First, there is one important thing to note about publishing a zine: this will not be any kind of money-making project, but more a labor of love. Depending on how big your zine is, you may be able to break even monetarily with a modest subscription fee, but there is still time taken putting the zine together and adjudicating games. If you put any kind of non-game content into the zine, you'll likely puff your page count into something costly. If this non-game content consists of subzines (additional sections submitted by other people), you'll save the time of putting things together but will still pay the copy costs. If you start off with a subzine, as many publishers recommend, you'll have the time factor, but usually not the money cost, or the control of publishing yourself.
If you still have the urge to publish your own zine (not that I'm trying to discourage you; the PBM hobby needs some new faces, you know, and it can be quite fun), the best way to approach the beginning is to have a game ready to go with the first issue if at all possible. I had received several sample zines when the announcement of my starting a zine appeared in the last issue of John Armstrong's "Swiss Observer," so I put together a first issue and sent it on out, expecting I'd fill at least my standard Diplomacy opening quickly. This didn't happen, and I started rapidly wearing out the reserve of non-game content I had put away in the seven months it took to get a game started.
Even more important than the game itself, though, are the house rules that games will run under. These usually detail how certain mutable aspects of the game (like retreats, bounces, turn format, and so forth) will be handled, as well as definitions important to your zine and other rules you use. As important as these are, it is easy to overlook them when you begin (as I very nearly did in writing this article!), especially if whatever zines you look at as examples don't publish their house rules in every issue (most don't).
Whenever you do publish your first issue, though, you should obtain a copy of either "Pontevedria" (or "Running Across Mercury" for the European hobby) or the "Zine Register" or equivalent, and send samples to other publishers. Not only will a lot of them mention your zine in their own, bringing you subscribers, but you may have the opportunity to trade zines with them, basically giving each other a free subscription until one stops publishing. The above-mentioned zines will also list your zine, and in the former's case, will list game openings available in your zine.
Looking at other zines before you start can be of benefit as well, since you can look at how various publishers handle aesthetic concerns of their zines, and that can influence how you set up your own. I had only seen two zines when I published my first issue, and also worked within the restrictions of a word processor I didn't know well at the time, so my early issues look far cruder than the later ones (as will tend to happen, but I had a somewhat greater learning curve).
While there are zines that run games, and only run games (these are commonly called "warehouses"), it is the non-game content you may run that really defines your zine. "The Swiss Observer" specialized in "news stories" about the games in progress, something that I adopted for my own zine, at least until the time crunch that eventually led to my fold forced me to minimize my non-game content. Other zines have extensive sections on music, movies and television, and literary reviews, as well as standard letter columns, where all manner of things are discussed.
The slower pace of postal play means that your turnover will be far longer than of electronic play, with the least time between issues of a PBM zine I've seen being three weeks. The most common publication rate is monthly, although many new zines are running at a six-week rate. It's just this slower rate, however, that allows for a fuller presentation of games than the Judges give, and that is something many postal players (and spectators) find quite enjoyable.
One final thing that should be covered is your inevitable fold. Whether it's due to money problems, a time crunch, or just plain burnout, you will eventually quit publishing. If you still have games going, it is best if you can smoothly transfer these to another GM with a minimum of delay, and all subscribers should know about the fold as soon as possible (although sometimes in the case of burnout, this is difficult, and I'm somewhat guilty of this one myself). This leaves the issue of remaining subscription fees, which sometimes is mentioned in the subscription information, but often is not. Publishers even differ somewhat on this aspect, but many accept the keeping of remaining monies, since publishing the zine is a money-losing proposition to begin with. In some cases, refunds will be offered, but this is the exception rather than the rule, and depends on the individual publisher.
And so we complete the life cycle of a PBM zine. I hope this is helpful, and influences people to get their feet wet, either playing in or publishing their own postal zine.
Mark Kinney is the former publisher of "League of Nations," and dabbles with writing, hoping to turn pro one day.
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