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A to Zine: A Guide to Understanding Zines

Remember the 90s? Boy bands, baggy jeans, real telephones, and the explosion of zines? Before the Internet became mainstream, zines were popular. These independent, often hand-made publications, cover all topics ranging from music to politics to personal life, and everything in between.

What Makes a Zine a Zine?

Zines don’t have a clear-cut definition, and the answer varies depending on who you ask.

“I guess what makes a zine a zine,” editor of Broken Pencil Magazine Lindsay Gibb said, “is the independence of it. It’s the fact that nobody is mandating what’s inside of it.”

Zines can be made by one person or a group of people, she said. Sometimes they have a theme and calls for submissions. For example, Gibb said Static Zine, a zine from Toronto run by three women, always has a theme and a call for people to contribute—the most recent issue was about mental health. In that way, Gibb said the zine is run like a magazine.

“But at the same time I don’t see them making edits to the work of the people […] They give the person a certain amount of space and they let them do what they want,” she said.

Another type of zine is a perzine, Gibb said, which is about someone’s personal life.

“There’s no rules,” she said.

According to Tom Biby, community correspondence liaison for the San Francisco Zine Fest, zines can cover a wide variety of genres, including poetry, fiction, reviews of media, and even just opinions about day-to-day events.

Some popular zines include YOU, an anonymous zine from Australia that usually comes in a paper bag with a letter inside, and The East Village Inky, a perzine about a woman who lives in New York.

Pricing on zines vary. Some zines are free, but Gibb said different people set different prices.

“If someone just really wants to make this zine and get it out there they might just give it away for free,” she said. “If they can’t afford to do that because they need to pay for printing they might charge a buck or two. And then other zines can even be $5-15 bucks […] I think when I go to zine fairs I find that people really anticipate the $1 or $2 price tag and if they see something more expensive than that there has to be something that really draws them to make them want to pay that much.”

Zines aren’t always published on a schedule.

“One thing that was really common in zines for a long time was for a zine to start with an apology like, ‘Sorry I didn’t put this out when I thought I was going to,’” Gibb said.

But some zines come out regularly, either every couple months or four times a year, she said.

“Other people will put it out whenever they feel inspired to do so,” she said.

Zinesters

People who make zines are known as zinesters.

Shawn Eisenach, creator of the zine wholewheattoast, said he has been making zines on and off for the past 15 years.

“I have a fine arts printmaking background,” Eisenach said. “The approachability of the print and it’s being a multiple is important to me. A print is something anyone can hold in their hands. Zines for me are an extension of the print, with a lower barrier of entry. Almost every town has a photocopier.”

The zines are collections of drawings and sometimes comics, Eisenach said.

“It’s interesting how inexpensive to produce and distribute a zine is,” Eisenach said. “You can create work, layout, print, staple, and fold it for pocket change per issue. Your biggest expense *can* be buying a decent long arm stapler. If something is cheap, you don’t need anyone’s permission to make it.”

Eisenach works alone on the zines, which usually come out bi-monthly. Once the images are ready, Eisenach said it takes about a week to do the layout, printing, and assembly.

“A few years ago I had a regular zine called, ‘Objective Non Narrative,’ Eisenach said. “This year I’ve started one called, ‘Isometric Tuna.’”

The zines are not available digitally, but readers can find purchase links on wholewheattoast.com, as well as posts on Twitter @wholewheattoast and Tumblr whenever new issues come out.

“The physical object is still the most interesting to me,” Eisenach said.

Where to Find Zines

Many independent bookstores and comic bookstores carry zines, Gibb said. Biby said the best way to find zines is to go to a festival, such as the San Francisco Zine Fest.

 Run by volunteers, SF Zine Fest has been going for 11 years, Biby said. In addition to zine makers, comic makers, printers, writers, clothing makers, and knitters also attend, he said. Many of the attendees came from the San Francisco Bay Area, though a number of people also came from Portland, New York, Canada, and Europe, he said.

For $50 to $100, creators showcase their work at a table. This covers the cost of hosting the event, Biby said.

“Depending on the exhibitor, SF Zine Fest can be a chance to sell work and make a profit,” Biby said. “Many people pay off their table and go home with bags of cash. Others—especially first time exhibitors—are really there to get their name out and meet other people of like-minded interests.”

