Tuesday, January 21, 2020

So You Want to Make a Zine: Printing

This is the first a series of posts about the craft of zine-making for tabletop rpgs, all intended to act as a community resource to lower the bar of entry. You can find the rest of the posts under the tag, "So You Want to Make a Zine?"

I'm also going to be linking to resources as they become available. Let's start with this: if you're thinking of doing zinequest, check out this post at Caradoc Games for a bunch of good links. If you use twitter, start following @zeshio and check out his data on last years zinequest. Join the discord server linked there for real time help from a community of zine makers!

But back to the main business. This series will cover all aspects of zinecraft, from writing, to working with artists, layout, and physical assembly. This post is about the options for printing your zine. I'm going to cover four options, with a couple of permutations along the way: (1) use a copy machine, (2) print at home, (3) print it at a print shop, and (4) have an online company print it for you.

Option 1: Use a Copy Machine

The most barebones option available to you is typing up or handwriting a zine on loose sheets of paper that you photocopy and then staple together into booklet form. (More on assembling a zine in another post!) In terms of startup costs, you could literally have 100 issues of a medium zine made--say 32 8.5 x 5.5 pages plus a cover--for the price of $45 dollars worth of black and white copying at 5 cents a side, plus the price of a long arm stapler and staples. Here is a guide by the wonderful Julia Gfrörur that makes this process crystal clear. The main headache will be getting your pages in the right order.

She originally linked this on this twitter thread, making clear that she wanted this guide shared widely. I was put onto that thread originally by Jack Shear's excellent blogpost about making a zine here. (Hi Jack, I'm going to be reviewing your zine Dirge of Urazya soon!) While you're at it, check Gförur's etsy store too where you can buy a $1 physical copy of this guide along with her other alluring zines.

One downside of photocopying your zine is that you'll probably be using copy store paper, which is very light weight. Also, any images in your zine are going to lose some details in copying if they're complicated. An upside to this method is that it allows you to use collage in your zine rather than fancy layout programs. Just cut out a public domain image, and glue it right onto your page. You can do the whole thing in analogue, just like the punks did it in the 1980s! You don't even need a long arm stapler if you do a zine  like Mike Davison's Boarding Action, which was a single sheet of double-sided paper (admittedly, it's more a newsletter than a zine):

This is actually on pretty thick blue graph paper, so I think Davison
actually scanned it and then printed it at home.

To sum up, the bar to entry for the copying technique is very low. You need almost nothing to get started, and it can be really satisfying to make something with your own hands. It gives you the freedom to use collage techniques, and hearkens back to the DIY values of the punk and riot grrrl scenes. Just for very detailed images with a lot shading to reproduce a little unclearly, and you'll need to be satisfied with copy paper, which can feel a little thin.

Option 2: Print It at Home

Another option is to print your zine at home. Provided you have access to a computer and printer, this allows you more control over the process. You can lay things out digitally. That might sound intimidating, and it can be if you use a professional layout program like InDesign. But it's possible to do simple layout in Microsoft Word. For example, Gabor Lux's excellent Echoes From Fomalhaut, one of the most popular and well-loved retro-game zines, is laid out entirely in word! And if you have access to a scanner, at home or through a copy shop, you can even combine the analog and the digital methods by scanning collaged pages in and so forth. Printing at home also allows you to experiment with fancier paper, within limits.

This excellent zine is laid out entirely in MS Word. A little utilitarian, but otherwise fine!

But there are a couple of problems you're likely to run into printing at home. First of all, if you're going to buy a printer, make sure that it has the duplex function, i.e. can print double-sided. Otherwise, you'll have to feed each sheet in twice to get both sides done, and if you do that, good luck keeping the pages in order.

The second thing to think about is ink, which is expensive. One way to get around that is with Epson ecotank printers. They're not cheap, but once you make the investment, ink is very inexpensive. So depending on the volume of printing, over the lifetimes of the printer they can end up being a steal. I have the Epson ET-3750, and it's a wonderful machine, but it costs $355 new, (there's a less expensive but still great ET-2750 that costs $300). It prints relatively quickly, and does pretty good color and black and white images, and also color scans and copies. You could easily use it to print a full color zine for the staggeringly low cost of 15 cents a zine, immensely cheaper than a color zine copied at a copy shop. Counterintuitively, it's cheaper to print a color zine using this printer than it is to print black and white zines. But even for black and white you'll print each issue for under 25 cents, which is amazing.

Epson Ecotank 2750

A cheaper option in terms of initial outlay, but more expensive in terms of ink, is a monochrome (black and white) laser printer, which you can get in the $50-$80 price range, although they're a dying breed. On the higher end of this spectrum is the Canon Image Classic line of monochrome laser printers. I have the Canon Image Classic LBP 251dw. It prints duplex in black and white at superfast speeds, with reasonably crisp image. With an official high volume black ink cartridge for this printer, you can print a 32 page zine plus cover for only 55 cents, only slightly more than a copy shop, although you'll have to pay for your own paper.

