Roll Your Own

So, You Want to Start a Zine?

Copier MagicPrinting

As long as you're printing less than 200 copies, photocopying is the cheapest way to go. Some copiers can even achieve offset quality, but most can't, so be sure you know what you're getting if you leave it at the copy shop. If you're printing more than 200 copies, offset printing is not usually any more expensive than photocopying. Newsprint will be even cheaper. Offset gives you the best reproduction, but even here quality varies wildly from printer to printer. You should always ask to see samples of a printer's work.
You also should ask how the printer will bind and cut your zine, what kinds of paper stocks he or she can print on, and how soon he or she can deliver. Higher overhead usually make printer's prices in big cities much higher. Finding a printer in another state can mean big savings, but don't forget to factor in the cost of shipping. Prices per copy also drop quickly when you start printing in the thousands of copies. The more you print, the cheaper it gets.


Review zines: It's a good idea to send your zine to as many other publications who review zines as you can afford.
Review zines and zines that are similar in theme to yours also are good places to find publications that you might want to trade with. Trading is a great way to get zines, but be warned, a lot of zines have stopped accepting trades because they were getting too many shitty zines in return. How many times must I say it? Don't muck up the water with a half-assed, pointless publication! If you want to create something but have no talent and are lazy, join a rock band; the odds of success are much better.
Distributors: Except in rare cases, your average photocopied, 20- to 40-page, digest-sized zine has few distribution options beyond trading with other zines, putting ads in other zines, and self-distributing the zine to stores that will take them on consignment. Few magazine distributors are willing to go through the time and paperwork involved for zines if only because they usually only cost a buck or two. It's not worth it for the minuscule amount of money they make.
Exceptions are usually made for zines that have found a fascinating subject that no other magazine covers and are exceptionally well written. Once you have offset printing and attractive covers (especially with color printing), your chances of getting one of a small press distributor to take you increase greatly. Unfortunately, there are only a few of them, such as Desert Moon and Tower Records.
A few book publishers and distributors like Last Gasp carry a small selection of zines as well, and some zine editors run small distros that might have 20 or 30 titles. Large distributors may order hundreds of copies, but they will also want at least a 50 percent discount and in most cases not return your unsold copies. Instead you will receive an affidavit reporting how many copies were sold and returned. Getting payment can take from two to six months average.
For distribution resources and advice, see the "Distribution" section of this site's Zine Resource Guide.
Consignment: There are a few stores like Quimby's in Chicago and Atomic Books in Baltimore that have made it their mission to carry a wide selection of zines and comix. Occasionally they will buy them outright, but primarily they are taken on consignment, meaning they will pay you for the copies they've sold and return the ones they haven't. Usually they pay 60 percent of the cover price and return whole copies. When dealing with stores, you may find it necessary to follow up on how your zine is doing, and when you can expect payment.
Give 'Em Away: The other distribution option is to leave stacks of your zine at stores and restaurants. The advantages are that you don't have to deal with collecting money and your chances of selling advertising are greatly increased. Advertisers may figure they can at least be sure people will see your publication and, possibly, their ad. Of course, unless you have money to throw away or are able to scam free printing, giving your publication away makes it all the more incumbent to sell advertising, an occupation that's only slightly smellier than cleaning sewers.


Getting It Free: It's no coincidence that a large number of zine publishers work in copy shops or know someone who does. Especially now that most copy shops have all the desktop publishing tools you need. Employee discounts can be incredibly liberal depending on how closely the boss keeps track of things. Many office jobs also provide access to excellent photocopying machines, so you might consider temping.
Selling It: Another thing to look for when you're checking out other zines on the newsstand and in review zines is pricing. Nothing will kill your sales faster than being overpriced. Conversely, the lower your cover price, the more likely consumers will buy your wares. If you're selling copies through mail order, you only need to account for how much your zine cost you to produce and its mailing cost, but if you're selling it through distributors and stores, you have to expect to collect about half the cover price. It is extremely rare for a publication to make back even its costs solely from sales.
Advertising: Selling ads takes more time and energy than zine production, and it requires a motivated person who likes to kiss butt. Unfortunately, record labels are the only major buyers of ads in zines, which is why so many publishers print at least a few music reviews. Reviews are the primary way that zines can attract advertisers. For instance, video distributors usually place their ads in zines with film reviews and coverage.
If your publication is locally oriented, and especially if it is distributed free, you have a better chance of getting retailers, restaurants and other businesses to buy space. Of course, the greater your distribution, the more you can charge for ads. Bartering and trading for ads is always more appealing to potential advertisers, and it can be just as profitable. I've heard of some publishers who have so much restaurant credit from ads, they never have to buy a meal. Bon appetit.

Steven Svymbersky is the former owner of Quimby's.

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