Zines are Dead
by John Marr
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
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
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. Ninety-five percent of all zines
were/are crap. On the web, this percentage is at least 99 percent.
I'm sure there are cool webzines out there. I just wish I could
Copyright © 1999 by John Marr. Posted
with permission. This essay originally appeared in Bad Subjects,
Issue # 46, December 1999.
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