How ToHere, publishers of several different flavors of zines offer the true tales of how they became the zine gods they are today.
Josh Saitz, Negative Capability
No matter how many times people tell you, it's never enough. Zine publishing is a losing proposition, no matter how good, smart, funny, original, connected or cool you are. Accept it. Ahh. That's better.
The first thing you'll have to decide is the subject of your zine. I would imagine that before you decide to do a zine, you should have an idea why. Don't start a zine with the idea that you'll expose people to new ideas and new writers and figure that you'll sweat the details later. If you ask me, and by reading this that's exactly what you're doing, you should do your first issue all by yourself. You have to establish a voice, an identity, an idea of the person who is behind the zine, even if the zine isn't personal in nature. I understand if you want to do a zine with a friend or a spouse, but I'd advise against it because two people cannot do anything great, only one person can. Make it yours and then get contributors, not the other way around, okay?
To me, the most important decision you can make, once you've committed to the project, is to decide how much money you can afford to blow on your project. As far as I'm concerned it's just a project until it comes back from the printer or copy shop. Expect to lose every single penny you put into it for the first three. So, looking at your budget, figure out how much you can spend and let that determine the size, paper and page length. If you're going to photocopy your zine, talk to a zinester who does a zine about the same size, shape and page length as you'd like, and ask them how much it costs to make. If you decide that you want to start small, with photocopying, you'll have to look elsewhere because I have no experience in this area.
When I decided that I wanted to do a zine, I looked at a few zines, not for content, just for the physical structure. I know that I am very different from most zinesters because I didn't start out small. I decided, with my very first issue, that I wanted it to be full-size, 48 pages on the inside, and that I wanted it printed professionally. I did this for a number of reasons: 1) I think if you want to do something, you should do it right the first time; 2) I never wanted to regret being cheap or have something shitty out there with my name on it; 3) I'm lazy and don't have enough friends to help me collate, staple and organize for free; 4) I have the computer skills and the pre-production experience to make the whole thing on my Mac; 5) I am no good at cutting or pasting; 6) I don't have a decent printer, I have a shitty inkjet that cannot even print Quark documents because it is so old; 7) I wanted to learn how to do it, so by committing to doing it right, it forced me to learn how.
At first, I didn't have an idea what the zine should look like, what it should be called, or what it should contain. I knew that I had two stories I had already written (one fiction, one non-fiction) that would be perfect for the zine. I knew that the world of publishing did not give a shit about me. I was unemployed. I had never had a writing job. I had had a production job, but it was so low-end as to be meaningless. So I did what a writer should do: I wrote. Every single day. No matter what. When I was blocked up or got frustrated, I would edit what I already had, come up with layouts or search for cool illustrations. And then I would get back to writing. The first thing I wrote was the manifesto. Once I wrote the manifesto, I was inspired. I couldn't believe how good it was. I couldn't believe I hadn't done it sooner. I couldn't wait for someone to read it. But I didn't rush it just to get it out.
After I had written probably 20 pages of material, my best friend started becoming a junkie. I couldn't believe what an asshole he was turning into and it pissed me off to no end. I have always felt that personal zines get boring because people think that their pain, in and of itself, is meaningful. It's not. Suffering, cruelty or misery are not interesting, unless they are given a context. I didn't want to just bitch about how my best friend turned into an asshole. I was also uncomfortable with the idea of talking about my personal life. But I realized that I could give it context, I could show a side of myself as a prelude to the junkie's story, and that would justify my sharing of personal details. Once I made that breakthrough, and allowed myself the freedom to write, everything just seemed to flow.
As the thing started to shape up I found myself coming up with new ideas all the time. I couldn't sleep because my brain was so active. I hadn't written anything in at least a year before I started the zine, but once I knew that everything was going to end up in print, I had more ideas than I could handle. I started keeping a pen and paper next to my bed and if I woke up with an idea, I'd write it down. Some of them couldn't be fleshed out into anything interesting, so I put them aside. Others, once I put them down, blossomed into fully-realized stories. Just to keep things organized, I made a file on my computer called "Do This Next!" and whenever I had a new idea, I'd put it there. Every now and again I add new stuff to it or move something out into its own file. Some things will never make it into any known medium, because they're too silly, too stupid or too short to justify themselves. Just to give you an example, and to get it out of the file, here's one that only appears here: "For some reason, women are allowed to write about whatever narrow topic strikes their fancy no matter how irrelevant, yet men are expected to address all the universal topics that have a wide appeal. Fuck that. Sometimes my nutsac gets sweaty, but the sweat there smells different than the sweat on every other part of my body. Thank you." See what I mean?
