Folks, if I haven’t introduced you before, I’d like to introduce you to my old and dear friend Ernest Hogan, a writer of some great reputation and exceptional humility based out of Phoenix. Not only is Ernest an exceptional storyteller, as evidenced by his novels High Aztech and Smoking Mirror Blues, but I’m not exaggerating in the slightest when I describe him as a Latino Ralph Steadman. Not only am I proud to call him friend, but as far as I’m concerned, he’s the big brother I never had.
The importance of that last sentence comes through because we became friends during the famed zine revolution of the late Eighties and early Nineties. For those who either had other things going on at the time or are too young to remember a time before Web browsers, the advent of the Macintosh and compatible printer drivers caused a little bit of an explosion without anybody realizing it. People had been putting out their own little self-published magazines, referred to as “zines”, in the science fiction community for decades at that point, reproduced either by standard copiers or mimeographs, so the collusion of computer and printer was snapped up by the science fiction community like a duck on a June bug. This was facilitated by the number of corporations and other large businesses that wanted to save money in having newsletters and promotional flyers designed by professional printshops by utilizing the powers of “desktop publishing”. Before you knew it, you had a slew of individuals spending their days laying out operation manuals and direct-mail inserts, and borrowing the computer for a few hours after everyone had gone home to lay out a few more pages of a new magazine. Before too long, they weren’t just about science fiction, either: anything, and I mean anything, was open season.
When it first started, you didn’t have zine stores, or zine distribution, or even any easy way to discover what was out there. Oh, the zine Factsheet 5 stepped in after a while, but it was only a guide to the incredible riches that started sprouting up from the literary loam like mutant mushrooms. Didn’t like the fact that no existing magazine covered the sort of subjects you liked, or you thought a particular editor was an arrogant jerk, or you were tired of a publisher’s incessant hyping of projects that were either irrelevant or repulsive? Grab access to a computer and put out your own, or get together with a buddy and co-publish. A few hundred dollars in printing costs after doing the layout, and what were called “collating parties” to put each page in each issue into its proper place before binding, and you’ve got an actual magazine.
Ernest and I both came from that roiling quantum foam, albeit at different times. In those days before the Interwebs, most people found out about various zines from review sections in other zines, as well as the occasional blurb in a more mainstream publication. Many of those zines were started with the assumption that sales of the first issue would pay for the next year, and they faded. Others cratered when the editor/publisher got married, or lost his job, or suddenly decided that being catheterized with a bowling trophy was less painful than having to sift through the slush pile. Some editors and contributors were offered bigger jobs with bigger publications, which themselves had a tendency to implode. (Anybody remember Mondo 2000?) We and a whole load of other writers, artists, and interesting characters swam through that wonderful stew, including mutual troublemaker Chris DeVito, often getting out long enough to catch our breaths and then diving back in, and others getting out entirely. Much like how light can both be a particle and a wave, zine work was both vocation and addiction.
As with most waves, though, this one couldn’t last. The first sign anybody had concerning the death of the standard print zine was when accessing the Web went from requiring obscure gear at big government facilities and universities to having a computer that could run both Netscape Navigator and a modem. Considering that most Web access accounts at the time offered free Web site space, many of the people already obsessed with zines could move to the Web, get their fix of self-expression, and skip out on the printing costs. (As with their zines, about maybe 15 people were reading them online, but that was all they needed.) Many zine publishers went online, only to discover that their audiences didn’t move with them. Combine that with the takeover of the standard magazine sales market by the big chain bookstores, and a lot of good magazines went under when Borders would put in a gigantic order and return 90 percent of them to the distributor for credit on the next issue. The print zine didn’t die off entirely when Fine Print Distribution, the only real zine distributor, shut down at the end of 1997, but the “temporary hiatus” of Factsheet Five in 1998 was the only gravestone it got. Some of us moved to writing novels, and some of us quit writing entirely, and we all missed the days when there was literally no telling what strange and wonderful publication would show up in the mailbox on a given day.
Since then, Ernest and I keep discussing what happens next with magazine publishing. He and his lovely wife Em both worked for Borders on the side until its liquidation this year, and had all sorts of lovely tales about standard practices in the company, including the obscenely high return rates on most magazines. Borders managers refused to let employees shoo off the squatters who would come into the coffeehouse section with a big armful of magazines and read for free all day, and this apparently came from the absolute top. After a while, nobody had any incentive to buy those magazines if they could just read them for free. This had the beneficial effect for big publishers of getting a presumably wider audience for advertisers, and it also conveniently made sure that small magazine publishers couldn’t afford to enter the market unless they could afford to have half of a print run collected and thrown out by the distributor. Right now, the magazine market is deathly dull, and without some addition of life, the magazine as we know it right now may not survive another five years, much less the end of the decade.
And how does this affect horticulture? The reality is that gardening publications need to get a nice frag grenade enema, because “constipated” doesn’t begin to describe the situation. You have a lot of specialized magazines for particular interests, and these are great for existing enthusiasts, but new readers won’t know about them unless they happen to bump into them. (Some of you may have noticed that Bonsai Today isn’t in print any more. That’s not accidental.) Both Horticulture and Fine Gardening cater to the same readership that still reads daily newspapers, and any content for anybody under the age of 70 that shows up leads to interns being flogged for insolence. I for one would love a monthly periodical on a par with Gayla Trail’s You Grow Girl, or even more gonzo if the readership would support it, but I also know that with the current distributor and retailer situation (as I like to say with my regular bouts of bronchitis, any idiot can cough up blood, but coughing up urine takes talent), trying to start a standard print magazine attempting to go for a younger gardening crowd is just nuts.
This is why I’m cackling like a loon over the premiere issue of Leaf magazine. I want to rest assured that I’m not laughing at the magazine. If anything, it’s a very readable and entertaining electronic-only alternative to both Horticulture and Fine Gardening. I’m just giggling and rubbing my hands together over the implications. It may be time for me to consider going back to editing.