Tips & Tricks

Assorted Tips

Use Book Rate: If you're mailing a substantial zine, or a package of a couple of zines, use book rate postage, which is significantly cheaper. If your package is very light (one small zine, for instance), the price benefit isn't as great, so you'd be better off with First Class.

Avoid Kinko's: When you think "copies," you might think "Kinko's." Don't. Kinko's prices are, in some places, double prices offered by places like Staples or Office Depot. Avoid them if you have any other options.

Skip the Saddle Stitcher: Cheaper, easier to find long reach staplers do the same job at a fraction of the price (like 1/3). In fact, many zine publishers feel long reach staplers do a better job.

Add Color to Your Covers: Whether it's crayon, magic marker, colorful stickers or a hand-applied potato stamp dipped in tempera, spot color on your zine's cover will make it stand out and give it a "lovingly hand-finished" look. Some people feel that the color red seems to help sales.

Pay for the Envelope: When mailing zines, there's a temptation to just staple it shut and write the address on the back. Zines sent this way almost always get screwed up in transit, and will at the very least get stamped and inked.

So, You Want to Start a Zine? by Steven Svymbersky

Before getting out your scissors and committing your thoughts to paper, ask yourself, "Do I have anything new to say? Do I know any new ways to say them?" These are tough questions to answer honestly. Everybody thinks their ideas are truth. So also ask yourself, "Do I have any talent? Can I write better than your average college graduate? Can I draw a straight line ... consistently? Do I have superior taste and sense of design?" When you've answered yes to all these questions, ask them of someone close to you-someone who will tell you the truth. Finally, if it is agreed by many that you have the direction and talent to pull off something special, take the time to do it right. For you extraordinary few, I offer these recommendations in the hope that as you prepare to cast your lure, you'll do it with skill and panache. The rest of you can go back to watching television.

Digest and Half-Legal: 8 1/2" x 11" or 11" x 14" folded and stapled is the ideal size for zines that have no ambitions beyond impressing their friends, trading with other zines and getting their work reviewed in other zines, which, I believe, is all the majority of zines should ever hope for. This size is cheaper to mail, fits in your purse or back pocket, requires less design skill, and doubles the page count you would have if you were to put the same amount of copy on folded 11" x 17" pages or, God forbid, 8 1/2" x 11" pages that are just stapled together.
Standard: This is the most common size, 11" x 17" folded in half and stapled. At this size you are forced to make design decisions. Eight or 12 pages of straight type in columns is OK for a newsletter, but more than that and it's too dense and boring. You need to give the pages visual appeal, balance white and dark spaces, and make use of illustrations. If you don't you may find yourself with interesting writing that no one will bother to read. Remember, just because it's D.I.Y. doesn't mean it's OK if it looks like shit.
Tabloid: Except when printed on newsprint and distributed locally as free papers that are meant to be discarded, this size is cumbersome and requires design experience and talent to keep it interesting.
Mini: Even more disposable and difficult to read than tabloids; this size can be a good way for artists or cartoonists to distribute samples of their work.

Color: I wouldn't say it's entirely necessary, but color goes a long way towards selling your publication, if that's your goal. Even in the small press, many zines are springing for color Xerox covers, which, if you're printing less than 500 is often less expensive than color offset. If your zine is digest-sized you can get two covers on each 8 1/2" x 11" page. If you're printing more than 1000 copies using offset, each additional color can often run you less than $100. Another way to get a distinctive look is to have the cover printed with a color other than black. That won't cost you any more at all.
Information: If you intend to sell your publication on newsstands there are rules that, when broken, will drive distributors and retailers to treat your work badly. For instance, the title should be all the way at the top so it can be seen when stacked behind other magazines. Somewhere you also should print the issue number and price. Most distributors require that UPC thing. It is often helpful to list on the cover some of the more interesting items readers will find inside, but this is usually overdone, and generally it helps readers decide they don't need your publication as often as it sells it.
Artwork: I look for publications with great artwork on the covers, which goes with my distaste for too much information on the cover. I like to see something provocative and expertly rendered. It's irritating to see a cover with great artwork desecrated by a bunch of words.

