How to write a zine
July 31, 2005 12:48 AM   Subscribe

I feel like my skull is going to rupture if I don't do something, so I've decided to try to create a 'zine. You know, the Kinko's-made, double-stapled things that have almost died since our beloved internet. Any advice?

I've searched around, but found most information about zine creation highly personal. And speaking of personal, I'm thinking of doing a personal journal zine a la Al Burian's fantastic "Burn Collector," but I'm really unsure if I have an interesting enough life. In short, how can I tell if anyone would want to read anything that I write? What do you people look for, or would look for, in a zine?
posted by 235w103 to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Music discussion? Poetry? Travelogues?

I associate all of these things with 'zines--except the associations are all bad. Bad writing and stuff I find totally uninteresting (these are conclusions made by a very cursory review of things I've found here and there--the medium has just as much potential as any other, I've just never seen it well utilized).

If I were going for a creative project of any kind, one more for public consumption than personal edification, I'd try and offer something different or new that couldn't be had anywhere else (yeah, this is hard!).

If you think your stories are boring (really? even an inane life could be interesting if told the right way), how could you frame them in a new way?

I don't really have any good answers, but these are things I'd probably think about. In the end, I'd say go for it--if no one wants to read about these things, you'll find out after the fact. Did Burian know his content was *that* good when he started? Maybe...maybe he just showed a finished work to a few friends first, and then ran with it...
posted by hototogisu at 12:58 AM on July 31, 2005

I look for free and online, which is how I suggest you start. And then, if people reacted strongly to your online magazine, maybe also print it. But don't expect to actually sell many copies.

Editorial tips:
  • Write short pieces that start excitingly and are chunked for easy consumption.
  • Make it sexy. Sexy pictures, sexy situations, at least on the cover. Write for your inner perv.
If you want one very honest opinion of your writing, just point me to an online sample and I'll tell you what I think.
posted by pracowity at 1:11 AM on July 31, 2005

It doesn't matter as much what your content is if you have a good presentation. Good writing, nice graphics. People are going to pick them up, flip through them and see if anything catches their eye. A theme is good, even if its random-you know, "the first zine about beets!" If you want to break even or try to make money, put them at a large, local independent bookstore or record store. Try to find out where other people are selling theirs.

Yes, the internet is killing zines, so try to offer what it can't: something physical in your hand while you ride the bus. If you have the time, money, or inclination, make each one personal, with a hand-colored cover, a sticker or prize included, etc.
posted by slimslowslider at 1:45 AM on July 31, 2005

I don't like zines with pages and pages of idiotic music reviews of bands I don't care about(THIS RECORD WILL ROCK YOUR BRAINS OUT AND SHIT IN YOUR SKULL!!!!). Whenever I buy indie comics, I usually flip through them to see if there's enough words(the majority of amateur comic book artists aren't skilled enough to carry a story simply through pictures, in my opinion; I hate being confused about what is happening because the art is bad and they don't explain it). The opposite would apply to zines, I guess; if I flip through it and it's all text, there's nothing to draw me in, nothing to catch my eye. I used to read a lot of crust-punk zines, and I loved when right in the middle of their reviews of grindcore records and ugly drawings of people vomiting there'd be a recipe for vegan applesauce cupcakes. You need to sneak in fun, especially if you're writing about heavy/semi-boring personal stuff. I love instructional how-tos; how to brew you own hard cider, how to steal postage, how to sew your own friendly felt octopus. Kinko's copies are cheap. I will rarely buy a zine over $1.00; if it looks halfway decent and it's 50 cents, I will always buy it(this is actually the rule I went by at the independant comics convention, but they're pretty much the same thing). Offer to send copies out in return for stamps, and then get reviews of your zine printed in other zines(I used to go through the zine review section of Slug&Lettuce looking for this very thing).
posted by Juliet Banana at 3:43 AM on July 31, 2005

They're kind of old, but I bet these two books by Mike Gunderloy are still useful.
posted by maurice at 5:43 AM on July 31, 2005

My advice for just starting out comes down to "just do it" and "invest in a long-arm stapler". Back when zine distribution existed, I tended to be a sucker for elaborate packaging (OMG its cover is made from stenciled cardboard and it comes with a Monopoly card tucked inside!), but that can wait for later. Just do it, and invest in a long -arm stapler.
posted by snarkout at 5:53 AM on July 31, 2005

Get yourself some old issues of Cometbus for inspiration.
posted by matildaben at 6:25 AM on July 31, 2005

the zines/small press stuff i've seen that work on any level today does what slimslowslider mentions. it makes use of its physical form and offers an enjoyment the internet can't boast of something beautiful and unique one can hold in one's hands, carry with them, marvel at for its form/physical art. the people doing zines now that i know of are focusing on the tangible aspects--making each print they send out unique somehow, studying unique forms of bookbinding, or trying to convey a message of connection through the dispersal of the physical material (doing synchronicity projects among subscribers, etc.). the most successful ones seem to have studied art or be more physical and visual art-inclined than writing obsessed (or they're both, but use the internet mainly for their writing and pony express for their art books/prints). the zines of the 80s and early 90s, that were physically sloppy/austere and more about the content of the writing--the offer of a truly individual and quirky perspective--are a dime a dozen online now as blogs usually.
posted by ifjuly at 6:34 AM on July 31, 2005

A lot of great thoughts in this thread.

