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If you’ve never heard of a zine, fret not, you’re in the right place. I’ve made a bunch of zines and contributed to friends’ zines and, chances are, you may have made one too even if you didn’t know that’s what they were called. Whether you’re just starting out or are a seasoned creator, zines are a great way to publish your own art, poems, writing, musings, and anything else you want to express—without needing anyone else’s permission to do so.
I hope this guide will empower and inspire you to share your ideas with the world in the form of a zine.
A very brief history of the zine
Before there was stan twitter there was the fanzine, created originally by sci-fi enthusiasts of the early twentieth century who used the medium as a forum for dialogue, free from corporate editors or publishers. That same do-it-yourself ethos is what drew punks of the late twentieth century to embrace fanzines as a complement to their music, and as a means to challenge mainstream ideologies. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, zines became a centerpiece of movements like Queercore and Riot Grrrl. While the latter of these was critiqued for being primarily white and heteronormative, overall, these movements used zines to subvert dominant and patriarchal ideologies through the sharing of lived experiences. At the core of the zine-making ethos are subversion, freedom of thought, and a DIY attitude.
As is the nature of capitalism, corporations increasingly appropriated the practice as time went on; however, even today, zine-making remains a cornerstone for marginalized voices disseminating information and publishing creative work about things they love.
What are zines good for?
Zines tend to be a bricolage of various images, texts, and messages. Here is a list of just a few of the things you can do with the zine format:
Basically, what you can include in a zine is only limited by your imagination.
What will your zine be about?
If you’ve never made a zine before, getting started may seem intimidating. But a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and if you’re interested in putting your voice out there by publishing your own zine, the first step you must take is deciding on a topic. There is no barrier to entry, so you can really do whatever you want. So, what makes a good zine for YOU to work on? Think about what topics you could you go on and on talking about for hours. Then, let your imagination run wild and see what exciting, novel, or curious ideas you come up with.
To help get your mind moving, here’s a cool look at a radical Asian-American zine created by UCLA students in the ‘60s, and here’s a whole archive of other zines. Additionally, ISSUU is a great hub for digital layout inspiration. I also recommend flipping through this issue of F WORD, which is an intersectional feminist zine collective based in Montreal.
As you start conceptualizing your zine, you might want to create a journal for the specific purpose of recording your ideas (for zines, or otherwise). And, if that goes well, maybe you’ll want to start keeping a binder that can hold your journal in one of its pockets, as well as magazine clippings, pressed flowers, patterned papers, polaroids, and any other ephemera you might find inspiring.
If digital is more your route, maybe you’ll want to organize your inspiration into something like a mood board on Are.na or Pinterest. These practices are a great way to organize your ideas and begin imagining what the stitching-together of your zine will be like.
Working with collaborators
If the topic of your zine is something your friends are passionate about too, you might want to think about getting them involved. Making a zine can be a great collaborative project, since they can be pretty casual and fun; plus, having more people involved brings more creative voices and ideas, and can help you distribute it to a wider audience once it’s done. Depending on what you’re trying to make, it might make sense to co-create your zine with a friend or two, or perhaps you could put out a call for contributors on social media and open a line there. You can ask for people to submit poems, illustrations, essays, collages, etc.—and you may be surprised to see what people send you.
If you do decide to work with other people, just make sure everyone is on the same page on their role as a contributor or collaborator. For example, how will contributors be credited? Will they be compensated? Who will own the rights to the work once it’s published in the zine? Communicating openly about these questions before anything goes awry is always a good idea. For more tips on working with other people, see The Creative Independent’s guide to joining forces with a creative collaborator.
Along these same lines, as you put your zine together, make sure you only use visuals (or any type of content) that you have the rights to. Google has a tool that makes it really easy to browse through open-licensed content (learn more here), and the website Creative Commons can also help you find even more neat stuff that’s free and clear for you to use.
Once you have a topic or general plan for your zine, now it’s time to clarify and design your little labor of love. How specific can you get in terms of what it will cover, what types of content it will include, and what it will look like? And, overall, what kind of impression do you want to give your reader as they take it all in? Having answers to these questions will help you come up with a creative direction (the way it looks, the way it feels, and what it includes) that can effectively communicate your ideas while also feeling intriguing and cohesive to your readers.
As an example, let’s say you want to start a food zine. Maybe you want it to be about a specific cuisine that’s a part of your family’s history. But now, how will you convey what exactly it is you want to say about that food and its unique story? Think about the ways that different fonts, colors, formats, paper qualities, and visuals will change how your subject is viewed. Will your food zine be the size of a scrapbook, full of old family recipes and family photos? Or, will it be something small you can fit in your apron pocket, with a more minimalistic design? These stylistic choices, no matter how small they may seem, send messages to your reader—so think it all over and imagine a plan that feels exciting and right for your vision.
Designing your zine
Now comes the fun part: getting everything laid out and stylized. Things to think about here are:
What format will your zine take? Do you want it to be able to fit in someone’s pocket, or are you looking to make something a bit more substantial? Will it be a folded piece of paper, will it be stapled together, or will you have it printed and bound somewhere? Depending on what you decide, you can download zine templates for software like InDesign and Microsoft Word. Or, if you don’t want to go the digital route, you can always assemble your zine using paper and glue/tape, and then scan or photocopy the pages to print more.
