Roll Your Own

So, You Want to Start a Zine?

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.