Personal Essay: The present and future of zines and small presses


[Image Description: an A4 zine that uses symbols, drawings and foreign languages to represent the piece title]

Article by Sam Moore
Art by Aiden Tsen

The present and future of zines and small presses

The coronavirus pandemic has been  difficult for everyone. It feels meaningless and unnecessary to recount everything that’s gone wrong and the level of loss that so many people are having to deal with. But one thing that’s become almost inescapable in the endless political discourse of the pandemic is the belief that The Economy Is Really Important Actually, in spite of the obvious negative impact on public health that encouraging people to go out to shops and restaurants has had. But even this focus on the economy feels narrow, as smaller businesses continue to struggle, especially those adjacent to the arts sector which has been particularly lacking in government support. This feels particularly true when it comes to books; the arrival of late last year, an online bookseller described as a kind of “ethical Amazon” - though it’s been facing some backlash of its own - is helpful for bookstores, but independent publishers who run small presses and zines, are still being somewhat left out of the conversation.

 One zine editor that I talked to mentioned that for small and independent presses in particular, it’s tough without bookstores being open. Often, small presses and independent zines will largely, or even exclusively, print physical zines, an ethos that bears the brunt of bookstore closures more than those that go down the digital route. This focus on physical printing instead of digital is rooted in an old-school queer tradition, a grassroots way of getting work out into the world. Floria Lundon, the owner of Chapterhouse Press, said that zines were first associated with the  underground press of the 1960s, and that “queer artists pioneered the medium as a new art form.” Printing through zines is a continuation of this tradition. Zines - which have no set in stone style, can capture the multiplicity of queer experience, with different approaches to style and content often shining a light on specific ideas in queer politics and history, from the decadent style embodied by Chapterhouse to the wide-ranging anthologies published by Pilot Press. The queer tradition (and future) of this kind of publishing  “is reflected in the expressive, communal, fluid style of the zine.”

My initial readings about zines came from essays by writers like Chris Kraus, who described them as a way to get work out into the world when nobody else will, something that can be seen in the early work of writers like Kathy Acker. For Floria, “it's a way to get your work out there when nobody else will, but zines are a particular path to do that which differs from things like self-publishing, blogs, and nailing it to your local church door.”

The queer tradition of zines is important, and it continues to be upheld in the zine-printing MO of places like Chapterhouse and Pilot Press (which has printed artist zines, and various anthologies). At the same time, publishing – and how we live in general – is becoming defined by the internet more and more. Floria acknowledged this, even though the printing style of Chapterhouse is more rooted in an old-school print tradition: “Right now online is the best way to go which means ADVERTISE THE SHIT OUT OF IT.” Her advice here wasn’t just for small presses or initially small print runs for debut authors working with indies, but for one of the – for better or worse – biggest poetry books of the 21st century. “Milk and honey did so well is because it looked great on camera so people wanted to share photos” she said. 

Iosbel Gorman-Buckley, the editor at Sick Love Zine, puts more of an emphasis on how the internet can be used to provide a platform to those who have traditionally struggled to find one, highlighting the ways in which things like interviews or Instagram takeovers can help to provide amplification for those still trying to get their work or art out into the world. There’s also the practical element of producing work; “as much as I’d love to constantly create print, it is a lot easier and cost effective to work digitally” Isobel says. For Sick Love, the internet is a way to function outside of the confines of mainstream publishing and creative industries, hoping that “smaller publications will flourish and be able to change the norms in place.”

This challenging of the norms is also something that came up in my discussions around the aims of Risen. Our zine prioritizes a foregrounding of work by and about young people and social justice that’s able to disrupt “the frameworks of professionalism,” offering a platform that not only allows people to discuss their lived experience, but that is “validating the power of sharing our lived experiences.”

One thing that all of these editors had in common when talking about their work, whether it’s via print or digital publishing, is a desire to foreground the work of marginalised voices, to allow them to speak for themselves, instead of being mediated by more mainstream publication or publishers, from Chapterhouse wanting to avoid the “The unsavoury moves towards an assimilation based queerness,” to Risen being “motivated by inclusivity and centering marginalized voices.” This is something I’ve kept in mind with my own desires to branch out into small/independent publishing.

I’ve spent a long time working on a pair of zines, co-editing them with a friend of mine. A lot of our plans were pushed back by Everything About 2020, but the first issue came out at the end of 2020, around the same time as my first book. The genesis of the idea came from my reading Chris Kraus’ Social Practices and wanting to get some visual art into the world; the zines are by and for queer people, looking for responses to specific themes (erasure, illness/isolation), with more plans on the horizon. What was initially going to be just a platform for zines is slowly transforming into a wider kind of publishing, hopefully bringing out work by individual writers as well as the groups we publish in zines, all under the banner of Third Way Press. Talking to other editors showed me that, yes, this is a difficult undertaking – everyone talked about the challenges of money, and what profit if any is available – but also highlights just how necessary work like this continues to be.