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What's a Zine?

Defining "zine" (rhymes with "spleen") is kind of like defining "jazz". One can offer plenty of examples and generalized descriptions, but sooner or later you're going to run across an exception. And that's fine, because ignoring the rules is what zines and jazz are all about.

As for the generalized description: a zine is a self-published magazine typically printed on a copier and assembled by hand. The name "zine" is believed to be derived from the "Fanzines" that cropped up in the Forties and Fifties.1 By nature they are crude in appearance, especially if the author hasn't invested in a jumbo stapler (allowing him to staple along the spine, like People Magazine and Cat Fancy do.) The print run for a single issue usually runs in the dozens,2 although this is driven by audience demand.

Chip Rowe, father of the zine Chip's Closet Cleaner defines zines thusly:

Zines are cut-and-paste, "sorry this is late," self-published magazines reproduced at Kinko's or on the sly at work and distributed through mail order and word of mouth. They touch on sex, music, politics, television, movies, work, food, whatever. They're Tinkertoys for malcontents. They're obsessed with obsession. They're extraordinary and ordinary. They're about strangeness but since it's usually happening somewhere else you're kind of relieved. You can get to know people pretty well through their zines, which are always more personal and idiosyncratic than glossy magazines because glossies and the celebrities they worship are so busy being well known.3

An online zine FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) file says zines "aren't slick, they aren't professional (although some of the best publishers do pay a lot of attention to detail and presentation), and they don't make a profit."4

And despite all of this, zines continue to be produced and reproduced. The same FAQ file estimates that in 1995 there were forty- to fifty-thousand available zines.5 These must be borne of passion, not profit.

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