Who and What We Are

Xerography Debt is a review zine for zine readers by zine writers (and readers). It is a hybrid of review zine and personal zine (the ancestor to many blogs). The paper version has been around since 1999. This blog thing is are attempt to bridge the gap between Web 2.0 and Paper 1.0. Print is not dead, but it is becoming more pixelated.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, It Is Being Published

This column appears in the forthcoming issue of Xerography Debt (#29). Order now!

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,
It Is Being Published

by Davida Gypsy Breier

What is a zine? No, seriously. I’m not trying to sound like an MTV reporter in 1996 trying to hype a “youth fad,” I’m genuinely questioning how the combined loss of generational history and the massive rise in independent publishing over the last five years has blurred lines and broken down walls. When I got into zines it was a culture of barter, freedom of expression, and rebellion against established media. We published zines because we wanted to communicate and because what we had to say and how we wanted to say it was of no interest to commercial publishers. That was fine, they had their world and we had ours. Zines that got big enough to carry ISSNs or barcodes of any kind were scorned. And anything with an ISBN might as well have carried the mark of the beast. We were in a culture war of sorts, defying the commodification of art and ideas. Many of the people I knew and traded with at that time were in their teens and twenties. We were figuring ourselves out and zines were how we did it.

In many cases zines actually lead (or even helped) us into careers as librarians or in publishing. I fall into the latter camp. I started out working for a non-profit that supported itself through publishing. From there I went to work for a distributor that specialized in small presses. In some cases, the small book publishers I worked with were like zine publishers – only they were older and had the capital to fund their projects. They had something to say, wanted to connect with readers, and commercial publishers weren’t interested. It has often been said that zines are defined by a lack of financial gain. Well, if that is the case, most book publishers I know are actually zine publishers. 

I watched the struggles these small publishers were experiencing and they mirrored some of what we faced in zineland. Up until 1998 we had Factsheet 5 to help readers and publishers find each other. Small book publishers had no such vehicle. Other zine review zines sprang up, but none of us ever had the distribution into the retail market that F5 had. Speaking of distribution, it is very hard for small presses to get distributed and when they do it can be expensive.  Again, this is a similar barrier in zines. How many of us remember zines that just disappeared – how many of you realize that some disappeared because their distributor (anyone remember Desert Moon? Fine Print?) went under owing them money, which meant that print and postage bills went unpaid and the publication was compromised or ultimately folded. How many of us had to scale back after Tower went under?

I was working with these small presses as POD (print-on-demand) technologies started really developing. At that time stores didn’t want to touch anything they thought was POD because they felt the supply was limited and the quality was poor – sound familiar zine people?

Let’s flash forward a few years. In 1995, 113,589 ISBN’s were registered with Bowker; in 2010 there were 316,480. What happened? Fucking independent publishers happened! We all talk about the death of print (both zines and books), but look at those numbers. More books are being published than ever before. We act like blogs are killing zines. What if books are killing zines? What if the people, faced with all the barriers we faced in 1995, wanted to publish and couldn’t. Chances are some of them would be making zines. Instead, in 2011 the barriers between the worlds of book publishing and zine publishing are disintegrating. If I wanted to create a book today there are companies that will help me do everything from registering an ISBN (I don’t have to buy an expensive block of 10 or 100 now), do the layout in an automated template, and set my file up with a POD printer. Imagine something like that existing in 1995! Is what you have created a zine? A chapbook? A book? What the hell is it? And does that matter?

Within the book publishing world there is a lot of identity crisis going on right now. Digitization and the easy access to the industry have broken down so many walls that used to exist. I mean, even the term book is being challenged by the larger notion of content. Here’s a question to exemplify how things are changing: What is your favorite recording artist or song? Did you hear the music or picture a band or person? Or did you picture a CD, LP, or MP3 file? If you pictured the recording artist you are interested in the content. If you pictured the CD you are interested in the format or media. The term book or zine defines how you will read, not what you will read. It is the media, not the content. What matters more to you?

