Self Publishing Sucks - My Zine-Making History

I began making zines when I was a student in Manchester. I moved to Manchester aged 20 as a feckless Welsh lump with no discernable skills and underwent a four year larval process that produced a half-decent laboratory scientist and a reasonably capable self-publisher. Here’s how I did the second of those two things.

In my rookie year at the university I fell into a gig as a writer for the student union publication, PULP Magazine, with Paul Capewell, certified best bud and fellow small press pioneer (I’m not sure what happened to PULP in the end but I hope it’s still going). If nothing else, PULP Magazine taught me:

  • If you don’t do it, nobody else will.
  • You don’t need permission off anybody to do this stuff.

That last one is probably the key, and something I hadn't really appreciated coming from a sleepy village outside Cardiff. This attitude was prevalent throughout Manchester (and its neighbouring Leeds); each of its arty little bars, record shops, and cafes (notable favourites included Common, even though it appears to have changed drastically since my heyday, The Soup Kitchen, Piccadilly Records, and the two Trof establishments) had windowsills stuffed with hand-made little publications. I have very clear memories of Pull Yourself Together and Project TBA (the latter made by my former PULP editor Holly Dicker), incredibly well-crafted singularities that existed outside the literature that typically surrounded it (clubnight-sponsored event guides, ad-supported middle-class-outrage engine Vice etc.). Who had willed these things into existence? The creators. There were no publishing houses or sales departments propping these things up, much as PULP Magazine existed in a vacuum, free from interference from “interested parties”. Somebody decided this was a good idea, and acted as vanguards for their own interests. Cool.

So as I arrogantly do with most interesting things I see, I thought “pfft, I can do that”. So I set about doing it. I discovered that every stage of putting something out to print is a disaster, and the linear plan in your mind – “draw it, print it, distribute it” – is at least twenty steps short of an actual plan. I’m four publications deep now with a fifth on the way, and have employed three very different techniques for publishing and distribution. It has never gotten any easier, and the timeframes have all been roughly the same (about a month to finish the art, another month on pre-production and publication), the challenges have just been different.

Magnificent Adventures I & II

A6, 250 copies each, free

Magnificent Adventures was my first foray proper into self-publishing, and came a year after I’d first begun drawing digitally with a tablet. It’s entirely possible, looking back on it now, that I should have waited another year before charging ahead and releasing a zine upon the world, but there’s never a good time to start doing this so you just have to crack on with what you’ve got.

Unless this is what you've got (from Magnificent Adventures I).

Unless this is what you've got (from Magnificent Adventures I).

Magnificent Adventures was drawn on a Wacom tablet the size of a pack of cards on a comically overpowered computer (that I talked myself into needing because of the generous student discount on it) in a program called ArtRage, that allows for advanced real-world painting techniques such as brush-loading and textured paper, none of which I was in a position to use so really it may as well have been drawn on Photoshop 5. It was a series of four-panel comics, printed width-ways across a landscape A6 page. As a student, cost was a factor, so the comics were small (which I think helped it on the shelf; it was easy to pick up and stuff in your back pocket, which the large card-fronted short fiction zines were not – it was also not a zine of short fiction, which also helped). The comics were also printed at a student union onto standard paper and given to me uncut and unstapled - two copies were printed onto each A4 set, to be bisected along the middle by hand. My hand.

This was what I spent a morning in 2011 doing. I cut 125 piles of A4 paper in half along the middle, and put in 250 staples. This was a slow, laborious process. When it was finished, and the bag of flat paper printouts had become two bags of neat-ish looking mini-comics, I felt a wave of relief. I immediately slung the bags over the handlebars of my bike and took to the Northern Quarter to begin the process of dumping them in shops and bars. Thinking back on this hard, I remember every step in the process feeling like the “real work”; drawing the damn thing, that’s the real work! The pure, creative process of putting ideas to page, right? Wrong. As difficult as that is, that is – at least – the thing that people will picture you doing if they ever pick it up and read it. The real work comes after. There is nothing creative about waiting in a dry print-shop reception for the thing to be pulled from a memory stick and onto a thousand individual sheets of paper, nor is there anything artistic or divine about operating a guillotine or a stapler. And there is certainly no creative majesty in cycling around Manchester, red-faced and annoyed. I definitely remember a few points on the dropoff route – chaining my bike to a guard rail for the fifteenth time, sweating out the cigarettes I’d rattled off to get through it (I was also intensely unfit at the time, largely due to the cigarettes) – feeling like this was, in fact, the real “work”. Which of course it was. Without the last push through all the shit, you remain one of those people who’s been threatening a zine for years and never goes through with it. As horrible as it is to have InDesign crash for the third time, taking your layouts with it, that’s what you have to do to do things, and not just be somebody who gives it the big one but still has the default GoDaddy page on their website. 

