So you wanna make a zine, huh?
One of the benefits of being a teaching artist is that I usually get to write my own curriculum. Whether I’m teaching an hour-long workshop or an eight week unit, my go-to topic is usually “how to make a zine.” Which probably comes as a surprise to absolutely no one. Reading zines, making zines, tabling at fests—I’m all about all of it.
Self publication, authorship, censorship, the effects of mass media, you can teach so much with a zine! They’re versatile enough that students can create unique work without having to master a bunch of other skill sets first, and you don’t need any fancy equipment. In fact, all you really need to make a zine is a pen and paper.
I often find myself talking to people who say, “I love zines! I’ve always wanted to make one.” They’re easy to make but starting your first one can be intimidating. So here’s everything I’ve learned about how to make a zine through trial and error so you can make less errors than I did! (Though, to be honest, that’s half the fun.) There are a million ways to make a zine, this is just my way.
First: Planning your content!
One of the many great things about zines (are you sensing a theme here?) is that you can make them about anything. And I do mean anything.
Historically, popular topics include feminism, queer or punk culture, veganism—stuff that is usually relegated to the sidelines of mainstream media. If you’re a writer or visual artist, you can also consider making a zine to showcase recent work or a specific project. (I used them to fulfill countless “visual aid” requirements in college, and also made a fancy one for my thesis.)
As much as I love a good feminist zine, I’m also a fan of the truly random. A girl in my old co-op made one about dogs and (I kid you not) it was 5x more popular than any of the other titles we took to fests that year. She made the whole thing during downtime at work with the supplies at her desk.
Bottom line: There are no restrictions on what you can put in a zine.
Second: Working on your zine’s layout!
Important! Keep in mind that the page count for a half-page zine (8.5×5.5) should be mutiple of four (4, 8, 12, 16, etc.). Same thing applies to quarter-page zines (4.25×5.5) but those are easier to copy when the page count is a multiple of eight (8, 16, 24, etc).
The next question you’ll want to ask yourself is “What do I want my zine to look like?” Most of mine are of the handwritten/copied on a Xerox variety but you can also lay out the whole thing on a computer or take a hybrid approach. Look for inspiration on We Make Zines, Zine Wiki, or in a Google Images search.
Once I’ve nailed down the content, I start by making a layout template on graph paper (see below). I’m a visual person so this helps me picture what’s going where and also keep track of contributions when I’m working on a group zine.
Since I’m a bit of a perfectionist and usually make handmade zines, I lay out each page individually. Before I start laying out the content, I draw a “1/4 margin in pencil around all four sides. Xerox machines and professional printers rarely print full-bleed and I’ve found “1/4 to be the perfect amount of margin to make sure nothing gets cut off.
If I make a small mistake, white out usually covers it. If it’s bigger, I’ll do more significant remodeling. For example, running out of room is a common problem with a handwritten zine. In these cases, I just cut the paragraphs into individual pieces and paste them onto a new piece of paper a little closer together. If you’re tying up your zine, you can do the same thing to the paragraphs you print off from Word.
This piecemeal solution will inevitably cause some of the edges to show up as faint lines on a Xerox copy. I like leaving this defect up to fate when I’m making personal zines, but when I’m working on Take Out or a zine that I want to be a little more polished, I’ll clean up these lines in Photoshop using Levels. (Which I’ll get to in a minute.)
Once I’m done laying out all my pages, I paste each one on a ‘master’ set of pages, as pictured above. If your pages are as tight a fit as mine, an X-Acto knife and cutting mat can make the whole thing go a lot smoother than it would with a pair of scissors.
Collating your pages can be tricky because you have to make sure that pages will be in the right order after they’re copied and bound. For example, if you’re making a half-sized zine (“8.5×5.5), your first page should have the cover and back cover on one side, and page two and the next-to-last page on the other. I’ve half-memorized the order of eight and sixteen page zines, but any other page amount and I have to make a mock-up out of post-its (again, visual learner here).
