I Was A Zine Editor
I edited and published photocopied, black and white literary magazines, or “zines,” for 10 years, from 1994-2004. I was motivated by a love of the written word as it appears on the printed page, by respect for the do-it-yourself ethic, and by a desire to give a platform to good writers whose work never made it past the screener's desk at high-profile publications. And, sure, I took the opportunity to run my own short stories, and used the editor's pages to go off and rant and rave about whatever was on my mind at that moment.
My first, and main, magazine was called Dodobobo (what my wife Abby called people she didn't like when she was a kid). I produced the magazine out of my cockroach-infested apartment in Washington, D.C., using almost all of the spare time I had outside of my bookstore job. For the first issue, I wrote a transparently autobiographical story about someone who worked in a book shop and dreamed of becoming a professional writer. My friends Su Avasthi and Kyle Hogg wrote brilliant pieces, and Kyle also sent me a packet of short stories that had been submitted to his (mostly) poetry zine Boldprint. One of those stories, by a guy named Michael K. White, absolutely blew me away; I ran that story of Mike's, and wound up including pieces of his work in almost every issue after. Fifteen years later, Mike is one of my closest friends.
I paid for the printing and mailing of that first issue out of pocket. I handed out and mailed copies to friends, left piles at all my favorite book stores, record shops, bars, and such hangouts, I sent copies to editors of other zines that I liked. Then I went into some of those same local shops and started pushing ads for future issues. Little by little, small store owners started saying yes and opening their cash registers and checkbooks. At the magazine's peak, I think I had one issue that had 10 ads in it. Most of them were from local, independently owned stores. But I also got a few national record labels to advertise – Dodobobo was a literary magazine but, me being a music fanatic, it had a rock and roll feel to it and appealed to like-minded music heads. I'll never forget opening my P.O. box and finding a letter from Dischord, D.C.'s longstanding and mighty indie record label, where they asked me If they could advertise in my mag. They did an ad in every issue from that point on.
I aimed to make the magazine a quarterly, but generally managed to produce around three issues a year. I did 21 of them in all. Somewhere in there I stopped and did an anthology of the best pieces up to that point. When the anthology came out a local bar hosted a celebration of it. Mike traveled from Colorado, and he, I, and a few other writers stood on the little stage and read our stories. My friend John Lake Harvey DJ'd during the hanging out/mingling times, my lifelong buddy Dave Harrison put together some cool video clips that were shown as eye candy, my brother Ronnie and sister-in-law Beth came from Florida. The little room was packed, and at the end of the night a bunch of us danced to John's tracks. It was a great night.
Also around the time of the anthology, The Washington Post ran a feature article on the magazine and me. It was great to get that exposure, but I was upset about the article. The writer did a phone interview with me and we just didn't hit it off. All she seemed to want to know was if I belonged to any writers' organizations, and if I was some kind of cheerleader for local authors. I told her I was too busy writing and editing to join any writers groups, and told her I just wanted to publish good stories, whether they came from the guy who lived across the street, or Timbuktu. She went out of her way to belittle me and the magazine in the article.
Many strokes of good fortune helped me keep the mag, afloat all those years. I was lucky to have friends who were great writers and who were always willing to contribute copy. I was lucky to have other friends who had graphic design skills and who were willing to do the layout as a labor of love (thank you Scott Seymour, Braden Goetz, Ching Wang, and Lindsay Mangum). I was lucky to discover a printing co-op, run by a group of zine publishers, who ran off copies of the issues for a ridiculously low price. I was lucky to have friends and family members who would sometimes float me a check, just to help keep the mag. going. And I was lucky to have all those great independent shop owners and record labels, who would find a way to pay for an ad, whether it was a good time for their business or not.
I had my core of favorite writers I would always turn to, and they became the consistent voice of the magazine, as much as I was. Mike, Kyle, Dave, my friends Don Harrison, Angie Blake, and Dean Richard, the zine luminary Aaron Cometbus, my friend Pat McGeehan who drew some hysterical comics . . . too many to list. But I also loved running stories by people who submitted “cold”: writers I didn't know personally, who sent me submissions in the mail. Despite being a tiny magazine that couldn't pay its writers, I got something like 10-15 submissions a week, mostly because I kept a listing in the ubiquitous Writer's Market. Truth be told, most of the submissions were poor. But I'd scour through them, searching for the diamond in the rough. And when I found one, nothing made me happier than writing that acceptance letter to the author. No, this wasn't The New Yorker; no, they couldn't quit their day job. But someone was going to publish something they'd written, and others would read it, and they'd have this little magazine with their short story in it as a memento. I got chills of pleasure writing those letters. Two of those people who cold-called me and whose stories I published became more lifelong friends. One of them, Cynthia Benson, is someone I still correspond with at least once a week.
Another favorite set of memories from those years are the times I sold the magazine at a vendor's table at various fairs. The best of these were the two years I had a table at the Indie Rock Flea Market, hosted by one of the mag's advertisers, Go! Records from Arlington, Virginia. All day long on a Saturday, indie record labels, vintage clothing store owners, underground comic artists, and others would sell their wares to the indie kids and other assorted hipsters who came out. I sat there with all the issues of my magazine spread out across my table. Abby and some of our friends would take turns running the booth so I could go off and look at others' stuff. I sold my mags for $2 a pop, or any three issues for $5. I loved it when people came up and said, “This looks great – tell me what the best three to get are.” I'll never forget the time a guy came bounding up, right at the end of the day, and said, “Oh my god, I love this magazine!,” and gleefully bought copies of every issue he didn't have yet.
Eventually, after eight years, it seemed the magazine had kind of run its course. Several of my long-time advertisers went out of business, run down by the big chains. Abby and I decided to move to North Carolina and start a family. I wanted to spend more of my scarce free time working on my own writing projects and less on reading and editing others' work. Despite all of that, I made a stab at starting a new magazine from North Carolina. I did three issues of one I called The Pistol (thinking of a smartass type of person rather than a weapon). I'm quite proud of those three issues, even though I put them together at a time when I knew this endeavor was running out of gas. For that matter, I'm proud of all the issues of both magazines. Countless times over the years I've pulled them out and flipped through them, when I needed a pick-me-up or when I just wanted to re-live some part of what was mostly an exhilarating and vastly rewarding experience.
more zine memories:
xeroxed / Michael K. White
the indie lit and rock mag scene before the time of the internet
retrieved online literary zines / blueprintreview
links to online literary magazines that were considered lost, and now turned up in web archives.