The Value of Zines

An interesting conversation has begun between Chris Barzak and Catherine M. Morrison about small press "zines" and what they add to a writer's bibliography. The dialogue begins with a post by Morrison about her own ways of perceiving writers, wherein she says:
Some folks have a huge list of pubs, but when you look at them 90% are smalltime 'zines with no whuffie. And that's when I think "oh, small time writer, going nowhere fast" and dismiss the person. On the otherhand if a writer had pruned the dreck and had listed a half dozen or a dozen solid pubs (which were buried under the crap), I probably would have looked at the list and been impressed, thought the person was possibly someone to look for.
Chris responds with some of his own thoughts, ones that elaborate on what Morrison wrote (it is, as I said, a conversation, not an argument). He says much that I liked, and even sticks his neck out for the executioner to take a look at:
One of the interesting things to note is how the editors of the print science fiction and fantasy magazines often say that their subscriptions are dwindling.  They wonder why.  Some have tried to remedy this by attempting to "go back to genre roots" so to speak, by publishing stories that are "center of the genre", with voices that harken back to not only a decade ago, but perhaps several decades previous.  I will be a bit of an ass here and publicly wonder if perhaps numbers in subscriptions dwindle because so often the stories being printed are speaking to a generation of readers who are dead.
Morrison replies and pretty well agrees with Chris, though doesn't put quite as much value on 'zines as he seems to:
I agree with Chris there aren't enough pro outlets for stories. I'm less convinced the 'zine culture is doing a great job of filling that gap. I don't think most of the editors of the 'zines have any sort of real editorial vision, in the way that a scappy little 'zine like LCRW does and can actually affect the publishing culture.
I haven't read too many zines beyond Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet and Flytrap, both of which are consistently worth reading, and the most recent issue of Electric Velocipede, which is very much worth the $4 cover price.

Those three publications are, indeed, ones with vision, and I'm sure there are others out there I don't know about. All three tend to look the same in their design, but they offer sometimes strikingly different content, particularly Electric Velocipede, which, if I can judge from only one issue, seems to specialize more in traditional SF/fantasy/horror stories than mixed-genre and non-SF works, though ones that would have a hard time getting into one of the major SF markets. That a magnificent story like "A Keeper" by Alan DeNiro would never be accepted by a major professional market says a lot about the lack of vision of the major markets, not the zines. (Actually, I can imagine Ellen Datlow of SciFiction giving the story a shot, depending on what else she had in inventory, since it's not too much farther out into the land of weird newness than Christopher Rowe's "The Voluntary State", one of the best stories SciFiction has published this year.)

Really, how something is published doesn't determine its quality -- saying something was published in a zine is pretty much like saying it was published on paper. It's similar with the web. We've reached a time when the term "webzine" includes everything from SciFiction, the highest-paying SF market, to Strange Horizons, Ideomancer, and Fortean Bureau to various smaller efforts and all the sites put up by 17-year-olds who want to publish softcore porn about Lord of the Rings characters. The term "zine" for print publications is narrower and so more useful, but as the major markets continue to atrophy, the alternative markets will only flourish -- if not in circulation, then certainly in the quality of work they are able to choose from, because too many good writers are alienated from the major markets.

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