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Adventures in the E-zine Trade
by Jeff Koyen

As recently as five years ago, the Internet was populated mostly by professional computer users, savvy government workers, college students, and the occasional home user. Not only was the Internet largely unknown to the general public, it was expensive as hell to gain access to it if you weren't a savvy government worker or a college student.
Today, access is cheap, and the Net is finally accepted as much more than a computer novelty—it's a communications medium, much like radio, television and print. And with a large enough general population roaming the Internet, it was inevitable that the so-called "underground" counterculture would begin to gain a presence. And one way this presence is gaining momentum is with the proliferation of e-zines, or electronic zines.
If printed zines are a dime a dozen, then e-zines are 2 bits for 10 gross. Every day, it seems, there's an e-zine announced on the alt.zines newsgroup. I suppose that e-zine editors are sincere enough, just like their printed counterparts, but sincerity does not preclude criticism, as anyone in this "business" will tell you. Everyone has a zine or e-zine and everyone has something to say, but not everyone is doing a good job of it.
Electronic zines share many problems with their printed brethren. Fickle contributors, insufficient exposure, and demanding day jobs often conspire to delay an e-zine's release. But unlike printed zines, e-zines are free from some of the physical burdens of publishing: expensive printing and binding, crippling postage, and the daunting task of storing 20 cases of magazines atop your kitchen cabinets. Subsequently, it is very tempting for anyone with a computer and modem to whip together half a dozen essays and poems, come up with a catchy name, and start an e-zine with little or no cash investment.
E-zines are popping up on every corner of the Internet. Much like traditional zines, the subjects of e-zines encompass everything—music, literature, humor, politics, etc. And, also like printed zines, some are quite good. But, unfortunately, most are quite dreadful. Some are well-written; most are amateurish trash. Some are compelling; most are mediocre and commonplace.
I have read at least 100 e-zines currently available on the Internet and survived to tell the tale. If you're looking for tips on distribution, So, You Want to Start an E-Zine? provides plenty of nuts-and-bolts advice. If you're looking for reviews of individual e-zines, Factsheet Five has taken care of that. But if you're looking for some realistic—though perhaps harsh—criticism, sit back and get ready, because I have some practical discouragement for everyone with plans to take the electronic world by storm.
The largest single problem faced by electronic zinesters is their complete and utter inability to edit themselves. It is the problem with 99 percent of the e-zines I have read. Period.
Without the financial limitations associated with printing and distributing a paper publication, e-zine editors fail to exercise good judgment and cut back on lackluster content. Many e-zine editors, faced with the challenge of providing a significant chunk of reading material, lose all sense of length. And without a page limitation and accompanying cost-per-page, electronic writers tend to run at the mouth. Subsequently, poor articles are not eliminated, and an entire e-zine can suffer.
A similar dilemma faces many print editors. In an attempt to get their money's worth out of that 8 1/2" by 11" sheet of paper, they pack in every bland article, drawn-out paragraph and trite word that comes off their keyboards. The result is often 24 dense, unreadable pages of writing that would be best left on the Finder Floor. Or the inexperienced editor often finds him or herself without enough material to fill those 16 pages; the result is a zine filled halfway with record and show reviews.
In all fairness, equating the size of an electronically produced "magazine" to its printed counterparts is very difficult. For instance, how long is a two-page article when it's ASCII text, and not formatted in 10- or 12-point type? (1,200 to 1,500 words). Is an 80K e-zine too large to send by e-mail? (No.) Will someone sit and read two hundred 80-character lines on their computer? (Depends.) These questions affect the quality of an e-zine, but are rarely considered.
Other factors contribute to the lack of e-zine editorial prudence, some of which are common to printed zines. For instance, the mistake of asking friends to contribute but not having the courage to edit the fuck out of their poor writing. Or setting an unrealistic goal of delivering more text than you can possibly deliver in your meager spare time. Or simply finding out that you can't write for shit. But, once again, because there is little or no financial risk involved in producing an e-zine, many writers and editors ignore these shortcomings and publish anyway.
My second problem with electronic zines is the same problem I have with most print zines: redundancy. To hazard a cynical guess, I'd say that more than 50 percent of the printed zines produced in this country are at least tangentially involved with music, be it a band interview, a record review, or a live show review. (Before you call me ignorant for focusing only on music zines, consider the fact that even typically non-music publications—everything from Crank to Frighten the Horses to Farm Pulp—still contain gratuitous reviews.) Fortunately, band interviews and music reviews interest me, so I often read them anyway, redundancy aside.
Unfortunately, at least 50 percent of the e-zines I've read contain one or more of three things that do not interest me: poetry, political discourse, and social commentary.
Even with the explosive growth of services like America Online, it seems to me that the majority of active Internet users ("active" defined as using FTP, using newsgroups, using the Web) are still college students. It shows when you read the newsgroups, when you read the FTP logs, and when you read the majority of e-zines: most readers and editors have an ".edu" (the suffix that says the address originates from an educational institution) at the end of their names. Considering that Internet access is free for just about all college students (the cost is hidden in the student fees, and that gets paid along with the tuition bill, right?), it's no surprise that many e-zines are produced and distributed from college accounts.
I understand why there's so much musical content in printed zines: music is the most common on-ramp to "underground" culture. But why is there so much bad poetry in the e-zine world? Why is the political opinion that I read in e-zines the same regurgitated, self-serious nonsense that I ignore everywhere else? Why does so much of the online world's poignant social observation revolve around William Burroughs' appearance in that Nike commercial?
Is it because I'm at the whim of talkative college students who want to impress the world with their electronic chapbooks?!
Yes, I think it is.


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