These days I wear several hats in the land of publishing (and a few in zineland) and some of my focus is digital content. I have read on an e-reader and on a laptop, and I can see the potential value of this media, but as you can see by this zine in your hands I have not given up traditionally printed zines or books. One thing I see ebooks doing is something we all were doing in 1995 – independently produced ebooks are challenging the establishment.  They are providing readers with alternatives. They are often cheaply produced or free and filled with typos and poorly rendered design. But are they zines? No, of course not. But they sound a hell of a lot like a zine, don’t they?

So this brings me back to my original question? What is a zine? Is a definition created to try and explain the “fad” to the uninitiated in 1995 still accurate? I don’t think so. I think that zines, like publishing, have undergone a few changes and that we should keep our community open instead of trying to hold onto established labels because we are fearful of change. Does that mean I think a blog is a zine? No, I don’t. But maybe you do. Does that mean I think a paper zine created by cutting and pasting directly from a blog is a zine? Well, yes, technically, but I also think it is hella lazy.

If we are going to have the label talk, let’s step back in time a moment and discuss how we got here. Current nomenclature stems from the term “fanzine.” When I was a wee geek I actually subscribed to a few SF fanzines, but didn’t really think about their relationship to zines until I was firmly entrenched in zine culture. “Fan magazines” are another thing entirely. An example would be Sports Illustrated – this is created as a for-profit venture and caters to the interest of fans. So back to fanzines – these were everything from DIY to semi-professional publications that originated in science fiction circles. In many cases they were modeled after existing professional publications. These were generally genre specific to a largely homogenized audience. Existing publications provided a blueprint. Not a lot of boundaries being pushed here.

People like to write about their obsessions, so early SF fanzine culture lent itself to other fan-based genres, such as horror, music, and sports (note that these were traditionally “male fan” genres – we’ll get back to that in a minute). Music will become an important one as independent music gains a foothold, but commercial music magazines and radio stations refuse to cover and play these underground bands. Sub-cultures form around these marginalized arts.

For early fanzines, there was an attempt at aesthetic – again emulating professional magazines. Remember, we are talking about the ’30s-’50s here, so these were being printed on mimeographs and ditto machines. These took time to set up and were labor intensive. So what happens to bring modern zines to the fore? Two things: 1) technology – photocopies become cheap and accessible and 2) the cultural revolution of the ’60s leaves people realizing that mainstream media is not addressing their interests or culture. That thread of individuality flourishes in the ‘70s and people start documenting their own lives and cultures. This is passed onto the next generation and participation in zine culture peaks in the mid-‘90s. So to get back to the idea of fanzines covering “male dominated” genres – the rise of the women’s movement allowed for societal changes to begin in the ‘70s and one interpretation of those changes led to the rise in Riot Grrrl zines in the ‘90s. Unlike with fanzines, zines as we know them today were very inclusive of people and sub-cultures that had little power in mainstream society. If you were LGBTQ, dealing with mental health issues, or just the class weirdo, zines were a relatively safe place to call home.

Zines were filled with raw emotions and gritty personalities. Again, a huge difference from fanzines. People were learning to talk and write and it felt anonymous because often the only interaction writers had occurred months after they finished a zine and dropped it in the mail. People talked about obsessions, traveling, bands they liked, abuse, politics, and their personal experiences. Aesthetics were often not a high priority and legibility seldom taken into consideration (margins, what are margins?). Cut & paste was done because it was all we had in the old days. And it can be done in a way that is legible. Sloppy is just sloppy.

When I got into zines there were a few basic criteria used to define what a zine was (and none of them really worked). 1) it was created without intent of monetary gain and was bartered for other zines; 2) fewer than 500 (or 5000 – depends on who you ask) copies were printed; 3) zines allowed voices who had no other outlet to be heard; 4) no ISSN or ISBN (ironically, this means that zinedom’s sacred cow, Factsheet 5, was, in fact, not a zine). So did zines that started out small and grew get grandfathered in? For some people, yes. For others, ridiculous indy creed was more important. And truthfully, a lot of us were just in it for mail and could care less about debating Bust’s standing as a zine.

