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"The Zinesters' Dilemma: What are these zign/zayn/Zion things you make?"
Feature piece for Chicago-based arts publication Gapers Block


Just because some of us out there make zines doesn't mean everyone knows what they are.

The following is a sort of guide for zinesters as to how to approach questions, concerns and misunderstandings regarding what we do by the non-zinsters among us, one that is clear and thoughtful without being condescending or insular. This guide doubles as a introduction for anyone who's curious about zines. Feel free to guide and be guided by it! gapersblockzine1.jpg

To be sure, we all have a wide variety of definitions of what a zine actually is. I've heard people say things including "it has to be photocopied," "there can't be any advertising," "only one person can be involved in making it," "it has to be laid out by hand," "the person/people who make it cannot make a profit," "it must in some way involve feminism, anarchism, cupcakes, veganism, bikes or punk bands," (just kidding on the last one. But not really.)

For our purposes here, I'm going to call a zine a small publication made outside of a traditional publishing model. I know that broad of a definition is problematic for some people but, in this day and age, zines range from the pasted-together-in-five-seconds variety, to art books to lo-fi music journals, to professionally illustrated comics and everything in between. I think an inclusive categorization helps us rather than hurts us.

At any rate, despite the disparate nature of the kinds of zines made, there are some issues common to all zinesters. Whether people just don't get why we bother doing it or how we came up with the idea, it's helpful to be able to explain why zines are important.


(The following is a rough, albeit hyperbolic, transcript of an actual conversation with my father)

"So, how have you been? What have you been up to?"

"Oh, you know, just working on some stuff. I've got a few zines in the works."

"That's great. You're so creative. I showed some of your distant relatives your snarky, weird pizza zine the other day."

"Oh, um, I really would prefer you didn't send Grandma writing of mine that has the word 'fuck' or 'erection' in it. You know it was hard for me to share that part of my life with you let alone someone who remembers me more as a pig-tailed geography bee participant than as an adult."

"Well, I'm just so proud of you. You're going to win a Pulitzer some day with one of your zines. So creative."

"It doesn't usually work that way."

"You're going to do so great and sell tons of them. Do you want to go into business with me? I can open a zine store and sell zines to everyone back home. I can be your manager."

"I don't think so. I wouldn't call making zines a growth enterprise."

"I don't know if I mentioned this to you but I purchased a large bulk order of your zine from (insert local small press vendor here) to pass out to everyone I know. I hope you don't mind. You're going to be a big hit."

"Wow, just....wow."

This dilemma, one this author is quite familiar with, illustrates that people who love and support us sometimes misunderstand why we do what we do - even after we've explained it many, many, many times.

Some third parties expect that you want or plan to make money, or reach some level of fame or prominence, through your work. It's plain to see that making zines won't leave anyone rolling in the dough. If we somehow do end up the world's first zinester multi-millionaire, it's the last thing we'd expect.

If you need to let someone know, hey this isn't about the dough, bro, simply tell them that this project is more for fun than profit. Give them an example of an amazing time a zine helped you connect to someone, or how empowering it feels to have your words read. If you are, in fact, trying to make money, more power to you. But me, I like to remind the venture capitalists I love that it's not all about that.


Unless a zine is made on Lulu or MagCloud and/or by someone with a disposable income, there are a limited number of zines in a run. That's the appeal of it for most people. I've had friends who intentionally leave zines on bus seats or pass them out to anyone indiscriminately. But some of us, (myself included) like to be selective when something takes that much time and energy to make. If Dad or best friend Judy, or next-door neighbor Mr. McWitt wants a whole box of zines to him/herself, kindly explain that you did a die cut on that cover or you pasted and arranged the pages by hand. By no means do you have to give your zines to interested parties just because they want them. You made them; they're your zines.


For me, it falls in line with the previous idea of zines not necessarily being passed out all willy nilly. Being a student of journalism, I know that anything I publish, (i.e. make public) is free reign to anyone who may stumble upon it. That means that before I unleash something into the world I have to be comfortable with the idea that anyone could see it. And that means everything, including the bizarre collages, stories about awkward dates, Dada poems, and fictional tales of sexual fetishes.

That being said, I don't necessarily want my twice-removed relatives stumbling upon the colorful story I wrote about me nearly shitting my pants. I tend to enjoy staying in the realm of "yes, I made this common knowledge" while dwelling in some obscurity, at least as far as family is concerned. If we put what we say out into the world, we ultimately can't control who sees it. It's up to us to decide how vigorous we'll be with making that part of ourselves public. I know some people have solved this problem by using pseudonyms. I stay in the gray area, knowing it's out there but knowing it will probably stay hidden to most unless I introduce it to them.

How do you guys deal with any of these issues? I know it's trial and error and we all have our methods.

Nicki Yowell is a Chicago zinester whose work includes Lightness & Darkness, 'Za the Pizza Zine and the forthcoming A Font by Any Other Name. When not making zines she freelances, works as a nanny and does the occasional banana smash performance art piece.

The Zinesters' Dilemma: What are these zign/zayn/Zion things you make?