why we ♡ zines
Scorched Earth Press is a publishing house: we turn the manuscripts people send us into books. But we also (especially now, as we’re just getting our own first books ready to print) distribute self-published work that we feel embodies our own values, so we can help it reach a broader audience and support its creators. You’ll find all kinds of media in our online store—games, broadsheets, children’s books—but the biggest category we carry is zines: homemade little books, often staple-bound and printed via photocopier.
Once you get into zines, it’s hard to stop. For those who aren’t yet hooked, here’s why we love them.
1. Zines are a cure for what ails publishing.
At Scorched Earth Press, needless to say, we’re believers in the virtues of traditional publishing. But we also recognize the industry’s limitations: we accept manuscripts based on projected sales, and we can only publish manuscripts that reach us to begin with—the work of people with a certain amount of time, self-assurance, and internet connectivity. (Not that web publishing escapes these constraints: authors must write for clicks, which often means doubling as a kind of part-time marketer.)
Zines, on the other hand, don’t have to meet the demands of a marketplace, and making a zine generally requires less time or self-identification as a “writer.” You can hear voices in zines that you’d never hear in a book.
2. Zines curb our inner gatekeeper.
Part of what makes zine authors’ voices unique is that they’re unedited. Authors are free to use the kind of nonstandard sentence structure and unconventional punctuation I’ve taken a red pen to as a copyeditor.
I do this because perfect spelling and grammar are rhetorical tools; they bolster an author’s credibility, authority, and professionalism, the qualities a publisher works to secure for all its authors. But they’re shibboleths, designed to spare the “educated” from having to grapple with the ideas of those who haven’t been through the same institutional laundry as themselves. The most grammatical author can peddle every kind of vileness—and a stray apostrophe is no reason to discount someone. Resisting the tyranny of grammar is good for everyone’s soul.
3. Zines are good for reading.
Of course they are! But I mean two things by this.
First, zines help us shake off the guilt that tends to suffuse our relationship to books these days: “I should read more, but I never have time.” You totally have time for that little zine with its inviting offbeat cover—you can’t help reaching for it over breakfast—and now you’ve already read so much that you can just finish it on the bus! It’s short, satisfying the same need for instant reward that our phones have bred in us, and at the same time it reawakens the delight we once took in reading. Zines are treats, not obligations.
Secondly, a lot of zines act, in a funny way, as guides to making what we read ours—literally collaging it into a new set of meanings. JB’s Antonia and Will Dee’s zines are wonderful examples of this. They reveal, with their excerpts, old photographs, pasted-in quotations and newspaper clippings, the zine creator’s process of sifting through archives and making connections between texts, or between text and personal experience.
This kind of reading can be therapeutic or educational; it can also be an act of resistance. I was fascinated to learn from this great article by J. Daniel Elam that Gandhi advocated the “cut-and-paste collaging” of reading material as an anticolonial practice. Across the world in a different colonial context, Simon Pokagon, a Potawatomi author and leader, distributed a pamphlet at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair which consisted in part of excerpts from Washington Irving’s national-mythmaking biography of Columbus. In the pamphlet, Pokagon, in the words of Kelly Wisecup, “rearranged the materials of U.S. empire and national literary histories” into “an account book…of colonial depradations.”1 In school, we’re taught an almost submissive attitude towards texts—that reading, quoting, and citing the right ones would win us points in a power hierarchy. These proto-zines, and the ones at Scorched Earth Press, can show us more subversive, less extractive forms of readership.
4. Zines are made of paper.
Zines, especially collage-style ones, love to remind us of their own materiality. “Some may have even thrown this [zine] in the trash before finishing it,” Will Dee writes in the conclusion of Ecocidal Capitalism. You’ll see plenty of zines with the recycle symbol on them, and some that invite the reader to write in them or use them as kindling . Try doing that with an e-book or blog post…or even a trade paperback you paid $20 for. Books have a certain self-seriousness about them that zines lack.
5. Zines are good for making!
It’s this last trait of zines that really encouraged me to start making my own. I’ve had writer’s block for years on endand never thought of myself an artist—but cutting up some public domain materials and adding my own scrawls and commentary seemed like something even I could do. A lot of zines are great works of writing and of art, but they dispense with the institutional trappings and polish that make those things intimidating. In that way—and in a lot of others—”zine” is just a more democratic version of “book.” Everyone talking to everyone, instead of a few writers talking down to everyone else. We hope you find the zines in our distro as morale-boosting as I did. And if they do inspire you to make your own, let us know at Scorched Earth Press!
1 Wisecup, Kelly. Assembled for Use: Indigenous Compilation and the Archives of Early Native American Literatures. Yale University Press, 2021.