Image: Matthew Loffhagen
When it comes to self-publishing, most authors are looking to compete with major publishing houses: professional covers, impeccable book binding, flawless presentation, the whole nine yards. It’s certainly true that there isn’t much middle ground – readers have little time for books that ‘almost’ look professional – but there is another way to do things. Enter the zine.
Zines are deliberately low-tech, low-cost publications that can be made by a single author without any particular expertise in printing, book binding, or professional-level editing. They’re guerrilla publishing at its best – a way to get your work in print and in readers’ hands ASAP.
But in the days of online content and digital publication, do zines still have a place? If so, which authors can benefit from zines, how can they make their own, and what can they do to ensure success? Funny you should ask, because those are our topics today.
What exactly is a zine?
Opinions differ about exactly where the lines are drawn, but the term ‘zine’ itself tells most of the story. ‘Zine’ is a shortened form of ‘magazine,’ and that’s mostly what zines are: homemade versions of magazines that tend to be shorter and less concerned with production values than the magazines you’ll find at the grocery store.
Historically, zines are generally basic publications, usually photocopied or printed (often in black and white, to cut down on costs) and bound with a staple or two when they have multiple pages. Zines tend to have short runs and relatively few printings per issue (anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand.)
These definitions aren’t just practical concerns; they inhabit the spirit of the zine. Because they’re easy to produce but hard to mass-market, zines tend to focus on cult subjects and thrive within artistic communities (zines have a long history with non-mainstream music genres and political activism, for instance.)
This also influences how readers react to zines. Zine readers are less concerned with professional polish and more interested in raw content. Because zines are rarer than other forms of publication, reading a zine tends to come with a feeling of being ‘in’ on a cultural secret, which can quickly create immense reader loyalty.
Zines tend to have a short lifespan and sporadic publishing schedules based on the whim of the publisher. The ephemeral quality of zine publishing and the form itself make zines precious but fleeting objects.– ‘A Personal History of Zines’, Raina Lee, from Whatcha Mean, What’s a Zine?
For authors, a zine is an easy-to-make, easy-to-distribute way to get your work out there and create a passionate fan base. In a world where writing a book can take one year and getting it to publication another, it’s a way to get your artistic voice heard and create shorter term goals to help evolve your writing. It’s also a way to create opportunities – if you want to write for existing publications, a zine can prove you’re marketable and productive in a matter of months rather than a matter of years.
Zines can take many forms, and for authors this might mean a collection of short writing or poetry, a select passage of a longer work, or even an anthology publication where multiple writers work together to create something of value.
Advantages of zine publishing
The most obvious advantage of publishing a zine is that it’s cheap. Like any art, you invest your time, but after that you’re paying for printing/photocopying, staples, and… that’s about it. If you’re a poet who wants to get read or a writer hoping to direct people to your published works, zines offer cheap, creatively fulfilling marketing.
Coupled with some tactical distribution, zines can be a really effective way to raise awareness of your work. Leaving zines around your hometown is a nice way to find some readers, but distributing them around a town that’s hosting a book fair is genuinely effective guerrilla marketing.
Of course, it’s not all about money, and many people find that creating zines actually allows for unique artistic expression. Zines might make fans, even communities, but they don’t make money, and that can be freeing in terms of what you feel able to produce.
The great thing about zines is, because they’re expected to lose money, there’s no economic imperative at work, so you get a purity to the art that rarely happens elsewhere in “normal” publishing. Of course you have no editorial standards usually, so sometimes you get what you pay for.– Jeffrey Brown, ‘Why? Why? Why?’, from Whatcha Mean, What’s a Zine?
Zines aren’t solely a means to an end. While they’re highly disposable, they’re also a discrete unit of publication – a zine isn’t just a showcase of whatever content is included, it’s a published work, and creating and releasing a published work is a valuable experience for an author.
While zines contain the kind of content you can publish online, they codify it as something more solid and absolute, both for the writer and the reader.
Often people who have never “zined” ask why I choose to print instead of publishing online; I state that it’s obvious – how will we remember websites 5 years or even 20 years from now? I have more faith in zines as a unique tangible expression, a photocopied thought that someone could hold, pass to someone at a show, and find (again and again) at the bottom of your underwear drawer.– ‘A Personal History of Zines’, Raina Lee, from Whatcha Mean, What’s a Zine?
It’s also the case that, in 2019, it’s rare for readers to experience a sense of limited accessibility. By their nature, zines feel valuable – as a personal aside, I recently bought a physical copy of a zine I already had for free in a digital format. Why? Partly because I wanted to support the enterprise, partly because physical and digital publications have different advantages, but partly because there’s something about a zine that makes you want to own it in a physical sense. Because they’re niche publications, physical ownership provides a sense of participation, even belonging.
The small runs give these publications a collectible aspect as well, making them feel more premium in a world of accessibility… [Zines can be] status symbols that signify someone’s values and tastes while alluding to a certain subcultural intellectualism.– Jian DeLeon, ‘The Zen of Zines: Small-Scale Publications and Modern Branding’
People value zines for a lot of reasons, but they do value them uniquely. If you can afford the publishing costs and you’re able to create the content, zines can work for you.
This is especially true if you’re a poet or short-fiction writer. These are genres where it can be particularly hard to break into the mainstream publishing scene with even one piece of work, while zines can showcase as much art as you can produce.