I want to respond to a point in the original post, 235, where you say you love Burn Collector (I do too) but don't think your life is as interesting as Al's and therefore why would people want to read it.

Al Burian might be a rock star but you'd never know it by reading his zine- which is what I love. All dude writes about is how fucking cold Chicago is, and how he is a dick to his ex-girlfriends, and how he works crap jobs and is always poor. These are totally everyday and normal things that everybody deals with- yet the genius about Al's writing is that he SOMEHOW makes it interesting; he casts himself as the hard-to-love protagonist and it works.

The trick is to balance the personal and the universal (this is what I learned in creative writing class!). You balance things that are unique about you with things that everybody can relate to. That's what works about Burn Collector- notice how Al writes about his unique experiences growing up overseas, but relates it to typical childhood problems like being a miserable misunderstood kid.

I wish zines were as popular now as they were 10 years ago, and I support any effort to bring them back. Good luck!!!
posted by elisabeth r at 9:06 AM on July 31, 2005

I would listen to slimslowslider, she knows what she is talking about. V Search's; Vol. 1 Zines RE Search, has sections on zine history, how-to's and more. It is dated and I don't know how many volumes they made, but it is a great way to see some reviews of Zines that where popular in the golden era of such publications.

I also second Cometbus, Aaron is one of the best. Maybe pick-up some Crimpshrine if you get Cometbus, you know see what else he was up to. (skip pinhead gunpowder though). Finally I would suggest you do this as a labor of love, not to make money. I would expect to lose money.
posted by iwouldificould at 9:16 AM on July 31, 2005

Tangentially related, but a friend runs the Queer Zine Archive Project (QZAP), and they have an online archive of a bunch of zines from those heady days.

The mission of the Queer Zine Archive Project (QZAP) is to establish a “living history” archive of past and present queer zines and to encourage current and emerging zine publishers to continue to create. In curating such a unique aspect of culture, we value a collectivist approach that respects the diversity of experiences that fall under the heading “queer.”

The primary function of QZAP is to provide a free on-line searchable database of the collection with links allowing users to download electronic copies of zines. By providing access to the historical canon of queer zines we hope to make them more accessible to diverse communities and reach wider audiences.

Maybe browsing the archives could help with some inspiration?
posted by chota at 9:21 AM on July 31, 2005

My favorite zine ever was Openletters. Many people loved it. At the height of its popularity, the editor stopped publishing it -- just because he didn't feel like doing it any more.

But I've always longed for someone to revive it. I've thought about doing it myself. But I don't have enough time. I want someone else to do all the work so that I can just sit back and enjoy it.

(Openletters was mostly online, but they experimented with print editions, too.)
posted by grumblebee at 10:21 AM on July 31, 2005

For me, the interesting thing is if it's about stuff you're obsessed with; interviews are good too -- particularly if they're involved in the thing you're obsessed in, so you can ask all those really geeky questions. The stuff that's like "How come you change the lyrics to this obscure B-side from the original widely ciruclated bootleg of the demo?" The stuff that you would NEVER see in a normal magazine or something like that.

One of my favorite Zines that I own is one that's one issue just devoted to TMBG, with interviews with Flansburgh and Bill Krauss (Flans' friend; producer of the first two records) and it's just got ALL this minutae trivia about all sorts of stuff only basically the obsessed could care about. (It helps that that's one of my obsessions, too, but as I've said many times before, for me, it doesn't necessarily matter that I care about your obsession -- for example, despite my dislike of Led Zepplin, I want to know how Physical Graffiti changed your life. (Or, as I keep wanting to type it, how Metaphysical Graffiti changed your life, too, but then, I love that album...)

It's that kind of stuff that's about being a human being; the key to being interesting isn't necessarily in doing interesting things (though that can help), it's writing about things you're interested in, regardless of whether or not you think anyone else is. If you can carry through that enthusiasm, you've got it made. I might go "Well, jeez, I hated that movie..." but I'll keep reading your piece.

(And, I also like interesting packaging; especially hand-made things or stuff like free CD mixes or even just random geegaws. Stuff like that is cool; in a world where information is easy to come by for free, attention should be paid to the packaging... now if only record labels would learn that...)
posted by Rev. Syung Myung Me at 3:04 PM on July 31, 2005

Don't use standard white photocopy paper. The paper can be just as cheap, and even nastier if you want, but something different - you want the physical form to be something interesting. Think about how hollywood propmakers portray documents as "interesting" or "important" - it's usually "less is more", eg old-fashioned plain manilla cover, old typewriter printing with worn or offset letters. crude black and white photos, or poor reproductions of images. Handwritten comments and notations scribbled in the margins, etc. A "less is more" style that really is less, but is totally exploiting the zine style rather than being forced into it, would be a good approach :-)

