Put literally, a zine is a small-circulation self-published work — usually photocopied. If you want a more flowery definition, a zine is an art form unto itself; somewhere between a diary entry, a folio and a letter to a friend.
Zines (also known as fanzines) grew out of the science fiction community in the 1950s, and surged in popularity during the 70s, 80s and 90s — the invention of the photocopier certainly helped. For me, making zines started out as a form of ad hoc art therapy. I spent the first half of 2010 bouncing in and out of hospitals, relationships and share houses as I battled a variety of illnesses and diseases. I’d been studying journalism at uni and freelancing for a couple of years before that. While I was really enjoying it and knew that online/multi-platform journalism was where my professional interests lay, I was starting to feel a bit creatively burned out by it. I worked hard and “produced content”, but it felt like my work disappeared into the ether as soon as it was broadcast (in the case of radio) or disappeared from the homepage (in the case of almost everything else). I say “felt”, because nothing really disappears on the internet. It’s not hard to find stuff that I wish I’d never put on the internet — angsty teenage Livejournal entires, posts I made on the Tori Amos and George bulletin boards, early press photos from when I still thought it was a good idea to be a full-time musician. That’s even before you delve into the fascinating and terrifying world of big data. The internet is ephemeral and forever — the worst of both worlds. I needed a creative outlet where I'd end up with something physical to show for my work. I also wanted to express myself without the fear of being dredged up and used against me in ten years time.
I woke up the morning after a bender to discover I’d gone shopping at Rockinghorse Records in Brisbane and had picked up a bunch of magazines and CDs. Among them was a zine called Gutterslug — at that point I didn’t know it was called a zine — which was written by a Toowoomba girl called Emily, who shared her harrowing stories about her life in foster care. I’d also picked up a flier advertising a “zine hub” at a youth centre in the Valley called Visible Ink, which had a zine library and free photocopying. I paid Vis Ink a visit and fell into the rabbit hole of zines and zine culture. I had a blog called I Am Very Busy and Important and decided to use it for my zine — the joke being that the very act of blogging or making a zine is an indication that I’m not actually busy or important.
I made the first three issues of IAVBAI during that time. They’re also the only ones that are wholly “cut-and-paste” — the traditional way of making zines, where you lay out your work on blank “flats” and literally cut out the bits and paste them into place. Typewriters frustrate me and make my hands ache, I can’t cut in a straight line and I have terrible handwriting. As a result, these days I do most of the writing in Scrivener and the layout and design in Adobe InDesign. A few old-school zine purists have told me that they’re not “proper” zines because they’re mostly created on a computer, but their gripes don’t bother me. Sure, if I didn’t have the fine motor skills of a two-year-old I probably would cut-and-paste everything, but I am what I am, and I’d prefer my work to be legible and reasonably aesthetically pleasing.
Issues of I Am Very Busy and Important are either mini-scrapbooks about whatever is going on in my life at the time of making them, or focused on a single theme. The themed ones are easier to explain to people and tend to sell more quickly, but I have more fun making the scrapbook ones — particularly because I get to include a lot more of my photography.
If you ask me, there’s only one rule zine makers should follow: make sure the number of pages in your zine is divisible by four, so there are no awkward extra pages that won’t fold properly. Other than that, read/buy/peruse a lot of zines by other people and explore what interests you. If you’re in Melbourne, check out Sticky Institute, a zine shop in the subway beneath Flinders Street Station. You can also order zines from the online stores of zine distros. Take Care and Fox and Owl are two excellent Aussie distros — check out Pioneers Press, Portland Button Works or any of the ones on this list if you’re willing to pay for international postage.
Someone forwarded me an article a few months ago which urged aspiring authors to make zines of their work and use that as a form of leverage to woo publishers. I hope nobody took it seriously.Trying to get a traditional publishing deal by embarking on a calculated zine campaign is like trying to get a loan for a house by showing the the bank manager photographic evidence of your excellent interior decorating skills. It’s not completely unrelated, but it probably won’t help.
More than anything else, it's about stories. I've read zines written by strippers, adventurers, mothers, kids and people like me, and enjoyed taking the time to flip through a small booklet about a small part of their lives.
So yes, if you've ever wanted to make a zine, I say go ahead and do it. If nothing else, it'll unshackle you from your computer for a few hours.
Sophie Benjamin is a writer and occasional musician who lives in Melbourne. You can buy her zine I Am Very Busy and Important here, or in person at Sydney's MCA Zine Fair on May 25.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.