after another.
That’s actually related to my next question, the Venus office moving from your apartment to a real office building in Chicago. How is that working out?
It’s good! I did appreciate working from home, and I think it’s a really smart thing to do when you’re an independent publisher, and I did it for years and years and years — you can save so much money, if you can split up your apartment rent — where you live — with your workspace. It makes a lot of sense, but Venus started in one really small bedroom, and then it moved into a second, bigger bedroom, and then it moved into my living room, so it ended up taking over more and more space. It was good while it lasted, but we just kind of outgrew my apartment after a while.
Did you have a lot of people coming over to your house to do work?
Yeah, we had interns coming over, editors coming over, and we needed storage space. It was cool, we made it work — it’s nice to work from home, too, because you can get up in the morning and if there’s two feet of snow on the ground, you don’t have to go outside or anything! (laughter) Just walk from one room to the other! But it’s really nice to have the office space now; it’s one big loft space, which we actually share with a skateboarding company. It’s nice because I can separate my personal life and my “at home” life from my “at work” life. Whereas sometimes I would just stay up and just keep working!
Like until three in the morning, you’re still going!
Yeah! You can’t stop and if the phone’s still ringing you still answer it. Whereas now, I just shut the door and go home, and I think it’s really good for my creative energy, because I go home and I rest. Or I go and do something else, and then I come back the next day ready to work again.
So you get to do whatever you want to do instead of staring at a screen for 16 hours straight!
To make the leap to publishing Venus as your fulltime job, did you feel any pressure from outsiders to alter your magazine or make editorial compromises that you weren’t comfortable with?
No, we haven’t had any problems with that; I don’t know if that happens with other publications where they feel that advertisers or, I don’t know who, is pressuring them to make changes…
Distributors, yeah…you know, I’ve always just kind of done what I’ve wanted to do with the magazine. I really appreciate all of our editors’ input, too. We have meetings a lot to say, “What do you think of the magazine? What do we need to improve, or change, or have less of, or have more of?” We just go with what we think, and we’re always asking for our readers’ feedback, too. We haven’t ever given in to anything.
So you and your staff just cover what you feel like, or do you bow to public request? Or is it a combination of both?
It’s both. I love hearing what our readers are into — we do reader surveys, and talk to them at conferences, or at craft fairs, or on the street, or wherever!
Yeah, emails, we’re getting letters, stuff like that, so we really take that information seriously, and a lot of times we agree with what the readers have to say anyway, so that’s how we do it!
I guess since you get to do this for a living now, it sounds like there probably isn’t too much to complain about, but indulge me here: what don’t you like about being your own boss and running your magazine?
Being my own boss is definitely rewarding in a lot of ways, but I guess sometimes — especially when we’re on deadline — I make decisions all the time! One decision after another…and I think, sometimes, it gets a little stressful; sometimes I just think, will someone just decide this for me, because I really don’t feel like making another decision right now! Because it can be a lot of pressure to be [in the situation where each] decision could really affect the future of Venus — if I sign this contract, or take this advertiser on, or don’t take them, or put this person on the cover—
And having to deal with legal [issues], too — and distributors and bills…
Yeah — just making a lot of decisions gets a little overwhelming, so that might be one downfall, though usually I don’t mind it. I think probably the biggest challenge is doing the “business stuff.” For a long time I didn’t really like doing the business end of things, but I’ve come to appreciate it, and I think what I didn’t like about it was that a lot of times I didn’t know the right way to do things; I felt uneducated about some of the business aspects, and that’s what was frustrating, but the more I’ve learned over the years, the more I enjoy it. It’s sort of empowering when you learn about the taxes, or any of the money stuff, or how distribution works — at first it’s really overwhelming, but when you learn how to do it, you feel like you’ve really accomplished something.
What’ve been the biggest obstacles you’ve had to overcome in bringing Venus to the point it’s reached today?
Well, there’ve been a lot of things. Issue number nine, I went with a new printer because it was a really good deal. It was a printer in Chicago, and they ended up going bankrupt while the issue was at their shop. That was a huge challenge, just trying to deal with getting them to actually print it. It took them like a month before they finally did it, the magazine was late, and I ended up having to go into the shop to help them hand-collate the copies just because they didn’t have many employees left.
That sounds like hell.
That was a really bad experience, but I learned a lot from it. What else has been challenging…just figuring out the distribution, that was definitely challenging. At first, I would just call up stores or go into stores and do direct-distribution. I would start out having like five stores and that was it, and now we’re in all these major chain stores and independent stores across the country. So just learning how that system works was a hurdle. [Also], raising money has probably been the biggest challenge, because we don’t have any financial backers or investors or anything like that. I worked a fulltime job for a lot of the years that I was doing Venus, so just trying to do the “double day” was a challenge — going to work for 40 hours a week, and then coming home to do Venus.
