Tips and advice on starting a zine-style publication, from format and content to distribution and finance.
Guide to starting your own zine
Are you ready to do a zine?
This is probably the most important question you should ask yourself when you're considering doing a zine -- are you really ready to do one? Doing a zine can take up a lot of your time and become a big responsibility. There's no reason that you should have to do a whole zine -- if you aren't sure you can handle a zine on your own, consider maybe contributing to zines that you like or getting a couple friends to do one with you.
Also, just because anyone can do a zine doesn't mean they should. Not everyone is suited to the kind of work that goes into zines, and there's a lot of forms of creativity that just don't translate well into a zine. That said, if you have a lot of ideas and you think this is the way you want to express them, here's how to do it!
What kind of stuff will be in your zine? Obviously, before you start actually making up pages you need to have some idea what you're going to put on them. Start collecting clipped stuff, pictures, notes on things you want to write. Your zine can be about any subject you want (or all the subjects you want). Once you've decided what you're going to put in your zine, start working on it -- it's a lot easier to do a zine with a bunch of work you've already finished than to try and do one from scratch.
Size and format
Once you've decided what you're going to put in your zine, you need to decide what it's going to look like – what size, and what format you'll do it in.
There are lots of formats to do a zine in. As you order zines, you'll see that some people use "nicer" printing methods -- better paper, or color. But for a first zine, your best bet is photo-coping. It's easy, you can make up copies as you need them (instead of having them all sit in piles in your closet) and the art looks clean because of the white paper. Half-size zines like this look nice, especially if they're stapled properly. You also can experiment with colored paper for the whole thing or the cover, or even an insert. The two bad things about photocopying: Collating (putting the Xeroxed pages in order) can be a real pain (a zine I worked on once had 24 full-size pages, and we made 500 copies -- it took FOREVER to put them together), and if you have a lot of pages it can get very expensive. The biggest advantage is that you can put out a zine like this with practically no money -- just get a few copies together at a time, after you get an order with money in it.
When you're copying your pages, you can do almost any size zine -- the folded-in-half size is pretty much the standard. You can also do full pages and just staple them together, or even do the pages on 11" x 17", fold them in half and staple, and voila! a zine that looks printed. Other variations I've seen: legal-size Xeroxes folded in half (makes a squarish zine) and pages that have been folded in quarters and even sixths, stapled and trimmed to make mini-zines. Remember that the size page you use will affect the number of pages in your zine -- if you do a half-size zine, every double-sided copy = 4 zine pages, so you have to have a page count that you can divide by four (8, 16, 24, etc.).
Plan on starting small -- start off with an issue with a really low page count to save money, and if you get enough to put out future issues, then start adding pages. One girl I know does incredibly tiny Xeroxed zines, but she also does a new one every time she has something new to say or show, whether it's a week later or a month. A zine doesn't have to be big to be good, that's for sure.
Once you've decided what's going into the zine, you can start worrying about making up your pages. You don't have to make the pages in the correct order, but you do need to make them the correct size. Make up a bunch of "flats" (base pages you glue everything up on) -- you can use any kind of paper for this. (If you are doing a full-size zine you might want to consider a heavy paper, like card stock, for the base.) Make the pages the size of your zine pages -- if it's a half-size zine just cut 8-1/2" x 11" paper in half, and so on. Number the pages on the back or right on the flats if you want page numbers in your zine. When that's all done, you can paste up anything you want onto the pages. (Keep in mind that a Xerox machine will cut off about 1/8-1/4" on the edges, so don't put anything important too near the sides.)
Next figure out how many pages you're going to have, and start working out what you want to put on each page. If your zine is full size, it's pretty simple, but if it's a half-sized zine, you're going to have to lay them out and copy them in the right order for them to come out the way you want. The easiest way to do this is to make up a blank zine, the length that yours is going to be. Fold the pages in half and make it the same size as yours. Go from front to back like you're reading it, and number the pages as you go. You can also make notes on what you want to put on each page. When you're finished making up all your individual pages, you can take it apart, and just glue the flats down on the blank numbered pages wherever you want them to go. Now you have a double-sided original, which will make it easier to remember how to Xerox them.
The stuff on the pages
The text (writing) in your zine can be done any way you want -- from handwritten to nicely typeset.