This Canon Image Classic is a simpler model than what I have. But it costs only $80. 

A problem with all home printers is that in big print jobs, things often go wrong. There are jams, which are obvious, since they grind everything to a halt. But there are also insidious problems that creep in without your noticing it, for example misaligned print heads that lead to smudged and blurry text and images. There are also more arcane technical problems. So if you're printing high volume at home (as you will be if you do 100-200 print runs for your zine), plan for some headache, some heartbreak, and some wasted supplies.   

Another problem is that, depending on how fussy you are about images, and how complex the images your zine has, it's hard to get detailed images to come out looking crisp and pretty, with all the details visible, and the contrasts just so. This problem is only amplified if you're printing in color. What's more, no matter what the printer says on the box, my experience is that no printer you can get for your home can handle high volumes of printing on heavier (i.e. fancy) interior paper and cardstock covers. It's going to misalign your print heads, lead to interminable jams, and ultimately break your printer. This is wisdom won from great personal suffering.

So my advice to you, if you're going to do your printing at home, don't go crazy with your paper quality, and don't include highly detailed images with a lot of fine contrasts. Make the most of what you've got. With a little patience, it'll be a step up from photocopying, with more options and control over the process. It'll work great as long as your demands aren't super exacting and you don't push your equipment too hard.

Option 3: Print at a Print Shop 

This option is more expensive than other options, although not necessarily as much more expensive as you might think (and in large volume for some methods it'll actually be cheaper). It's also the level where the technical limitations are really removed. Print shops can do high quality printing in big volumes very quickly. They can handle heavier paper weight and cardstock. You can purchase paper directly from them, or you can give them your own special paper to print on. They also can fold, staple, and trim a zine for you. In fact, the trimming services they offer, especially for offset printing, outstrip anything that you can do at home, allowing you to go "full bleed" with images that run right out to the edge of the page. (This is only possible with precision trimming, since every printer leaves a border of white around the pages printed. To make that border go away, you need to be able to trip the top bottom and right side of the zine perfectly. I have a super fancy trimmer, but I could never reproduce this effect consistently at home, certainly not over large quantities of zines.)

This is a page from the "print ready" version of the PDF I bring to my digital print shop.
See how page 34 is opposite...page 3?

Before discussing the options, my main advice about printing at print shops is this. Prices and services vary tremendously. You need to find a printshop that is careful, competent, and willing to do what you want to do at a reasonable price. Different print shops are willing to do different things at different prices. There is no alternative but to talk to a whole bunch of print shops in your area, and find out what services they offer, and what rates they're willing to offer you. I recommend going in face to face if you can. (They often may want you to email to get a quote, so do that, but face to face meetings are even better.) I hate this kind of thing, negotiating, asking people what they're willing to do, getting turned down, etc. But it's worth it, since once you find a print shop you work with and trust, this will be a valuable relationship that will support and enable your zine-craft. Since zines are potentially long-running affairs, this can be a long term relationship. You should take it seriously and find out who is out there doing printing, and what they might be willing to do. 

This Indigo Digital Printing, the print shop I used for Issues 1 & 2 of Through Ultan's Door. 

There are two printing options for your zine: digital printing and off-set printing. They are very different printing techniques, in theory each better for different sorts of jobs. (But as we'll see, changes in pricing may be shifting the balance towards offset printing for a wider range of jobs than in the past, at least for a brief window....before offset printing is replaced by advances in digital printing.)

Digital Printing

Digital printing uses electrostatic rollers called drums to apply toner to paper, one drum for each color. The drums use an electrostatic charge to attract the toner onto the surface of the drum, which is then rolled onto a sheet of paper. The paper is then heated to fuse the toner to the sheet. 

In terms of quality, if you've purchased my zine, you can ask yourself this: does my zine look good enough for you? If the answer is yes, then digital printing will work fine. The word on the street is that digital printing does better with black and white than with color--since it loses some of the sharp contrasts and vividness of color printing. Since most zines are black and white, digital printing seems like a good option. 

Illustration by the amazing Orphicss.

In terms of price, there is no setup cost for digital printing. I've watched my print shop do it a few times now: they just load the paper into the machine, toggle a few settings on the computer, and the machine starts churning out copies. Given that there's no setup, it makes no difference if you're printing 1 copy or 1000 copies of something. For this reason, it has a lower cost for smaller print runs than offset printing, since no setup is required and volume doesn't affect the pricing. This is another reason that digital printing is a good option for zines, which often have a small print run of 100-200 copies. 

