What are zines?

Even zinesters have trouble defining exactly what they do.

By Anita Pisch

1970s zines

1970s zines. Photo by Jake from Manchester. Some rights reserved.

Defining zines is fraught with difficulty. Definitions abound – virtually everyone who writes on the subject attempts at least one definition. In the first (and still one of only a few) book-length analysis of zine culture in the United States, published in 1997, Stephen Duncombe offers the following definition:

“zines are non-commercial, non-professional, small-circulation magazines which their creators produce, publish and distribute by themselves.”

Although this definition is quite broad, it is problematic. Some zines are produced by more than one person, although not editorial teams, and some have circulations that run into the thousands. In general though, zines are produced by one or a few people, for ‘love’ not money, and bear the hallmarks of handcrafted objects.

13502481015_3e606d53b7_k (2)

Zine Workshop – Making Zines. Photo from the Barnard Library Zine Collection. Some rights reserved

Armed with the desire to be different, zines embrace antiquated technologies, like stenography, the typewriter and the photocopier. Text, where it exists, is handwritten, typed, or sometimes generated on a word processor. Where images exist, they are often hand-drawn, although may be appropriated from the mainstream press, creative commons, computer-generated, or collaged using cut-and-paste.

Typewriter keys

Photo by Steven Depolo. Some rights reserved

Text and images are often combined through cut-and-paste (both analogue and digital), and the page itself may read as an image, disrupting and subverting a linear reading of the text. Indeed, words may be torn off, crossed out, totally blacked out, or constructed from cut-up news type. Or, the zine may read as one linear narrative from beginning to end – sometimes paginated, sometimes not.

Pages are usually made of paper, sometimes fabric, metal, or transparent sheets, usually photocopied to produce multiples, then often stapled together, sewn, or bound with string or ribbon. Post it notes, stickers, detritus or other curios may be included in the package.

One zinester at the Newcastle ‘This is not art’ fair in 2003 created sticker kits to be used to alter ‘Refuge Island’ street signs. He assembled the kits onsite and traded them with others for zines. A zine called ‘Locust’ consisted of a locust and cassette tape inside a small cardboard box.  ‘Canteen Zine’ and YOU (by Luke You) arrive in a takeaway food bag and a tuckshop bag respectively, although zine scholar Anna Poletti claims to have received her copy of YOU in a cassette box. Plastic Knife comes with its own plastic knife attached to the front cover (except for Issue #12 , which had a wooden knife).

YOU zine

YOU -Dear You, I have got a scar on my face…. Photo from Zinewiki. Some rights reserved

Envelopes are usually addressed by hand and may feature glitter and artwork, a personal message to the reader, or even to the postman who is delivering the mail. Alternately, zines are swapped at zine fairs or by mail, left in public places or tucked into library books, or sold online or through book stores, music shops and zine distros (distributors).

My copies of MOTE, by Cameron Baker, arrived as an unexpected gift which fell from the pages of a library copy of an anthology of interviews with American zinesters. In fact, according to the (bitterly disputed) code of ethics, many zines are not to be sold, only swapped. Others can be sold, but at prices that do not go beyond redeeming production costs, not taking into account zinesters’ time. Most zines cost between $1 and $5, although in recent excursions to the Sticky Institute in Melbourne, there were a number of zines selling for $8 to $10, with some asking as much as $15.


Kevin McDowell’s My Tribe documentary, about Sticky Institute in Melbourne, for ABC Pool.
Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GwLfG2W0wCc

Mike Gunderloy of Factsheet Five (a zine reviewing zines begun in 1982 which developed into a gargantuan affair) fame advises those who want to purchase zines directly from the producer to:

“Be patient when you write. Send a stamped, self-addressed envelope if you want more information. Send well-wrapped cash, or checks made out to the person doing the publishing rather than the name of the zine, which probably doesn’t have a bank account. And above all, be prepared to be surprised, entertained, outraged, amused and informed by these, the irrepressible outlaw publishers of the world.”

If the idea of subverting the mainstream and having your dissident voice heard appeals to you, check out Mike’s iconic publication How to Publish a Fanzine, which can be downloaded as a FREE pdf.

2 thoughts on “What are zines?

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