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Everything You Wanted to Know About a Zine Fest

(But Were Afraid to Ask)

by Nicole Introvert, published in Zine World #29, Summer 2010

It's my first time

What are zines? From Stolen Sharpie Revolution by Alex Wrekk: "Pronounced like magazine without the 'maga.' A zine is an independently created publication containing anything you want it to: personal experiences and stories, political ideologies, music -writing, gardening tips, fiction, travel stories, comics, photography, or anything you like. Zines can be put together by one person or a group of people and they are usually photocopied but can also be printed offset, letter press, or mimeographed."

So what happens at a zine fest? Everyone standing around staring at one another being totally judgmental, they all know each other and are extroverts? Wrong! A zine fest can be awkward and intimidating at first. Remember, there are many different folks who appear at zine fests as tablers, teachers, or attendees. Expect to see a room full of tables, a hodgepodge of individuals, and a plethora of independently printed reading material. Work your way around the room at your own pace and take a break if you are overwhelmed! It's normal to make several laps. There are going to be a ton of other first timers around too: you are not alone. And rest assured: no one is going to make you stand on a stage and read from your zine.

As Alex says in Stolen Sharpie Revolution, "[Zines] are something you generally do by yourself or with a few different people and your communication with other people involved with zines is generally faceless contact." How true. People converging at a zine fest may know each other only through their written word or have just heard of one another through the grapevine. It may be challenging to meet someone whose work you have read and feel like you know them, but have never shared a face-to-face interaction with. Approaching some of your zine friends, if it is your first time meeting, could be a bit awkward. Some folks are more reserved than others. Then, you've got someone like me who writes a zine called Introvert, but I become completely enthusiastic and outgoing at a zine fest because I am in my element. I feel I am free to talk passionately about zines and start making connections with people who share my excitement. Other people will always be shy or reserved. You just need to try to keep socially aware and courteous.

Why a zine fest?

Zine fests exist to create a space where people can come together and share this awesome form of print media that can otherwise be hard to find. Even in the age of computers and postal mail service, zine fests bring forth a personal way to obtain zines. Not only can you buy, trade, or learn about zines, but you can connect with the actual zine creator or distro owner. The value of this networking feature at zine fests is priceless. After meeting people and talking, not only could you find someone to collaborate with on a future project, you may find a zine distro who wants to sell your zine, or learn a new skill at a workshop.

Slow down now, what's a distro?

Besides people, what else will you find at a zine fest? Tablers, trades, & distros, oh my! "Tablers" refers to the people who have rented a space at the zine fest to sell their zines and possibly other wares. Very generally speaking there are banquet-type tables that are spread all around the room, like you may have seen at other craft fairs or shows. Table space is rented for a fee with the funds usually going right back to the cost of the venue rental, table rental, and various expenses. Other tables may be rented by larger distributors of zines (also known as "distros"), info shops, or other small publishers.

When you see a large table with many different varieties of zines, this is probably a distro. Distros (short for zine distributors) sell different zines by many writers. This helps the writers reach a larger audience because distro owners generally try to attend many zine events and have online shops or mail order. The availability of so many titles in one place also gives the ease of a "one-stop-shop" to those interested in purchasing a larger quantity of zines. Infoshops will also have a large variety but are bringing a selection to the event from a brick & mortar shop and may possibly be more political in nature. Independent bookshops may also rent a table to distribute small press books. As far as items at a zine fest, maybe it won't just be reading materials you find but music, crafty items, art, jewelry, patches, pins, etc. Remember though, zines are the centerpiece of the event.

Some zine fests may also have workshops or panels, which are usually free to attend. Most workshops are taught by folks who love to share their knowledge or thoughts on a particular topic, and may not be official "teachers." Workshops take place to teach a specific skill or to discuss a pre-determined topic and panels feature a group of panelists on a more wide-ranging or controversial topic (i.e., Race in Zines). Depending on the type of panel discussion, as an attendee you may be invited into the conversation. Sometimes, the expectation could be to just listen to the panelists' views. Subject matter you may come across at a zine fest workshop are zines, writing, or print-related and some not so much. I've seen everything from Zines 101, Trading Zines, and Screen-printing, to Urban Gardening, Substance Abuse Prevention, and Correspondence with Prisoners as workshop or panel topics.

What do I do at the fest?

Going to a zine fest isn't much different from taking a jaunt in the forest. The same rule applies: always be prepared. However, instead of a trowel to dig your potty hole, you will want to bring a few other items. If you are planning to purchase zines, bring cash. More importantly, bring small billed cash. Because zines are usually $1 to $5, small bills come in handy if you buy one or two zines from several individuals. It is hard to keep breaking tens or twenties if you are selling a zine with a cover price of $2.

