Every so often I get an email from someone who wants to know how to make a zine. I try to respond to every message, but sometimes life gets in the way, not to mention the times when my carefully worded responses bounce back because my correspondent mis-spelled his or her email address in the contact form. So rather than responding individually, I thought I'd share my thoughts on the subject with anyone who might be interested in becoming their own publishing powerhouse.
First of all, there is no right way to make a zine. By definition, zines are a vehicle for personal expression, whether they contain just your own words or images or are the result of a collaborative effort. You don't need an art or design background or any special skills to make one. If I can do it, so can you - you just have to be able to imagine holding that thing in your hands that you want to make.
Let's assume you want to make a thing that contains words and images. When I made my first zines in high school, inspired by Cometbus and the zines my friends were making, I typed out the words, printed them roughly in the size I needed and cut them out. Then I took my photos to the local print shop to have them rasterized, i.e. turned into halftone images. I printed and cut those out as well, glued everything onto 8.5x11 spreads of folder paper until I'd filled a small stack of sheets in an order that sorta made sense and then took the whole pile to the copy shop and had them run off 20 or 30 copies. A few all-nighters was all it took, and that method works today just as well as it did back then.
For better or worse, technological progress has given us the tools to create much more fine-tuned things. It has also given us a near-overwhelming amount of affordable choices to do so, from printing methods (digital, 4C, riso, offset, screenprinting) to paper, formatting and packaging options. Before you worry about any of that, I would suggest you focus on the content of your zine.
You probably have an idea what your theme is, say, a photo essay about biker gangs in the Midwest. You could take this in all sorts of directions, and in fact if any of you feel like this is a subject you'd like to tackle I would love to see a few different interpretations of it. My PO Box is below; send me those biker zines. However you go about it, I would suggest you think about what story you want to tell. It will probably change as you work on the project and your zine takes shape, but it's good to have a starting point. Perhaps it's portraits of bikers who are single fathers and the challenges they face.
Next, figure out how you are going to tell that story. A few dozen photos may be all you need. In that case, unless you are blessed with incredible talent or the visual artistry to turn a few random morsels into a coherent whole, you probably took a few hundred or more photos and edited the shit out of them to find your handful of favorites. Make every photo, illustration or word count, and remember that more isn't always better; it might just cost more to print.
Want to add text? Make sure it's a meaningful part of the whole. Use spell check. Play around with different fonts, sizes, spacing and kerning. Get your underemployed graphic designer friends to help you. (No worries if you don't have any; your city's Craigslist is full of them.) Use spell check again.
To put it all together you can definitely still go the cut-and-paste route. Great zines have been made out of nothing but a stack of old magazines, scissors, glue, and a bottle of cheap liquor. If there was a right way to make a zine this would be it.
However, the same nerds who brought you the internet, smartphone dating apps and cures to prolong your miserable existence into old age also created InDesign, so you might want to look into that. Simply put, InDesign is an Adobe app that lets you create page layouts and export them as a PDF for printing. There are a bunch such programs out there (including some freeware, last I checked), and while InDesign is the most widely used, any app that generates a print-ready PDF works, even Microsoft Word (though I would probably go with scissors and glue before using Word).
How you actually lay out your zine is totally up to you. Find a bunch of other zines, books or other printed matter that you like and that inspire you and then mercilessly rip them off. Keep it simple. Remember that you can always make your thing more complex later. Your second zine will probably look better than your first, and your third better than your second. In our biker zine example, it might be enough to feature one photo per page, or even one photo per spread. Or you could make a crazy collage out of snippets of dozens of shots, or something in between. Up to you.
Why should you export to PDF? Well, it's generally what printers, starting with your local copy shop, prefer to work with. It's hassle-free (i.e. the formatting won't change just because a file is opened on a different computer or in a different OS or program version) and the file contains all the information to correctly print on and trim the paper, e.g. page numbering, bleed and trim marks and the associated meta data.
You can actually learn a lot just from checking out the requirements different printers have for how to prepare PDFs. They are usually listed on their websites. It really just amounts to the options you check during the export of your file, and if right now you are furrowing your brow and aren't sure what I am talking about I assure you that the process is easily demystified by playing around with the export options for half an hour. (There are also lots of tutorials online on this and any related subject. In fact, right now a 15-year old in Tucson is probably recording the YouTube video that will make this entire post obsolete.) Make sure whatever images you use have a resolution of at least 300dpi.
On a side note, if you are thinking of using anyone else's creative content, make sure you get their permission and give them credit. You wouldn't re-post that flick on Instagram without a photo credit either, right? Right.
There's a lot to be said for figuring out what works best for your project by trial and error. Just keep making those zines and you'll get there. Then get them out into the world! Do whatever it takes to get your zines into the hands of the people you want them to have - your friends and family, fellow zinemakers, the girl or boy you have a crush on, your local independent book or comic book store or your local dive bar's bathroom.
This should go without saying, but don't expect to make any money. If this was a post about launching a new product, I would remind you of the five Ps of marketing: Product, place, promotion, price and profit. But you are not launching a product, you are making a fucking zine!
Savor the moment when you have picked up your box of paper from the copy shop, you have folded and stapled it and you are holding your finished biker zine in your hands. Then put it aside and get started on a new project. Most importantly, have fun doing it. If you're not having fun you can always go back to making Vine videos, recording a hit single or vandalizing your neighborhood. And in that last case, maybe I'll make a zine about it.
Good luck! Check out some of my zines here. Hit me up with questions in the comments or at firstname.lastname@example.org and send your zines to
Ray Mock/ Carnage NYC | PO Box 2671 | New York, NY 10163