Roll Your Own

So, You Want to Start an E-Zine?

The most apparent benefit of online publishing is that it eliminates printing and distribution costs. It also makes your zine accessible to millions of people without killing a single tree. There are thousands of e-zines being published, and every month, more publishers such as Herbert Gambill, editor of Joyce Wankable, make the leap. Here's what he told me about his experience:

    Since I've just posted my premiere issue, I can hardly speak with much authority, but I perhaps I can encourage others by explaining how a numskull like me could learn how to do an online zine in a few days and then have the first issue up within a month. A year ago I didn't even own a computer, and I'm still a not very comfortable with reading things on the screen. Maybe if I had a laptop it would be different, but I prefer to read lying in bed and using my fingers as a bookmark rather than a cursor.
    Like many writers, I always wanted to publish a zine but never had the money to throw away on something no one would read. The small run I could pay for would quickly be consumed by friends, and the remainder would hardly make a dent in the pulp forest out there. On the Internet I can publish a color edition with sound clips at no more cost than the $30 I pay a month for Internet access. Now my humble e-zine is available to thousands and perhaps millions of people who will never read it. Well, maybe someone will. All my time working on Joyce is a coin into an electric fountain.

Many people get acquainted with the Internet through commercial services such as America Online. After a few months, the typical zine editor makes the leap to a local access provider. If you're new to the Net, America Online is an easy place for a newbie to get acquainted with the online world. Sign up and spend a few weeks to acquaint yourself with services such as FTP (file transfer protocol, the method you'll use to upload pages to your Web site), the World Wide Web (you're soaking in it), and electronic mail (which is how many zinesters distribute their work).

Publishing is Like Sex

Once you're familiar with the Net, whether by fiddling with an online service or by digesting a book on the subject, you're ready to begin organizing your e-zine. After a year of publishing in various formats, I've concluded that online publishing is a lot like sex. When you're about to have your first sexual encounter, your mind races through the many kinky positions, oddball fetishes and other options that you can't wait to try. As you become more sexually experienced, you return to simpler pleasures. You realize, for example, that it can be very erotic to stroke your lover's hair.
In online terms, there are many exciting ways to present your zine, such as the Web and viewing software such as Adobe Acrobat. The equivalent of stroking your lover's hair online is the ASCII format. It's nothing more than your words dumped on the page—no bold, italic, underline, graphics or varying type sizes. Just plain text.
Creating an e-zine in ASCII can still be satisfying, and perhaps more importantly give you an audience beyond your dreams since it can be read by any personal computer in existence. That may not be the sexiest way to do a zine, but it's the easiest and most widely accepted at this point. As Alex Swain of the e-zine Whatever Ramblings notes:

    In the print world, zines take a lot of their characteristics from what they look like. They have a human touch, they express themselves well, and they're full of typos, badly photocopied and have upside-down photos. When's the last time you got to read Time magazine upside down? Print zines also instill a real feeling of culture that big-time, four-color deals couldn't get if they tried. The e-zine world, sad as it may be, is pretty sterile. There's no human touch, everything is straight text and dry as a bone. It takes an experienced ASCII manipulator to make plain text e-zines look good.

Some zine editors do an ASCII version and leave it at that. Others move on to more complicated, graphically intensive stuff. Some do two or three versions of each issue, including a print version. Whatever you choose, online publishing will be easier in some aspects than a print version and more complicated in others. In many cases, you'll spend more time on the online version, since you can fiddle with it until the end of time. As Chris Romano of Dreamboy! points out, "Sometimes producing an e-zine can be a real drag."
Before you embark on your online adventure, pause and consider your options. Here's a suggestion from John Labovitz, who maintains an extensive list of online links to e-zines:

    Try to keep the first attempt simple. Just like with a paper zine, it's sometimes easy to think of all the great things you'd like to publish, all those great designs, fancy graphics, but the zine never gets finished. Keep it simple to start, then build on it.

Many places that store zines, such as the site, prefer the publications to be in ASCII because the files are relatively small and everyone on the Net can read them without assistance. Without graphics and photos to keep the reader transfixed, your writing becomes much more important. Alex Swain:

    Understand that e-zines, because of their lack of material presence, need an extra boost in the literary department. Being descriptive is the only way around not having pictures or drawings. After you write something, go back and pretend that you're an innocent reader of the text. Can you see it? Is it concise? Does it flow?

