Walking the Tightrope: Experiments and Risk Taking in Zine Design

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Title: Walking the Tightrope: Experiments and Risk Taking in Zine Design
Creator: Carolyn Cooper
Date(s): mid to late 1986
Medium: print
Fandom: multifandom
External Links:
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Walking the Tightrope: Experiments and Risk Taking in Zine Design is a 1986 essay by Carolyn Cooper.

It was printed in Blue Pencil #4.

Some Topics Discussed

  • engagement with one's readers in the production of a zine
  • bucking, and reinforcing, expectations
  • stylistic choices in zines

From the Essay

To raise money our SF club held bake sales on campus. Each time we tried a new item we observed an interesting pattern by the buyers; the first time a new item appeared on the table, a few brave souls would try it. However, many more people would ask questions about the food; what was it, how was it made, and so forth-and then buy it the second time they saw it on the table. If the food was brought back for a third bake sale, it was a familiar and accepted item and would sell consistent with the rest of the regular menu. There was a need for the buyers to become familiar with any item, even standbys like gingerbread, before they would try it.

What does this have to do with zines? Strangely enough quite a bit, for you see zine buyers, like the bake sale buyers, have certain preconceived expectations regarding what zines look like and are. A "truefan/Corflu " zine editor doesn't consider a media fan fiction publication a zine because it's filled with "media stories" while some Fan Q voters vehemently objected to including a newsletter category because "newsletters aren't edited" and yet more than one Fan Q nominee (and winner) has openly admitted to not believing in editing stories. Most media fans want art on the cover of their zines and complain when it's absent. Many think the interior should be sparse and clean while another sizeable contingent like beaucoup graphics and googaws. What does this mean to an editor thinking of trying new styles and design techniques?

First, you should understand what your readers expect. Pick up a huge stack of different zines. Now, quickly flip through them. Absorb the overall feel of them. Note what causes you to pause or stop and give a second look. Why does it stand out? What's different about this page as compared to the rest of the pages in the zine? Is there a zine that stands out as "different" from the rest? What specific differences to you find between it and the other zines?

You should expect resistance to changes or variations on the expected. Don't fight this resistance; use editorial jujitsu on your buyers. Dr. Pepper took its unusual taste and developed a whole campaign (a highly successful campaign, I might add) around the implication that wanting the "unusual" somehow made the buyer more heroic and desirable. In zines, THE WOOKIE COMMODE played up its less-than-standard name by hinting at the outrageous and possibly risqué contents and garnered a Fan Q.

Don't apologize, threaten, or complain in the middle of the Dealer's Room that fans have no taste for rejecting your "Vulcan under a black blanket wearing a black suit in a dark room" cover — turn the experiment, successful or otherwise, into an asset. When I got the front and back FROM A CERTAIN POINT OF VIEW 1 covers from the printer I found the printer had offset the pictures of Han and Luke the same way so that both of them were technically for the front cover instead of Luke on the front and Han on the back. Mary Lowe came with the creative suggestion that I just alternate; half of the Luke's on the front and half of the Han's on the front and vice versa for the back. With the exception of one completest collector, the fans loved my comment that it all depended on whom they wanted to wake up seeing. I almost felt compelled to do it deliberately with issue 2. By working WITH the buyers and letting them feel they were participating in the zine, I turned an "oops" into a "thanks".

Make your buyers feel a part of the experiment. Ask their advice. Poll their opinions. Take the comment "I hate your covers" and say "Well, I wanted to try for a more science-fictional look, but what kind of covers do you like? Do you think it would have worked better if I'd used a cream close-up portrait of Spock on the white instead of the long shot?" Most people don't really want to hurt your feelings and they are flat tered when someone actually listens to them. And you should listen to them, really listen to them. I know it hurts after you spend 900 hours preparing the art, fighting with the printer, proofing the covers and sending them back to hear "I don't like it", but better to listen now than to hear it again next year. And what about the interior? Why are they saying the margins are too big (or too small)? Are the margins really excessive or are they actually afraid they've overpaid? Did they overpay? Let them know what hardships you've faced if you need to charge $20. Explain it's either charge $20 or not publish because your husband isn't willing to eat Hamburger Helper for more than 6 months in a row. Ask if they'd rather you pub two smaller zines a year apart and break up that 250 page epic. I bet they say "no". If the efforts to do mirror imaging didn't work, admit it. Tell the folks what you learned in the experiment. It will not only help you, but other editors.

When planning an experiment, consider how appropriate it is to your topic. Face it, Miami Vice zines in pink and turquoise with new wave graphics, art reproduced in turquoise duo-tones and diagonal layouts would not meet nearly the resistance as the same techniques used for Blake's 7. A poem about pre-Reform Vulcan would look great in brown ink on parchment paper, but that old-time feel would be incongruous with a piece about the manifest destiny of space exploration imposed over the space shuttle and moonscape.

Build upon what you've learned from a previous issue. Keep the things that you and your readers liked, discard ideas that detracted from the overall style. Expect failures. Not every experiment works and not every experiment is a complete failure or success. If something doesn't come out exactly as you planned, consider whether it's worth trying again and what you need to do to make it work the next time. And consider whether a "failure" doesn't actually have something you can use in another situation. Also, be prepared for your "failures" to be big hits with your buyers. More than one zine editor has had "oops" that got raves as being "innovative" when the editor had already pulled out her hair. Don't do anything drastic to "fix" a disappointment. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Actually when you look at the phenomenal number of ideas and devices used by professional publishers, it's hard to believe there is anything that CAN'T be done. The only question is, is it worth it to you and your readers to do it? And there's nothing that says an editor has to please the buyers. If you've got it in your heart of hearts to print Avon in pink and Spock in turquoise and you don't give a damn what anyone says, do it — just remember you said you didn't give a damn what anyone says so don't complain when the buyers sneer. On the other hand, Miami Vice and The Equalizer nearly got cancelled in six episodes which goes to prove there's no accounting for taste.