This is a sad zine story. Most of my columns are "feel good" DIY success stories, but this one isn't. Our story begins in 1984, the heyday of copy center-produced magazines, before the Internet, e-zines, live journals and blogs. Every college town, every metro area had Xerox glory stories. Every garage band had a fan zine.
The first issue of any new mag was a labor of love, often driven by pure adrenelin and Art with a capital A. Most zines didn't make it past the first issue. That second issue took a little more focus, attention to deadlines, maybe a search for advertising, conflicts about whether to distribute it for free or ask for a few bucks.
By the third issue, the writers and editors (and production crew, often the same person/friends) were thinking about wider distribution. Distribution out of town, out of state. Hit the cool record stores in San Francisco, Ann Arbor, the Village, the surf shops on the coasts, the cluttered, funky newsstands in the cities.
1984's the year that a small magazine distributor, Desert Moon, was founded in Santa Fe, N.M. They were the distributor everyone was looking for and became the most popular above-ground conduit for underground print. Their Web site proclaimed: "We're not your normal magazine distributor. We're always hunting for the extraordinary and the unusual, that one magazine you never thought existed. Guess what? There are hundreds of them. Judging by the number of magazines we receive each week, magazines devoted to every nook and niche of the wonderfully diverse alternatives to mainstream culture and media, independent presses are thriving."
At their peak, Desert Moon distributed close to 700 magazines and zines to accounts all over the country and internationally. DM's annual catalogs and newsletter (the cut and paste bimonthly Xine-o-Phile) were packed with contact info and plugs for everything weird, alternative and happening. Every shipment of magazines included a grab-bag selection of promos of other zines. DM's president Mike Warren wrote, "We have developed a reputation as a source for unique, niche titles. Having been an avid magazine fanatic my whole life, I can't imagine a better job."
Twenty years later the company is dissolving, an "Out of Business" sign on the front door, with debts of $646,000. Many, many small magazine and zine publishers are very upset. This is a vocal, angry group. Their stories are very similar. Recent issues have been shipped to Desert Moon on faith that payment would arrive by return mail. Nope.
Desert Moon was caught in a desperate squeeze. As they shipped more and more magazines to more and more stores, to bigger stores with more than one location, they too waited for payment.
"Returns" are often the dirty secret of the magazine business. Usually returns only consist of the cover of the mag, stripped off before the rest is tossed. This is most painful to a small publisher. Imagine shipping off 500 copies of your magazine and three months later getting a manila envelope with 400 torn covers, or worse, an affidavit saying 400 copies were unsold and destroyed. The publisher had paid up front for the printing of those 500 magazines and the shipping costs to the distributor.
Larger stores and newsstands claimed credits for large returns and then reordered or even raised their standing orders with Desert Moon. Desert Moon could have stopped shipping magazines to stores, but then they would be shutting off their own cash flow.
Desert Moon's warehouse is now locked up, and cartons of zines and small magazines are tied up in bankruptcy court. In September last year, Mike Warren sold the company to an employee, J.R. Fesperman, who is trying to restart Desert Moon. There's a "Boycott Desert Moon" movement on the Web, with discussion threads of unhappy stories about DM's recent history of slow or no pay.
Zine politics and business attitudes can usually be described as Robin Hoodish, so getting stiffed by your favorite distro is a rude wake-up-to-Capitalism-call for a magazine. Several magazines with local roots (Stay Free, DreamGirl and The Sun) dealt with Desert Moon. The DIY attitude that gave zines their I-think-I-can will to succeed is being tested, but other distributors are stepping up, and most publishers are eagerly making new contacts in order to get their mags back on the street.
Contributing writer John Valentine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.