Zine Mail Orders: The Vanguard Of The Zine Revolution
By Sean Guillory
In The Beginning There Was Zine.
If the 7" is the staple for punk music, the zine is the staple for the underground press. Zines are the mode of news, communication and pleasure reading for most of the punk scene and fringe crowd. The only problem is they aren't readily accessible. You can't exactly go to the neighborhood grocery store and pick one up like you would the Weekly World News or Reader's Digest. You really can't even find any at the best of the best independent book stores or newsstands. If you want to get zines, you either have to find a place that reviews them, a la Factsheet 5 and Maximum Rocknroll, or purchase them at Tower Records. There is another way, a way which is growing bigger and bigger - the zine mail order. When I got the idea to do Primordial Soup Kitchen, I had no idea there were underground mailorders for zines like there are for punk records. I knew of only a few from ads in MRR and Factsheet 5. After looking into it, I found places like AK Press in San Francisco, which publishes books and distros zines, Atomic Books in Baltimore and Quimby's in Chicago. Much like when I started doing a zine, I found there are a whole bunch of people out there doing something similar. Zine mail orders are still few and far between, but more are cropping up all the time. Recently I saw a list of about thirty small distros. Still, there is no comparison to the number of small mail order record distros coming from ads in MRR.
The Future Of Zine Proliferation?
I don't think zines will ever be completely centralized under mail orders, so zines like Factsheet 5, which reviews thousands of zines every issue, will always be the main zine marketplace. Sending money from a review straight to the person who does the zine will always be the number one way. There are many advantages to this because the editor knows exactly where their zine is going and there is more of an intimate relationship with the readers. The drawback is for the reader, who has to send ten letters to get ten zines. Zine mail orders are there to remedy this problem. A zine mail order allows a person to order many zines from just one place. Zine distros help in the proliferation of zines in the underground. The question is how do you run a zine mail order?
Cash Up Front Vs. Consignment
There are basically two types of zine mail orders - ones paying cash up front and ones paying on consignment. Cash up front involves less time and waste for the zine distributor and editor alike. The distro doesn't have to keep any paperwork or inventory lists to keep track of who and how much you owe, the zines are purchased at a wholesale price and the editor gets the ever so needed money. Zine editors like this method because you don't have to worry about the distro disappearing off the face of the earth and you never getting paid. A drawback for the distro is you might be stuck with copies of a zine you can't get rid of.
Consignment involves more paper work, but is ideal if the distributor doesn't have the funds to buy zines up front. I do PSK like this and most mail orders work this way as well. Consignment is done like this - a zine editor sends you copies of the zine and every few months or when they all sell you send them money for the copies sold. To do this correctly, the distributor has to have their shit together. You have to keep a good inventory of what you have and make sure you send everyone the money. The worst thing for an editor is for someone to take copies of their zine on consignment and never hear from that person again. The editor loses out on time and money, both valuable commodities in zine publishing.
Hey Man, Can I Distro Your Zine?
Once you decide what method you're going to use to pay zinesters, you have to get some zines to sell. There are various ways to do this. One way is to scour MRR and Factsheet 5's zine reviews and look for zines which sound interesting and worth carrying. Send letters to the editors explaining what you are doing and you want to distro their zine. This is hit or miss because zine editors are very skeptical from being screwed over so many times. Some will respond though. Another way is to run ads in zines, but that can be expensive. You can also send fliers in a friend's or your own mailings or post stuff on the Internet calling for people to send their zines. Lots of people are looking for zine distro, so the response can be fairly good.
Hey Man, You Wanna Distro My Zine?
The hardest part of doing a mail order isn't getting customers, putting together a catalog or even getting postage money. The hardest part is deciding whether to take a zine or not. If you get a well-known zine and you know it is constantly good, well hell, that's easy, bring that baby on board! If it's something unknown it takes some pondering. Believe it or not, the hardest thing is rejecting a zine. You're basically telling someone their zine sucks. When I first started PSK, I wrote an excuse for each zine I rejected. This was really hard because you know when the person reads it, you're immediately dubbed an asshole. After a while, I just started sending out form letters with the option of sending a SASE to get a written explanation. This worked out well because I didn't have to explain every time why I rejected so and so's zine. Now I'm turning back to writing rejections. I don't really like form letters, so what makes me think others will? You can use form letters, they're easy and all you have to do is stuff it in an envelope and seal it. Give the option of an explanation, zine editors like criticism to make their zine better. If they don't, well, they should. When you accept a zine, send a letter explaining your terms and how many copies (form letters are the only way to do this), and a form for them to fill out their address, zine title and number, how many copies, etc. I stole this idea from Quimby's and Atomic Books because it makes it ten times easier to keep track of records.