One day I was thinking about porno movies that parody regular films and TV shows, and I immediately started laughing because I thought it would great to have a movie called "Sucked By An Angel." I knew it would piss off religious people and fans of the show, and for that reason alone, I knew it was great. Once I wrote that one down, I came up with two or three new ones EVERY DAY.
After a few weeks of intense work, I came to dead stop. I was totally blocked. I couldn't think of a single thing to write. I had bottomed out at 28 pages. I stopped trying to force it and just put it on the back burner. I think that's the best thing to do when you're blocked, just put it aside. But know that you'll be back. Don't give it up, just give it a rest.
I was able to come back to it when I realized that every zine should have a review section. I thought for a while about what I could review, and after thinking about it, I found something that I knew I could put my own spin on, namely cover songs. I had dozens of tribute CDs and cover albums and for some reason, I never traded any of the bad ones in. So I sat and listened to them, one by one, and wrote reviews. Then I spent a couple of days scanning all the cover art and writing an intro. Since the intro and the reviews were short, they were easy. And because they were easy, I enjoyed them. And because I enjoyed them, they helped me get back into the swing of things. I started thinking of things I hated and wrote an article on that. I thought about people I'd like to kill, and I wrote an article. It was then I realized it was shaping up to be more than forty pages.
At that point, I sent away for the Factsheet 5 Zine Publisher's Guide, which was a very helpful resource. I tried to figure out what my specs were, so I could call a printer and get some bids. I had intended to make just 500, figuring that Tower would probably take at least 100 and that I could sell the rest to individuals who would read my reviews in all the major zine review zines. I decided that I was going to advertise in F5, and that ad, coupled with the positive review I knew I'd get, would help move the other 400. Even if it didn't I figured it was worth having that many because I could always sell back issues in my future issues, and I could use the extras to help me get a job, meet people, trade for other zines or just impress strangers.
When I called printers, they all said that they had a minimum print run of 1,000 copies and that 1,000 would cost me a pretty penny. I knew there was no way I could afford to print 1,000, especially at the prices I was being quoted. I didn't know what to do. I just figured something would work itself out and if not, I could just save up my money and print when I had enough. I thought about asking my family for some money, but I didn't want them to tell me what to do with the zine. That might work for you, but not me. My girlfriend said she'd give me some money to buy a bigger ad, which made me feel great about the whole thing, because if she believed in it, I figured it was worth the risk. I made sure to get every quote in writing and to get recent samples from everyone, to see the quality of their work and to make sure that they were legit.
Around this time I finally got a job. For the next few weeks I worked like fifty hours a week until I was bleary-eyed from staring at computer screens. I learned all kinds of tricks and shortcuts to improve my production skills. I also learned everything I needed to know about pre-press. With all that money, I knew I'd have enough to print 1,000 copies. I even decided that I could go four-color on the cover, like I'd always wanted to do.
I knew that I could probably sell more if the production quality was better, so once I made that commitment, I knew I could do it. I contacted more printers and finally settled on KK Stevens in Illinois for a few reasons: 1) they have an 800 number, which made me think they were reliable and honest; 2) the F5 guide said they did quality work and were "very cool on content" which was very important since I knew I might cross the line for some people; 3) they said they could do 1,000 copies, four-color cover on 10-pt. cardstock, 60lb white paper, 48 pages, signed, sealed and delivered for $1800. That might seem like a lot, but I got bids as high as $6,000 for the same job. They also could go straight to film from my computer files, which I knew would greatly increase the quality of the results.