When I teach one day workshops on zine making, we usually make a quarter page zine that’s eight pages long. It only takes one piece of 8.5×11 paper and the layout is pretty simple. I’ve made a handout with the page layout that serves as an intro to zine making…
(Fun fact: I originally made the thing for my Teach for America interview. It was the second zine making workshop I ever taught and I had to do the whole thing in under five minutes. #nightmare)
More Resources: If you’re the type to rip off the training wheels and just go a riding, you can get real unique with the your zine’s materials and/or binding. Booklyn’s awesome lesson plans are a great place to start if you’re looking to experiment.
Third: Copying your zine. (No exclamation points here.)
Once you’re done with your zine, it’s time to start copying. (Assuming you do want to mass produce the thing.) I usually steal borrow access to a Xerox machine, but the steps will essentially be the same for any scanner/copier you can get your hands on.
Since my original layouts have multiple layers of glue and paper, I make my first set of copies using the flatbed scanner (making sure to select the 1 sided –> 2 sided option). After I’ve looked everything over for errors and made sure the page orientations are correct, I put away these glue-covered “masters” and pop the crispy new set in the paper feeder to make the rest of the copies.
If you’re making a lot of copies at a FedEx Kinko’s or somewhere similar, I recommend bringing a friend to help with this step. There is nothing more boring than standing awkwardly in front of a copy machine, waiting for your 749,385 copies to finish.
Larger zines like Take Out, which is 8.5×11 folded and 11×17 flat, probably won’t fit on a standard Xerox. Bummer. In these cases, you’ll probably have to pay a professional printer.
If you’re local, I recommend Indigo in the South Loop. I email them a regular PDF and pick up a box of finished zines a few hours later. Part of me misses the collation fuck-ups, jaunty angles, and crooked staples… and part of me just basks in the shininess.
Pro Tip: If you’re scanning your zine to make a digital file, or just need a PDF to send to the printer, you can clean up the scans first in Photoshop. In these cases, Levels are your best friend! Navigate to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Levels. Toggle the sliders to give your grey pages a bright white background and make the muddy-colored text a bold black. This will also smooth out those edges made by the cutting/pasting and count for 85% of your overall editing. Use the eraser, white paint brush, or patch tool to tweak the rest.
Fourth: Collating & binding your zine!
I won’t sugarcoat this step: it might be even more boring than the copying. When I was working on the first issue of Ramen, we did a print run of 900. (900 issues x 8 double-sided pages = 7,200 folds. Guh.) Suffice to say, I didn’t make all the copies in one go, or even five.
After the first big batch, a few of us camped out on my floor with a six pack and our own stack of copies. It went by a lot faster after that, but I’ll admit that not all of the folds were as neat as I would’ve liked. Life’s a trade off and all that.
I recommend breaking the process into as small a steps as possible. Do allt he sorting before the folding, then the stapling, etc. Division of labor works, yo. (Shoutout to my Intro to Cultural Studies professor, Emily, a delightful human being I think of every time I put together a zine.)
You can make any stapler work if you gently bend the pages to make it fit, but a long armed stapler is a good investment if you’re going to be making a lot of zines. If you’re a perfectionist like me, a bone folder is also a nice tool to have around. It makes the folds extra sharp and your spine nice and flat.
Plug alert: If you’re local and don’t want to invest in your own long-armed stapler, consider visiting the Chicago Publishers Resource Center. It’s a nonprofit on the west side that caters to zine makers and self publishers. They have long-arm staplers, bone folders, and everything else you’ll need for your zine. A good friend of mine started it and it is awesome. If you come by during open hours, there’s a good chance I’ll be the one helping ya out.
For year-around options, you can check out local bookstores that sell zines on consignment. Locally, there’s Quimby’s, Chicago Comics… the list goes on. Most shops will also let you submit your zines via snail mail. Just check their website or give them a call for instructions.
And of course, you should totally show me! (I will actually be hella pissed if you don’t after all this.)
If you have a question, let me know and I’ll do my best to answer. And if you have tips or tricks for me to add to the post, please share! Obviously there are a million ways to make a zine, this is just my method.