Building [the magazine] from the ground up, basically.
Yeah, exactly, and it’s been nine years, so it’s been a while!
What are your most favorite aspects of running Venus?
Working with the staff is great! All of our editors started off as volunteers, so they have this great volunteer spirit. We pay the editors now a per-issue fee, but they’re still doing it because they want to do it. They’re wonderful to work with. And like I said earlier, the sense of community with the readers.
And I see even your mom is in on it!
Yeah, my mom is the subscription manager. She does that in her spare time, too. She comes home and does the subscriptions from her house. So that’s probably the most exciting stuff. Oh, and learning new things — whenever I learn something new I get excited.
Who are the people that you’ve featured in Venus that have made the biggest impact in your life? I noticed that you’ve featured Le Tigre a number of times.
I really like Le Tigre, I like what they’re all about…[they’ve] been really politically active, and a lot of people respect what they’re doing. I appreciate them. I think they’ve done something different, and were on a small label for a long time, and that label folded and now they’re moving on — but they’re still holding on to a lot of the DIY stuff they believe in. In addition to being on a major label, they run their own record label now, too. I just think they’re cool ladies.
I also think Sleater-Kinney is really great, and they’re another band that I think are political artists who hang on to what they believe in. There’ve been so many! Janeane Garafalo was really great, just because she’s so politically active, and was very outspoken against Bush — and I think a lot of people in the public eye are kind of afraid to take a political stance, but she wasn’t afraid, you know, she did her radio show and everything. I’d say almost everybody we’ve covered in the magazine I really like, and appreciate what they’re doing!
What’s the best advice you can offer to young women and men who’d like to start their own zine? And furthermore, what’s the best advice you can give to established zinesters who’d like to be “paid professionals?”
I think it’s important to do something that’s different. There are so many publications out there, and there’s naturally a lot of competition. If you’re covering music, there are a lot music magazines, so you have to find your niche: what is it that makes you different, or special, or better than other magazines? I think that’s really important. I recommend that to a lot of people, and I think that’s something that I had to learn a lot about over the years, too. You don’t want to just repeat the same thing that other publications are doing. And I think it’s important to just stick with it. I mean, if you really want to do it, just keep on doing it, and try to come out [with a new issue] as frequently as you can. You should try to set up a publishing schedule — but don’t do something that you can’t handle. If you say, “We’re going to print six issues next year!” but you know that’s really unreasonable and there’s no way you can do it, don’t say that you’re going to print six issues and tell the world about it, because if you end up printing four then it makes you look bad. So stick to what’s realistic. If you know you can print three issues in a year, that’s great, just do those three issues and try as hard as you can to get them out on the deadline that you set. If you’re trying to convince a distributor to work with you but you’re a month late sending them the magazine, that just doesn’t look good on your record.
I think, also, as an editor, you have to think a lot about how the reader will read something: how will the reader look at this story, visually? How will this photo affect how the reader looks at the story, and will the headline make sense, and is the story as good as it can be? Sometimes, the writers try to use big words, or try to sound really smart, which can be great, but sometimes it just makes things seem not very accessible to the reader. Always keep your reader in mind. You just have to keep going, and you’ll make mistakes — I’ve made a ton of mistakes over the years, but I always learn from all of them.
So after all the great stuff that’s happened over the last year, with the 20th issue, the new office, and so on, what’s next for you and Venus?
Good question! I was talking about how I set a lot of goals for Venus; well, I don’t set huge ones — I don’t say “we’re going to double our circulation in the next year!” or something like that. Although in the back of my mind I’d like to do big things like that, I try not to [set goals] that are too unrealistic. I try to set realistic goals. I just want to “keep on keeping on!” That’s always my number one goal, just to keep on doing it — especially in this climate, where the economy’s not the best, and paper prices are going up, and all prices are going up. To always better our distribution and to get more subscribers; to make some changes with our website and sell t-shirts and stuff like that, stuff I keep putting on the backburner.
At some point, I’d like to publish more frequently, but I just don’t think that’s realistic for us in 2005. It will probably be at least 2006 before I can consider that. Right now we’re quarterly, so the next step would be six times per year — and I wouldn’t try to go monthly any time soon after that. I feel really comfortable with being quarterly right now, and I don’t want to sacrifice the quality of the magazine just to print more frequently. I’m going to wait until I feel like we’re really ready to do it. I’d like us to become more financially stable — we’re definitely working on a shoestring budget right now. We’re able to cover all of our bases, but that’s it! We don’t have a lot of profit hanging out. If we did have a huge profit, I’d hire people to work here, but right now I’m the only fulltime person. We had a part-time editor who worked in-house, but she just left to take a fulltime job. And then we’ve got interns working, but I’d love to hire somebody fulltime. That’s the next goal for us.
In the meantime, you’re still keeping on!
Yeah, well, I’m still doing it!