Five Tips For Making Zines

I’m Todd L. Burns, and welcome to Music Journalism Insider, a newsletter about music journalism. If you’re not familiar with the newsletter already, click here to find out more.

Miranda Reinert makes lots and lots of zines. Recently, she tweeted that she’d be happy to answer any questions people had about making them (especially those that didn’t know the first thing about it), so I got in touch to ask her if she might be interested in writing something for the newsletter. After looking at what was already out there in the world about zine making, she assembled a short guide with advice that you (hopefully) won’t find elsewhere.

At the start of 2018, I compiled a collection of 35mm film photographs I’d taken over the preceding year, opened Microsoft Word, and sat at a North Hollywood coffee shop to write what would become my first zine. Over the ensuing two years, through a zine press I call Wendy House Press, I’ve released a bunch of zines I’ve made, published zines for others, and dabbled in distro. 

Creating and publishing zines ended up introducing me to an online community I treasure. That community, however, consists of mostly music writers for online blogs or music fans that, like me, didn’t grow up in an era of punk zine ubiquity. The learning curve has been steep over the past two years. 

Obviously, there’s Google. But if you search for “how to make a zine,” you’ll mostly get one of three kinds of articles spit back at you. The first is creative advice on content which, in my own personal experience, isn’t something most people—in my world at least—are worried about. The Creative Independent has a beginner’s guide that has a ton of great information on the creative aspect and formatting for maximum effect, if that’s what you’re looking for. 

The second type will be a guide on how to make one sheet, paper folded zines. This is valuable (and usually very cutely designed!) but only if that’s the exact kind of zine you’re looking to make. These mini-zines are the exception to the rule when it comes to the technical side of zine making. 

The last type is, in theory, what should be the most helpful in terms of physical production: articles on booklet ordering and printing. All of the ones that I’ve seen are highly detailed, but seem to have been created in roughly 2003 and left untouched since. Not ideal.

My favorite beginner’s guide is this one by Sarah Burke for VICE in 2018. It covers a breadth of basics to getting started, so, to avoid redundancies, I’m going to try to steer this guide into helping with the steps beyond getting started and giving personal recommendations on everything from software to weight of paper.

Don’t Try To Be Maximum RockNRoll 

Well, you could if you’ve got a bunch of real cool people willing to make monthly music zines, like my friends over at Yer Scene Zine, but I find my music writing inclined friends often associate zines so heavily with ‘80s and ‘90s punk zines that it blocks them creatively. Zines can be whatever you want them to be. You don’t have to do reviews and interviews to make a zine about music. You don’t have to stick to new music. This isn’t a blog relying on clicks. Your zine will be more successful if you find something you’re excited about that you can create conversations around. 

You can do anything you want, but questions that help me when I’m feeling stuck are things like, “What do I like about zines in other genres visually?” “What do I want to see more writing on?” and “Why are my favorite writers special?”

Run, Do Not Walk, Away From Microsoft Word

I have made four zines in Word, three of which are in active production, and it’s a decision that haunts me to this day. It’s clunky, you’ll have to format two entirely separate documents for reading order vs. printing order, formatting images is a nightmare. Simply put, it’s just not built for publishing.

All publishing software comes with a learning curve so my two recommendations come down to price. I currently use Scribus, a free open source publishing software. In the past, I used iStudio Publisher which is a one time payment of $40 after a three month trial period (and only available for Macs). Both have all the formatting and exporting capabilities you’ll struggle with in Word, no matter your publishing method.

Design With Format In Mind

Are you just publishing digitally? Are you printing? Both? How are you going to print? All big questions! It’s all personal preference, but be aware of how your content can change the publishing process.

For example, if you want physical copies, but your zine is heavily photo-based, consider if your printer has the capability to print photos to the quality you want. I send out my photo zines to be printed professionally. If you just want digital, this may not be an issue. What could be an issue, though, is the file size limits of sites like Issuu. These things can sometimes be solved by tweaking content, but you may have to change your planned presentation method.

Some Quick Troubleshooting Questions

Okay, so you’re going to print at home. Here’s some quickfire common technical production snags I’ve seen and their solutions:

Wait, why are the pages not lining up? Check your total number of pages is a multiple of four. 

Is your stapler not big enough to staple the binding of your zine? Try using a needle and a substantial thread to bind them! Bookbinding kits are cheap (this is the one I have) and a fun skill to learn! (You can also buy extended staplers online.)

Want your zine to feel more substantial and look more polished? Try grabbing paper 28lbs or heavier!

Can’t figure out how to export in booklet order directly from your software? Any PDF can be printed as a booklet from Adobe PDF Reader. Print → Page Size and Handling → Booklet. 

The pages are coming out upside down! If your spread is oriented landscape, you need to have your printer set to “Flip on the Short Edge”. Opposite for portrait. If you’re manually double sided printing… Trial and error. (Sorry.)

On Community

I have lived in Chicago for my entire adult life. I am terrified of the Chicago zine community. Perhaps that’s personal failure on my part, but it’s a sentiment echoed by friends of mine across the country. It’s hard to break into new spaces, especially when those spaces are dominated by people who have been involved in them for 20+ years. 

My advice? Don’t. Find people who inspire you online and be nice to them. Or find people who don’t do exactly the same kind of thing as you, but share similar convictions. Most importantly, create something you’re excited about. Your community will become apparent.