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Last updated:
October 24, 2009

Mission From God - the directory of postal gaming zines



Some rambling thoughts on why you’d be crazy to start a zine

My co-editor, Kevin Warne, and I spent 15 years editing a postal gaming fanzine called Take That You Fiend! It was going to be 20 years but we got five years off for good behaviour.

We started the zine after receiving a profit sharing bonus from the company we worked for, and with it we went out and bought a stencil duplicator, which was a fairly essential piece of equipment for zine editors back in the early eighties, as it provided a cheap means of production. These days hardly any zines are produced on stencils, although many look as if they are produced on John Bull printing sets, but a cheap means of production remains a must. If you are thinking of starting up your own zine, try and find out how much printing costs are going to be, and ask yourself whether you can afford to lose that amount of money every 5 or 6 weeks. When working out printing costs try and assess how many pages you expect to print in a typical issue and then double it, because the zine always gets bigger than you anticipate. Also try and assess how many copies of each zine you are likely to print and then halve it, because you never get as many subscribers as you hope (well, we never did, but others seem to manage it). Conveniently, the doubling of your page count and the halving of your print run makes your original estimate of print costs about right which is handy for those of you who can’t handle arithmetic too well.

We were lucky in that after we had retired the duplicator we found a cheap source of printing, namely a bloke who worked in Coopers & Lybrand’s print department who was happy to take 20 for printing off 70 30-page zines using C&L’s equipment. Had we gone to a high street printer the price would have been much higher, I suspect.

Of course finding a "mum’s the word" printer chappie is not that easy and you may be tempted to use the firm’s photocopier or the firm’s print room; this is not advised, as it can be fatal to your continued employment. If you have a bit of dosh to spare and you are sure the zine is going to be a reasonably long term affair then it might be worthwhile buying your own photocopier, but that still leaves you with the task of printing and collating, which on top of the envelope stuffing, stamp licking and credits updating is the worst part of zine editing, so for us, at least, it was worth paying an outside agency to do this.

Our printer chappie could run off seventy 30-page copies in under an hour which made 20 (later 25) quite a lucrative fee for him; had we decided to be flash and go for the photo-reduced A5 booklet then I’m sure the price would have gone up as this takes considerably longer to produce but our own preference was for a simple A4 corner-stapled jobbie. It’s okay if you as an editor want to concentrate on the aesthetics and pay the extra cost in time and money to produce a booklet that is going to cause eyestrain in the ageing hobby community, but we took the view that we were producing a fanzine for christ’s sakes and we never kidded ourselves it was a "magazine".

As well as being easier to print and collate, A4 corner- stapled format has the advantage that page numbering is quite straight forward (a 16 page booklet has to be numbered 1,16,2,15,3,14, ,13 etc., or so I think - I have DTP software that produces it in booklet form for me) and the page count does not have to be exactly divisible by 4. The latter is particularly important if you are going to have sub-zines within the pages of your zine, because a lot of the time sub-zines don’t turn up or turn up with the wrong number of pages - one page too many means you, the editor, have to find another 3 pages from somewhere to make the page count work and this usually has to be done at 2.00am which is when most editors start putting the finishing touches to their publication the night before printing.

Which brings me on to the subject of sub-zines. I may be a little old fashioned in this regard but I don’t like them, as a rule. Or rather, there are sub-zines I like but I’d prefer they were zines in their own right. I’m not quite sure where to draw the line between sub-zines and external GMs - we used the latter on TTYF! - but I think the life of an editor would be so much simpler without having to worry about anybody else’s contribution to the zine. (This from a man who co-edited a zine with the same bloke for 15 years)

The temptation of sub-zines is the perception that they allow the editor to provide more content - more games, more chat or both - and that this will somehow reduce the workload of the main editor but given the inherent unreliability of all but the most exceptional sub-zine editors, I think the reduced workload thing is a myth.

The trouble is that these days zines are like Sunday newspapers. Just as the Sundays have more and more supplements so zines seem to have more and more sub-zines with the concomitant loss of focus. Of course, the reason the Sundays have more ballast is the same reason that zines have more ballast: competition. In order to get readers, zines have to compete with other zines and one of the ways of achieving this is to give them a nice fat read with plenty of games every 7 or 8 weeks. When we started out, the trend was more to give subscribers a thinner read with a carefully chosen mix of games every 4 weeks.

Another thing wrong with sub-zines, from the editor’s point of view, is that they often look like shit, which is bad, or look so much better than the main editor’s stuff, which is worse. And sometimes the content is bilge, and unless you want to piss off your sub-zine editor you are more or less obliged to print the 17-page account of why it was wrong for Damien to refuse to support your sub-zine editor’s fleet into the Ionian Sea at the recent "Getafuckinglife,dipshitCon" held in a multi-storey car park in Norwich.

A look at Backstabber’s United Monthly should convince you how much work sub-zines and external GMs are. Admittedly BUM is at the extreme end of being a co-operative effort, but hardly an issue goes by without somebody’s contribution going missing - last month it was mine! And although each sub-zine editor’s copy in BUM looks okay, it is in a different style to the next section which is inevitable unless you want to go down the masochist route chosen by Derek Wilson on Cut & Thrust and reformat everyone’s contribution into a common look and feel.