Disadvantages of zine publishing
Zines don’t make money. It’s not impossible, of course, but practically speaking, zines cost money to produce and they make very little back, even if you sell them, which means you’re looking at either breaking even (minus the time spent making your zine) or working at a small loss.
Effective zine publication therefore requires mastery of ‘the triangle’ to remain practical – there’s a reason most zines don’t run for very long. There’s also no avoiding the fact that accessibility is expected in the modern world; while rarity gives zines a unique value, it also means that fewer people see your work. Many successful modern zines are either also online or mostly online, with physical copies available to order. Some argue that actual zines are few and far between, subsumed by creative blogs that offer physical copies as little more than novel merchandise.
That’s a cynical claim, but it underlines that zines aren’t a medium overlooked by progress. Finding readers and achieving success requires the same type of growing insight, investment, and skill as any other method of publication. Don’t approach zines as a medium untouched by modernity – they’re not.
Zines also tend to have some kind of graphical component. Since they’re traditionally handmade, they have a unique aesthetic that’s more advanced than just a printed-out page of text from Microsoft Word. While you don’t have to write your zines on a typewriter, you probably want to look into some sort of illustration, even if that’s just the canny use of stock images. Again, zine culture means that a handmade, low-ability art style can be acceptable (even attractive) to your readers, but a successful zine is unlikely to be ‘just’ writing. This doesn’t have to be prohibitive – everyone can access royalty-free images, which will do the job with some creative thought – but it does mean that if you’re not comfortable working with images, you have a new skill to learn before people will pick up your zine.
How to publish a zine
By its nature, publishing a zine is pretty simple: write some content, organize it into a palatable document, print it, and go find readers. Of course, there’s a little more to it than that.
Begin, as ever, with research. Find some zines on subjects you enjoy (a trusty Google will work, here, but so will visiting a suitably large or niche bookstore,) and decide what you like about their design and content and what you don’t. Set up some kind of internet presence – you want people to be able to make some kind of commitment to your work, such as liking a Facebook page or joining your mailing list, and you also want potential contributors to be able to get in touch for future issues.
Begin with a (very) small print run to learn the basics. The average zine only needs to be producing a couple hundred issues, but be even more cautious than this with your early efforts.
When it comes to distributing your work, there are really two types of zine. The first is a free product distributed in suitable places. If that’s your intent, there’s nothing more to wait for.
If you can do it cheaply, and you’re not looking to sell any copies, just do it. Leave your zines in coffee shops, laundromats, in the lobby of your apartment building or office, on your neighbor’s doorsteps, and tables in bars. If you DO want to sell copies (Franny and I were hoping to make sales so we could donate all the proceeds to Planned Parenthood), then figure out some sort of ordering system online. You can also collab with a band/show promoter to sell at concerts, or find a local flea market to set up a table at!– Emma Olswing, ‘How (And Why) To Self-Publish Your Own Zine’
If you want to sell your zines, a little more preparation is needed. You’ll need to find out who’s willing to sell your work (again, niche stores are your best bet) or where you might be able to sell it for yourself (events like book fairs will let you buy a table from which to sell your work to visitors.) Based on that information, you’ll need to decide how many copies to distribute and what to charge for your work, taking into consideration that if you’re selling through a third party, you’ll need to account for their cut.
Set your price. Usually this is $1 to $5… Most people who will sell your zine for you, like stores and distributors, will take 40–60% of the cover price. If you want to sell your zine through these channels, think about this when setting your price. Some people prefer only to sell their zines directly to their readers. Think about including the price on the cover if you are selling it in stores.– Joe Biel and Bill Brent, Make a Zine: Start Your Own Underground Publishing Revolution
Whether you’re selling your zine or giving it away, try to target groups who are likely to be interested in your subject matter. A lot of venues are open to supporting local artists and stocking free literature for their clientele, but there’s little reward in printing off forty zines if they just end up in the trash. Target venues where you can expect to find interested readers – zine publication is too small-scale to trust a scattergun approach.
Once your zine exists, you’ll need to be active online to foster a community, and consider researching publications that review or recommend zines, and especially zines on your area of interest (again, Google is your friend, here.) People who are already interested in zines are going to be a reliable, evangelizing audience, so it’s worth submitting your work for review to get their attention.
So, are zines for you?
One of the best things about zines is that they’re low-risk – you can print as many copies as you want, and the worst-case scenario is that they don’t amount to anything spectacular. Still, you got your work out there, you got experience in writing, editing, and assembling a published work, and now you have a bunch of work you’re free to use in other ways.
Combined with other guerrilla marketing techniques – distributed at readings, for instance, or used to focus the efforts of multiple artists on a mutually beneficial venture – zines can be a truly effective way to market your work. Readers can end up treasuring zines more than any other medium, treating them as talismanic symbols of their artistic tastes and cultural street cred.
If publishing a zine suddenly sounds possible, that’s because it is – you can do it right now, and given that you’ll be able to figure out the exact cost of publication and distribution, there’s little reason not to give it a try.
Do you read or write zines? Let me know about your experiences in the comments, and check out Everything You Need To Know About Guerrilla Book Marketing and Want To Publish A Short Story Collection? Read This for more advice on this topic.