The best way to get people to submit their zine is to already have a small catalog already in the works. The chances are if you want to run a zine distro you either have a zine yourself or know people who do. Put a friend's zine on the catalog. It shows people you have something going and it helps out a friend. Along with sending requests for zines you need to have a policy explaining your method of payment, when you're going to pay, what you're going to do with unsold copies (if you're going to send them back or not) and how many copies you might take. If you're doing consignment you need to give a percentage of payment. I pay 50% of the cover price. Other places might pay in zines, trades or postage. All this information is essential for an editor to know.
Now that you have some zines, you need to make a catalog. Again, there are many different ways to do this, some more effective than others. The way I do it is basically review the zine like you would in any other zine, except it's always going to be a good review. Other people just like to list the subjects of articles and others if it is a music zine, for example, just a list of bands. I prefer doing the long review because it gives a better description of what is in the zine. A couple of words describing a zine I've never heard of has never done it for me. I've found this way of listing is more effective. Some other tips on making a catalog is to make it presentable, like a zine itself. Print pictures of the zine covers, have articles on zines or interviews with the editors you carry. The AK Press and Atomic Books catalogs are a good example. This will give people more of a sample of what you carry.
To distribute your catalog, send a copy of it in every mailing you do, even if it's to your grandma. You never know. Maybe she'll be into buying zines. You can also post stuff on alt.zines and other newsgroups on the Internet. What I do is instead of posting a whole catalog, because no one is going to sit there and read it on the computer, I put a short message saying I have a zine mail order and if anyone wants a copy of the catalog for them to email me. Make sure you keep a list of people you've emailed a catalog to, so you can send them new versions every time you update it. It is also advisable to let them know they are on a mailing list and they have the option of being removed from it. That way nasty messages will be reduced at a minimum. If you are going to post on the Internet, do not spam (sending one message to every newsgroup in the universe). Make sure your message is appropriate for the newsgroup. Alternative and punk groups are good ones to solicit. The regular mail is the same as email. Keep a list of people so you can mail them catalogs. This costs a lot of postage, but what I have done to remedy that is save all the loose change I have. You will be surprised. I've taken a bag on nickels to the post office at two in the morning and sat there for fifteen minutes popping nickels in to the machine totaling twenty bucks in stamps and I never missed a cent of it! Raid those coin jars kiddies. The response to catalogs is slow, but you will get results.
Tips For The Young Aspiring Entrepreneur
When filling orders and answering submissions try to do it ASAP. I fill orders in two days, that way you won't lose the order and the customer will get their zines faster. Some mail orders take forever for whatever reason and I personally don't like waiting a month for zines. I lag on answering submissions because I'm lazy.
Find a neighborhood record or book store to sell your zines. You will sell more this way. You can also sell them at shows. Attend book fairs, punk conventions and conferences.
Try to carry a good variety of zines. Think about what others might be interested in getting and try to keep prices low, especially if you're just starting out.
Be prepared to see a lot of punk zines that look the same and other zines that make you wonder if it is a zine or not. Be prepared for shit and be critical, because you have to sell the thing and spend a lot of time writing a review and listing it. If you know a zine will flop, don't take any chances and don't waste your or the zine editor's time in sending them.
All of this advice is helpful. I'm going on my third year of doing this thing and it has only been progress, progress, progress. There will be some slow points, but don't be discouraged. Lastly, don't expect to make a profit and rarely break even, so if you're going to do a zine distro do it for the love of zines not money. Have fun and good luck!
If anyone has any questions you can write to me at:
Primordial Soup Kitchen
PO Box 1312
Claremont, CA 91711-1312
(Submissions to the catalog can be sent here also.)
Some Good Internet Newsgroups For Reference And Help:
Important Review Zines And Stores:
Factsheet 5, PO Box 170099, San Francisco, CA 94117
Maximum Rock N Roll, PO Box 460760, San Francisco, CA 94146-0760
AK Press, PO Box 40682, San Francisco, CA 94140-0682
Atomic Books, 229 West Read St., Baltimore, MD 21201 http://www.atomicbooks.com
Quimby's Queer Store, 1650 W. Division, Chicago, IL 60622