As for content, the Blue is a great source of wierd interesting esoteric material that no-one knows about but is of wide interest. (Sure, most of it is current events and the like, but there are plenty of great little oddities that would make great subject matter for a page about random interesting things)

Also - what about some everyday mystery? I read a story once about a man who read a historical book in which two men happened to keep secretly in touch by leaving notes rolled up and pushed into a secret cranny in a famous bronze statue in London. (I might have the details wrong, but the gist is there). The secret nook as described in great detail, so when, years later, the man found himself in london, looking at the statue, he remembered the book and went to see if the nook was really there. Not only was it there, but there was a note rolled up inside it! He retreived the note, unrolled it, it read "Great book wasn't it!".
Geocaching is also on similar real life "treasure-hunt" lines. Maybe if you scour the city for something really interesting, (or create something interesting) finding something cool or bizarre or secret, and then integrate it into the zine in such a way as to make readers wonder whether it's real or maybe want to investigate themselves to find out whether the zine is BS or onto something, then that's a pretty cool hook. Moreover, if there was something cool like that, then the scarcity of the zine suddenly becomes part of it's allure.

The tinfoil hat crowd might be a source of far-fetched yet proveable secret stuff. Eg like the location of one of those hidden traffic monitors they have on the public roads near Area 51 - they're little transmitters hidden underground with the antenna disguised to look like a little plant or cactus. If there was something bizarre like that that was local, that'd be pretty cool :)
posted by -harlequin- at 7:25 PM on July 31, 2005 [1 favorite]

At the copy place you go to, take a good look at the various options the machines offer, finishing-wise. You might be surprised at what an ordinary self-serve copier has available in terms of visual effects, finishing, and other different options. Some of them even have a secondary color option, like red or blue.

Get to know the night guy. He is the only sane person in the Kinko's world and, if you're cool with him, he might hook you up with a deal and/or let you use some of the equipment. If you're doing a huge run, you might wanna look for someone with a docutech type copier with a built-in booklet folding unit. One of those badboys will let you do the whole thing digitially and throw a cover of a different paper stock on the front. You could even print the covers separately and just bind 'em up in the machine, so to speak.

... I used to run copy machines for a living, although it's been awhile. Anyway, if you have any specific questions, the email is in the profile.
posted by ph00dz at 11:46 PM on July 31, 2005 [1 favorite]

Making a zine is like running.

The hardest part is getting your shoes on and getting out of the door. The hardest part of writing (or making) a zine is putting pen to paper and cutting and pasting. Once you get going the process takes over and you keep going until it's finished.

A month ago I put out the second issue of my zine (contact details are in my profile if you're interested). After 18 months of carrying around an unfinished version I finally got down, got it laid out and got it printed. It felt good to get it done, although hand stapling 500 zines was labourious.

All of the best zines are about people's lives, their obsessions and their idiosyncasies. Mine followed in the solid tradition of hardcore (punk) fanzines in being entirely about veganism, straight edge and hardcore (or vegan straight edge hardcore if you like).
  • Zines (especially music zines) become boring if they follow the same formula (intro, columns, interviews, reviews, outro).
  • Avoid beginning your zine with "And so I ask myself, Why do I continue to write? What pleasure do I get from this..." because, to be honest, anyone reading your zine with be thinking "Yeah, why does this dude continue to write... He sucks!"
  • If your zine is a single sheet of folded A4 done in MS Word with huge borders and zero content, you can't put in your introduction "I don't do this zine because I want to get rich..." Nobody got rich from an single sheet of A4. Or a zine.
  • Beware digital printing! If you've got photographs in your zine that have been run off on a laser printer and you get it digitally printed (i.e. scanned in and then reprinted) you might get an interference effect. Photocopying always looks better, and darker.
  • Remember to keep text away from the edges. Zines are printed and reprinted, bootlegged and photocopied for friends. Each copier has different margins so to make sure you don't lose text keep it away from the edges.
Just give it a shot. If it sucks, it sucks. At least you gave it a shot.
posted by xpermanentx at 8:34 AM on August 1, 2005

Wisconsin has a zine fest as part of their annual book festival

But a googling zine fest also pulls up other local zine festivals.

I'm part of a group that makes our comics into zines, which we generally sell at large anime conventions. Participating in the zinefest last year showed us a huge variety of zines out there.

Here a couple tips from me, fwiw:
*Make it readable. Use whatever paper/ink/fonts whatever, but if it's hard to make out, people just won't get your meaning.
*Break up large bits of text with graphics/doodles/something. -Strangely enough, eyes can get tired reading zines. plus, people love odd doodles and illustrations.
*keep in mind where the zine will naturally open - the middle with the staples. Use that space for advertising, or for a splashy middlepage, to help convince people to pick it up.

Zines in our area also tend to go for about 1-4$, generally to recoup printing costs, but more often you'll find yourself trading your zine for other peoples zines at these things. (Or 2 for 1, ect equivilant costs) Also, there are zine libraries out there who will often ask you to donate your zine, which is pretty neat.

Here's another nice zine resource

best of luck!
posted by dreamling at 1:41 PM on August 10, 2005

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