Handwriting is an option if your handwriting is VERY legible (ask someone else if you aren't sure how legible it is) and you use a good black pen. Don't use colored pens, and never use a ball-point. Typing on anything from an old manual typewriter to some spiffy new electronic one will always work. Try marking the outline of the area you want filled with type in pencil on a regular size sheet of paper, and then type directly on it, following the outline. Then erase the pencil, cut it out and paste down. And if you have access to a desktop computer or even a good word processor (if you don't know anyone with one, try school) you can actually typeset stuff for your zine.
As far as art goes, anything that's black and white (even if the "white" part is grayish or yellowed), like drawings or stuff you've cut out of magazines, will usually come out just fine. You can photocopy most colors, too -- try different things out. And you can copy almost anything to make a background pattern -- I've put half my clothes on a copying machine at one time or another. Experiment! One of the big advantages to photocopying is that you can reproduce so many things with no extra cost or effort.
Photographs should be black and white, although most color pictures will reproduce okay. Again, you'll have to experiment. They should be as focused and clear as possible. You can either paste the actual photo into place if it's the right size, or you can Xerox it and paste the Xerox into your page. If you want them to really look like photos, you can get a "half-tone" made. A half-tone makes a "continuous-tone image" (like a photo or pencil drawing, things with grays in them) into a black-and-white dot pattern that looks like a photo, but actually isn't. If you look closely at any (black and white) photo in a newspaper, you'll see that they are really made up of a lot of little dots. Halftones should be pretty easy for you to get, but they usually aren't cheap. The best thing would be to look in the yellow pages -- try printers, graphics, maybe advertising production if they have it. Any place that says it has "full production services" is a very likely bet. Spend an afternoon calling them up and asking if they do halftones. Most of them will say no, but in case you find a lot, ask them a test price -- ask them how much, say, a 8" x 10" 85-line-screen halftone would cost. Then of course pick the cheapest and closest place you found. Or if a place seemed really friendly or helpful, it might be worth a little extra to go there. (An 85-line-screen means that the piece of equipment they use to make the half-tone has 85 lines per inch -- there's actually 85 rows of dots in each inch of the screen.) But when Xeroxing, you can use a finer or a coarser screen -- a finer screen would look more like a photo, but it might not reproduce as well. If you wanted a big dot effect you could get one done on a coarser screen, they usually go down to 45-line screens at most places. Ask them to show you some examples. Also, if you have access to someone's computer with a scanner, you can scan in the photos and print out a half-tone. Not quite as perfect, but a lot cheaper!
Pasting up pages
Once you've got all your contents organized and ready to be put together, start pasting up the pages (gluing everything down) one at a time. Don't feel rushed, you can do it in fits and starts for as long as you want – you're not on a deadline here.
You can use scissors to cut things out, or move up to x-acto knives (special knives for doing crafts and things -- you've probably seen one before, all office supply stores have them). I personally recommend the "X-ACTO gripster", which has a rubber coating on the part you hold. They're much cooler. When you cut things with an x-acto, put the paper you're cutting on top of a piece of cardboard or something similar. It keeps you from cutting up the tabletop, and also makes the cutting much easier.
Paste things down with glue sticks (you can get these from any office supply also -- I recommend the purple-tinted UHU glue stick, it's my favorite), not a regular glue like Elmer's or something -- those wet glues will make the paper buckle up really bad. Make sure you give whatever you're gluing down a good coat or it might fall off when it dries! Once you've put something down on your flat you can wiggle it around and even peel it back up if you have to, but only for about the first 10 seconds. Be careful! Make sure you're putting things where you want them. Be neat or be sloppy -- look at other zines to get inspired.
When you've finished up the individual pages, you need to get them ready to copy. If your zine is full-sized, all you have to do is put them in order. If it's half-sized (or some other wacky size), you're going to have to make originals that are the same size as the paper you're copying them onto, and in the correct order. Follow the directions under "LAYOUT" to make up your originals.
