Zines Are Dead
Issue #46, December 1999
Back when I started putting out my zine Murder Can Be Fun sometime in the mid-80s, my daily trip to the PO box was the highlight of my life. And I do mean daily: rain or shine, six days per week, 52 weeks per year. Only federal holidays, incapacitating illness and prior commitments of the most pressing and deeply resented sort came between me and my (zine-related) mail. A good batch of mail could make up for the crappiest day at work. I subscribed to credos like "A day without mail is like a day without sunshine" and "There is no sight sadder than that of an empty mailbox."
But that was then. These days, my mail lacks both quantity and quality. No longer do I schedule my afternoons around my branch's 5:30 closing. I only make the trip maybe two or three times per week. And if I miss a day, it's no longer a personal tragedy.
Just as the action in my mailbox isn't what it used to be, neither is what can only be described by the ghastly term "zine scene." Zines may not be dead, but they're not especially lively these days either.
The zine explosion of the early '80s was driven by three technologies: cheap, sophisticated photocopying, word processors, and to a lesser extent, basic desktop publishing software. Suddenly, anyone could put out a small run publication with little effort and even less money. You didn't have to deal with the muss of mimeographs, or learn the arcane arts of dealing with typesetters or printers. Any obsessed maniac could slap a confused mish-mash of text and graphics together, run down to the neighborhood Kinko's and come out at 3 AM with a few hundred copies of a recognizable, readable publication.
At the time I was scuffling around the punk rock scene, reading true crime and off-beat quality pulp literature on off nights. At shows, I used to tell my friends between bands about all these great books and obscure twisted crimes I was reading about. They seemed interested enough to want to read more. Remember, this was before Ed Gein became a household word. I decided to try writing about the stuff myself. I didn't know of any publication along these lines, so I was virtually forced into publishing it on my own.
I knew a little bit about zines. I had seen a few science fiction zines over the years (thankfully punk rock saved me from a life of science fiction) and I was working on Maximum Rock 'n' Roll, doing layouts and other low-end shitwork. I typed up a few articles, laid them out in an appropriately sloppy fashion, and voilà! Murder Can Be Fun was released upon an unsuspecting, unfeeling world.
This earned me membership in the Great Zine Explosion. Seemingly every other obsessed nut in the country started putting out zines on eccentric topics targeted at like-minded individuals. Further fanning the flames were review zines like Factsheet 5, which offered a cheap and easy avenue to reach potential readers. And when the mass media got a whiff of all these wacky little publications, there was a chance for serious small scale ego gratification. Dreams of movie deals and fat publishing contracts were fantasies, but any zine publisher could legitimately aspire to a mailbox exploding with mail.
And then came the Great Zine Crash of 1997. Years of steady growth in the zine scene reached a peak. Two major anthologies of zine writing came out, accompanied by a flock of other zine related books. Media attention peaked. And then: nothing.
It's been downhill ever since. Most of the zine books tanked. All those breathless feature writers who popularized zines are expending their adjectives on the latest dotcom IPO.
Factsheet 5, the most visible manifestation of the zine revolution, suspended publication and is for sale (Review zine for sale, cheap! Email for details). Most of the distributors who handled zines have either gone bankrupt (hello Fine Print!) or merely laid off the entire accounts payable department (you know who you are). Consolidation and dotcoming in the book industry have killed off many of the little stores that used to handle zines. And the ones that are left aren't especially interested in paying for copies sold. Circulation is down; apathy is up.
It's easy to stay enthusiastic about an expanding, growing phenomena. And it's easy to burn out on a dying one. As fun as it may be to put out a publication for 50 like-minded lunatics, sooner or later, it does get old. People and passions change. Stagnation sets in. Life intervenes. Suddenly, getting that new issue out becomes less and less of a priority. Think about it -- how long has it been since you saw a new issue of your favorite zine? Or any good zines, period?
If you're not growing, you must be dying.
Many of the best zines may be dead, but the editors live on. Odds are, your favorite zine editor has moved on to greener pastures, most likely freelance writing. You can call it selling out. But it certainly is nice to get paid. True, you can't write exactly what you want. However, unless freelancing is your sole source of income, you don't have to write about stuff you hate, either. Whatever you lose in flexibility is made up for by the effortless way in which you can reach larger audiences. As fun as it may be, no writer really wants to spend the rest of their lives writing for the same 50 people. And none of 'em likes all the folding, collating, and licking that comes with being your own publisher. If you've ever licked envelopes until your tongue bleeds, you can understand.
Zines aren't entirely dead. Some, like Cometbus and Tiki News, soldier on, only improving with age. Every once in a while, a new issue of an old favorite or a debut of a publication with potential pops up in my box to make me look like a liar.
But most of the zine action these days centers around what I call "maga"-zines. They're group efforts, with editors, contributors, and fairly broad focuses. They look and act exactly what they are: seriously underfunded magazines. This is not a criticism; there are plenty of cool "maga"-zines out there who publish great stuff. But they're definitely a different animal from your classic one-person, photocopied zine, not nearly as obsessed or quirky. They're much more in touch with the spirit of the times. They'd know exactly what to do with a sudden infusion of venture capital.
The quirky spirit of zines hasn't died. It's just migrated to the Web. If I was starting out today, no way would I mess with hard copy -- I'd go straight to the net. It's cheaper, easier, and faster. Unfortunately, everyone knows this. The web has made a reality out of the fantasies of certain dewy-eyed zine theoreticians: everyone these days really can be their own publisher. It all sounds so nice and democratic. The bad news, as evidenced by the thousand-odd Backstreet Boys sites, is that everyone has become their own publisher. 95% of all zines were/are crap. On the web, this percentage is at least 99%. I'm sure there are cool webzines out there. I just wish I could find them.
When John Marr isn't freelancing, he edits the zine Murder Can Be Fun.