Some of you will read this and say “what kind of idiot are you to not have anticipated this”, for which I have no answer.  

I also saved a portion to be distributed around my native Cardiff, and noticed a definite cultural difference – with the exception of Spillers Records, a known zine sympathizer, the places I had earmarked as possible drop-off points were curious as to why this thing existed, or what they were expected to do with it. Manchester had a definite culture of weirdo, small-press bullshit just landing on the floors of record shops and the back bars of cafes; Cardiff did not. Or they just didn’t like the art. There are other people in Cardiff doing this (Flower of Phong is a notable example) but it definitely seems to be a more specialised enterprise than it was in Manchester.

Later in the year, I had apparently forgotten all this, because I did it all over again with Magnificent Adventures II. A slightly more polished artistic effort, but still a colossal pain in the arse.

From Magnificent Adventures II

From Magnificent Adventures II

Harveyzine

A5, 150 copies, free

Having since left Manchester, graduated, and found a job, drawing took a back seat for a while (I stayed semi-active on Tumblr – remember that? – doing a few film posters and bits of fan art). Life happens. However, May 2015 was the ten-year anniversary of Brian Harvey running himself over with his own car, so I thought that was as good a reason as any to get back in the game. I started with two ideas – the “Drive” comic and the notion that the Kennedy assassination was a fabrication to spare national embarrassment from the truth (that Kennedy had Harvey-ed himself). The rest kind of came together from there.

Harveyzine was probably the first thing I put out that I was happy with, art-wise; that was made in Manga Studio 5 using Ray Frenden’s superlative brush set, which I had a better handle on than the tools ArtRage supplied. Harveyzine and Handsome Devil definitely feel as though they’re cut from different cloth from Magnificent Adventures – more organic looking and more focused on illustrative pieces than MA’s webcomic-y digitalism.

I also found myself back in Manchester around the time for the Manchester 10k (having packed in the fags and lost some of the weight), which was fortunate as despite intense googling, nowhere in my native Swansea or neighbouring Cardiff offered large-scale printing anywhere near as cheaply as the original Manchester Student Union print shop did. I used the trip to Manchester as an opportunity to dive back in to small press, though this time used my improved financial standing to have them fold and staple the damn things for me mechanically. I dropped a few around Manchester to be found (which thankfully they were) and a few in my hometown of Cardiff, and decided the next thing would be proper. A proper effort.

Handsome Devil

A5, 100 copies, £££

Handsome Devil came from one idea I had in the car while listening to Vauxhall & I on the way home from work:

I built the entire publication around this one idea, pulping the back catalogue and history of The Smiths for all it was worth to fill a 20-page booklet. The entire thing was drawn in Procreate on an iPad Pro, which I think may be my final stop on a costly journey of finding the right setup. The iPad Pro did away with the cognitive disconnect of looking straight ahead at a screen while drawing on a tablet on the desk, and ProCreate had tools close enough to those I’d used previously to maintain whatever “style” I have cultivated over the years.

 

This is the least “ziney” of all the efforts to date – it was professionally printed and sent to my house, it’s full colour, and in a clean break from tradition, it costs money. Heresy, but I was happier with this than anything that preceded it and didn’t want its colour and flavour to be lost inside a photocopier. However, as I decided it was time to stop playing small potatoes, this involved a different challenge entirely – setting up the infrastructure to allow for this sort of thing to happen again. This meant building a website from scratch (which was a lot easier than it could have been – thanks Squarespace) and the associated storefronts. It was more of a “sitting down” type of hassle than cycling around Manchester with two bags of zines and five stone of additional fat on my back, but hassle it was. Fortunately, it’s the kind of hassle you only really have to go through once, after which you can go back and tinker with it until it breaks irreparably and you have to start again from scratch. 

Handsome Devil is the culmination of every lesson I learned (through every bitterly-discovered mistake) through the first three production runs. Everything I had to learn about bleed margins, cut lines, CMYK colour and why it matters, how digital lines turn to physical lines on the page, all made it into Handsome Devil.

In conclusion to this year’s iteration of this post, making your own publications is a satisfying, infuriating, cathartic, horrible, wonderful enterprise. If you want to frustrate yourself smart about something – anything – then learning by doing is really the only way. If you’ve been considering self-publishing, it’s definitely doable – I’ve done it, and I’m definitely not the least qualified or most delusional person who’s ever done it. And as much as doing it sucks, it sucks a lot less than not doing it.