What is a Zine?

Rhymes with Bean: A Do-It-Yourself Zine Definition

The task of defining zines is at once both challenging and inspiring. Zines are difficult to pin down and it seems that it is for this very reason that so many people are drawn to them in study, collection and creation: they are limitless, ephemeral and ever-changing. Stephen Duncombe, author of Notes From the Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture, writes that his initial response, when asked to provide a definition of zines, has been to hand over a stack of materials in order to let the inquirer construct their own definition. Indeed, many zine experts would follow Duncombe’s approach, and many definitions (much like this one) include an assertion that a definition cannot be easily obtained. Julie Bartel, former zine librarian at the Salt Lake City Public Library and author of From A to Zine: Beginning a Winning Zine Collection in Your Library, agrees that “Perhaps because we’ve all grown up with guidelines and definitions and regulations for what is appropriate in various media, it’s a struggle to accept that there are very few rules in the world of zines. We want a Definition, a definite description, and restrictions which help us to define boundaries.”


“Usually issued by one person outside the profit motive, they are a budget means of unhomogenized self-expression,” writes Chris Dodge, Street Librarian and Utne Magazine columnist in his Zine-ography (a bibliography of materials about zines), “Some are cobbled together quickly using office photocopiers; others are carefully designed using the latest in word processing technology. Their content may be sexually explicit, politically revolutionary, or blatantly anti-social. All embody one maxim: freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.”

Jen Angel and Jason Kucsma, co-founders and editor of Clamor Magazine and The Zine Yearbook (an annual compilation of the year’s best zines), assert that the beauty of zines lies in their accessibility. They point out that “You don’t need any specialized equipment to broadcast over the airwaves or record your ideas, and you don’t even need a computer to create or view zines. All you need is a pen, paper,and a couple of dollars for the copy machine. All you need to do is walk into one of a many coffee shops, record stores, bookstores or community spaces to pick up a zine and participate in a vibrant culture…”

Long-time zinester Chip Rowe describes the medium in his Book of Zines: Readings from the Fringe, as: “…cut and paste, ‘sorry this was late,’ self-published magazines reproduced at Kinko’s or on the sly at work and distributed through mail order and by word of mouth.” Rowe further describes, “Over the years since I assembled the first issue of ‘Chip’s Closet Cleaner’ and sent copies to my puzzled relatives, I’ve exchanged zines and letters with hundreds of underground publishers and found we share the same desire-the same need-to create.”

Bartel succinctly lists that zines “…can be about toasters, food, a favorite television show, thrift stores, anarchism, candy, bunnies, sexual abuse, architecture, war, gingerbread men, activism, retirement homes, comics, eating disorders, Barbie dolls-you name it. There are personal zines, music zines, and sport zines, zines about politics and zines about pop culture.”

Zines have developed from a number of sources. In a way similar to the definition of zines, the lineage is also difficult to trace and un-collated. Some experts site that zines are short for fanzines, a creation of 1930’s science fiction fans. others believe that the medium was more influenced by the punk rock movement of the 1970’s. Many refer to the legacy of zines in the pamphlets and broadsides published as far back as Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, or in the works of the Dada art movement. Zines today seem to embody all of these references and utilize freedom of the press and self-expression in all of their manifestations.

Another distinguishing feature of the zine world is how these materials are obtained. Other than the physical spaces where zines can be found that Jason and Jen mention, zines are ordered primarily through the mail. Some zinesters distribute their works themselves, from their home address or a post office box, while others rely on distros, or an outside distributor. A distro may be run by someone who produces his or her own zine or just a fan. They provide a centralized service in which to order and peruse a large volume of works, many of which are reviewed by the distro and available through either print or online catalogs. One advantage of distros is that they are usually more accepting of checks or online paypal accounts than individual zine creators, who most often rely on a system of well-concealed cash for payment. Rowe writes, “For the best results, send well-wrapped cash and a kind word… You’ll get a zine in return; if you don’t, the editor needed your money to eat or something.” But don’t worry too much about lost cash; most zines are very cheap, often within the $1-3 dollar range (and in my experience, returned envelopes due to address changes are more frequent than stolen bills).


Despite misgivings at shaping a singular definition of what zines are, I usually tell inquirers that zines are homemade magazines, and that they are self-published, often on a copy machine. I tell them that these projects are usually labors of love created on a small scale and distributed in unusual ways. I try to stress that zines can be anything that their creator wants them to be and that usually they are made to reflect what the author sees as a void in their current media consumption or to honor themselves and their own views and daily lives as important expressions.

For more information about zines and their history, see the sources listed below or check out the Links page. Also resommended is Stolen Sharpie Revolution: A DIY Zine Resource by zinester Alex Wrekk. SSR compiles lots of ways to find and order zines, instructions for zine etiquette and also provides a lot of information and tips on how to get your own zine started.

Happy Reading!


Angel, Jen and Jason Kucsma, editors. The Zine Yearbook: Volume 8. Toledo: Become the Media/Clamor Magazine, 2004.

Bartel, Julie. From A to Zine: Building a Winning Zine Collection in Your Library. Chicago: American Library Association, 2004.

Dodge, Chris. November 1998. “A Zine-ography.” Street Librarian. http://reocities.com/SoHo/cafe/7423/zineog2.html

Duncombe, Stephen. Notes From the Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture. New York: Verso, 1997.

Rowe, Chip, editor. The Book of Zines: Readings from the Fringe. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1997.

Wrekk, Alex. Stolen Sharpie Revolution

2 Responses to What is a Zine?

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