How will it look? Spend some time thinking through an overall color palette, font choices, and other design elements that will help the zine strike a particular mood, and feel cohesive. (For more tips on graphic design, I recommend this fun primer).
How will it be edited together? Will it be broken into different sections, or will it all flow together organically? Will it have an introduction, a table of contents, or any other hallmarks of a more traditional publication? Once all your content is written, will you work with an editor to make sure there are no typos?
To give you a sense of how a zine’s creative direction can affect the way it looks and feels, below is an example of a non-digital zine spread I made, published by my pals at Deskarga Groupo. It was made using only a single piece of paper (learn how here). At the time I made it, I was in a funky emotional state, reconciling first-generation pressures to achieve, the desire to be loved and nurtured, struggles with body hair and polycystic ovary syndrome, and feelings of being scrutinized on social media. The emotional nature of the content led me to pursue a low-lift medium (one page seemed doable). And, it felt natural to leave it without color.
Here’s another example of a zine spread, by my friend Leo of Deskarga Groupo.
Here’s what he said about his zine’s topic and format:
“Agua ‘Rriba y Agua ‘Bajo: When it Rains at the Beach is a collection of 20 photo-collages exploring the cultural landscape of The Dominican Republic accompanied by bilingual word-associative poems. My intention is to reconcile the nostalgia of my formative years living in the island as a child with my anxieties about identity as an adult living in the U.S. The Spanish portion of the title translates directly to ‘water above and water below.’ An apt metaphor for the suffocating feeling of isolation when stuck between two cultural forces.”
Printing your zines
If you want to create a bunch of physical copies of your zine, there are several routes you can take. While I’ve printed my own zines from workplace Xerox machines before, I don’t recommend this, for the record (unless you get permission). Instead, you can go to a local printing service, or order copies of your zine from an online printer—both options can be good, so just do your research in advance and make a pros-and-cons list to help yourself decide between the options.
Printing in high volumes can bring the cost per unit down, and so can printing in black and white (versus color). Are you a student? Sometimes universities offer free or discounted rates for student print jobs.
If you don’t have the budget to print copies of your zine, you can simply post your zine as a PDF online, and let people print their own copies. Or, you can explore on-demand printing, where people can order copies of your zine online without you needing to lift a finger. Blurb or Lulu could be good options if you decide to go this route.
Distributing your zine
Once you have some physical copies of your zine, now’s time to distribute them (if that’s what you want to do). Of course, if you have contributors, you’ll want to give them a copy (or, better yet, give them a few copies so they can distribute some, too). Depending on how many you print and how widely you want them distributed, there are many routes you can go here. Will you mail them out to your friends, or to people who you’d like to be your friends? Or will you try to sell them in a retail store (some tips on this here)? Maybe you want to bring them to a zine fair or festival? In the past, I’ve handed out copies of my zines to friends, but it’s also fun to keep some in your bag with the intention of handing a few out to strangers. Zines are a great tool to use in joining or imagining new communities you want to be a part of.
When you distribute your zines, it can be cool to include some goodies—like stickers or a handwritten message—inside the pages of your zine. Here’s an example of how this could work from my friends at Nickname Zine.
Promoting your zine
As you consider ways to spread the word about your zine, think about using the resources that are already available to you. Your social media pages and personal website could be a great place to start, especially if you plan to publish a digital version online. If your zine is a collaborative work, get your creative partners to promote it on their social media and websites too.
Getting involved in some of the different zine communities that already exist is another way to put yourself, and your zine, out there. Are there forums or Facebook groups you can join to promote your work (here’s a great start)? Just remember that the key word here is community—usually it’s frowned upon to simply show up in a community with the sole aim of promoting your own work.
If you plan on creating multiple issues of your zine, it could be worth starting an Instagram or Twitter account where you can interact with your readers and other zinesters. For more tips on promoting your zine, read The Creative Independent’s guide to thoughtful promotion.
Trading zines is a popular practice and easy to do if there’s a zine or arts community in your area. If there isn’t, meeting people and exchanging information online is just as popular. Maybe you want to barter your zine for a poster or some other creative good. A few months ago, I posted about my zine on Instagram Stories asking if anyone wanted me to send them a copy or trade with them, and sure enough, I received a few DMs.
Get specific about your topic and be playful. Always be mindful of how you’re sourcing your content, and give credit where it’s due. There are free online tools that will make your zine-making process easier if you choose to go the digital route. Have fun, get outside of your comfort zone, make bold choices, and connect with other passionate people. There is no wrong or right way to make a zine, so have fun and don’t worry too much about making it perfect. If you need a friend along the way, I’m only a tweet away.
Rona Akbari is a writer, producer, and zine maker based in Brooklyn, NY. She is currently exploring the intersection of race and tech at Data&Society. Before that, she was a producer on BuzzFeed’s See Something Say Something, an award-winning podcast about Muslims in America. Her work has been published in NPR, National Geographic, The Outline, and elsewhere. She holds a B.A. in Digital Media Production from Florida State University. Reach out here to collaborate or say hi.