Printing (i.e. photocopying)
Once your originals are completely finished, you can go get your double-sided copies made. (If you do not have double sided originals, be very clear when placing your order if you don't do the copies yourself.) Do as many as you think you'll need, but don't feel like you have to make too many. You can always get more done. Plus, it's easier to collate smaller numbers at a time. Once you've got your copies back, you need to collate them (put them in order), and fasten them somehow. You can staple them together, leave the pages loose but folded in the right order, punch holes in the center and tie them together -- or come up with something entirely new. (A lot of people ask how you staple a big zine right in the center -- the secret is a long-reach stapler that is at least 12" long. A lot of copy shops have one available for people to use, and if you're going to be doing a lot of zines, you can find them at any big office supply place.) All done? Voila! You are a proud parent.
Finance - budgeting your zine
I'd say that money is a consideration for almost everyone doing zines (unless you're independently wealthy or you work at a Kinko's). With your zine do you expect to: (A) lose money; (B) break even; or, (C) make a little money? If you expect to make a little money, well, think again. If you expect to lose money (not much of course), good for you. I lose money on most of my projects. But I consider the non-financial rewards to be more than worth it. (What are they, you ask? Well, mail, other zines, positive feedback, new friends, stuff like that...) And if you want to break even, well, you've got a really good chance!
You need to figure out a balance between your cost and your price -- you don't want to charge too much, but you don't want to go totally broke either. Your cost will obviously depend on the number of pages in your zine. Your price should be as low as you can afford, and will depend on your distribution. Keep in mind that $1 is a standard zine price -- if you're charging $3 (even if that's your cost), a lot of people simply won't risk $3 on something they've never seen before. Keep your zine small and keep the price low.
For example, a typical half-size zine, at 20 pages (5 double-sided Xeroxes) will cost you 65¢ at Kinko's (if you find a cheaper place, use it!!) If you charge $1 for it, you'll make a little money when you sell it in person, break even if you sell it in a store, and lose a little bit when you mail it. It should come out about even. If your zine's a little bigger, you might want to put $1 on the cover, and charge $1 + postage by mail. Like I said, sell it for as little as you possibly can -- and when pricing it you should also take into consideration how many you plan on doing. Losing 25¢ each on 50 copies is a few day's lunch money. But 25¢ each on hundreds of copies could break you for sure.
There are several ways to get a zine out into the world, including: giving out/selling copies yourself (at shows or school or whatever); doing mail-order yourself; having other mail-order/distribution places handle copies; and, selling it in stores.
Distributing it yourself involves two possibilities, doing it in person or through the mail. In person you have the most options, you can sell it or give it away, and even sell it to some people and give it to others. Doing mail-order yourself is the most popular approach by far -- you need to figure out a price that will include postage and then get exposure for your zine through ads and reviews. (You can either charge the cover price, or add extra for shipping. A lot of zines will make it on one 32-cent stamp, others need 55-cents postage. Take a copy, or a blank one of the same weight, down to the post office and find out.)
Selling directly to stores (or more likely, putting on consignment) is also an option. Any store that you or a friend can get to (on a regular basis) is a good place to try and put copies on consignment. You may have to negotiate the amount with each store individually, but you should get 60-75% of the cover price. Don't take less than 50%, ever. You'll have to make up a consignment slip and have it signed by someone with authority, unless they have one already. Usually you set a time limit on the consignment, and at the end of that time, they have to give you money for all the copies they don't have and give you back whatever's left. But you can work this out depending on your relationship with the store. There's lots of combinations of this depending on what you can afford and how into it you are. You could give it away locally in stores or at shows, but charge for it by mail. Or only do it by mail. Do whatever you feel comfortable with.
If you're selling your zine by mail, there are two ways to get people to order: through ads and through reviews.
Ads are always good. A lot of smaller zines will trade ads for free, and classified ads in bigger zines can get a really good response.
Reviews are very important -- not only can you get orders from them, but good reviews will help you get ads, distributors and encourage people to pick your zine up if they see it somewhere. Other places you send copies to will be determined by the content of your zine. Judge for yourself whether you think the readers of a particular publication would be likely to like your zine. When sending a review copy, it's a MUST to attach/enclose a note which clearly states your name, the name of the zine, your address, and mail-order price of the zine.
Trade copies with other small zines like yours, especially if they list other zine addresses. (And list addresses of zines you like in return.)
Whatever you decide to do, remember that this is supposed to be FUN. If you start getting burnt out, or sick of doing zines, then stop. Fill your orders, but don't feel like you have to keep putting out new issues. If you want to change the name or content of your zine, go right ahead! There are no rules -- you can do whatever you want!
By Sarah Dyer