The Big Sellout?
A few years back, The Wall Street Journal described America's burgeoning zine phenomenon as "vulgar, weird, decidedly idiosyncratic and usually the work of a single offbeat mind." But the publishing industry is betting there's gold in them thar hills: a landslide of books based on zines are now hitting bookstores. But will the transition to big-time distribution in book format compromise the integrity of zines? At the NewCity Forum during the recent Printers Row Book Fair in Chicago, six pioneers on the zine books wagon train convened to discuss the topic "Zine Books: The Big Sellout?"The panelists included Karen Green, who teams with Tristan Taormino to publish Pucker Up and A Girl's Guide to Taking Over the World: Writing from the Girl Zine Revolution (St. Martin's Press); Paul Harrington, a former editor at Little, Brown who good-naturedly took on the persona of "The Man" for this panel; Al Hoff from Thrift Score and Thrift Score-A Book about Thrifting: The Stuff, the Method, the Madness (HarperCollins); Pagan Kennedy from Pagan's Head and Pagan Kennedy Living: The Handbook for Maturing Hipsters (St. Martin's); Darby Romeo from Ben Is Dead and Retro Hell: Life in the '70s and '80s from Afros to Zotz (Little, Brown); and, acting as moderator, Chicagoan Chip Rowe from Chip's Closet Cleaner and The Book of Zines: Readings from the Fringe (Owl Books).What the hell is a zine?Chip Rowe: Modern zines started in the early thirties when mimeograph machines were invented. Most people did science-fiction zines. In the eighties, with self-serve copy machines available and with the advent of desktop publishing, zines proliferated. Also, with more alienation, people wanted to have their own voice, do their own thing-that's another reason for the growing numbers of zines. Today, zines cover everything or focus on specific topics.Two years ago, The New York Times covered zines for the first time. The Times has written about zines three times and called them "quirky" twice. And The Wall Street Journal did, too, and had the headline, "Zines of the Times." Obviously they were trying to rhyme that, but they were so unhip they didn't know how "zines" was pronounced.Now, zine culture has become part of the mainstream. Urban Outfitters has a publication with a lot of zine writers in it. Carrie McLaren did a zine for Sony Records in college, called Sonyland. She did one issue and then realized what she was doing, so she started her own zine, Stay Free!, which is a great zine that's still around. And now she's doing a promotional zine for Matador Records, which is better than many zines I've read.Paul Lukas started a zine called Beer Frame about products, and now he's got a column in Fortune magazine and a book, "Inconspicuous Consumption" (Crown). Then there's Dishwasher Pete, who does a zine called Dishwasher. He's trying to wash dishes in all fifty states. I asked him to be in my book, and he said no. And I said, "Don't you want publicity?" But you have people who are just doing it for the enjoyment.Dave Letterman asked Pete to come on his show, and Dishwasher Pete had one of his friends go instead. And his friend lit his hand on fire.Carla Sinclair and Mark Frauenfelder do a zine called bOing bOing. From the beginning, they had aspirations to make it a magazine. They started with a hundred copies and by issue fifteen they were up to 17,000 and they were in all the major bookstores. They just called it quits and they're going back to making 500 copies because the distribution and the advertising and getting readers became so much work it wasn't fun anymore.I think the appeal of a zine like Dishwasher versus a magazine is you don't have to question motivations. Pete's not doing this to attract advertisers or because he really cares what you think of it. The thing that's appealed to me about zines is their purity. Once you start getting ads, you question whether that corrupts them. And eventually you get zine books with big-name publishers whose only interest is if they can make money off them.Which brings us to the question of whether doing zine books constitutes a sell-out. But before addressing that issue, I'd like each panelist to describe why they started a zine, how many copies they print, and if they feel like it, tackle the six-million-dollar question, "What is a zine?"Al Hoff: I started Thrift Score in February of '94 because I had a lifelong hobby of thrifting and there was nothing about the culture of thrifting available. There's a lot of people like me, but I didn't realize that until I started a zine. When I began, I printed 100 copies; now I'm at 4,000.Karen Green: Tristan started Pucker Up about two years ago. Her motive was to showcase young writers who didn't have any presence anywhere. I came on board to do design but fell in love with the concept. As for printing...Tristan Taormino from audience: We print between 2,000-3,000, but our pass-along readership-if there are any advertisers listening-is around 