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Adventures in the E-Zine Trade

My last complaint with electronic zines is technical and aesthetic. Regardless of what the literary purists might tell you, take it from me: design is integral to delivering a printed message. I'm not talking about a Fine Arts degree—I'm talking about common sense. As hundreds of print zines have demonstrated, you don't need a $10,000 computer system and a full-time design staff to produce a quality publication that is a pleasure to read. And, as magazines like Ray Gun prove, having $100,000 worth of computer equipment and a full-time design staff does not guarantee a quality publication. All you need is time, energy, and a little bit of brains.
The same rule applies for electronic zines: common sense, above all else. If you choose to distribute your e-zine as unformatted ASCII text, then you don't have much design flexibility—you can't use different fonts, you can't include graphics. (Although many ingenious people manage to infuse their ASCII text with a bit of personality.) However, if you decide that you must include graphics, or must use some different typefaces, then you must consider your audience and their capabilities. What hardware are they using, and how powerful is it? Is it powerful enough to load my e-zine without crippling their system? Will they need special software to view my e-zine? Should I worry about excluding IBM users if I want to produce a Macintosh document, or vice-versa?
These things are important and must be considered. If you don't worry about these things, your e-zine will lose any potential readers before it has any. For example, in my quest for as many electronic zines as possible, I downloaded one Macintosh e-zine from America Online's software libraries. (In an uncharacteristic gesture of compassion, I will refrain from publishing its name.) This e-zine was made using a program called MagMaker, which creates a stack of electronic index cards that serve as the makeshift magazine.
The problem? The editor used the typeface Palatino, which I long ago deleted from my system (I know that I won't be using Palatino in a layout any time soon.) Because I didn't have this typeface loaded, MagMaker re-distributed the text in such a way that I could not read it—it was "hidden" at the bottom of a "card." Sure, with a little time and effort, I might have been able to find a way around this problem, but Christ, I wanted to fucking read, not solve some chump's technical problems. Frustrated, I deleted it without finishing the opening editorial.
You're going to produce a Macintosh e-zine? Fine. Stick with Helvetica, Times and Geneva. (Remember, you can't include copies of all those great Adobe typefaces that you took from work—it's against the law, and every intelligent FTP site administrator will refuse to keep them on their system.) You're going to include music clips? OK, but warn everyone first—no one wants to spend 10 minutes downloading, only to end up with 15 seconds of a Green Day song. And you're embedding graphics? No problem, but why not forgo those fancy color photos of your angst-ridden paintings—stick to black-and-white—and save everyone 200K of disk space, OK?
Hell, if you're spending 100 hours writing your e-zine, you should at least spend a measly five hours researching its production. Before you post it on the Internet, send it to friends with different computer systems. Make them your beta testers; it's their job to look for problems before you send it to everyone else in the world. Get their opinions: Is it difficult to read? Is it too long? Too short? Too much of this? Too much of that? Whether or not you make editorial changes based on their opinions is entirely up to you. But at least ask.
Although there are thousands of electronic publications already available on the Internet, e-zines are still in their infancy. The explosive development of the World Wide Web, combined with the geometric expansion of online services, is bringing a user-friendly Internet into more households than anyone could have imagined five years ago. While many futurists long ago foretold the death of print media, far more contemporary observers point to the relationship between television and radio: they each serve a purpose—often simultaneous, often complementary—and neither is dead yet. So too will electronic publishing on the Internet and traditional print publishing fight one another as they redefine their roles as legitimate media.
With new forms come new functions. And not only is the function of electronic publishing up for grabs, so is its form. Perhaps the future of electronic publishing lies not in the replication of the magazine and book structure, but in something intrinsically different. Perhaps mailing lists and newsgroups are the seed of a new publishing medium.
E-zines, as electronic versions of magazines, might be passing fads. If they are, then I say "Good riddance"—it will mean a lot less bad writing that I feel obligated to sample, and a lot less work with each new issue of Crank.
In the meantime, the ambitious readers and independent writers will continue to carve out their own niches in this electronic nightmare. If you're a reader: there are gems amidst those dull rocks—you've just got to dig through the piles of electronic bullshit to find them. If you're a writer: don't take your project too lightly just because it's not committed to paper; readers are readers, even if they're not plunking down two bucks at the newsstand.

Jeff Koyen publishes his e-zine, Crank, in an ASCII text, DocMaker and Web version. He reads only one e-zine regularly, Depth Probe. Copyright 1995 Jeff Koyen. Posted with permission.

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