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From zine to screen

Literary small magazines and the digital revolution


Birmingham Words



discussed by Edward Picot

Small, amateur magazines have been with us a long time. Wikipedia defines a "zine" as "a small circulation, non-commercial publication" or "any self-published work of minority interest", and traces the concept back to the American Amateur Press Movement of the early 1900s, and the subculture of Science Fiction fandom with which it cross-pollenated in the 1930s. The term "fanzine" was first coined for these publications in October 1940 by one Russ Chauvenet, publisher of an SF fanzine called Detours.

mimeo imageBy nature, amateur magazines and other small-scale publications have always been heavily reliant on cheap printing, and their development has therefore been intimately linked with advances in the field of low-cost printing technology. Right through the 20th century, machinery originally designed for small print jobs around the office was either bought or borrowed by fanzine publishers and re-used for their own purposes. From the 1930s until the 1960s the machine of choice was the mimeograph: essentially a manually-cut stencil (usually produced by a typewriter, but sometimes hand-drawn with a stylus) mounted on an inked drum. By the 1960s, however, photocopying machines had begun to replace Mimeos, and once plain-paper copiers became commonplace in the 1970s (their arrival roughly coinciding, in Europe, with the widespread adoption of A4 as the standard size for a sheet of office paper), the fanzine subculture gained both a new impetus and a new look. Several sheets of A4, folded in half and stapled down the spine to form an A5 booklet, became the predominant format. Artwork was far easier to reproduce on a photocopier than a mimeo, with the result that the fanzines of this era usually had graphics on the front cover, if not within. At the same time, Letraset (sheets of transferrable letters) and "golfball" and "daisywheel" typewriters (which allowed one typeface to be quickly and easily replaced by another) introduced a variety of fonts and font-sizes.

Golfball and daisywheel typewriters were only cutting-edge for a few short years, though. It wasn't long before word-processors began to appear, and with the introduction of laser printers and WYSIWYG ("What you see is what you get") onscreen displays in the late 1980s, the electric typewriter's fate was sealed. Its overthrow was completed in the 1990s, as PCs became commonplace throughout the developed world, in both offices and homes. However, the effect of this revolution on the little magazines, at first, was simply to extend the possibilities of page layout and graphic design. Word-processing began to move in the direction of desktop publishing, but the photocopier was still the almost-universal method of reproduction.

The photocopied small magazines which emerged from the 1970s into the 1990s still shared certain important limitations with their grubbily-stencilled predecessors. Firstly, there was a size limit: only a certain number of sheets could be used before they became difficult to fold in half and staple, not to mention time-consuming to collate and expensive to send through the post. Secondly, reproduction was almost always monochrome, full-colour photocopiers being few and far between. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the new fanzines suffered from exactly the same problems with distribution as the old ones. Shops, especially bookshops, were reluctant to stock them. Most sales and circulation therefore took place by postal subscription or face-to-face sales.

printer graphical interface imageThe terms "small magazine" and "little magazine" can thus be understood to refer both to the size of the publications to which they are applied - not too many pages, and usually in the form of a booklet - and to their scope in terms of circulation. This is important to bear in mind when assessing the transition from small magazines on paper to amateur magazines on the Web - e-zines or webzines, as they are commonly known - because once amateur magazines are in digital format both of these restrictions disappear. A magazine on the Web can have as many pages - and the pages can be as large - as the editor chooses, without any extra expense being incurred; and as far as the question of circulation goes, a publication on the Web is available to anyone who chooses to go online, anywhere in the world.

So completely has the World Wide Web become integrated with our daily life that it now seems hard to believe how recently it came into existence. Tim Berners-Lee first proposed a "global hypertext system" in 1989, and "decided on World Wide Web" as an appropriate name for it "when writing the code in 1990" ( Mosaic, the first graphically-equipped web browser, was released in 1993. The Web as we know it, in other words, has only been existence for thirteen years, and most of us have been using it for considerably less. At some stage during those thirteen years, fanzine publishers began to realise that they could reach larger audiences by going online than by sticking to more traditional methods.

The first wave of small literary magazines to launch themselves on the Web mainly consisted, naturally enough, of publications which had already been around before the Web went global, and which had therefore grown up in the tradition of small-scale, cut-price print publications. A notable example in the UK is Rubert Loydell's Stride, which was launched in the 1980s, started a website in 1999 and is still going strong today. Within the last few years, however, a "second wave" of small literary magazines has emerged, magazines which have incorporated some form of web presence into their publishing strategies right from the word go: Aesthetica was started in 2002, Birmingham Words in 2003 and Incorporating Writing and Route in 2004. Cherie Federico, editor of Aesthetica, writes that "Aesthetica is primarily a print magazine but we’ve always had a web presence... We saw it as an important tool for potential contributors to find out more information about Aesthetica and our ethos." She adds that "The web has been instrumental in the development of Aesthetica’s audience. Without a website you exist to only a very small community." The same point, about reaching larger audiences, is echoed by both Will Buckingham of Birmingham Words and Bixby Monk of Incwriters: as Monk puts it, "the web meant we could reach a global audiences for no cost"; and Buckingham reports that "only 20% of our visitors are from the UK".

