Friday, June 16, 2017

Making a Zine (on a Mac)

So You Want to Make a Zine

There has to be templates and stuff out there, right? Something you could stick in whatever word processor you are using? A guide maybe on margins and such.

Nope. Not really. I mean, you'll find some stuff, but most of it is kind of vague and unhelpful, or quite dated, or really clunky to use (e.g. Word templates that have text boxes flowing in zine order, so that you are looking at two pages at a time, out of visual order, when you compose).  I have been on a surprisingly long journey to find a relatively painless way to slap together a zine without resorting to low-tech scissors and glue layout. I'll spare you the bulk of it and jump pretty quickly to the method I settled on.

But I do want to mention one "dead end:" Adobe InDesign. InDesign is a fine program. And for a long time I thought it was going to be the answer. Ultimately it proved to be too fiddly, and too damned expensive for long term use. For me, anyway; your mileage may definitely vary. I expect it's a great tool for people who like to fiddle. At that point, though, I'm doing all the work of laying out a real book.

The answer, for me, turned out to be two simple and relatively cheap tools: Pages and the aptly if awkwardly named Create Booklet (by Christoph Vogelbusch).

Making a Word Processing Template

I am going to talk about Pages, but if you have a favorite word processor or have already decided Pages isn't your bag, here's the short version. Build a custom page size of 5.5" wide x 8.5" tall (1/2 of a US letter page), slap .5" margins all around on it, and go to town. This way you can write and design your pages one page at a time, in order, and text flows as you expect. Don't try to write/design the zine with the pages in booklet order. Note that if you are overseas or want to use a different paper size, just size the paper accordingly.

In case you don't know what booklet order means, reading order for a 24-page zine is obviously like 1, 2, 3, ... 24. Booklet order, for printing is like 24, 1, 2, 23, 22, 3, 4, 21, etc. This makes sure that the pages are in reading order after you print and staple them.

Now you can skip to the next section, if you don't want instruction for Pages ver. 6.0.5.

[This post was written in 2017 and some instructions may be dated.]

You may know Pages, it comes with your Mac. It's a pretty touchy-feely word processor with a lot of its controls hidden in a way that is supposed to highlight its intuitiveness, but rarely does. Even so, it has exactly what you need.

First you have to set up a template. Open a blank document and navigate the menu through File and Page Setup. In the resulting dialogue box, click on the Paper Sizes menu and choose Manage Custom Sizes (all the way at the bottom). Click the '+' symbol (bottom left) to add a custom size and name it "Digest" (or whatever you want) by double-clicking on the Untitled entry you just added in the list. Set the Paper Size to 5.5 in wide and 8.5 in tall. For the Non-Printable Area, choose User Defined and set all four zones (left, right, top, bottom) to .5 in.

Now, go back to the menu. Choose View, Inspector, Document Setup. This gives you a pane in the right side of Pages where you can set the document margins. Again, I set them to .5 in all around. You can also choose your Header and Footer distances. Mine are set at .5 in for the Header and .6 for the Footer. I also like to tell it to Show Ruler and Show Layout under the View menu.

Now save it as a template (Menu, File, Save As Template).

While you could do a similar template in about any word processor, I just happen to like Pages. MS Word is so damn finicky. I saw this quote on social media a while back and it made me laugh heartily, and cringe ... because it's true.

Using Microsoft Word. *Moves image 1mm to the left.*All text and images shift. 4 new pages appear. In the distance, sirens.

Content & Design

From here it's just a matter of adding content and laying it out. I'll skip that part, you know how to do that, and if you don't I can't really help you. There's no way to do it wrong if, in the end, you are personally happy with the result. (That's almost a zine mantra right there.) There are some tricks for dealing with styles and images I might talk about in a future post, but I want to get to how you print up your zine, because you can't really do it straight from Pages, as far as I know.


This is where Create Booklet comes in. The app currently costs $9.99 and you can get it in the App Store or download a free trial at their website first. Using this software couldn't be simpler. Start by saving your project as a PDF from Pages. Open Create Booklet and choose to open the PDF you just created. At this point you are basically done except hitting the Command+P to print your zine! Create Booklet does all the work of figuring out which page goes where in the printing. You can also do stuff like adding page numbers in Create Booklet, but I prefer to handle all of that in Pages.

Edit – One of the recent versions of Create Booklet created a slightly odd error in which files opened up looking weird. The pages look off / smaller than the paper. You can fix this by changing the scale (quick controls in the left panel) to 99% and then back to 100%. Everything will then snap into place.

That's it. Well, except for folding and stapling. I assume your printer won't do that for you. You will need a long reach stapler. They currently run from $12-24 for a typical model.

Tips & Tricks

This is sort of like a FAQ, because I know you are going to get started and then want to do some fancier stuff or have questions. Here's what little I know to tell you.