But there is a catch. Owing to the availability of high quality color digital printing, print shops have phased out black and white digital printers. This means that if your zine is black and white, it will have to be printed on a color printer. In fact, it's likely that your digital print shop won't even list separate prices for black and white printing. And this isn't a good development for us, because most zines are black and white, and color printing is much more expensive. 

Indigo printing works with me because of the volume of sales I'm bringing them to offer me a considerably lower rate their full color price. But it's still not as cheap as I would like. I'm paying 10 cents a side, so $2 to print a single zine. And I'm providing super fancy paper for them to use and doing the assembly by hand. The paper costs me about 55 cents per zine. So it's costing me $2.55 in total for materials and printing for each zine, even before we factor in the price of layout, art, and editing--PLUS countless hours to assemble them myself. 

Here I am trimming the umpteenth copy of my own damn zine

Don't get me wrong, in the past I've enjoyed physically making my own zines, and it does allow me to hold my assembly process to exacting standards. But I feel like I could definitely do better, both in terms of price and in terms of focusing my effort where it counts.  Right now I'm shopping around Chicago to see if anyone will do offset printing at a lower price using my own super special paper. I'm hoping they can assemble the zine for me to a sufficient level of quality, so I can focus my energy on the creative rather than mechanical side of zine production. Also, if I'm being honest, my circulation has grown enough that physically assembling zines threatens to take the joy out of the whole thing--and in fact is becoming nearly impossible.

Offset Printing

Offset printing is an older, more exacting, more tailored printing process. In contemporary offset printing, they begin by separating the colors of your PDF into black, cyan, magenta, and yellow, and etch each color onto its own separate flexible aluminum plate. Each of these four plates is put onto a roller, and the parts of the plate without an image are dampened with water. Then a vegetable oil based ink corresponding to relevant color is applied, flowing to the parts of the plate that are dry. The image is then offset (or transferred) from this roller onto a second roller with a rubber blanket on it. (That's why it's called offset printing.) Sheets of paper then are run through these four sets of rollers, where the colors mix to produce the final resulting image.

Offset printing is offered only in select print shops, since it requires expertise and machinery. It comes with fixed startup costs, since the plates must be etched for each job separately. So it is expensive for smaller runs. But the vegetable based ink is much less expensive than the toner used in digital printing, so the larger the run is, the less cost there is for this method of printing. At high volume, offset printing is actually cheaper than digital printing. It produces higher quality images, particularly when it comes to color images, and gives you some more paper options. So if your zine has fancy color art that's a little complicated, or images where the color scheme and crispness really matters, then off-set printing might be for you. If you're doing a large print run (1000 copies), then off-set printing is almost definitely for you. But for smaller volume print runs, say under 200 copies of your zine (and likely, if you're just getting started, you might want to do a 100 or 200 run), off-set printing might not be economical.

However, given the elimination of black and white digital printing, offset printing is becoming increasingly attractive economically speaking, and may be less expensive even for some smaller print runs, if you can find a print shop that will work with you on smaller runs of offset printing in your area. There are other, more specialized and arcane printing methods, like risograph printing. But I don't know much about it yet. When I learn more maybe I'll write a post about it.

These pretty colors were made with a risograph printer

Option 4: Print through an Online Printer

If you can't find a good printer near you, or just want to compare prices, there are now excellent online printing services that fill the role of printshops. It used to be that your only option was print on demand services that handle both printing and distribution. You submit a PDF, and then they host it. When a customer orders a copy, they have a printing center that prints one up, and then they handle the shipping. These services were attractive at the time for those who didn't want to worry about figuring printing out, or trek to the post-office and deal with packaging a ton of orders. The main print-on-demand services I've seen people use are Lulu and DriveThruRPG. The problem is that in terms of printing, these print-on-demand services are set up primarily to print books rather than zines. As a result, they don't give you many printing options, in terms of materials and binding, and all the printing is (obviously) digital. The zines that I've ordered from Lulu or DTRPG never feel or look right. Often they're perfect bound, or have a glossy cover that seems chintzy in a depressingly corporate way.

Luckily, nowadays there are outstanding online print services that are not print on demand. They print, fold, staple, and trim the entire print run of your zine for you. They pack them in a box and ship them to your door for distribution. The online printing service that most people I've talk to currently use is Mixam. Depending on how large your order is, they will either print it digitally (for smaller runs) or offset (for larger runs). You can select different paper weights for the interior and cover, and even various finishes to apply, as well as your method of binding (likely saddle stitch for a zine). The service, in addition to having numerous options, is also remarkably affordable. Have you read Tuesday Knight's Games, Mothership, Dead Planet, or Pound of Flesh? Did you think they were pretty? Well, they were all printed through Mixam.