It would be a mistake to imagine that the "first wave" of post-WWW small literary magazines regarded the Web primarily as new way of publicising their print editions, whereas the "second wave" has been more inclined to ditch print and embrace HTML as an alternative means of publication. One noteworthy aspect of "second wave" publications in the UK, in fact, is that they have often clung to the print-and-paper format more tenaciously than might be expected. There are some good reasons for this. Firstly, of course, they are literary magazines, and "literature", for most people, still means something to be read on paper rather than onscreen. Secondly, readers like to feel that they are getting something tangible, especially if they are parting with money for it. Few people are likely to take out a subscription to a magazine if all it gets them is a year's access to a website: several issues in print seem like much better value for money. Ownership and collectability both come into the equasion. And from the editor's point of view, one of the great benefits of print is the discipline it imposes. Bringing out a certain number of issues per year makes you set a timetable and stick to it; and only having a certain amount of space in the magazine forces you to be selective about what you include.

Yet the disadvantage of print-and-paper is obvious: it costs money, both to produce and send out. One way of squaring the circle, which has been adopted by Incwriters, Birmingham Words and Route, is to publish in PDF (Portable Document Format), which is digital but designed to be printed. For example, Red Ink, the new poetry and prose magazine from Incwriters, is being offered at £4 for a year's subscription (two issues per year), and will be sent out in PDF format as an e-mail attachment. Birmingham Words, on the other hand, offers PDFs which can be downloaded free of charge. Route magazine combines the two approaches: they publish "Bytebacks", a series of short anthologies which can either be purchased readymade in book/pamphlet form, or downloaded free and assembled at home. They are designed to be printed on two sides of A4, then put together and folded to make A5 booklets, and the website gives lengthy and detailed instructions on how to do this: "If like most, your printer prints only on one side, then you will need to print on one side, then re-feed the paper back into your printer and then print the reverse side... If re-feeding paper and printing double sided proves too difficult, you can simply print the document out single sided and then take a pair of scissors or a guillotine and cut the paper in half..."

Essentially what the PDF format does is circumvent postage charges and pass on any printing costs to the individual readers. As Route's experiment makes clear, however, it also passes on a certain amount of hassle. PDFs do seem to produce a more professional-looking end product than the average Microsoft Word document, but the problem with them is that they are neither one thing nor another. For people who prefer to read their literature on a printed page, they're not quite as good as a book or magazine; and for people who don't mind reading online, they're not quite as good as a web page. For publishers, like Route, who are determined to offer the best of both worlds, the most satisfactory alternative would be to format the same material in two completely different ways - firstly as web-page, and secondly as a book - but this would obviously involve twice as much work.

The "second wave" literary e-zines may seem slightly conservative in terms of their reluctance to abandon print and paper, but they are certainly progressing and diversifying in terms of the content and interactivity of their websites. Aesthetica is probably the one which keeps the tightest focus on the task of publishing a print magazine - not surprisingly, since the print magazine has been quite a success - but even they did try running an online forum at one point (it had to be abandoned because "someone kept leaving nasty messages"); and Cherie Federico says that "it is essential to experiment and to try new things... we’re considering flash animation for our website... I would like to offer Aesthetica for download on the site, as well as have an audio CD version for the magazine". Route, in addition to the Byteback series of booklets, publishes articles and reviews online, and offers audio downloads of performance poetry. Aesthetica and Route are both set up to take online payments. The Incwriters organisation now comprises four different sections: the Incwriters Society itself, which is largely a news-and-contacts agency; Incorporating Writing, which publishes interviews, articles and reviews; Red Ink (forthcoming) which is going to publish poetry and prose; and the Incwriters Client List, a promotional agency for "established and new writers". Birmingham Words publishes news items on the front page of the site and has a section for interviews and articles; it hosts a vigorous discussion forum; and it also provides its members with the opportunity to write their own blogs. Will Buckingham, the editor, is thinking of making the site even more interactive in the future: "I do have a desire to make Birmingham Words increasingly collaborative... user-submitted content, community-edited content and so forth."

website layout imageWhat all of this demonstrates is that the World Wide Web offers much more to editors than just a solution to the longstanding problems of printing costs and distribution difficulties. It offers little magazines an opportunity to become bigger, both in terms of their circulation and in terms of the amount of material they can accommodate. But as the history of fanzines demonstrates, when technological advances offer amateur publishers an affordable opportunity to try their hands at something new, it isn't long before they begin to take up the challenge. What makes the digital revolution different from earlier technological advances is that it offers not just a handful of new possibilities - like the new font-faces and graphics which came in with electric typewriters and photocopying - but a bewildering array of them, from the audio downloads offered by Route, to the Flash animation and CD publication contemplated by Aesthetica, and the blogs, forums and community publishing being developed by Birmingham Words.