You'll also probably want to bring a bag that will hold the zines you plan to buy. Most zine folks don't have bags to give you, so a nice-sized tote, purse, or backpack will be ideal. A bag will also be handy if you are not tabling but plan on bringing your zine to trade with people. How many copies you bring is completely up to you. Are you choosy about what you'll trade for or will you trade for anything? Do you want to give your zine to distro owners who may be there? I'd say a good number may be about 15 to 20, but again, you will need to evaluate the intentions of your zine's circulation.

If you do want to trade your zine, keep a few things in mind. Not all zinesters trade or trade for just anything. They are looking for fair trades. A one-sheet mini zine for a 40-page half-sized zine may not be equal for trade. Or, a zinester might trade for only items that interest them. If your zine is about grilling hamburgers and they are vegan, they may not be interested. If you are planning on giving your zine to a distro owner for stock consideration remember, they more than likely will not be able to do that on the spot, so have your contact information handy. Most distro owners read all submissions first and then pick what appeals to them. Distros may not be able to trade because they have to purchase the zines they sell. Each is different so please don't be afraid to ask. However, the owner may have copies of their own zine which they trade.

In my observation, people new to zine fests, at times, seem reluctant to browse. It really is okay to pick up the zines and flip through them! That is how you know what you are interested in purchasing. It is a faux pas to read an entire zine and then put it back. Also, you may notice that there may not be prices listed on things. This is because sometimes a price tag takes away from the aesthetic of the cover or a price could be negotiable. Just ask!

As you are perusing the tables and chatting up your new zinester friends, keep in mind that you may want to keep in touch. It helps to have a business card or small flier handy to give people. You can easily photocopy some small fliers for cheap at your local copy shop or possibly find a small printer to make some business cards.

I've decided to table. Help!

Everything written in this article so far will also apply to you as a tabler. The one big thing that you need to remember is: bring change! Lots of change! Ones, fives, tens, and even quarters will help tremendously with your experience at a zine fest. I have brought $100 in ones to a fest and run out; I've also brought $100 in ones had fifty of them left over. Just imagine how frustrating it could be to not be able to share your zine because you didn't bring enough change!

Tablers need to learn to work with limited space. You will have a set amount that you reserved to work with and no more. Get creative in how to use this space without blocking aisles or moving into your neighbors' table space (remember, they paid to be there, too.) I have seen many interesting displays at zine fests. Some are as simple as building a little shelving unit in an old suitcase. Small crates or shelves can work too. It's also possible (but never a guarantee) that you may have some space behind you on a wall or in front of your table on the floor.

Make your space inviting. Bring a fun tablecloth, make little signs, or bring a candy dish. Useful supplies at a zine fest are: tape, paper, sharpies, pens, and a notebook. Make sure you have a safe place to stash your cash. Yes, I have been known to don a fanny-pack type gadget to hold my change.

Remember that the people who come up to your table potentially want to read your zine. It helps to have good service when you are tabling. Yes, you may be quite shy but a smile or a "hello" is polite and warming to the person leafing through your zines. Be ready to answer questions that they may have. Just don't put the sales pressure on. To quote Alex Wrekk again, "Remember, this should be about community and not so much about commerce."

Many zine fests have food and drink available for purchase. You may do a lot of talking during the day and will want to drink more than usual. I usually have a cup of coffee and a giant bottle of water with me at zine events. I also bring some small snacks in case the fest is busy and I can't get away from my table.

As a tabler, how can I help?

Arrive on time. It helps to get there before the fest begins but not too early. Most fests will let the tablers know the time to get there to set up. This is so you are prepared before the doors open. Please don't flake out. It takes a ton of energy and time to make a zine fest happen. If you are unable to attend please let the organizers know. Many times zine fests sell out and it is only fair that you allow the organizers to make other arrangements. There could be a large waiting list with an eager zinester waiting for a spot. Know that at the last minute they probably cannot refund your fee due to the fact that they've had to pay for a venue, rentals, or promotional materials.

Set up and breakdown is something that organizers can probably use some help with. They've rented a space and need to put it back in its original condition. Clean up your area and ensure that it is even more lovely than when you arrived. If you can stay to help with breaking tables down and trash clean up, that is a plus!

Zine fest organizers love feedback! If they seem busy and you can't catch one at the event please do not be afraid to email or write after it is over and let them know how the fest went. Also, if you happened to take photographs, let them know. Many times the organizers need photographs from the past events for local press articles on subsequent events concerning the zine fest. Right there is a chance to get some of your work featured in a publication.

What do I do with this newly gained knowledge?

Go to a zine fest. Have fun. The atmosphere at a zine fest is full of inspiration; catch some if it and take it home! Bring your pals to share the experience of discovering zines and all that they entail. Rejuvenate the stories you've been keeping back of your mind and allow your zine fest experience to fuel your creativity!

Nicole Introvert publishes the zine Introvert and ran Click Clack Distro. Contact her at PO Box 35501, Richmond VA 23235 or nicole.introvert@gmail.com.