The Joy of Fanzines

What is a fanzine? There are many definitions of what a real fanzine is (some of them contradicting) and many people are absolutely convinced their definition is the only correct one. Some people say a fanzine is only a fanzine if it is printed on paper and not distributed over the Internet. Some people say man should never have climbed down from the trees either, and look how much their opinion is respected. I think waiting for these people to come around is a bit like Galileo or Darwin waiting for the church to apologize: it might happen eventually, but probably won’t do you any good. Better just move on and leave them behind, where they seem content to be.

Then there are others who claim that you can’t have a proper fanzine without a letter column. I like letter columns—getting feedback is always great and watching other people change opinions over well thought out letters can be fascinating. I don’t put very much weight on the opinion that those are an absolute must, though. Not all fanzines are the type that elicits letters of comment from readers, but I don’t see any connection between that and the fannish quality of the writing in question. Some would restrict the content to be talking about other fans, or just writings from one fan per publication, or not having reviews of stuff. Talking about other fans is fun (if you can get away with it), reading one person’s opinions is very good, but as good is following a group of people who at best encourage each other to be better than any of them would be individually. And saying something must not be in a fanzine is just stupid, even more so when you try to say that giving your opinion (and arguments for it) of a work of sf is not good content for a fan magazine.

For the purpose of this post, I’m using the basic definition: Fanzine is a fan publication; a magazine published by one or more fans, to be read by other fans. Nothing more to it.

I like reading fanzines. They are at best a collection of well thought-out articles by an insightful person, a dialogue between the writer and their readers about things they share a common enthusiasm for, a way to get to know a person, means of finding out more about interesting subjects, and a lot of fun. If I had an extra storage room (that wasn’t already filled with books), I’d fill it with fanzines. Then I’d just need the money to hire someone to catalog them for me, and I could go back to any interesting article I’ve ever read in any of them. Anybody have a spare room and want to work a lot for nothing? No? Damn.

I also enjoy making fanzines. I’ve been to a couple of panel discussions about self-publishing a zine (since I seem to be the token personal zine editor in Finland), and people have asked me why I do a fanzine, why not a blog, or a webzine. I’m not very satisfied with the answers I’ve given, so I’m now trying to elaborate a bit.

First of all, why do a fanzine in the first place? This one is relatively easy: when I come across a good (or a very bad) book, or a movie, or gadget, I want to talk about them and share my enthusiasm. Finding people who’ve recently read the same book can be difficult, and ditto for the movies (because I rarely have the time to see the new movies so I catch them after a random period of time when I come across them on dvd). One-sided raving about things I like to people I meet gets old (and lonely) pretty fast. And I have a lousy memory for details, so talking about things I’ve read or seen more than a few months ago is difficult. The solution for me is to write my thoughts down and give them to people (also I can cheat and look up what I thought about something later). It’s the same when I get an idea for a column (some call them “rants”): I want to share it with people. This is basically what it’s all about for me.

Why a fanzine then, and not some other format? Well, first of all, I do blog. But I think that while some things (urgent news, short reports and topical opinion pieces, or sharing a couple of photos) are better suited for an immediate online format (i.e. a blog), others (longer articles, several linked pieces with a common theme, interviews, etc.) work better in a periodical publication. There is some overlap between what I blog about and what I put in my fanzine but not very much, and the choice of medium almost always comes naturally.

Preparing an issue is also an incentive from a writing point of view. I don’t have a pre-set schedule or a fixed number of issues per year; I do an issue when there are enough ideas for it (and time to do the writing). Still, deciding to do an issue (and setting a date for it) means there’s a deadline and some outline of what should be there. Without this, many of the things published in my zine would never have been written. I know from other zine editors and contributors I’m not alone in this. Of course there are examples of people who are totally resistant to deadlines or agreed publication schedules, but that is then not a question of medium but whether those people should agree to write anything in the first place.

For me publishing a fanzine is also a kind of an excercise in self-discipline: I can be a bit of a perfectionist sometimes (I can hear my wife snickering at the “a bit” and “sometimes” parts), and publishing a simple, xeroxed fanzine with almost no layout to speak of, with very little polishing of the writing once it’s done is good practice in not fiddling with things too much. It also keeps things more fun because the total time spent with an issue is much less than when I’m writing something for a real publication (or when I was editing the Turku sf society clubzine Spin, for example). It’s also a good way to keep perspective: saying to myself, “issue 30 is just around the corner,” is of course nice, but I only need to take a quick look at for example Ansible, MT VOID, or The Drink Tank to quickly get over any blown-out-of-proportion feelings of accomplishment.

Why not a webzine, then? Isn’t it more efficient and cheaper to put the thing on the web for people to find? Well, yes and no. Of course there are some printing costs when producing a paper zine, but in my case the page count is small (between 4 and 18 A4-sized pages so far), and so is the print run, so the costs don’t amount to much. And I like to see the words I’ve written on paper. I’m sure part of it is just nostalgia—paper fanzines are what I grew up with, and what I’m comfortable reading, and holding a new issue fresh out of the print is tangible proof of an accomplishment (no matter how small). But there are other advantages to it too. Doing layout still works better on paper (even if I don’t do much of it, usually just put the texts one after another in two columns and that’s pretty much it). Some things like longer articles still work better when printed out. Quickly browsing things to decide what to read later is also easier on paper.

For me, a big aspect of publishing on paper is my preferred method of distribution. I give the fanzine to people who want it at the Turku sf pub meetings. There are a few subscribers to whom I mail the zine, and some people living in other cities I usually give the latest issue to whenever I happen to meet them. Directly giving the zine to people just feels right to me. During the pub meetings, people browse the latest issue, some read the whole thing or parts of it there, sometimes there is discussion based on something I’ve written, and so on. People don’t have to do anything to get the issue except be there. It makes the whole thing somehow seem more real to me. Plus I think it’s nice to have something to give to new people who arrive at the pub meeting, and a good conversion starter with somebody who doesn’t know anybody there yet.

Why not put the issues online as well, then? Maybe the biggest reason is that I’m lazy. That would require putting up a web page for the zine and keeping it up to date. I think that my perfectionism would then raise its ugly head again—I’ve been a professional web designer and programmer for over a decade, and most likely wouldn’t be satisfied with “just a web page” but would need a whole, well-functioning site to go with it. Also the PDFs I use now are ok as long as they just print, but I’d want them to be polished, trimmed down in size, designed to be readable also on the screen, etc., and there should perhaps be other formats available as well… You see what I’m getting at? Another issue is that I wouldn’t have been able to publish all the stuff I have if my zine was available electronically; some short stories and articles were available for Finnish publication on paper, but their worldwide electronic publishing rights were already reserved by somebody. When I only have a paper version, I don’t need to worry about things like that. Also, my own writing is much more relaxed when I know it will probably be read by a few dozen people, most of whom I know. If people want to save the issues, they of course can, but most of them will be thrown out eventually. If I’d be putting stuff “out there” for anybody to find, to stay there forever, it would mean having to think a lot more of what to say and how to say it, and many of the sillier things would probably stay unpublished.

That’s my take on fanzines and why they are so great. I’d love to hear what you think. Do you read fanzines? If you do, why? Do you perhaps publish your own (or write for a fan publication)? Have you ever thought of doing so, or do you think that is so 20th century? If you have the slightest feeling that what I’ve written might sound fun, why not have a go at it? Try out just a few pages, just once. Who knows, you might like it as much as I do!

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