At the end of November 1997 I knew I was going to do it, I was going to follow through on my project. There was a zine festival coming up in March, but their deadline for entries was the end of the year. I made that my arbitrary deadline because I knew that if I could get my zine to them in time, I could win their competition. I busted my ass over the next few weeks, editing, proofing, tweaking layouts and finishing up the cover. I still came up short. By the end of the year, I still had at least another week of work to do. I called the zine festival organizers and asked if I could submit the laser printout of the zine as my entry and then replace it as soon as my zine came back from the printer. They said sure, and I was ecstatic. I dropped off my zine on New Year's Eve and four days later I sent it to the printer.
In anticipation, I made up 1/4 page ad for F5 and sent them a dummy for review. I promised them a copy when I got mine back from the printer and they said that would be fine.
Everything went smoothly with the printer and they talked me through all my nervousness over the phone. When they said it was on its way back to me, I couldn't sleep or eat for days.
When I came home from work and found the lobby of my building overrun with boxes of zines I almost wet myself. I spent an hour wrangling them all up to my tiny apartment and opened the first one. I couldn't believe how great it looked. I mean, it was better than I ever could have anticipated.
The day after they arrived I sent a copy to F5, thanking them for their patience and telling them I wanted them to run the ad near my review. The next day I sent a letter and a sample copy to every distributor and store listed in the F5 guide. The day after that I sent a copy to every review publication I read about in F5. The day after that I sent a copy to everyone I knew.
For a few weeks I heard nothing. I didn't worry about it too much but I was getting a little antsy to get things moving. Finally, after a month, I got an e-mail from Atomic Books, they wanted 10 copies. Then a distro in Washington state wanted 5. Then a store in Florida wanted 5. I figured at that rate, I'd still have some when I was thirty. The big fish I was after, namely Desert Moon and Tower, didn't reply to my letters. I got a lot of phone calls from people who wanted a few and since I was in no position to negotiate, I took whatever terms they offered.
In March I went to the zine festival and won a prize for Best New Zine. I even brought copies down to the festival but I was too shy to try to sell them. A few days later, I wrote all new letters to everyone, telling them that I won an award and made up a little flyer that had all the nice reviews I'd gotten so far. That worked. A few weeks later I got a call from Newsways, a big distributor in Southern California, and they wanted 300! I couldn't believe it. It cost me like $90 to UPS all those copies out there, and even if they all sold out (which I knew they wouldn't) I would still lose a ton of money on the deal. But I figured if I got it out there, I could move more the next time out.
The thing is, if you want to do it small, you can, it's easy and involves little risk. But that's not the way I am. I didn't want to build up to something. I didn't want to be a marginal little niche thing. I wanted to compete with everyone. I wanted to beat everyone at their own game, because I knew in my heart that I could. I am tired of waiting for something to happen, and unless I did it right the first time, I knew I might not ever have another chance.
I knew that the new F5 would be out any day and with my ad and good review I figured the issues would start flying out the door. Sadly, Seth Friedman is neither smart nor organized, and somehow, he lost my zine and it wasn't reviewed. They had no problem finding my check, my ad or any of my letters, but somehow my zine slipped through the cracks. I was so angry I couldn't believe it. Without the review, I'd just be some other anonymous jerkoff trying to dupe F5's readership.
The sad truth is that Factsheet 5 doesn't sell copies of anything. One reason is that they don't offer enough of an opinion and another is that they just don't have the motivated readership that the other zine review zines have. I think a lot of people read and are involved with F5 because they think it will help them. I would guess that more zine makers read it than zine consumers. As a result of that 1/4 page ad, which was one of the funnier and more original looking ads in that issue, I sold exactly eight copies. My review ran in the next issue of F5, and that review generated exactly one sale. I spent $145 on the ad and probably $10 on postage and free copies to sell a grand total nine copies. And of course, each issue cost me $1.80 and everyone sent me $3 for it. So, after I applied $1.24 in postage to my 10 cent envelope, I actually lost 14 cents on all eight of those issues, not to mention my ad or the long distance phone calls to F5. At that point I realized that I was going to have to make it happen for myself. No one was going to beat down my door and take the rest of my copies off my hands. I wrote yet another letter to Tower and Desert Moon, telling them about all my great reviews and all the places where I was going to be reviewed in the near future.
