Once Upon A Time...

A 'zine! A 'zine! My kingdom for a 'zine!

Welcome to the wild and wacky world of fan-produced small press publishing.

by LJC

Once upon a time, there were beautiful, well-crafted, lovingly edited and produced books published by fans called "fanzines."

'Zines were the logical next step from APAs (Amateur Press Associations)—mimeographed or Xeroxed stories sent through the mail, that began back in the days of pulp magazines. They were sold at conventions, and through the mail, and spanned the globe. In Japan, some 'zines were in the form of fan-written and drawn manga (black and white comics). In the US and the UK, they were produced annually (or whenever there were enough submissions to make up a decent sized issue) and debuted on a schedule usually based around fanzine conventions such as MediaWest and Revelcon. Some were typed out on typewriters, others were typeset using computers, and still others were run off disk on docutec machines and were as slick as any professional fiction anthology. All were crafted with love.

They contained cartoons, vignettes, poems, filks, short stories, novellas, and novels illustrated by some of the best artists in fandom such as the incomparable Jean Kluge, Marty Siegrist, and Suzan Lovett. They were sold at cost with few notable exceptions (Beauty and the Beast fandom being the chief one—and a practically criminal example at that, where some fanzine publishers charged up to three times the cost of printing), with editors and publishers often going into the red to do so. Readers paid for cost of printing and binding, and got the stories, artwork, poetry, layout, design, and editing for free.

As with fan fiction, not every editor who decided to publish a fanzine had mastered the skill, or had a talent for the art of publication design. Some were simply too inexperienced with line and content editing to produce readable work, others had no eye for layout. But most learned as they went, and many improved with each issue they put out and set the standard for others in their fandom, raising the bar for each subsequent fanzine editor.

Guess what, kiddies? Once upon a time is now.

'Zines are still being produced, and have not been "replaced" by the Internet. However, while the relationship between online fanfic fandom and off-line fanzine fandom remains new, awkward, and generally uneasy, with each passing year one group teaches and learns from the other.

Speaking as someone with a foot in both worlds, please believe me when I say that if you're an online fan and have never held a fanzine in your hands, you are missing out on something truly special and part of makes fandom, well... fandom. The differences between printing out your favourite story and having it in a 'zine are many.

For one, (in theory) stories in fanzines are edited for content, flow, and grammatical and typographical errors so the reader isn't thrown out of the story constantly by hitting typos and spelling mistakes like landmines. (Gratuitous grouchy aside: If you think that this isn't important—think again. A propagation of errors that would have been fixed with a simple line edit is a mark of carelessness, and many readers will not bother finishing a story, no matter how good, if it is rife with such distractions.) The best edited stories engage you so completely that you never notice the tens and hundreds of hours that went into getting them from raw form into publishable shape. What's more, in print fanzines editing is more the rule, rather than the exception as it is, alas, online.

But more importantly, publication design plays a huge part, and it is in fact an art form. While not everyone may have studied typography and its effects on the audience, the fact remains that the amount of whitespace versus the amount of ink on the page really does affect how much you enjoy reading. The easier on the eyes, the more you can lose yourself in the created reality of the story. The fonts chosen, and the gutters, margins, kerning, and so on, are as much a part of the overall design as the cover and the fiction itself.

The icing on the cake—and what the web has yet to reproduce in the same way and with the same quality as well as quantity—is the fan art. 'Zine fans buy a fanzine as much for the art as the stories that accompany the illustrations. Illustrations bring the stories to life, and are what truly set fanzines apart from online fan fiction. They add an entirely new dimension to fan fiction, and can help the reader envision the stories more fully, or just provided droolable visions for the reader to lavish attention on between stories, poems, and novellas.

You don't need a ton of money to produce a fanzine. However, you do need some seed money to be able to create the "master" (a xeroxable or printable document from which all your copies will be run) and generally, flyers to publicise your fanzine, and contributors' copies for your writers and artists who contribute a set amount of material (usually between 3 and 5 published pages). Of course, if you write and illustrate your own stories, this cuts down on tribber copies considerably... In setting the price of the 'zine, one typically takes the cost of the initial print run (and keeping the initial run smallish is a wise precaution. You can always use the money from the first batch to print the second batch, and so on...), add the expenses of the master, tribber copies, and flyers, and then divide by the number of copies in the run.