Typefaces: There are still diehards typing their zines on typewriters, and there's nothing wrong with that, as long as the design is clean and easy to read. Still, for the most part getting access to a computer and different fonts is as easy as going to your library or copy shop. If you have a lot of text it's best to stick with a straightforward font such as Times, Garamond or Stone. Serif fonts are generally easier to read than Sans Serif. Titles, headlines, lists, sidebars, pull quotes, and captions are some of the places you can use the fancier, quirkier typefaces.
Artwork: No matter how good a writer you are or how brilliant the articles you've collected may be, you need to include illustrations. You can cut them from old books and magazines or spend the energy it takes to find good artists who will submit work, but I implore you to dress those pages up. Have pity on us poor Philistines who hate a publication with no pictures. Please! If your printing is photocopy or web press, you're better off using line drawings because these processes often darken and muddy artwork. If you use photographs be sure they're high-contrast. Having photo-stats made will increase the quality of photograph reproduction, but they can be expensive if you're working with a small or non-existent budget. Your average scanner may improve your reproduction slightly, or it may make it worse, while high-end computer technology will give you the polished deal, if you know how to use it.
Overall: Get yourself to the biggest newsstand you can find and examine the publications you think look good. Look at the fonts they're using, how they balance the artwork, text, and white space. Is the text in two, three, or four columns? Do they use graphic borders? Where do the ads fit into the design? Then look at the ones you think suck and ask yourself the same questions. This will give you an idea of the direction you should take and pitfalls to avoid.

Editing: Once you have the articles and stories you want to print, it's important to edit them, not only for errors but for coherency and brevity. The writer of that long-winded rant may be a friend you don't wish to offend, or you may feel it's not your place to decide if someone else's writing is unclear and sophomoric, in which case you don't deserve to be an editor. You'll just be a collator. You also should proofread your copy once it's typeset and again after it's layed out. Don't let those spelling and grammar errors get past you; they have a way of deflating the impact of your work.
Layout: To do your layout the old fashioned way, you'll need some Bristol board, a ruler, Exacto knives, and rubber cement or a hand-waxer, all of which can be purchased at any art supply store. All copy and artwork are placed on the boards by hand; to do a clean job you'll need practice. Of course, desktop publishing software has all but eclipsed the need for this messy method, although some find it less fun than getting their hands dirty and putting their sweat into it. Quark XPress and Pagemaker are excellent programs that, when mastered, give you the ability to make your publication look just like the real thing.

As long as you're printing less than 200 copies, photocopying is the cheapest way to go. Some copiers can even achieve offset quality, but most can't, so be sure you know what you're getting if you leave it at the copy shop. If you're printing more than 200 copies, offset printing is not usually any more expensive than photocopying. Newsprint will be even cheaper. Offset gives you the best reproduction, but even here quality varies wildly from printer to printer. You should always ask to see samples of a printer's work. You also should ask how the printer will bind and cut your zine, what kinds of paper stocks he or she can print on, and how soon he or she can deliver. Higher overhead usually make printer's prices in big cities much higher. Finding a printer in another state can mean big savings, but don't forget to factor in the cost of shipping. Prices per copy also drop quickly when you start printing in the thousands of copies. The more you print, the cheaper it gets.