So if you decide to take my advice and eschew the route of producing a mammoth zine stuffed with sub-zines as a way of enticing new subscribers, how exactly do you get the zine off the ground? After all, it is dispiriting to put in 40 hours a month producing a zine for the sake of only 20 people, 13 of whom are traders.

The best way is to inherit somebody else’s subscription base which is the way we did it when Home of the Brave transferred its En Garde! game and about 20 players to us. When we folded, we handed over the unfinished games to Home, which has no relevance to this article but does at least show a respect for symmetry.

If you are unable to take over a section of an established zine’s subscriber-base or the opportunity to pick up the reins from an editor who has folded his or her zine, then the best way of building up a loyal subscriber base (apart from the obvious tactic of blatting freebies to every editor listed in Mission From God and asking for a plug) is to have a unique selling point. In essence, ask yourself why punters should subscribe to your zine rather than Wang the Spittoon? It pays to be unusual but not so unusual that no one is interested in your duvet-stuffing journal - but don’t worry too much about being obscure, because in the hobby people will read and subscribe to just about anything, including "personal zines" where every single piece of correspondence received by the editor is regarded as content for the letter column:

Dear Mr. Jabberwock,

Please note that your gas bill is now overdue. Please send us 23.47p by the end of the week or we cut your ’nads off.

One mistake a lot of new editors make is to tell their subscribers "this is your zine" and to believe it. If subscribers had strong ideas about what they wanted to see in a zine they’d be running their own zines so my advice is to have a clear idea what you want to do, make sure it is something you think you’d quite happily spend 40 hours a month doing for the next 5 years or so, get it out there under the noses of a lot of subscribers and hope the subscriptions trickle in.

If you print it, they will come.

The alternative is to take on that ball-busting Croatian non-league variant of United and saddle yourself with hours of hell every month or Len George (which is worse), until such time as you say FTFAGOS (Fuck this for a game of soldiers).

About the only time you can succeed with a zine that does not have a unique selling point is through doing a vanilla Diplomacy zine. The game is still the backbone of the hobby and provided you are reasonably efficient and can crank out an issue every 5 weeks there should be enough sad lonely men out there willing to subscribe to your zine. If there aren’t just turn up at a games convention, leave a few freebies lying around, buy a few people a drink - in short get your name and your zine known, and if that still does not work, well, I guess you can knacker somebody else’s zine by offering yourself to them as a sub-zine editor.

That’s about all I have time for now - if I had the time to write devastatingly witty 3,000 word essays I’d still be publishing my own zine but I’ll leave you with a few top tips, some of which are objective and some of which are subjective.

  • Be sure that you have between 20 and 40 hours spare time each month to devote to the zine before you think of becoming an editor. Sub-zine editors probably need to have 5 to 10 hours spare each month.
  • Be confident that you will still have all that spare time next year. If you are at Uni and making use of the University’s facilities, think very hard whether your zine is likely to survive you being thrown out into what we refer to as the real world.
  • Expect to lose about 20 a month if you are unsuccessful and 40 a month if you successful.
  • Where possible, get some other pillock to do all the boring admin bits (printing, collating, stapling, envelope stuffing) even if it means bumping up your losses each month to 30/50. If you can afford it, it is worth it.
  • Unless you have a burning desire to experiment with DTP and flash graphics, a simple A4 corner-stapled zine produced on a word processor is more than adequate for the market you are aiming at. Unless you are from the Hopscotch school of cram it all in (nothing wrong with that - TTYF! used to be like that), then you can produce a very presentable zine merely by having reasonable amounts of white space (for the benefit of my friend, Chris Dickson, I should explain that this means margins and breaks between paragraphs).
  • Have lots of superfluous clip-art. It breaks up the text and really pisses off Stephen Agar.
  • Get organised! Folders, filing systems, address labels are all pretty indispensable. So is spreading the workload as much as possible over the month - don’t do what I used to do, which was to start writing the chat after I’d finished adjudicating the games. No matter how organised you are, expect to be up till 3 or 4 in the morning every day for a week before going to print.
  • Run low-maintenance games such as Diplomacy, Breaking Away, Sopwith, Executive Decision, By Popular Demand. If you must have a grand campaign game, try and restrict it to just one. Avoid games that require slips of paper having to go into players’ envelopes.
  • Use big envelopes. Although more expensive, the time saved not having to fold over zines is worth it over the course of a zine’s life.
  • The last tip is for subscribers, rather than editors: if you want to drive your editor nuts, mention in a covering letter that you have enclosed a cheque but make sure you include this information in small type between two items of Press for your Diplomacy games - and don’t, whatever you do, include the cheque. There’s nothing editors enjoy more than raking through potato peelings and cold spaghetti to dig out a discarded envelope from the bin. Oh how we laughed.

John Harrington


Postal gaming

Published in November 1998

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