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The hot zine scene

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Thursday, October 01, 2009
The Independent Publishing Resource Center in Portland has more than 6,000 issues of zines.

Between the wall of bestsellers and the stacks of glossy magazines in the foyer at Powell’s Books is a six-tiered rack of hodgepodge booklets — one wrapped in string, a few as small as a pocket Bible. Several have color covers and neatly bound spines, but many appear to have been printed with a black and white copier and stapled with a Swingline. Many have numbers: Yeti 7, Doris 26, The Stolen Sharpie Revolution 2. A sign above the rack says ZINES.

Powell’s sells about 300 zines a month. “I took over probably about seven or eight years ago and I was always really surprised by how well the zines sold,” says Kevin Sampsell, who chooses which zines to stock.

Zines are dirt cheap to buy and make, which is why the wheels of the zine mini-industry in Portland continue to turn despite the bad economy. Writers and illustrators, small printers and distributors produce hundreds of zines a year locally. The independent book store Reading Frenzy has a wide selection of zines, and zinesters can use the equipment at the nonprofit Independent Publishing Resource Center to print and bind. More than 1,000 zinesters from across the country gathered at PSU for the ninth annual Portland Zine Symposium in July.

The zine scene is also bolstered by its indifference to ROI. “A zine is any handmade publication that’s done, typically, by an individual and traditionally doesn’t have much advertising, if any, and is usually done out of a sense of passion rather than any hope for a profit,” says Justin Hocking, IPRC’s executive director.

There are breakout successes such as Dishwasher, a serial zine about washing dishes in all 50 states. The creator, Pete Jordan, who printed three issues at the IPRC, was asked to appear on David Letterman’s show and later offered a book deal by Harper Perennial.

Though most zinesters pay their expenses out of pocket, breaking even if they’re lucky, some do support themselves with zine revenues. Bitch magazine, headquartered in Portland, started off as a zine and is now a nonprofit with eight employees. The two creators of Yeti, a literary journal that comes with a CD of music, have enough revenue to cover office space and health insurance, but not salaries.

Yeti Publishing shares its office space in southeast Portland with the independent publishing house and distributor Microcosm Publishing, founded in 1996 by Joe Biel. Microcosm carries 2,400 zines and alternative books as well as zinester-appealing merchandise, sold online and through its retail store.

Biel says it’s doing so well that five or six of its eight employees don’t have second jobs, and he expects the prosperity to continue. Low costs, low prices and willingness to take a loss have made the mini-industry recession-proof, unlike for-profit independent magazines.

“[Independent] magazines have had a total bottoming out. When they tried to get bigger, it backfired,” Biel says. “Zines are eternally relevant in that way. It’s economical for the people producing them at any level of demand or any scale… It’s infinitely affordable.” 


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