Adventures in the E-zine Trade
by Jeff Koyen
As recently as five years ago, the Internet was
populated mostly by professional computer users, savvy government
workers, college students, and the occasional home user. Not
only was the Internet largely unknown to the general public,
it was expensive as hell to gain access to it if you weren't
a savvy government worker or a college student.
Today, access is
cheap, and the Net is finally accepted as much more than a computer
noveltyit's a communications medium, much like radio, television
and print. And with a large enough general population roaming
the Internet, it was inevitable that the so-called "underground"
counterculture would begin to gain a presence. And one way this
presence is gaining momentum is with the proliferation of e-zines,
or electronic zines.
If printed zines
are a dime a dozen, then e-zines are 2 bits for 10 gross. Every
day, it seems, there's an e-zine announced on the alt.zines newsgroup. I suppose that e-zine editors
are sincere enough, just like their printed counterparts, but
sincerity does not preclude criticism, as anyone in this "business"
will tell you. Everyone has a zine or e-zine and everyone
has something to say, but not everyone is doing a good job of
share many problems with their printed brethren. Fickle contributors,
insufficient exposure, and demanding day jobs often conspire
to delay an e-zine's release. But unlike printed zines, e-zines
are free from some of the physical burdens of publishing: expensive
printing and binding, crippling postage, and the daunting task
of storing 20 cases of magazines atop your kitchen cabinets.
Subsequently, it is very tempting for anyone with a computer
and modem to whip together half a dozen essays and poems, come
up with a catchy name, and start an e-zine with little or no
E-zines are popping
up on every corner of the Internet. Much like traditional zines,
the subjects of e-zines encompass everythingmusic, literature,
humor, politics, etc. And, also like printed zines, some are
quite good. But, unfortunately, most are quite dreadful. Some
are well-written; most are amateurish trash. Some are compelling;
most are mediocre and commonplace.
I have read at
least 100 e-zines currently available on the Internet and survived
to tell the tale. If you're looking for tips on distribution,
So, You Want to Start an E-Zine?
provides plenty of nuts-and-bolts advice. If you're looking for
reviews of individual e-zines, Factsheet Five has taken care
of that. But if you're looking for some realisticthough
perhaps harshcriticism, sit back and get ready, because
I have some practical discouragement for everyone with plans
to take the electronic world by storm.
The largest single
problem faced by electronic zinesters is their complete and utter
inability to edit themselves. It is the problem with 99
percent of the e-zines I have read. Period.
Without the financial
limitations associated with printing and distributing a paper
publication, e-zine editors fail to exercise good judgment and
cut back on lackluster content. Many e-zine editors, faced with
the challenge of providing a significant chunk of reading material,
lose all sense of length. And without a page limitation and accompanying
cost-per-page, electronic writers tend to run at the mouth. Subsequently,
poor articles are not eliminated, and an entire e-zine can suffer.
A similar dilemma
faces many print editors. In an attempt to get their money's
worth out of that 8 1/2" by 11" sheet of paper, they
pack in every bland article, drawn-out paragraph and trite word
that comes off their keyboards. The result is often 24 dense,
unreadable pages of writing that would be best left on the Finder
Floor. Or the inexperienced editor often finds him or herself
without enough material to fill those 16 pages; the result is
a zine filled halfway with record and show reviews.
In all fairness,
equating the size of an electronically produced "magazine"
to its printed counterparts is very difficult. For instance,
how long is a two-page article when it's ASCII text, and not
formatted in 10- or 12-point type? (1,200 to 1,500 words). Is
an 80K e-zine too large to send by e-mail? (No.) Will someone
sit and read two hundred 80-character lines on their computer?
(Depends.) These questions affect the quality of an e-zine, but
are rarely considered.
Other factors contribute
to the lack of e-zine editorial prudence, some of which are common
to printed zines. For instance, the mistake of asking friends
to contribute but not having the courage to edit the fuck out
of their poor writing. Or setting an unrealistic goal of delivering
more text than you can possibly deliver in your meager spare
time. Or simply finding out that you can't write for shit. But,
once again, because there is little or no financial risk involved
in producing an e-zine, many writers and editors ignore these
shortcomings and publish anyway.
My second problem
with electronic zines is the same problem I have with most print
zines: redundancy. To hazard a cynical guess, I'd say that more
than 50 percent of the printed zines produced in this country
are at least tangentially involved with music, be it a band interview,
a record review, or a live show review. (Before you call me ignorant
for focusing only on music zines, consider the fact that even
typically non-music publicationseverything from Crank to
Frighten the Horses to Farm Pulpstill contain gratuitous
reviews.) Fortunately, band interviews and music reviews interest
me, so I often read them anyway, redundancy aside.
at least 50 percent of the e-zines I've read contain one or more
of three things that do not interest me: poetry, political discourse,
and social commentary.
Even with the explosive
growth of services like America Online, it seems to me that the
majority of active Internet users ("active" defined
as using FTP, using newsgroups, using the Web) are still college
students. It shows when you read the newsgroups, when you read
the FTP logs, and when you read the majority of e-zines: most
readers and editors have an ".edu" (the suffix that
says the address originates from an educational institution)
at the end of their names. Considering that Internet access is
free for just about all college students (the cost is hidden
in the student fees, and that gets paid along with the tuition
bill, right?), it's no surprise that many e-zines are produced
and distributed from college accounts.
I understand why
there's so much musical content in printed zines: music is the
most common on-ramp to "underground" culture. But why
is there so much bad poetry in the e-zine world? Why is the political
opinion that I read in e-zines the same regurgitated, self-serious
nonsense that I ignore everywhere else? Why does so much of the
online world's poignant social observation revolve around William
Burroughs' appearance in that Nike commercial?
Is it because I'm
at the whim of talkative college students who want to impress
the world with their electronic chapbooks?!
Yes, I think it
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