15,000. Do the multiplication, your rates are not inflated. And don't even consider returns.KG: Anyway, our goal is not to make a million dollars; we want these writers' voices to be heard. It's all pretty sexual-it's a pansexual erotic literary magazine. So I don't know how much The Man is gonna want to make a lot of money on that.Paul Harrington: We're willing to make a lot of money on that.CR: Most zines aren't that big. Most zines print a hundred for a couple of issues, then disappear.Darby Romeo: When I started my zine I didn't know what zines were, so I called it a magazine. I've been doing it almost nine years. I was leading a very pathetic lifestyle, no friends, awful French boyfriend whose name was Ben. So I started this magazine so he wouldn't be jealous-I had an excuse for having friends. I had an art background, scammed computers. It really opened up doors, I met lots of people. We print like 17,000, maybe 18,000-but sometimes I'll say 20,000 because that's what I want to do.PH: When you first sent me a proposal about doing a book, you said 20,000.DR: Yeah, see, exactly. If it's The Man asking, fuck The Man.CR: Is that a zine? It's so big.DR: I don't know if it was a zine from the first issue, if I'm going to be judging it from everyone else's. I have a spare room in my home which is my little office, with all my computers. I do it myself two days a week. I just started paying people last year for contributing, about $10. It looks like a big thing, but I don't really rake in the money. As for my definition of a zine: First you take a box of crayons, not Crayolas or Sharpies-that's selling out! Take just a few colors-if there's too many, people think you've got it made. Pick recyclable paper, make it small, do the fold-over kind. People steal it and it can't be distributed on a big scale, and you can put in it a backpack and pass it around. But then, after the first issue, you gotta stop.Pagan Kennedy: Zines exist halfway between the world of publications and the world of people socializing and connecting. When I started, I was working as a writer for the Village Voice and on a novel. It was a weird period in Boston when everyone I met was doing a zine. Everybody had their own little publishing arm. These people were having so much more fun than I was with my novel and my professional writing. Zines are somewhere between a magazine and that newsletter your Aunt Hilda sends at Christmastime. When you open a zine, if it doesn't have a personal note in it, you feel disappointed. I feel the zine world was the Internet before there was an Internet. Is it some accident that the homepage is exactly like a personal zine? If there had been no zines, what would the Web look like? Unlike my writing for the Voice, people would stop me and say, "Hey, you're Pagan," from fifty copies of Pagan's Head. I think there' s something about the way it physically comes from the author.PH: I've been around zines for about ten years. I have no idea what a zine is, but I know it when I see it. It's like when you look at someone and you know whether they have soul.CR: My classic definition of zine is motivation rather than size or anything. It's a zine if you're doing it because you have to. Like Darby, she has to do it.DR: Otherwise I'd kill people.CR: If you change it because you're giving a thought to what advertisers want to see or what readers want to read, it makes it something different: an independent magazine, maybe, rather than a zine.The big sellout CR: David St. Hubbins of Spinal Tap said, "The time to sell out is when you've found a buyer." Do the panelists feel like they've sold out? What would that mean?PK: If you want to sell out, there are lots more lucrative ways than starting a zine book. I have four books out now, and this one, Zine , is by far the worst seller. And it's not the author who's making all the money. We're making just enough to scrape by. I'm concerned what's happening to the publishing industry. If a band wants to get known, they develop a following, cut a CD and then some A&R guy discovers them-but by then the band has taken all the risks. It's the same with independent films. I'm frightened that that is happening to the publishing industry. I see people who do their own writing, layout, design. I think publishers used to spend time nurturing writers through the stage you would be in with the zine. But now ambitious writers are looking at zines to get the attention of publishers. I'm disturbed about that trend. I think the climate of publishing is changing.Audience member: Aren't you contributing to that?PK: You know, whatever. Yeah. I mean, do I have the power of Viacom?Audience member: You know, you have four books, everyone else has one.PK: Does that make me a bad person? No. I have other books that aren't zine books. I don't know if you count that as part of my sellout-dom. And by the time you pay out expenses for all the work, you end up with $8,000 for a year-and-a-half's work.DR: Distribution