I got a letter from Last Gasp in San Francisco saying they wanted 75 and I was thrilled, not just to move zines but to reclaim the space in my apartment.
Finally, out of desperation, I just decided to call Tower. On a lark, I spoke to Clint, who had not only read my zine and loved it, but he actually quoted me when I got him on the phone. I told him who I was and a little about my zine and he said, "Yeah, junkies are a dime a dozen! That's a great zine..." We spoke for a few minutes and he said he was sorry he hadn't gotten back to me sooner, but they wanted some. Another guy got on the phone and they talked to me about distributors, sell-through, and a whole bunch of other zine-related things. I couldn't believe it because they were taking me, and my zine, seriously. He said that they wanted around 200, or maybe 250. I talked him up to 300 and we agreed to terms. Soon after I was down to my last hundred. That's when Desert Moon finally got back to me. They loved the zine and wanted to sign me, but I needed to get a barcode. I figured it was worth $100 to get one, so I did. Unfortunately, I didn't have copies left for them to distribute, so we agreed that they'd start with NC2 and we'd take it from there.
Let me take this opportunity to tell you a little about the economic realities at work here. The way printing works is this: it costs a certain amount of money for them to make film, plates and to set everything up on the machines. This is non-negotiable. There is nothing you can do to reduce this cost. Let's say, for the purpose of this discussion, that the whole setup costs $1,600. Once it is all set up, the actual printing and paper costs like $200. So, if you print 1,000 copies, they will cost you $1,800, like mine did. But if you want another 1,000 copies, bringing your total to 2,000, it will only cost you $2,000. 3,000 copies will cost you $2,200 and 4,000 copies will cost you $2,400. So, if you can get a print run of 4,000 copies, each copy only costs you 60 cents. But if you only make 1,000, they'll cost you $1.80 each. Stores and distros will pay you an average of half your cover price, and for some reason, people, especially zine-buying people, balk at spending more than $3 for anything. That's the reality that I'm dealing with. $3 is the most I can charge, so in order for it not to be a losing proposition (and lord knows I cannot afford to lose $2,000 four times a year) I need to reduce the cost of each individual issue. I have to make each one cost less than I will be paid for it, otherwise I'll lose money on every single issue. I expect to lose everything I spent on the first one. I expect to lose most of what I spent on the second one. I hope that by the fourth one it might come close to breaking even, but I know it probably won't happen.
There are a few ways to reduce costs. I can get rid of the color cover, but that will probably mean that fewer people will buy it because the simple fact is that color sells magazines. I can get a shittier paper, or god forbid go to newsprint, but people don't want to drop $3 for something with shitty, rough-looking pictures. I care about what I'm saying in the zine and it shows because I'm willing to spend the money necessary to make it look professional and credible.
I know, some of you may be thinking that it would be easier to get some advertising to offset the printing costs, and that is true. But so far, not a single person has expressed an interest in advertising, even though I sent sample copies and a rate card to a couple dozen places. So, clearly, the only way to make this work in the near future is to make more copies. The only way I can justify making more copies is if I have distributors who can take those copies off my hands, because my apartment is getting smaller, not bigger. I can't have 2,000 copies in my place.
I'm lucky in some ways, but whenever I say that I feel like I should add, "and the harder I work, the luckier I get." I worked very hard to make my first issue blow people away. I'm working even harder to impress people even more with my next one. And because I was willing to spend the time and money to make the first one so good, I know that I can get rid of 1,000 copies of the next one, directly from the printer. They'll be shipping that many out to stores and distros so I won't have to pay the shipping twice (once from the printer to me, and then from me to the stores). Because I'm going to print 2,000, each one will cost me $1, which is probably cheaper than most people can get for photocopying 48 collated pages and mine will look a lot better. I also won't have to staple, bind or collate anything. Machines will do that work for me. If you have any questions related to any of this stuff, feel free to write to me at P.O. Box 226, Murray Hill Station, New York, NY 10156-0226 or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll do what I can. Oh, and don't forget to check out my web site at http://www.negcap.com and be sure to get a copy of my latest issue because it fucking rocks!!