There is a danger that e-zines may lose their focus by trying to do too many different things at once, or that the standard of their content may become diluted because the Web allows them to publish as much material as they like. There is also a danger of editors becoming so entangled in technical side-issues or so overwhelmed by the possibilities of new technology that they lose sight of what they originally set out to do. In view of the rapidity with which the online environment throws up new challenges and opportunities, a clear remit and a flexible attitude both seem equally desireable, which means that the right balance is always going to be difficult to find. Working online is like swimming in a strong current: very quickly, and almost without realising it, you can be carried a long way from where you started. Birmingham Words is a good example. As its title suggests, and as Will Buckingham admits, it was originally conceived as a local publication: "Birmingham Words began with modest aspirations: to publish online the work of a number of writers based in South Birmingham... [It] arose out of a writing group that I was running between 2002 and 2003. We decided that we'd be interested in publishing some work and, reluctant to fool around with staples and copiers and so on, we decided to publish online." After "wider than expected interest" Buckingham decided to make the website more interactive, and moved from "good ol' hand-coded HTML" to the Joomla content-management system, which he learned as he went along, and which allowed him to add a forum, news-listings, and eventually personal blog-spaces for members. He also started publishing articles on the website, and in the meantime he was still bringing out the PDF magazine. In 2005 Birmingham Words was awarded an Arts Council grant (lasting until 2008). This year, Buckingham has decided to scrap the old Birmingham Words magazine and replace it with a series of themed PDF pamphlets, the first of which, "The Poetic Image - Haiku and Photography", has just come out. Buckingham admits that "Birmingham Words has not proceeded according to any strict plan", but its development up until now does seem to have been guided by two objectives - firstly to improve the quality of its PDF publications (and it must be said that "The Poetic Image", despite my objections to PDF, is extremely well designed and laid out), and secondly to make the website increasingly collaborative and interactive. In the long term one wonders if these two objectives will prove to be at variance with one another, but they seem to be rubbing along quite nicely for the time being.

e-zines imageThe literary e-zines I have mentioned here are some of the better-known ones now being published in the UK. Three of them - Aesthetica, Birmingham Words and Route - receive funding from the Arts Council. They all have international readerships, and in their different ways they all show an awareness of this global audience. Yet at the same time, they are all recognisable as products of the British amateur writing scene. If they are placed alongside some of their more prestigious equivalents from overseas - for example Drunken Boat and Slope from the USA, or papertiger from Australia - then certain differences of format and tone seem apparent. For one thing, the overseas literary magazines I have mentioned don't seem interested in PDFs. papertiger and Slope both publish collections of poetry in print, but the papertiger e-zine itself is published only on CD, and Drunken Boat and Slope are both entirely web-based. It is perhaps in keeping with this more thorough-going digital model of publication that all three titles have been showcasing new media work such as Flash animation for some years, whereas UK literary e-zines, although not hostile to new media, remain disinclined to carry it themselves. But literary e-zines from abroad also tend to be more intellectual and esoteric in tone, more obviously aimed at a well-educated, highly literate and possibly avant-garde audience. UK e-zines, by contrast, tend to be typical of British culture in that their tone is often colloquial and humorous, self-deprecating, suggesting both approachability and a horror of pretension. In this they are redolent of the subculture in which they have their roots: a subculture of poetry societies, reading clubs, writers' groups, poetry slams and schoolteachers; with members of indie rock bands writing poems about sex at one extreme, and old ladies writing poems about their cats at the other. This subculture has been thriving in the UK for years, but up until now it has been separated from the upper levels of "proper" literature by a kind of glass ceiling. There has been virtually no crossover from the ranks of amateur and self-published writers to the ranks of those with publishers and agents; and although it must be granted that a great deal of amateur writing, probably most of it, remains commercially unpublished because it is commercially unpublishable, it is also true that there are amateur writers producing work which is better written, and certainly more adventurous, than most bookshop-fodder. The Web has already provided an outlet and a showcase for some of these previously-unacknowledged talents, as it continues to develop it may do more: it may change the shape of the literary hierarchy. E-zines such as Aesthetica, which by virtue of the Web have managed to achieve substantial circulations, are breaking into the literary establishment and taking a certain number of amateur writers with them; while e-zines such as Birmingham Words, rather than take on the literary establishment at its own game, are adopting an experimental and collaborative approach which attempts to deconstruct some of the traditional barriers between those who produce literature and those who read it. It will be very interesting to watch the progress of publications such as these in the years to come.

© Edward Picot, May 2006

PS - After this article was originally published in May 2006 Ian Daley, editor of Route Magazine, sent me a long and interesting e-mail about how Route got started and how it has developed since. Amongst other things, this corrects my assumption that Route went online in 2004: it was actually launched in 2000, and Daley has been working on the Web since 1998. His account also reveals a connection, of which I was completely unaware, between Route and Andy Campbell, otherwise known as Author X, the creative force behind the Digital Fiction/Dreaming Methods website. With Ian's permission, the entire text of his e-mail is reproduced here.

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