is what's really hard. You can't get books out there. With the megastores, you have to schmooze the buyers to get the books in. With a magazine, you have a distributor and they do it. And with one distributor going bankrupt each year, like what happened this year with Fine Print [which recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, but remains in business], can pretty much kill you. So I took all my book money and I'm using it to print my magazine.CR: So can you still say that Ben Is Dead is a zine when it's a commercial product?DR: Well, I had ads from the first issue. The ads cost five dollars then, is that better? As far as the book we're doing right now, I publish the zine because I want my work to come out exactly how I want it. I lay it out myself because I want it to look a certain way, and no one else would want to put it all in eight-point type and cram it in the way I want it. As far as the book goes, the book is about what we've already published in the magazine. We did the Retro Hell series, it took forever, and I never wanted to look at it again. I had to fix it up for a real publisher who for some reason didn't like typos. I did what I wanted with it, and if all the scandalous parts are edited out, people can still buy the zine version.KS: When Kathy Acker first started, she just sent out what she wrote to a mailing list of 200 people. When it got too big, she went to a publisher, and Grove bought her out. With Pucker Up, when I think about it, I don't think of it as selling out. If I could do Pucker Up and make $35,000 a year doing it, that's my ideal dream. I don't want to work on computers all day and come home and do it. Tristan and I went back to full-time jobs this winter just to pay bills. The current issue has been out for six months, and we don't have enough money or energy to put out another one. With the book, it's about girl zines. None of the people we asked to be in our book said no, and most of them asked for money. I may be a little naive and idealistic, but when I read the book, I thought that if I had this book when I was sixteen, I wouldn't have been suicidal. It explains so many things I didn't know then. And I think it's more of a communal effort than a money-making project.AH: Someone gave me money to do something that I wanted to do. I couldn't have believed five years ago that someone would have paid me to write about my hobby, or anything. To me it's just a bizarre phenomenon, it's just a luck thing.CR: But you've complained to me that thrifting has become a hip thing, and so you're effectively committing corporate suicide by publishing this book.AH: For a $9 million advance does it matter? My book is not exactly like the zine. The purpose of the zine was to talk about my hobby and give other people a chance to write in about it. The book is mostly written by me. I'd say 5 to 10 percent is from the zine, but the rest I sat down and wrote myself. I think I'm going to get grief from people who say, 'You've ruined thrifting.' My easy argument is that every cool teenager thrifts, and it's a new hobby with or without me. And my other feeling is that someone was going to write a book, and I felt my perspective was more grounded; I think it was better to have a good book about thrifting than a bad book.PH: I know that some editors realize zines are an incredibly fertile and untapped neighborhood, and a lot of amazing stuff occurs in the world of zines. I mean, did Byron sell out, did Hemingway sell out, did Fitzgerald sell out?AH: Who?PH: It may be hard to see now, but people who are now building their name by doing a book today, may be the Michael Crichton of fifteen years from now. It sounds absurd, but you don't know. Well, Michael Crichton's a bad example... Salinger. I try not to look in terms of how long a zine's been running when thinking of which might make good books. Maybe a tenth of the zines I see, I want to read. When you're publishing a zine, you're thinking of reaching 200 people. But you can't do that with a book. Some zines can be made into a book that people who don't know what zines are will still get into. When I brought Ben Is Dead up at Little, Brown, there was a discussion about whether the name Ben Is Dead, or Darby's name, was going to help sell the book. The fact is, Darby's 17,000... excuse me, 20,000 readers have already read what's in the book. For them, it's cheaper to go and buy the three back issues. What we're doing is taking Darby's ideas to a new audience. That doesn't mean if you've already read Ben Is Dead, don't go out and buy this book. Now, as far as selling out, I don't think it's appropriate for me to comment on that, since I'm a representative of The Man. But I do think that if somebody's able to pay their rent, that's a good thing. And if somebody's able to pay their rent by publishing their book, and having a book might not only help sell more of their zines, but allow them to continue on with their publishing aspirations, that's