Kris Kane, Retard
We started Retard really over four years ago. We were working with some guys on a literary zine that was equal parts self-important earnestness and Zen nonsense (pretty beat influenced, but ... sort of like a unintentional, lame parody of beat culture). It was sort of a drag, because we all had a lot of ego and effort wrapped up in it and the other guys were slacking off, not doing what they agreed to do. The crew behind Retard was sitting around one night sort of making fun of the other guys in a moderately good-natured way, and the other zine was such a "college boy" thing that we started talking about doing a zine that was as far away from that as we could get. Retard just grew naturally out of that. I should say that it's not like we handled ourselves any better than the rest of those guys, we just went in different directions. We were all assholes, you know? Just different kinds of assholes.
We've always tried to stay with a quarterly schedule, but typical of most zines, we tend to come out a little late sometimes. We used to run consistently about a month behind, and there was one issue that came out almost three months late, but we're pretty on top of it now. There's a larger publishing company in place that more-or-less grew out of those first efforts, so we have to be a lot more organized now.
The thing that keeps us doing this is definitely the feedback. We're still not making any money off of it -- we've just recently barely started breaking even on production cost (copies, paper, that sort of thing). But we've had a lot of really good letters, a lot of people really digging what we're doing and telling us how funny they think the zine is. I mean, those are our jokes, you know? It's really gratifying. The best letters are from people who say stuff like, "I think most zines sort of suck, but yours is just hilarious." That means a lot to us, because we do sort of try to distance ourselves from a lot of other zines out there. We try to be a lot more cohesive, because it does get these kind of responses from people. It's a lot of fun. That's the most important thing. I mean, despite the pain-in-the-ass, running-to-Kinko's-at-four-in-the-morning type of stuff, it remains a lot of fun.
The only obstacles we've every really faced are time and money. Sometimes it's tough to justify spending so much of both on this, especially when it's like we're just "buying" more commitment to spend time and money on it in the future, but ... we keep going back to it. You have to want to do it to do a good job on it. If it got to the point where it was just too much work, we'd have to make some changes. I'd rather stop putting the zine out than stop improving on it.
We'd like to expand, of course. I guess that's another obstacle: fear of crooked distributors. We've had some opportunities, but with all the horror stories you hear about distros closing and screwing the zines they carried, it's tough to stick your head in that lion's mouth. We're going to take the plunge, though. A lot of smaller, one-person distribution places are around now, and most of them seem like really good, honest people who are doing this more for a love of it than a quick buck. We're going to start working with a few and see how it works out. I've never heard anything bad about Desert Moon, but even then, it's such a commitment to work with a largish distributor on that level for a project of this size. If we went ahead and had 10,000 copies of the zine printed to fill projected orders, what happens if 8,000 of them don't sell? We'd have to eat the loss, and ... that's a pretty big slice of pie to choke down. We love what we're doing, and we'd put Retard up against any other zine out there, but we're not sure the average Border's customer would have the nerve to pick up a copy of a zine called "Retard." Once they did, I'd bet they would love it, but getting them to pick it up would be the challenge.
So over the following few weeks I read everything I could find about the hotel, scribbled piles of notes, sketched maps of my explorations and took several rolls of photographs. The more I learned about the building the deeper in love I fell. I tentatively started letting my friends in on what I was up to, and was surprised to find out that, though they certainly thought I was a freak for having a crush on a building, they also found the stories and pictures quite interesting. My friend Steve even asked if he could come along sometime, so a few days later we headed in, and had a lovely time examining convention leftovers, eating free snacks, and even climbing up onto the roof and taking some pictures.
When we left, we were giddy. Steve asked me if I'd thought of a name for my zine about going places you're not supposed to go. I explained that I'd just been planning on making one issue and calling it "The Real Royal York." Although I had explored other buildings before, most notably St. Michael's hospital, I was slightly offended by his suggestion that other buildings might have the history, significance and sheer poetic appeal of the Royal York. And yet... I liked the idea. As we walked east along Queen Street, I peered up at the Sheraton Hotel on our right, and at City Hall on our left, and thought how amazing it would be to eventually explore and chronicle all of Toronto's great buildings. Getting to know all those buildings the way I knew the Royal York would be a lot of fun. So we started playing the name game. Off Limits? Out of Bounds? Urban Explorer? Urban Exploration? Interloper? Finally, Steve summoned forth la mot juste: Infiltration.
