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Zine Saver

By Scott W. Berg
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 6, 2004; Page WE28

If I'm to be true to the letter and spirit of the world of zines as I proceed, it wouldn't hurt to begin with a little admission: I like having editors. I need my editors. And not just editors: I take comfort in knowing that behind and surrounding my prose there are people who know lots more than I do about page layout, photography, printing and distribution, proofreading, and sales, just for starters. They do what they do, I do what I do; from my point of view, the arrangement is perfectly copacetic.

But I also know this: There is another way.

A recent back cover from a paper version of chickfactor, the brainchild of Washington City Paper alum Gail O'Hara. (Chickfactor)

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If you're of a certain age -- old enough to remember switching from typewriters to "word processors" but young enough to have taken part in serious conversations about disco, punk and new wave -- then you may remember when zines first hit the scene in quantity. Maybe your college roommate or the person sitting in the cubicle next to yours made one. Or maybe you made one. You wrote some text -- articles, opinions, interviews, reviews, incoherent rants, coherent rants -- on any matter of subject: music, parenthood, politics, television shows, runaway consumer culture, sex, your roommate's snoring, you name it. No one told you you shouldn't bother to write about such things -- or maybe they did but you went ahead and wrote about such things anyway. Once you'd created a few pages' worth of material you arranged your writing neatly on several pages of paper, drew or clipped some amateur artwork for a little visual interest, and then finished off your personal publication by way of Scotch tape or paper glue. Off you went, then, surreptitiously or otherwise, to the nearest Xerox machine.

You might not have been interested in readers beyond your immediate circle of friends. But if you were, there was no better strategy than to send a copy of your freshly minted zine (shorthand for -- oh, you know) to a man named Mike Gunderloy, publisher of Factsheet Five, a quarterly zine that did almost nothing but review other zines. A good (or simply prominent) review in Factsheet Five could produce your own personal P.O. box stuffed full of envelopes, each of them bearing the identity of a new reader, a return address and a few bucks for postage. In the meantime you might have also begun to trade your zine, sending a copy off in exchange for someone else's at-home handiwork. At first there were hundreds like you; by the beginning of the '90s, there were thousands like you.

And then the Internet came along. And as the Internet did to many, many things, it turned the world of zines upside down. Zine writers now had to choose to stay underground or go virtual (or both), and then Factsheet Five went away, leaving in its wake such a persistent clamor for its return that founder Gunderloy no longer gives zine-related interviews. (Note to my valued editors: I tried.) The upshot of all this upheaval is that trying to get your head around the world of zines these days is, to use a familiar phrase, like trying to herd cats. Or, more accurately, like trying to herd house cats, virtual cats, alley cats and cartoon cats all at once.

Passion, Not Profit

They're out there, as many as ever, it seems, published on their traditional when-I-can-get-to-it schedules, some still stubbornly mail-only and plenty of others happily willing to be Googled, a wide and turbulent ocean of per-zines (for "personal zine"), review zines, music zines, mama zines, punk zines, history zines, poetry zines, political zines, medley zines (a little bit of everything) and you-fill-in-the-blank zines, all equipped with those great unused-garage-band names: Preparation X. Roctober. Inconspicuous Consumption. Heinous. Inquisitor. Farm Pulp. Reign of Toads. Head. Mystery Date. Murder Can Be Fun. Fridge Magnet Concoctions. Shouting at the Postman. Mr. Beller's Neighborhood. Open City. Brain Child. Grimsby Fishmarket. Girl Swirl. The Carbon Based Mistake.

I'd continue the list (Ben is Dead and Temp Slave just have to make the cut, don't they?), but just how much space do I have here? Some of these home-brewed publications are very good, a few more are very bad, most remain in-between, but all of them . . . well, what do all of them have in common?

"No matter how you're publishing, it's not a zine if profit takes precedence over passion," says Davida Gypsy Breier, a small press book distributor by day who presides over a personal publishing empire in her Havre de Grace, Md., home by night and on weekends. "Not that a zine can't make money or attract a lot of attention. But it's about motivation. If no one paid attention to you, would you still be making it? Would you still make a crappy typed zine if there were no computers? That's the test."

Breier found her way to zines in 1994 thanks to a friend who innocently loaned her copies of Factsheet Five and Reptiles of the Mind, an early and influential per-zine produced by Kat Jaz in Knoxville, Tenn., and made up largely of essays built around what Jaz was thinking about or doing that day. Reptiles of the Mind inspired Breier to pick up the metaphorical pen and put her daily life into paragraph form. "There wasn't really a lot of thought to it when I started," she says. "I just realized that I liked to write. I'd never really written about myself, for fun, without a specific audience. Now I always have a list of articles I want to write."

Indeed. The latest edition of Leeking Ink, Breier's per-zine, features a winding essay about getting her first tattoo, while recent issues have featured such similarly quotidian topics as feeding a shoe fetish, visiting an "icky doctor," riding mass transit and, in time-honored list form, "Stupid Things I Have Done Lately." Readers still need to send Breier their old-fashioned cash to procure an old-fashioned paper copy of Leeking Ink, though she does post a few sample articles for the curious at www.leekinginc.com.

Breier is also an online zine columnist for www.atomicbooks.com, the Web site of Baltimore's Atomic Books, one of the few physical stores in the country to carry a sizable selection of paper zines. And if that weren't enough zine in her life, Breier and publishing partner Donny Smith, creator of the "queer poetry" zine Dwan, produce Xerography Debt (formerly known as Xerox Debt until the copy-machine giant threatened litigation), just one of several serious "review zines" toiling conscientiously to fill the gaping hole left by Factsheet Five. Working steadily on two such different zines means "two different mindsets," Breier says. "With Xerography, I'm orchestrating something. I'm an editor trying to keep track of a lot of contributors. When I don't want to worry about all this coordination and I just want to write, I've got the per-zine. It keeps me balanced."

The Web's Allure

It's no accident that one of Breier's babies is paper and one is electronic. "I'm still more comfortable designing on paper, especially after dealing with a computer all day at work," she says, "but the Web site gives me freedom to experiment with color, and I don't have to worry about the cost."

For other zine makers, the attractions of the Web run much deeper. "There are certain die-hards still producing print zines, sure, and it's easy to be nostalgic about it," says Chip Rowe, a senior editor for Playboy and author of "The Book of Zines: Readings From the Fringe." "But think about it: I can create a Web site that can be seen all over the world. It's very inexpensive. I can fix my mistakes. I can get instant feedback, and I don't have to live anywhere near a Kinko's."

Another advantage of the Web is the chance for those with the necessary graphic expertise to match design chops with the slicks. In 1992, Gail O'Hara had just left Washington and her job at City Paper for New York and a position at Spin magazine when she hatched chickfactor ("the international bible of french new wave, fluffy bossa nova, anglophilic baroque pop, and other junk") mostly because she and publishing partner Pam Berry loved indie bands and wanted to say more about them and run longer interviews with them than the confines of Spin allowed. But O'Hara had serious interests in design and photography and found that a zine allowed her a free and unmediated way to combine her interests and expertise.

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