also a good thing.CR: I guess some of the distaste is that people see a corporation making money off the backs of zine writers, and that Rupert Murdoch is going to use the profits from a zine book to buy a lawn chair.PH: Not with the profits from a Little, Brown book. And nobody puts a gun to anybody's head and says they have to publish a book.Audience member: Really, it's the fans who care about selling out, not the people who are doing it. It's the same in music, with bands.KG: It's a valid point not to contribute to the corporate machine. You can make a decision not to be a part of it.AH: I just want to say that when Rupert Murdoch [who owns her publisher] reads my book, he'll get a better buy on that lawn chair.CR: Yeah, but it won't be matching.AH: Sure, Rupert Murdoch makes a profit, but I make a profit, too. I didn't make any profit off my zine. And I'm also benefiting from my talent.DR: Most of the people who complain about selling out have a day job that's just awful. So I guess since I worked at McDonald's, I officially sold out at fifteen, when they were still using lard in the fry bin.Audience member: I think there should be a different definition of selling out. A sellout is when you let someone else determine the content of your work.Second audience member: When you stop doing art that you want done, when you start doing someone else's art, you sell out.DR: But you can't write just anything in a book. It's a matter of getting sued. In a zine, we just go ahead and print whatever we want to; but in a book, you do the smart thing. I knew when I was writing the book, I'd be writing for a mainstream audience. We'd steal photos for the zine, and text, anything we'd want.PH: It's important to realize that a zine is not a book. There's a different thought to designing the page for a book. You don't want to turn away a reader because they can't read the page. As for whether the publisher is going to take your text and turn it into something you don't want, that won't happen. When Darby got the galleys with editorial suggestions, if she didn't want to make any of those changes, she could have sent it back to us. And if it was a book we didn't feel we could publish, we can cancel the contract. And nobody gets hurt. It's not simply a matter of giving your life away to The Man. Bottom line, if you don't have any idea about contracts, you'd better get a lawyer.PK: Also, editing is a good thing. The Unabomber text is the ultimate in pure. And he had a lot of good things to say, but he needed an editor. When you write fiction, it's so hard, because you go over it forty times. With zines, you can let quality slip a little.CR: Does it change what you do to package it for a larger audience? Did I ruin the sixty zines in my book by packaging them in this format?PK: Did you change anybody's stuff?CR: With their consent. I mean, they had final say. But then I changed it again after they thought they'd signed off. [Laughs]PK: Was it for reasons of legality?CR: Darby was making the point that the legal stuff just seems a given. I changed things mainly because of length.PH: Taking an article that was in a zine and altering it marginally for publishing to a larger audience isn't going to do anything but put money in the bank, I hope. Also, there's a give and take. If you have a zine you share with 500 of your friends, and you publish a book that reaches 500,000, you're altering the culture as well as having the culture alter you. Maybe I'm milquetoast on this, or a bit of an optimist, but I wonder who really is co-opting who.Audience member: You had mentioned that certain zines belong to certain people. But once it's out there, it doesn't belong to anyone. The minute you put it out there, that's it.NewCity Editor Brian Hieggelke: That brings up something that was touched on in the discussion earlier. A lot of the zine culture is centered around big urban areas and cities. And the zine books might reach a bigger part of the same audience in smaller cities that zines haven't been able to get to.Audience member: Considering most of the panelists are female, are there more zines by women?PK: I sometimes feel like the ultimate reader for my zine is a fourteen-year-old girl. I get so much email from girls saying they want to start a zine. I can't imagine doing anything as a teenage girl except trying to get a boyfriend who was cool.Audience: How are book contracts going to affect the zine community?AH: One, there's going to be continued acrimony. Two, all the publishers have jumped on it. I have friends who are trying to get their books published, and I tell them to do it right now. Because if any of these books tank, forget it. If most of these books aren't good sellers, the publishers are going to pack up their zine tents and go home.PH: That's right.CR: There are also lots of good writers who are better than many of the writers in the mainstream. So let's have them do some cool books, because that's how they should be rewarded.