Factsheet 5: It's a good idea to send your zine to as many other publications who review zines as possible, but it is imperative that you send a copy to Factsheet 5 and other review zines. Factsheet 5 is considered the "zine bible" and your review will reach more readers, especially ones already predisposed to reading zines. It is also a good place to find other zines that you might want to trade with. [Zine Syndicate Note: Factsheet Five is going through a period of transition, and the date of their next publication is uncertain as of 10/1/98. Do more research before you send a copy of your zine to F5; they might not be around to read it.]
Trading is a great way to get zines, but be warned, a lot of zines have stopped accepting trades because they were getting too many shitty ones. How many times must I say it? Don't muck up the water with a half-assed, pointless publication! If you want to create something but have no talent and are lazy, join a rock band; the odds of success are much better. Factsheet 5's publisher, R. Seth Friedman, has compiled a Zine Publisher's Resource Guide that lists all the printers, distributors and retail stores a publisher needs to get started. It is the place to start when considering distribution of your zine. Send him five bucks for a copy. I mean it (P.O. Box 170099, San Francisco, CA 94117).
Distributors: Except in rare cases, your average photocopied, 20- to 40-page, digest-sized zine has few distribution options beyond trading with other zines, putting ads in other zines, and self-distributing the zine to stores that will take them on consignment. Few magazine distributors are willing to go through the time and paperwork involved for zines if only because they usually only cost a buck or two. It's not worth it for the minuscule amount of money they make. Exceptions are usually made for zines that have found a fascinating subject that no other magazine covers and are exceptionally well written. Once you have offset printing and attractive covers (especially with color printing), your chances of getting one of a small press distributor to take you increase greatly. Unfortunately, there are only a few of them, such as Desert Moon, Tower Records and See Hear. A few book publishers and distributors like Last Gasp and Wow Cool carry a small selection of zines as well, and some zine editors run small distros that might have 20 or 30 titles. Large distributors may order hundreds of copies, but they will also want at least a 50 percent discount and in most cases not return your unsold copies. Instead you will receive an affidavit reporting how many copies were sold and returned. Getting payment can take from two to six months average.
Consignment: There are a few stores like Qvimby's in Chicago, Atomic Books in Baltimore and Reading Frenzy in Portland that have made it their mission to carry a wide selection of zines and comix. Occasionally they will buy them outright, but primarily they are taken on consignment, meaning they will pay you for the copies they've sold and return the ones they haven't. Usually they pay 60 percent of the cover price and return whole copies. When dealing with stores, you may find it necessary to follow up on how your zine is doing, and when you can expect payment.
Give 'Em Away: The other distribution option is to leave stacks of your zine at stores and restaurants. The advantages are that you don't have to deal with collecting money and your chances of selling advertising are greatly increased. Advertisers may figure they can at least be sure people will see your publication and, possibly, their ad. Of course, unless you have money to throw away or are able to scam free printing, giving your publication away makes it all the more incumbent to sell advertising, an occupation that's only slightly smellier than cleaning sewers.

Getting It Free: It's no coincidence that a large number of zine publishers work in copy shops or know someone who does. Especially now that most copy shops have all the desktop publishing tools you need. Employee discounts can be incredibly liberal depending on how closely the boss keeps track of things. Many office jobs also provide access to excellent photocopying machines, so you might consider temping.
Selling It: Another thing to look for when you're checking out other zines on the newsstand and in Factsheet 5 is pricing. Nothing will kill your sales faster than being overpriced. Conversely, the lower your cover price, the more likely consumers will buy your wares. If you're selling copies through mail order, you only need to account for how much your zine cost you to produce and its mailing cost, but if you're selling it through distributors and stores, you have to expect to collect about half the cover price. It is extremely rare for a publication to make back even its costs solely from sales.
Advertising: Selling ads takes more time and energy than zine production, and it requires a motivated person who likes to kiss butt. Unfortunately, record labels are the only major buyers of ads in zines, which is why so many publishers print at least a few music reviews. Reviews are the primary way that zines can attract advertisers. For instance, video distributors usually place their ads in zines with film reviews and coverage. If your publication is locally oriented, and especially if it is distributed free, you have a better chance of getting retailers, restaurants and other businesses to buy space. Of course, the greater your distribution, the more you can charge for ads. Bartering and trading for ads is always more appealing to potential advertisers, and it can be just as profitable. I've heard of some publishers who have so much restaurant credit from ads, they never have to buy a meal. Bon appetit.

Steven Svymbersky is the former owner of Qvimby's Book Store. This article is anti-copyright and may be posted freely as long as this notice is attached.

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