Wednesday, June 9, 2021

The Joys and Woes of Fanzine Production

As I am sure most readers know, since late 2014, I have been producing a fanzine devoted to M.A.R. Barker's world of Tékumel called The Excellent Travelling Volume. A little over a week ago, I released its thirteenth issue (available in print here and in PDF here). My intentions in creating the 'zine were twofold. First and foremost, I wanted to promote gaming in Tékumel, one of the greatest and most underappreciated fantasy settings in the hobby. Second, I wanted to participate in an aspect of the hobby with which I had only minimal acquaintance. 

Fanzines were very much alive and well when I started roleplaying in late 1979, but I had almost no contact with them. I've always felt that was a serious gap in my gaming "education," because one might rightly argue that the hobby as we know it today was born and nurtured in the pages of 'zines and APAs. Many influential game writers and designers first appeared on the scene in the pages of 'zines. 

The Excellent Travelling Volume, then, was partially an experiment in trying to understand fanzines from the production side. For the first few issues, I wrote everything myself (generally drawing on material from my ongoing House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign), while Matt Hildebrand generously did the layout and a wide variety of artists – Jason Sholtis, Luigi Castellani, Zhu Bajiee, Stefan Poag being a few among them – bringing my words to life. I'm deeply grateful to all of their help and the 'zine would never have reached thirteen issues over the last six and a half years if it hadn't been for their assistance.

I've always enjoyed writing the fanzine, but that should come as no surprise, because I enjoy Tékumel. What sometimes does surprise people is how much I enjoyed the process of producing each issue – and by "producing," I mean physically. I loved going to my local printer, picking up the issues, and taking them home. At first, I folded and stapled them all myself, but I gave up on that after a while, because the printer could do it so much faster (and better) than I could. Even so, I liked hand addressing each envelope, sticking an issue inside, and then dropping off the issues at the post office. There was something joyous about this process. Over time, I got to recognize names and addresses; I started to feel as if I knew my readers, even though I rarely had any other contact with them. The whole endeavor was delightful and I thought I understood why so many people devoted themselves to producing 'zines back in the day.

Note that many of my verbs are in the past tense. They represent my feelings from the pre-pandemic world. Over the last fifteen months, though, much of the joy I had in the physical production of the 'zine has faded. My printer keeps opening and shutting due to the vicissitudes of local lockdowns. Even when they were open, they were often slow to get things done and made more mistakes than was typical. The post office is even worse: standing in long lines, higher prices, and less reliability. I have had more issues go awry over the last year than I had over the previous five and a half. Assuming an issue doesn't just disappear into the ether, they arrive months late. A purchaser told me that an issue he ordered in August 2020 didn't arrive until February of this year. Others have reported similar delays. 

It's all deeply frustrating and disheartening and I confess that I seriously considered ending the fanzine with issue #12. Fanzines are not a money-making venture. The costs associated with production and mailing are not insignificant, especially if you want your 'zine to look good, as I think TETV does. With the cost of printing and postage rising, I didn't see how I could produce more issues without losing money. That's why issue #13 is being done as a print-on-demand product via Lulu (with PDFs available through DriveThruRPG). 

It's an experiment on my part. I hope that, by offloading a lot of the hassles of production and delivery, I might ease my growing frustrations as well. We shall see if it works. Even if it doesn't and I, for some reason, decided to end The Excellent Travelling Volume for good, I still believe it's been a very worthwhile enterprise. On the most basic level, I've succeeded in producing a lot of new Tékumel material, including artwork. That's not nothing and I'm actually rather pleased by how much I've managed to do with only a small team of people. Beyond that, I think I've gained greater insights into the unique joys and travails of this aspect of the hobby. Indeed, I have so much respect for the gamers of the 1970s who used far less user-friendly and sophisticated equipment to reach far more people than I have. That's a truly Herculean feat and I doff my virtual hat to the men and women of that earlier era. Bravo!


  1. Sorry to hear how the pandemic has impacted 'zine production. I hope you will be able to continue, ETV is some of the best Tekumel content out there, especially when it comes to content that I can use at my table (or virtual table) tonight.

    It was one of the main resources I recommended for people trying to get started in Tekumel in my blog posts on getting started:

    I hope it can continue, but even if it doesn't, you have contributed something of great value to the setting.

    1. Thank you; that's very kind. Whether the 'zine continues into the future depends largely on how well the POD solution works for readers. So far, reports are good, which makes me hopeful.

  2. Mail service in the US has gone down hill enormously in the last two years, and by no means is the pandemic the only (or even most important) factor. Deliberate politicization of the USPS at the highest levels has greviously damaged what was once one of the best services our government actually provided citizens. That's not going to change until DeJoy is fired and his cronies rooted out - and hopefully charged with official misconduct for their actions.

    1. Hear! Hear! It is an act of vandalism against a national treasure.

  3. Ordered my copy from Lulu on June 1 and it arrived yesterday. The shipping is a bit much, but Lulu offers enough coupons that it reduced the overall cost a little. That said, what I paid is certainly well worth the excellent Tekumel content. Hope you find the inspiration and satisfaction to continue.