  • Heavy paper makes the zine hard to fold and creates a more pronounced protrusion in the open edge. The cover is bent around all the pages in between, so it loses a fraction of an inch. Each successive middle page is wrapped around less material, loses less in the fold, and sticks out a little farther along the open edge of the zine as a result. The overall effect is a kind of steepled edge, with the middle-most pages sticking out the farthest. This makes it hard to "thumb through" the zine.
  • A lot of pages creates the same problem (hard to fold, steepled edge). 6 sheets of paper will make a 24 page zine, which is a very manageable size. Every added sheet after that adds 4 more pages. 8 sheets/32 pages is about as far as I want to go,  but you can easily try out different thicknesses on your own. Play with both number of pages and paper thickness.
  • For a really "pro" zine, you can use a block cutter to trim the outer edge flat. But ... eh ... it's not that big a deal unless the steepling is really pronounced.
  • Most people use cardstock for the cover, of course. When you go to print the interior pages, just tell Create Booklet to print a range of pages from 3 to n-2, where n is your total pages. For a 24 page zine, for instance, you would print pages 3 to 22. This leaves out pages 1 (cover), 2 (inside cover), 23 (inside back cover), and 24 (back cover), which you then print separately on the card stock. Or you could just create your cover in a separate file and print the whole run of your interior pages so that the covers aren't part of the page count. 
  • Staple, then fold. The staple will keep the pages from slipping around when you do fold them. [This instruction is for a long-reach stapler. I have now switched to the Bostitch B440SB, for which it is easier to fold, then staple.]
  • If you want to look at your zine with facing pages, you can either use Create Booklet and choose "straight order" or you can open your the PDF you created in your word processor and have your PDF viewer display facing pages/two pages at a time. If it doesn't put up your first page (the cover) by itself, everything will be off by one. Temporarily adding a blank up front is one way to solve that problem.
  • If you want a continuous splash page in the middle; for instance, you want a drawing that goes right through the fold/staple. Leave blanks in the center-most pages of your document (pages 12-13 in a 24-page zine). Create a splash page template that is 11" wide by 8.5" tall with .5" margins all around. Design your splash page and save it as a PDF. Then use Create Booklet to set up your zine in booklet order and print to a PDF instead of directly to your printer. (You may want to do this anyway if you are sending your digital file off to print at a shop, rather than stealing paper and ink from your work. Not that anyone does that!) Once you have the printer's layout PDF from Create Booklet, replace the middle spread of the PDF with your full page spread. (Mac's Preview and Adobe Acrobat both allow you to swap in/out pages.)
  • If you want a continuous cover, do it basically the same way (see above).

How About You?

If you make a zine, link to yourself below and/or tell me about your process.

The Easiest of Physical Zine Formats!

Are you intimidated by the idea of creating a physical zine? I am, or at least was.

I recently learned of a few, wonderful zine formats that greatly lower the fear factor. It's true that small successes breed larger ones, so I think I'm going to give one of these a try in the near future, hoping that it will give me courage to start sending out my digest-sized zine, Plundergrounds.

The Letter Zine
When I first learned of Christian Walker's The Tolling of the Great Black Bell, it blew my mind. Christian's zine begins as a hand-written/drawn artifact on both sides of one page. He copies his original onto colored paper, tri-folds it, and mails it in a standard envelope with a single stamp. He can even slip in several "back issues" without raising the postage, so let's say his cost per zine is something like 50 cents for postage plus maybe 15 cents a page for copying and paper stock, maybe another 10 cents for the envelope. Outside of his time, Christian is making and delivering a physical zine for 75 cents an issue. Brilliant. Easy. Useful!

I think my own mental block was that I always imagined a zine to be like a magazine or a book. It never occurred to me that a zine could just be a single page.

Black Bell (front/orange), What Danforth Saw (behind/yellow)

The Mini-Comic 
Another small zine I recently purchased was a comic called What Danforth Saw from artist Sean Poppe. I was expecting a digest-sized thing, so when I got a 3.5" by 5" envelope from him in the mail I was a little surprised. Inside was a blank piece of paper folded over a tiny booklet. The booklet was/is 3.25" x 3.75" and 20 pages long. (That number includes the cover and both sides of every page. IOW it is 5 strips of paper, printed on both sides and stapled/folded in the center.) The hand-feel was a bit like one of the old (horrible but also clever) Jack Chick tracts. It didn't even occur to me to feel "cheated" by the size. For one thing, I paid almost nothing for it. For another, the small format just seemed awesome! What a great idea to make the zine so that it fit in the kind of envelope that Thank You cards often use.

My one concern here is how to easily create the zine in this format. It seems like it would involve some fussy printing and cutting. One solution might be to use the PocketMod format. A PocketMod uses one sheet of paper, printed on one side only, to produce an 8-page pamphlet about the size of a playing card.

What's So Easy About These?
Both of these formats solve one of the biggest problems of the physical zine ... distribution. By exploiting standardized envelope sizes and mailing rates, they ensure that getting your zine to a reader will be easy. For your convenience...

USPS Size/Weight Limits
Domestic First Class
International First Class

EDIT: Follow Up!
So, it turns out that a 28 page zine the size of a half-page of US letter paper (5.5" x 8.5" tall) will fit into a mailing envelope (like this one) that conforms to the USPS requirements for a standard envelope! That means a single stamp. I tested it and it arrive at a friends house (on the other side of the US) in about 5 days. YAY!