In his online newsletter, the Network Observer, Phil Agre emphasizes the importance of saying something new with your e-zine. "Most everything on the Net consists of people saying things they've heard elsewhere. People appreciate it if you say something original." The currency of the Net is information, and the good, wild, fascinating, compelling information stands out.
Creating an ASCII zine is not a complicated process, although there are a few guidelines. Any word processor, including TeachText, DOS Editor, Microsoft Word, WordPerfect and the like, can create ASCII text. Simply use the "Save As" function and save your file as "plain text" or "text with line breaks." Here are some other suggestions, in plain text format. ASCII text is also the easiest way to create email ezines, which I'll discuss in a moment.

Moving Beyond Vanilla

There are two methods for distributing your e-zine so that it can include color, photos, icons, graphics and sound. The most popular is the World Wide Web, although a few e-zine editors also use commercial authoring programs.
Steven Jarvis, who publishes his zine, Kudzu, in three formats, says the first step for any authoring project is to get organized. "If you do a lot of versions, it can get complicated, with lots of files floating around. But if you're organized before you start out, you should be okay."
The authoring program Adobe Acrobat is popular among e-zine publishers. One reason is that the viewing software that online readers need to view your e-zine is free, easy to obtain and it runs on about any computer. The Acrobat Exchange kit you'll need to create your zine costs about $200 for Windows or Mac, although there may be educational discounts available to teachers. You'll often see Acrobat files referred to as PDF files.
Steven Jarvis is unabashed in his enthusiasm for the format, saying he's a "total Acrobat slut. It does have its limitations, but it's still the best authoring tool for the money." Herbert Gambill of Joyce Wankable, who received his Adobe authoring software as a Christmas gift, adds:

    Creating Acrobat documents is easy. You prepare your document in the application of your choice (a text processor or a layout in a drawing program—I use ClarisWorks—then you "print" it, but instead of printing it on paper, the software converts it into a PDF file. Then you can open the file(s) in Adobe, crop pages, insert pages, replace pages, add links, add notes, create bookmarks, and so forth, until you are ready to save it as the final document.

Besides the cost, there are other disadvantages to authoring programs. There's always the temptation to make your zine resemble a circus poster. As a result, the file (even when compressed) can be so large that it discourages people from downloading it. Herbert Gambill again:

    The PDF version of Joyce Wankable is large (about one megabyte) and compressing it saves little space since the images are already compressed by the Acrobat software. Still, there's a lot of copy. I hate when I download some huge PDF file and find six pages of silly Wired-influenced graphics. I find a lot of little graphics are better than one huge one. I put a large photo on the cover, though, to make it look like the print magazine I could never afford to publish.

For more on Acrobat, see The Killer App of Online Publishing by Mike Lee. Adobe also has a site, Create Adobe PDF, that allows you to convert as many as 10 Web pages or Microsoft Office documents to Adobe format at no charge, to see how it works.
There are less expensive (and, having used Acrobat to convert my zine to a PDF file, less satisfying) programs that you can use to distribute your ezine. The disadvantage to these programs is that they're not "cross-platform," which means they only work on a Macintosh or a Windows machine, but not both. To create a Macintosh e-zine, consider a shareware program called DOCMaker, which costs $25 (it's self-executing, which means your readers just double-click on the program and it runs without any fiddling on their part). It gives you the ability to create hyperlinks—that is, you can create icons and graphics that, when the user clicks on them, take him or her to another point in the document, play sounds, or show annotations. For a very simple DOS version of your e-zine, take a look at Writer's Dream, which is really not much more than a simple menu program. When the reader starts the program, a menu of articles and photographs pops up. By positioning a color bar over any item and hitting the "enter" key, the reader can view the article or photograph. The program isn't as versatile as DocMaker (for instance, you can't change font sizes) but it might do the trick if you're looking for something very simple. A better option might be to create a word processing document and then save it as an RTF file. That format can be read by most word processors on both Mac and Windows machines.
The chief appeal of an authoring program to many zine editors is that it allows you to create a zine as you would on paper, complete with cover and photographs and colors, at practically no cost beyond the purchase of the software. It adds an interactive dimension, as well, by allowing you to link elements through icons and include sound files, such as a greeting welcoming people to the issue.