This looks good right? It was printed on Mixam.

Printing my zine, Through Ultan's Door, at Mixam would save me a lot of money, although it would give me a little less control over the process.  If you are willing to handle distribution yourself, but don't want to fuss with a local print shop, then Mixam is an excellent option. The only technical hurdle is that you will have to prepare electronic files that match their specifications. But even that's pretty easy: you upload pdfs of each separate zine page in the order they are read (e.g. 5, 6, 7, 8, etc). So you don't even need to worry about having a print-ready copy with the crazy page order.

So that's a wrap for my first post in the new "So You Want to Make a Zine?" series. My next post is likely going to be on finding artists and commissioning illustrations from them to bring your precious zine worlds to life. Or maybe I'll talk about setting up a webstore. Look for upcoming posts in my other new series "Zine Reviews". I'll be starting with separate reviews on (in this order) The Dirge of Urazya, Lowcountry Crawl, and The Doom That Speaks "zinis". In the meantime, if you have further thoughts on printing, want to share your experiences, or know about other online resources and discussion, drop a comment below!


  1. Thank you for this article: this is of immense use to me and I hope to see more on zine topics later.

  2. Option 5: print at work when no one's looking

  3. Collecting some useful comments from Twitter. @galaxykate wrote, "Can I recommend the Brother monochrome duplex? I frequently run 200+ page zines jobs (double sided) with no jams or errors yet (and I've printed probably 2K pages) 32 pages per minute, 2000 pages per knockoff $20 cartridge." https://www.amazon.com/Brother-Monochrome-HL-L2350DW-Two-Sided-Replenishment/dp/B0763WDSYZ

  4. @vyderac wrote, "It’s been my experience there you can use your own paper on copy machines if you bring it with you. And one way to find a cheap local(ish) printer is to go to wherever you can get free publications (local magazines) and find out who is printing them."

  5. I wholeheartedly approve of this series!

    For B&W, Canon laser printers are a very good, affordable choice. I had some problem printing on thicker paper with mine (it ended up getting stuck way too regularly), so I wouldn't do that, if I were making my zine on a home printer.

  6. Fantastic blog post!Really delves into detail! Glad my site had some useful links (yours is there now too) - an awesome and very informative article!

  7. Heck this is detailed. Thanks so much

  8. Thankyou this is interesting and encouraging.

  9. Just as a note, there is in digital also the possibility to print in 4C Inkjet today. They are not found that often this days because they are expensive in relation to toner machines. But they make excellent quality. I do book production by profession and we use online printers with such machines.

    1. Wow that looks neat. I don't about this kind of printer. The advertising copy about it say that it prints at "near off-set quality"!

  10. Hey Ben, I'm trying to start a small printing project. I've decided to print from home and I have my eye on two printers, so I'm wondering if you have any insight or advice as to which may be preferable. I'll resign myself to copy paper for the first couple prints but I would like if I could use some paper that is at least *slightly* better quality.

    Anyway, the two printers I'm looking at are: 1. the Epson Expression ET-2750 that you mention in this blog, and 2. the Canon Imageclass mf445dw.

    My main conundrum is with regard to which will be cheaper in the long-run: buying ink for the Epson or buying toner cartridges for the Canon. The Ink seems cheaper initially, but I don't know how long the ink lasts relative to how long the toner lasts (the toner seems to run at least $100 per).

    I'm new to all this, and have only started looking into printers the past couple days, so any insight you may have would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for the incredibly helpful blog post.

    1. My impression is that the ink is much less expensive for the Epson ET-2750 over the long run. It's true that you have to buy different colors, so it's not as much cheaper as it might seem for a monochrome laser printer, since even if you're printing black and white you use up some color. But my impression, back when I did *a lot* of research on this, was that you would pretty quickly get back the money you spent by buying an Eco-Tank.

      That said, there is another set of costs in terms of quality: Eco-tank printers don't print black and white text quite as sharply as monocrhome laser printers, but, on the other hand, they can definitely be set to settings that allow you to print much higher quality images. So there's a trade-off there.

    2. My personal experience over several years is this:
      1) Canon printers are sturdy, reliable, and less finicky than other models (my main comparison is HP). Laser is crisp.
      2) Toner is ultimately cheaper than ink. Buy the off-brand stuff; it is the same thing made on the same production line, and over several years, it has caused no appreciable damage to my machine.

  11. Here's a related question. When I bought Through Ultan's Door, each zine came with a nifty protective bag. I'm expecting many zines to be limited runs and I want to protect the ones I buy. However, I cannot FIND the bags for purchase anywhere. I can only find comic book size or standard magazine size (great for standard modules, etc.). Does anyone have a source for the 5x8 zines that are pretty popular these days (a la Mork Borg, etc.)?