The Rise of the 'Zine'
NEW YORK — WHAT do the the Russian Embassy, the US Secret Service, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have in common? They all subscribe to Full Disclosure, a tiny publication not even listed in the phone book.
Full Disclosure and its counterparts are modern, underground byproducts of the magazine industry known as ''zines,'' made possible by the desktop publishing revolution.
Zines are a specialized and growing medium that individuals publish to get their voices heard over the din of the information superhighway. They range in production quality from handwritten or photocopied pages to glossy desktop-published works.
''Zines ... let you hear from a lot of people who you'd never get to hear from in the conventional mass media,'' writes Clifton Royston on alt.zines, a news group on the Internet.
Yet zines remain largely unknown in the mainstream media because it is very difficult to find out about them. There are no listings in the phone book for such zines as Flipside, Groping for Luna, or Pups.
To faithful readers, the more zines distance themselves from the mainstream, the better. In fact, some of the zines' publishers refuse to talk to the media in order to maintain their coveted low profiles.
Many writers - and readers - are attracted to zines for their latitude of free expression, compared with mainstream publications. As a result, some zine material is dark, shady, even obscene.
To enter into this subterranean society, one must either go to an alternative magazine store that carries zines or download the addresses of publishers from the Internet. Each listing of a publisher's zine includes his or her address and cost per issue. Prices vary widely among zines.
The number of zines has skyrocketed in the last decade, because they are becoming easier and easier to produce. World-wide, 20,000 to 50,000 zines are in print, with circulations ranging from one to 50,000, estimates R. Seth Friedman, the publisher of FactSheet Five, which bills itself as the definitive guide to the zine revolution since 1982.
With advances in computer technology, zines can easily be made from the comfort of one's own home. ''Even if you are making a ton of copies, a desktop publisher can get a zine looking almost indistinguishable from a professional magazine,'' says Glen Roberts, publisher of Full Disclosure, which covers privacy and technology issues.
Why they publish
The publishers stay in business out of a desire to express themselves ''and their secondary hope is that they can make a little money off of it,'' Mr. Roberts says. ''But for most, they are probably not even going to cover their expenses. Of the approximately 50,000 zines out there, maybe 10 turn a profit.''
In starting up a zine, it makes more sense to make a lot of copies, he adds. ''Most of the price is for setting up the press, after that the price for extra copies is infinitesimal.''
Zines are published on just about any topic from politics to bands; so-called ''fanzines'' are put out by fans of a group. For example, VERUCAzine is named after the Chicago alternative band Veruca Salt. There is also Flipside, a seminal punk-rock zine based in Southern California. In the eclectic category, there is Optimistic Pezzimist, about the candy dispenser Pez. And for the wrestling faithful, there is Chokehold.
Because of the enormous number of specialized zines, they have not yet created a significant niche in the publishing world.
The dark side of zines proliferates in their underground, insular world. ''The fact that zines are marginal means that along with a lot of groundbreaking and innovative publications,'' there are zines that many people will find offensive, says Christopher Becker, contributing editor of FactSheet Five.
But the percentage of offensive zines is lower than critics might expect, Mr. Becker says. He worries that one offensive zine gets a lot of press, and says they're much easier to spot.
One publisher, Michael Diana, was arrested in Pinellas County, Fla., last year for distributing obscene material in his homemade comic book entitled Boiled Angel.
Mr. Diana was eventually convicted on three counts of obscenity for distributing the comic book, which the Florida court said depicts rape, cannibalism, and sex in graphic detail. He was fined $3,000 and was forbidden to have contact with anyone under the age of 18.
Diana's lawyer plans to appeal. The case raises a frightening precedent for zine publishers, who have reveled in an underground arena hidden from the watchful eyes of authority for years.
The issue of censorship is likely to be a hot topic of discussion among zinesters at the upcoming Underground Press Convention, at DePaul University in Chicago Aug. 18-20, says Batya Goldman, one of the Convention's organizers.
Many zine publishers are just talking about themselves or their hobby, Becker says.
Roberts says his 11-year-old zine reaches 3,000 subscribers, with another 1,500 copies going out to selected newsstands throughout the country.
While many business and government groups receive Full Disclosure, Roberts says, very few of them want the public to know they have signed up.
''I sent a sample issue to the Secret Service, and when I got it back, the agency had crossed off its name on the outside of the mailing label after asking for a subscription,'' he says. ''I guess some government agencies are not as bold as the Technical Services Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which sent out a government purchase order to us.'' One of his other subscribers, he says with glee, is the Russian Embassy in Washington.
Not all zines stay underground. A computer hacking zine called 2600 began as a thin Xerox that could be placed in a three-ring binder in 1984. Now 2600, founded in Middle Island, N.Y., by Emmanuel Goldstein has a circulation of nearly 50,000 ''hackers and phone phreaks'' and is in a magazine format.
''The key to being successful in this business is to have a good distribution system and have the right kind of topic,'' Roberts says.
''The beauty of a zine is that you don't have the financial pressure to be successful,'' Roberts says. ''You don't have a set deadline, and you can spend months on one feature.''
ZINES: Small publications called 'fanzines' can focus on one artist, such as British singer Kate Bush in Homeground, or a genre, such as punk rock in Flipside and Commodity.