With a name and a editorial guideline ("going places you're not supposed to go"), I had everything I needed to begin producing a proper serial zine, and completed Infiltration 1 in a few weeks. I'd already experienced the agony and ecstasy of layouts and halftones and the like from other zines, but Infiltration was my first stab at a digest-sized publication. It took me longer than you'd think to realize that digest-sized meant the page count had to be a multiple of four, and longer still to paste all the half-pages onto bristleboard in the correct order. Eventually, however, I had a proper set of flats for a 24-page premiere issue.
All this while, I was very secretive about the whole project, having picked up an alias and a post office box to spare my parents the shame of knowing they had raised a trespasser. My thumb and pointer finger had developed calluses from hitting ALT+TAB whenever my parents entered the computer room while I was fumbling with the layout in Xpress or cleaning up pictures in Photoshop.
Although I was determined to keep Infiltration a secret from my parents, I was too poor and cheap to actually pay for copies, so I copied the first issue at my dad's work (while pretending to copy something else, of course). The first print run consisted of about 80 smuggled copies, more than enough for me to supply all my friends and pen pals with a copy. I certainly couldn't sell it in stores, because what if the police picked up a copy? They'd come straight to my house and drag me out of bed in the middle of the night and shoot me in the head while my parents sobbed and told them what a good boy I had been. So I was fairly certain 80 copies would be more than enough.
I was wrong. I sent the first issue to a few different Canadian review zines, and traded it with several other zines that had review sections, and it got very enthusiastic reviews all around. Within a month, I was getting enough mail to warrant more than one trip to the post office box a week, and the first 80 copies were soon gone. (I had to supplement the original print run with further scammed copies, until eventually -- skipping ahead a couple of years -- I had printed more than 500 copies of the first issue.)
With the second issue, things got much easier. I started with 200 copies scammed from various office copiers (at my work, at my dad's work, at friends' works, at places I infiltrated), and started selling issues at zine shows around Toronto, where people seemed pretty impressed. After one such zine show, I had a bunch of extra copies, and a friend of mine who worked at a nearby zine store told me I should leave my zines with him rather than carting them home. The store didn't need my real name and address for consignment, and I couldn't picture any police or security guards shopping at Who's Emma, so I took the big step and for the first time surrendered control over who saw Infiltration and who didn't. The zines sold out quickly, and I didn't get arrested, so after that I became much bolder about selling Infiltration through record stores and zine distros, and also started promoting it through a website (www.infiltration.org) and a mailing list.
Making Infiltration available to the general public didn't do much for its finances, but it did lead to several features in various zines, magazines, newspapers, small radio shows and TV shows, where I always stayed anonymous (except once, but that's another story). Being the centre of attention makes me uncomfortable, but being responsible for a zine that is the centre of (small, mostly local) attention is kind of nice in an "aww shucks" kind of way.
Increased infamy also caused the zine's print run to rise with each new issue. When big distributors like See Hear and Tower Records started to carry several hundred copies of each issue, it got to the point where it was no longer feasible to sneakily copy new issues at various office copiers. (Besides which, I'd come to the point where I couldn't smell toner without worrying about being caught by my boss or a security guard.) I started using a tiny Toronto copy shop called TruCopy which offered 3-cent-per-page copies, and began down the traditional zining path of printing more and more copies and losing more and more money on each issue. Unfortunately, the very nice people at TruCopy weren't able to give me a further discount when I finally broke four digits, so after a happy year's worth of issues with TruCopy, I cruelly abandoned them in favour of the considerably lower prices on large orders offered by Business Depot.
At 1,000 copies of each issue, I've hit the magic point where photocopying is at the lowest cost-per-copy and is still cheaper than switching to offset. At this point, I can afford to subsidize a new issue every two or three months without having to resort to anything drastic like a price increase or advertising. I'm truly proud of all the issues I've put out so far, and still passionately enjoy researching, writing and publishing each new issue, so I'm happy.
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