The boom period in the ‘90s saw a lot of zines born and die. Much like the early ‘00s saw a ton of blogs born and die. Many of the same reasons that drove people to create zines drove them to create blogs, only blogs were faster, easier, cheaper, and allowed for immediate gratification. Now, headed into the 10’s, some of us see where a blog can in fact be useful and compliment a paper zine without cannibalizing it. Technology has, in many respects, helped push forward the agenda of book and zine publishers and to not use tools that are within our reach to help us complete our ultimate missions seems self-defeating. How many people reading this learned about the Revenge of Print project online?

So how do the early definitions of “zine” and “fanzine” hold up in 2011? Well, email has pretty much killed my neurotic compulsion to stop by the PO Box regularly. Instead, I neurotically check my email. The Internet now allows for a din of individual voices to be heard and finding likeminded souls is not the same weird crap shoot of putting your zine in an envelope and sending it off to a PO Box wondering if you are about to meet someone who will become a part of your life. (A brief tangent – remember how it used to be weird when people said they met online? Now try explaining to people that you met your best friend through the mail and you have never actually met in person. )

I think the original ideas behind the labels “fanzine” and “zine” are dated. I think fanzines could learn from zines by opening up to more diverse, personal, and critical content. Similarly, I think that zines could learn from fanzines and start making publications that are easier to read and dare I say it – actually interesting to look at. Do we hold to the old definitions and try and work within those boxes? Do we create new terms to explain what is going on now? I don’t have any answers. Here is a good example why – someone uses a library computer to create a publication. She cannot afford a computer, internet access, or copies, so she creates a PDF and emails that to people or posts it to a site like Scribd. She is giving it away and soliciting people to send her their zines (via email or mail). Her motivation and content are very much in line with old-school zine ethos, but her method of delivery is new-school. Has she created a zine?

Personally, I would love to read more international zines, but postage is often a barrier. Is a PDF of a zine created and printed in New Zealand, but emailed to the rest of the world any less of a zine? These are the questions I am asking myself as a zine writer, zine editor, zine reviewer, book publisher, and book distributor as I continue to move forward as a creator and merchant of words and content.

As I see it, what matters is intent. The how and the why are more important to me than the what. I view myself as an independent publisher, who enjoys zines as a culture and medium. I edit and manage Xerography Debt for the community and co-edit Rigor Mortis to fulfill my creative needs. My monetary goal is sustainability, which pretty much means attempting to break even based on content. I don’t sell ad space, nor do I sell my mailing list (again, F5 is held aloft, but there were a lot of rumors about Seth Friedman bartering and selling the F5 mailing list. Our culture wasn’t what held value, but what we could be sold.). I define XD and RM as zines to those who understand the term and to those who don’t they are “small press publications.” Many reviews have defined RM as a fanzine (which makes my co-editor apoplectic). None of these labels change the content. 

So these are my truths. Your truths may vary or settle during shipping. And the truths of today may not be the truths of yesterday or tomorrow. If you must have a label and can’t find one that suits you, make one up. The important thing is that we each examine the what, how, and why and make sure they are in line with our intent.

In the words of The Dude, “Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man,” so I say to you, dear readers, what is your truth? What is your opinion on the state of zines? Why do you or did you publish? Do you publish looking forward or backward? Is it about revolution or nostalgia? Or both? Please send me your thoughts – roughly 250-500 words – with a deadline of October 15, 2011. This will become a new series called, “The Voices of Zinedom.” In this instance, I embrace modern technology as a time-saver and would prefer to receive responses by email (Davida@leekinginc.com). 

Just keep reading – no matter what, no matter how.

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