Your goal is to have a decent sized 'zine that doesn't break the bank, and 60,000 words at $15 is a fairly decent norm, though if you have expensive colour covers and binding, obviously the cost goes up. Think of 'zines like trade paperbacks—most fans are more than willing to plunk down $6 for a paperback, and even $25 for a hardcover, but don't mind the middle choice of a nice big trade. If they like what they see, most are likely to not mind paying $15 to cover the printing cost.

Nor do you need tons of money to buy fanzines. They range in size from 15 page chapbooks to 300 page tomes, but generally run between $3 and $30, and considering how much you may already be spending on toner cartridges, online ISP fees, and phone charges, the expense may not be so great. And for many fans, it's easier to buy a $20 fanzine than a $1000 PC.

The advantages of print versus online are also many. For one, it's hard to bring the laptop with you in the tub (tho most folks wouldn't want to risk damaging their 'zines by taking them anywhere near water either, but you know what I mean, right?). And unless you have a palm pilot and don't mind eyestrain, 'zines are still easier to bring with you on the bus, to the doctor's office, or curled up in bed before you turn off the lights each night. And no matter how cool a website is, it's usually easier and more convenient to grab a book off your shelf to show your sister or your cousin or your best friend from high school. And lastly, there's nothing quite like holding a beautifully crafted book in your two hands. It's a pure sensory pleasure that I've yet to see matched virtually...

Now, I'm not saying that all fanzines are perfect, wonderful, and better than online fiction in every way. There are websites and authors and editors out there that rival and even surpass 'zines in terms of editorial content and design. And there are 'zines that are still rife with typos, have goofy fonts, too much or too little whitespace, and are not worth the paper they are printed on. But in my experience, on the whole you find better editing in print than online, and there are still advantages to 'zines that online fic can't match.

Now, the goal of this column is actually to get more online folks to read fanzines. But if this has you all fired up now to try your hand at small press fan publishing, a great primer can be found at The Quick And Dirty Guide To Fanzine Publishing.

However, here's one major thing to keep in mind if you're going to jump headfirst into fanzine publishing: you are not in this to make money! Remember, fanzines are unofficial, unlicensed tie-ins! Most likely, you not only won't turn a profit, but you'll be lucky to break even. That's why most fanzine publishers will tell you that it's a labour of love. You probably won't make a profit, and what's more, you shouldn't. Try and make a profit, and it's that much more likely that you will get a C&D letter from a legal department.

I won't lie to you; while most fanzines operate below radar, the internet has made it that much easier for lawyers who are trying to protect a studio's properties from pirates—including fan writers and fanzine publishers— to find and shut down those who break trademark and copyright by producing unlicensed merchandise. The risk to you is increased, particularly if you publicise your 'zine online. While it is rare, it has happened. Just ask Rat Patrol fans...

But aside from legalities, we're talking about morals here. It's just not ethical to try and make a profit off of other people's copyrighted characters—not to mention soaking fellow fans by over-charging—and I strongly suggest you set your sights on putting out the best work you are capable of, and trying to break even. Nobody likes pirates, and a fanzine publisher who tries to derive her living from 'zines is a blight on the entire fandom, not to mention gives the rest of us folks a bad name.

Fanzines have been a particular kind of joy in media fandom for the last thirty-odd years, and I cannot stress enough how much I personally have enjoyed reading them, writing and drawing for them, and even editing and publishing them. But don't just take my word for it—check them out for yourselves! There are several fantastico indices on-line that are great sources of info on 'zines in print: Fanfic Resources, Fanfiction On The Net, Fanzine Archives Homepage and TV Fanzine Information are all great places to start!

If you still don't see what all the fuss is about, drop me a line, and I'll see if I can answer any questions you might have.

LJC has been writing, illustrating, editing, publishing, and archiving fan fiction since 1989 in a variety of fandoms, first for print fanzines and then online. She is a professional webdesigner and freelance journalist.

Read the Once Upon a Time archives:

  • Profic vs Fanfic
  • That River in Egypt
  • Tips for writing better fan fiction
  • Enough alphabet soup!
  • A 'zine! A 'zine! My kingdom for a 'zine!
  • When is a Mary Sue not a Mary Sue?
  • My Heart Will Not Go On, Thanks...
  • Canon Fodder
  • If you can't say anything nice... come sit over here by me.
  • Why research doesn't suck
  • Whomp Upside The Head IV: Return Of The Big Stick
  • AUs and You!
  • Mall Rats
  • Reality By Consensus: The difference between canon and fanon
  • The Rain In Spain In My Ass Is a Pain : dialect do's and don'ts