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Zines and Chapbooks


What is a "zine"? According to Julie Bartel, "Zines are small, self-published magazines that are usually [though not always] written by one person and distributed through an intricate network of individuals and collectives. … Zines can be about diversity, creativity, innovation, and expression." Most people who study zines date their origins to the science fiction fanzines of the 1930s. They are typically characterized by a DIY (Do It Yourself) ethos that can often manifest in an intentionally imperfect aesthetic. Thematically, they address a range of topics; what unites them is an almost fanatic zeal for a topic generally not represented in the mainstream media. As a form, zines have frequently been embraced by marginalized communities whose experiences were excluded from traditional publishing, from science fiction fans in the 1930s to countercultural movements and punk, to queer, feminist, and BIPOC communities. As Stephen Duncombe writes in Notes From Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture (2007), “zines are as much about the communities that arise out of their circulation as they are artifacts of personal expression. People create zines to scream out ‘I exist,’ they also do it to connect to others saying the same thing.”


The difference between zines and chapbooks can be difficult to pinpoint. Both genres are rooted in traditions of cheap, self-produced publications; in fact,  the word "chapbook" is etymologically related to the word "cheap." As Kyle Waugh of Poets House understands it, "most agree 'chapbook' is specifically derived from 'chapman,' the itinerant merchant who peddled like items across Europe, Britain, and North America from the 16th through the mid-19th centuries." Today, according to independent scholar Ruth Richardson, the term is applied to small, cheap books that were commonplace in Britain between the 17th and 19th centuries, although the term itself wasn't coined until 1824 (OED). Modern chapbooks are usually small collections of poetry, typically only a single signature bound by thread or staples. They can be elaborate productions resembling art books, or they can be a gathering of photocopied pages resembling a zine. Thematically, chapbooks are usually distinguished from zines by their emphasis on poetic form rather than the political or social commentary often found in zines, although zines can include poetry and chapbooks can express political views.