SF Zine Fest also has a Reading Room and Library.

“We’ve done the reading room for three years now and it’s been very popular,” Biby said. “We rent out an additional small room and lay out our library collection of zines we’ve collected over the years. People can come in and hang out and read. Most of what they find are not in print or even represented at that show on any particular year, but the hope is that they might find a book by someone interesting and have the opportunity to go talk with the writer or artist. The zines also have websites listed in them, so they can at least go buy a copy from the maker’s website if available.”

Additionally, the SF Zine Fest has a reading tent at the Treasure Island Music Festival and a comic reading at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, usually during the week before the show, he said.

Broken Pencil also hosts an annual event in October called Canzine. It’s a two-day event, with over a thousand attendees, Gibb said. The first day is a symposium and the second day is the fair. The focus this year was on all types of independent creators, Gibb said, so the symposium covered topics such as writing grants, making comics, and dealing with bad reviews.

At the fair over 200 zines and comics were on display and for sale. Additionally there were readings and an annual challenge. Known as The Great Hollywood Zine Ripoff, Gibb said in the past participants had one hour to make a zine based on the name of a movie. This year, two teams from Fan Fiction: The Show had ten minutes to write a fan fiction story and twenty minutes prepare and then perform a reading of their stories. 

“Zine fairs are good for […] fostering th[e] community in different places,” Gibb said.

The zine community is a strong one, with a focus on physical objects. Gibb said zinesters are big on mail orders, and people often put their mailing addresses in their publications so they can write to each other.

There is also a shop dedicated to selling zines. Located in Melbourne, Australia, the store called The Sticky Institute is entirely run by volunteers.

Magazines About Zines

Though several publications that review zines exist, one of the biggest is Broken Pencil.

Broken Pencil was started in 1995 as a place to find and order zines in Canada. Currently there are 12 people on staff, as well as interns who work on all aspects of the magazine. There is also an editorial board, to ensure that a variety of interests and zines from all over Canada are covered, Gibb said.

Everyone on staff either has or is interested in making their own zines. Gibb said Broken Pencil is also considering making its own staff zine.

The magazine is issued in print four times per year, and has articles about independent culture, reviews of small press books, and reviews of zines, Gibb said. Each issue reviews about 40 zines, she said, which the magazine learns about either because people mail them zines, they find new zines at zine fairs, or the staff asks people to send them zines.

Broken Pencil also has a website, which is updated daily. The website has features such as zine events in Canada, crowdfunding zine projects, and sometimes reviews of zines that don’t end up in the print magazine.

History of Zines

Gibb said there are varied answers as to how and when zines started. Most likely, she said, they started before the 1930s, but the 30s are when science fiction fan zines began. Those fan zines look most like the zines that exist today, she said.

“The science fiction zines were written by fans of science fiction […] that existed writing letters to each other or actually writing some of their own science fiction,” she said.

Zines became mainstream in the 90s, Gibb said. Because of that, she was able to sell her own zines in big stores such as HMV and Tower Records.

She said in high school she wanted to be a music journalist, so she started a music zine in the suburb of Toronto where she lived. She interviewed her friends’ bands, wrote reviews, and sometimes added personal stories.

“It was a thing at that time that music stores would do consignment with people and sell records or tapes,” she said. “I said, ‘Can you do the same thing with my zine?’ And they said, ‘I guess we could.’”

Digital Zines and Zine Libraries

“I’d have to say that blogs are basically the modern zine,” Biby said. “They serve all the same purposes of allowing creators of art or writing to get their work out there without having to pay huge printing costs or edit their work for mass interest or PG-rating. But people making ‘zines’ today are still printing and would probably not call a blog a zine even though they might find areas of kinship.”

Gibb said some zines are made using computer programs, and those often have PDF and print versions. Other zines are made by hand, by cutting and pasting materials, and are sometimes photocopied, she said.

More and more, however, Gibb said there are libraries collecting zines and people creating zine libraries. Barnard College has an extensive zine collection in its library, as well as links to other zine libraries both on and offline. Other libraries include Papercut Zine Library and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.

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