What is a Zine?


What is a Zine? 

Image courtesy of Celina Williams. 

Richmond ZineFest organizer Celina Williams joined us to produce this informational guest post. Richmond ZineFest has been operating since 2007 and is still going strong. From the website: "The zine fest is not just for zine creators and distros. It’s an open event for all ages with tablers selling zines as well as other DIY items, informative and fun workshops throughout the afternoon, and good times, food  and conversation in general." Here, Celina gives us some insight into the world of zine-making and sharing: 


What is a zine and how are they produced?

This is the big question that should be so easy to answer, but I find myself overwhelmed and stumbling every time I answer it because zines are and can be so much and EVERYTHING. Zines are typically independently produced publications created in a variety of styles on any number of topics with a limited run and without monetary gains being the (primary) goal. Typically. There are exceptions, of course, to anything, especially zines.

Many people still picture the black and white, xeroxed zines full of beautiful errors, collages, and bold confessional musings of the 90s, and there are still plenty of those around. But there are also glossy full-color zines, artist zines with hand-sewn bindings and screen printed or risograph covers, newsprint zines, audio/visual zines, and even … ::gasp:: digital zines! It took me awhile to get here, but I’m finally coming around to the idea that zines don’t have to be physical to be a zine, which is a controversial opinion to have in this scene where printed matter is a thing we hold dear.

When I was first working with zines in a professional capacity at VCU Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives, I had to make firm decisions on what would qualify as a “zine” versus a “newsletter” versus “comix” versus “independent paper” versus “magazine” versus “chapbook” or “artists’ book.” We couldn’t keep everything, and some donations shined best in other collections (VCU Libraries has one of the best Comic Arts and Book Art Collections on the east coast, FYI, and is available to view by appointment). As much as I would want a particular zine to be with the zine collection, I’d be forced to admit it would be best housed with book art or with comics. Other times people would call something they made a zine, and I’d scrunch my nose and shake my head and go, “Nope nope, that’s not a zine. That’s a student organization’s newsletter.” Now that I no longer work in an archival setting, I’ve loosened up on my definition of “zine” and how I apply it these days.

How are zines circulated?

I prefer buying and/or trading zines directly from the artists at zine fests like Richmond Zine Fest and DC Zine Fest or from their websites/shops/etsy if they have one. I also regularly browse/purchase zines from online distributors and shops like Brown Recluse Zine Distro, Stranger Danger, Doris Press, and Quimby’s. In Richmond, Velocity Comics has a small area for comic zines that I like to check out when I’m able. I’m sure there other ways to get zines and shops I don’t know about. I’m not sure if this still exists, but the first zine I ever purchased was found through a livejournal community for VCU students. It was 5.5x4.25 and had lovingly hand-sewn binding and a cover made from a repurposed map. I responded to the post and met some girl on a street corner near my dorm. Probably not the safest way to get zines, but it was a cool moment and I loved that zine. Years later it was stolen/never returned after I did a show-and-tell with zines from my personal library. I wouldn’t be surprised if similar methods of discovering and sharing zines are still in practice, like if you scrolled #zines on instagram, you’ll probably come across zines for sale. We use whatever we can. It’s one of the reasons why zines have never disappeared despite the number of badly researched zine comeback articles that pop up every five years.

Exhibitors from Richmond ZineFests past. Images courtesy of Celina Williams.

Exhibitors from Richmond ZineFests past. Images courtesy of Celina Williams.

What is the distinction between a zine and an artists’ book?

I kind of got at this above. I don’t think they are mutually exclusive, but the distinction between the two lies in the pricing and the maker’s intention. A huge part of zines for me will always be accessibility in pricing for the audience that you’re centering. If you’re making a zine for low-income folks, and the production method requires that you price it at $5 or more, is it really for them? If those of us who promote zines as a way of reclaiming space for marginalized people, and we look around our events and see mostly cishet white men, have we really done anything that steps outside of academia and other elite and mainstream circles? I want zines to be more accessible for would-be makers and readers, which is one of the reasons why Richmond Zine Fest established a print stipend for zine-maker, who are POC, LGBTQ, women, and/or have visible and invisible disabilities. As much as I love artist’s books, I still see them as often being inaccessible in both their production and pricing. I’m grateful for libraries that have the means to purchase them and provide access to book art to the public though.

Why zines? 

There’s nothing quite like holding a new zine from a friend or a  stranger in my hands, or someone telling me that my own zines have resonated with them on any level. Making a zine can be about self-exploration and sharing parts of yourself in a way that feels safe, while reading another’s zine allows you to think beyond yourself and hone your ability to empathize and learn better ways to value and love ourselves and our communities. It’s a type of connection that I imagine traditionally published/displayed creators get, but it’s also raw and vastly different. It’s potentially accessible to everyone to create/distribute/acquire. I love that.

It’s one of the reasons why I’ve come around to embracing any method of sharing and publishing zines. Yes, even online publishing, because printing costs are high and some people want to remain paper-free for environmental/political reasons, and that is justified (while others want to be internet/digitally free, which is also justified). So many things (try to) fit in neat, stifling boxes and definitions, and I love that zines continue to push against any rigid boundaries of what they are or aren’t. I think that is why they will always find a new audience and continue to matter because we only have to look around us to witness the dangers of becoming stubbornly one single thing.


Celina will be generously opening her zine collection to the public for viewing during our panel talk on March 30th from 7-9pm. Be sure to drop by to hear about the latest book she's reading, plans for ZineFest 2018, and to check out her amazing collection!