Zines: What are they? Why are they important? And how do you create one?

Eilidh Sawyers is a Publishing (MSc) student and aspiring magazine editor with a passion for food, crafting, and print. You can connect with her on LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

A pile of zines from the UK and the US

The term “zine” is hard to define. The more I have learned about them, the more I believe that is part of their charm. Zines have drifted in and out of public consciousness over the last fifty years or so, and are now often dismissed as frivolous, pretentious, or irrelevant. I have, however, come to believe that the humble zine can be a force for good in this topsy-turvy world of ours. As vessels for activism, free speech, meaningful narratives, and good old-fashioned creativity—zines have the potential to affect the hearts and minds of both the creator and the reader. This summer, I intend to create my own, but there is a lot to learn and consider before then.

What on earth is a zine? 

The two defining factors of a zine are normally said to be small print-runs, and self-publishing methods. These two elements often facilitate a third common element which is an unconventional, niche, or otherwise controversial subject matter. Without the screening of traditional publishing houses, and, importantly, without a need or desire to be profitable, zine creators can say whatever they want—conventions be damned. In the 70s and 80s, punks took over the zine scene and countless DIY publications were produced on punk music, punk art, and punk thought. This movement created a long-standing tradition of zines as an outlet for misfits and oddballs. But, of course, the beauty is that they can be about anything—whatever you are passionate about, set it down and tell the world. 

Zines have gone out of fashion somewhat since the early 2000s—there are easier ways to shout about your opinions these days. But, as we have seen time and time again, the internet is a hotbed of fleeting opinions, fake news, and bullying that simply wouldn’t happen offline. To set your thoughts down on paper forces you to reckon with them, decide how you really feel and what side of yourself you want to present to the public.

A 2009 study by Bangor University showed that physical print material is more “real” to the brain—it has a meaning and a place and engages spatial memory networks, connecting information to memory more effectively than on screen. They also discovered that physical material involves more emotional processing and produces more brain responses connected with internal feelings—suggesting increased internalisation of ideas consumed through print as opposed to online. Pretty much, if you want to convince someone of something, one tweet in a sea of misguided opinions might not make much difference—setting it in print may affect someone more profoundly than you think. 

What should your zine be about?

The short answer is—whatever you want it to be about. 

The first zines can be dated back to the 1930s with the very first one often cited to be a publication called The Comet, created by the Chicago Science Correspondent Club. The Comet started a long tradition of sci-fi zines, or “fanzines” (which is where we get the term “zine”). In the 60s, some sci-fi fans realized that they shared an interest in rock music, and rock review zines started to emerge. This evolved into the punk zine scene of the 70s and 80s, and then into the riot grrrl scene of the 90s—a response to the male-dominated punk movement. 

A copy of The Comet zine from 1940.

In recent days I have seen all manner of topics recorded in zine form. Publications on plants and insects are, anecdotally, extremely popular. As is art, feminism, food, social theory, and personal journaling. Photography and poetry zines are also common. 

I’m personally still floating around a few ideas for my own, and I’m going to let you into the deep, dark recesses of my phone notes, all in the name of education. My list currently reads:

  • Like sick sad world but it’s a zine
  • Eating the seasons—four-part series of recipes, etc.
  • Callous: a zine on working with your hands
  • Skiptix: pissed, pished, and skeptical
  • NewDissident

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Tonight on Sick Sad World… The iconic fake TV show from the real TV show Daria.

The point is that you can write about whatever you want. Or don’t write about it—take photos of it, or illustrate it, or scrapbook it. Just do it on something you care about. 

How is a zine made?

Now you know what a zine is, and you’re thinking about your subject matter—what makes you tick, what you’re passionate about, what you want to teach or show the world. So, how do you make one? There is, of course, InDesign. A desire to improve my InDesign skills is partly what motivated me to learn about zine creation. Although, it’s hardly the most accessible software—prices start around £20 a month for use of InDesign alone. This kind of expense isn’t really compatible with the DIY, not-for-profit ethos of zine creation. If you’re a student, like myself, you may find that your uni library offers the application. I suggest making use of this while you can—this kind of professional software isn’t easy to acquire for the average hobbyist. 

But fret not as there are plenty of alternative methods. Back in the days before everyone had a computer, zines were commonly produced by hand—either written and illustrated with a pen, or collaged by cutting out words and images and sticking them on the page—and then mass-produced using a photocopier. This old school method is still entirely viable and a really cool way to get hands-on with your content and bypass the need for screens entirely. 

If you prefer the more polished look that specialized software can give you, then there are a few free alternatives to InDesign out there. The most well-known and indeed the most comprehensive is Scribus—an open-source, free to use desktop publisher. Its downside is that it’s not quite as intuitive as the already unintuitive InDesign, but hey, when we’re paying £0 who are we to complain?

Then what?

Once you’ve decided on your subject matter; designed your zine; printed it, photocopied it, or drawn all 50 copies by hand, then what do you do with them? Distribution is an issue for just about all magazine publishers, even the huge ones. It’s one thing to make an incredible publication, but if you want to leave your mark on the world, you need to get it out there. There are multiple ways of doing this and which option you choose will depend on why you decided to create a zine in the first place. 

If you want to make money from your publication there are plenty of online and physical marketplaces equipped for zine sales. Etsy seems to be the go-to for online zine flogging—they have a huge Magazines & Zines section and it’s very simple to set up your own shop. Or there are initiatives such as Zineswap, which started as a service allowing you to swap zines with other creators and has recently expanded to offer a marketplace for buying and selling. Also, keep an eye out for zine fairs in your area—pre-pandemic they were a surprisingly common occurrence and I’m sure they’ll be starting up again soon (at least in the UK). Or there’s always the gutsy option of just walking into a local independent bookshop and asking them if they want to stock your zine. You never know what might come of it. 

If you are creating your zine purely as a passion project and you’re not concerned about profit, then you can consider guerrilla distribution. Leave a stack of your zines at the pub, at a café, or stick them in between the books at a bookshop. Of course, you might want to ask first so that your work doesn’t just get binned at the end of the night. I personally love when I come across any kind of free publication, or newsletter, or even just a nicely designed leaflet. Those leaflet stands you get at bus stations and shopping centres have fascinated me since I was a very young child (judge me all you want!). There is a definite joy in coming across an object which contains knowledge yet unknown and being able to take it away with you. 

If you’re in Edinburgh, it’s also worth checking out the Edinburgh Zine Library. Housed in the Art and Design department at the Central Library, they have filing cabinets full of zines from all over the world. This can simply be great inspiration and research, but if you want, you can donate a copy of your own zine for their archives.  

Zine making workshop at the Edinburgh Zine Library

What are you waiting for?

Maybe reading this has got you thinking about the issues that matter to you. Whether it’s music or knitting, outer-space or politics, poetry or architecture—write it down, take a photo of it, draw a picture, write a comic strip, make a collage, create an image . . . it can look however you want it to look and say whatever you want it to say. The process is one of freedom and expression. Make something you’d want to read, and let other people in.  

Eilidh Sawyers is a Publishing (MSc) student and aspiring magazine editor with a passion for food, crafting, and print. You can connect with her on LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

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