To publish and be damned

The Skeptic, 8.6

'The latest issue of Musical Saw Monthly please' is an unlikely request to hear in your local newsagent, but it would actually be quite reasonable. As reported recently on Radio 4, there is indeed a regular magazine published for musical saw fanciers. And why not? Is this any stranger a pastime than being a malt whisky enthusiast, able to tell a Laphroaig from a Talisker ten miles downwind from an exposed cork? Or knowing who scored the second goal in the 1954 FA Cup? Or who guests on slide guitar on track 2 of Van Morrison's 1979 album Into the Music? (answers on a postcard please for a special prize).

But the fact remains that there are regularly-published journals for musical sawers, fanzines for footballers, newsletters for alcohol fanciers (I almost said 'alcoholics'). In fact, if a topic holds any interest at all for anyone, the chances are that there'll be a publication devoted to it, produced by fellow enthusiasts. And as we edge towards the millennium, the increasing availability of PC and Macintosh Desktop Publishing systems means that anyone with a few hundred pounds can make their own publications that look - to some extent - professional.

This is WYSIWYG ('What You See Is What You Get') publishing. Unfortunately, WYS is sometimes WY'd rather you didn't get. When you're doing it yourself, anything can go. You have no editor except yourself, no poles up which to hoist flags to see if they flutter. No external control at all. In some cases, the Editor may be the only reader. This is the brave new world of the 'zine' (pronounced zeen).

What sets a zine apart from a mainstream available-in-WH Smiths-publication is 'Attitude': zines are published for passion, not profit. I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear that in the murky waters in which The Skeptic dips its toes, there are many publications which are far from mainstream. Although some might balk at being described as zines, most would enthusiastically embrace the zine culture and feel proud to be a part of the phenomenon. Of course, self-publishing is nothing new. There have always been pamphleteers and independent publishers, but until recently, to imbue your printed output with any credibility took money - big money - to pay a 'vanity publisher', or to hire your own typesetters, proofreaders, printers and distributors. No-one is likely to take seriously a mimeographed rant printed in alcoholically aromatic purple ink on thin paper, handed out at Hyde Park Corner. But today you can make your own magazine on your kitchen table, and with an little ingenuity, persuade the world that you are worth taking seriously.

No-one knows the details of all the zines in the world, but some work very hard to keep up with the flood. The nearest one can get to a master index is Factsheet Five - itself a zine - covering the independent publishing scene, albeit with the emphasis on the USA. In the UK we have Bypass, amongst many others, which plays a similar role.

Zines are important, because they empower the voice which traditionally has been confined to sounding off in the pub. In the mid-1990s, our privileged western culture is fragmenting, and the zine is a new forum for voices of dissatisfaction, argument, dissent, and plain anarchy. In next issue's Psychic Diary, we'll look at some zines from the world of the 'paranormal'. Until then, I think I'll award myself a special prize for getting this far without even mentioning the Internet... damn, I just mentioned it.


©Toby Howard 1995

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