Friday, June 16, 2017

Making a zine

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" for me: 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. Your mileage may vary, of course. 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 for Mac (a basic and awesome word processor) and the aptly named Create Booklet by Christoph Vogelbusch (a program that arranges PDF pages into printable booklets). 

[Edit: Create Booklet is now Create Booklet 2. It's even better and can be found in the App Store for Apple products.]

Making a Word Processing Template

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. If you live outside the US, go for A5. Working one page at a time (rather than tackling spreads) means you can write and design your content in order. It also allows you to more easily have a screen (digital) version and a print/printable version of your zine. Don't try to write/design the zine in booklet order! 

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 (side a of sheet 1); 2, 23 (side b of sheet 1); 22, 3 (side a of sheet 2); 4, 21 (side b of sheet 2), etc. This makes sure that the pages are in reading order after you print and staple them.

Content, Design, Layout

Let's start with the fact that there's no wrong way to make  a zine if, in the end, you are happy with the result. However, there are some tips and tricks that can make your process smoother.

Fonts. Most of this will be obvious, but it bears saying anyway. Start with a body font that has plenty of styles (bold and italic are a must, different weights and densities are great too). Most importantly, the body font needs to be easy to read. Don't shrink it to 8 point and smaller in an attempt to fit more into your zine! (Instead, think about making multiple issues.) Title and header fonts can be more of a "display" type of font, something with more character and less variance. In general, use only a handful of fonts to get the job done - two or three is great. Warning - getting into fonts is a bottomless pit of joy and/or stress. If you don't love fonts, just keep it really simple! Also, like many artistic endeavors, all the "rules" are only guidelines. Learn them, and then break them for effect.

Styles. Use them. It's hard to believe there was a time when I hated styles. I think it's when I still worked in MS Word (ugh) and styles were not programmed well. Styles are your friend. They allow you to adjust your whole zine by changing the style instead of each bit of text that uses that style (one edit, not many edits). Styles are to text what CSS is to HTML.

Facing Pages. Most word processors will allow you to set your document to have facing pages, meaning you can have an inside and outside margin that changes relative to left-hand and right-hand pages. 

Writing in Layout? A lot of advice on writing tells you to write your content in a basic text or rich text file. Don't format it. Instead, get everything down and then cut-and-paste it into your doc. I don't do that. I write directly into my zine template. Not only does this save me time, but it gives me creative constraints and relates to the next point, which is ...

Multiples. Generally you will want to write your zine so that the total page number divides cleanly by four. But that varies based on your format. For the digest sized zine, you get four pages per sheet of paper. So a 24 page zine uses 6 sheets of paper.

Outlines. You can do a traditional outline, if you like, but my favorite way to outline the content of a zine is to make a series of boxes in my journal that look like the pages of a book. Meaning, one box for the cover, then a double box (two boxes side-by-side) for each interior spread, then one box for the final page. I then write little notes and doodle in artwork on these pages. That way when I start writing I have article lengths and such in my head. It also helps if you have routine elements to your zine, like an introductory letter page and a page for "further reading." As you write you may draft and redraft this outline. Here's a Zine Planner PDF that I started using so I didn't have to keep drawing boxes. :) 


This is where Create Booklet [2] comes in. [I think Adobe Acrobat will do this too, but ...] Using this software couldn't be simpler. Start by saving your project as a PDF from your word processor. Open that PDF in Create Booklet. Create Booklet does all the work of figuring out which page goes where in the printing. There are lots of options within the software too, like adding blank pages, continuous page numbers, etc. 

That's it. Well, except for folding and stapling. I assume your printer won't do that for you. Here are tips & tricks related to physically printing your zine. 

Steepling. Heavy paper and/or too many pages can cause steeping - a pronounced ridge in the open edge of your zine that makes it hard to flip through. Each sheet of a zine nests within the previous sheet, so the spine accumulates a fraction of an inch each time. This means the middle pages will "push out." Six sheets of paper, a 24 page zine, is a very manageable size. Eight sheets, 32 pages, is about as far as I like to go,  but you can easily try out different thicknesses on your own. Play with both number of pages and paper thickness.

Trimming. If you have a really good, sharp block cutter, you can correct edge steeping by trimming the open edge of your zine. Good luck. I often end up with a less satisfactory result than just leaving it alone.

Cover Stock. Most people use card stock for the cover. 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 or Fold First? If you use a traditional long-arm stapler, then staple first. The staple will keep the pages from slipping around when you do fold them. I use to the Bostitch B440SB. It has a cool ridge under the staple head so that you can fold the zine first, rest the inside fold on that ridge, and staple away!

Previews and Test Runs. If you want to look at your zine with facing pages, digitally, most PDF viewers have an option to show two pages at a time with/or without a single-plane cover. You can also preview it in Create Booklet. I often print out a copy, even before I'm finished writing, to proof and markup the work so far.

Your Turn

If you make a zine, tell me about it in the comments below!

Easy physical zine formats!

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

I recently discovered a few, wonderfully simple 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. No clever folding or collating, or stapling. He can even slip in several "back issues" without raising the postage. At the time I write this, his cost per zine must be something like 50 cents for postage, plus about 15 cents a page for copying and paper stock, and 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, 3.25" x 3.75" and 20 pages long. 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! Like a little treasure that fits inside a standard small envelope (the kind in which most Thank You notes are sent).

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 structure. 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 (7 sheets of paper) 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!