Walking Down Fifth Avenue/fishwrap: The Zine Years @11:02 pm
Fifth Avenue/My Apartment/Union Square
Okay, it’s Tuesday night and that means it’s the night I walk home and write a short story. I thought we’d walk home via Fifth Avenue, because that’s a route I haven’t taken yet on this blog. And so, it’s off we go.
30th and 5th, a street I walked down many times at the 365 blog and the maiden voyage for this one.
A familiar sight as we head homeward bound.
Upcoming joke alert that will only be understood by people I work with and cp: Jesus Christ, it never ends!
I'm not the only one out on the streets with a camera. This is Stanislov who was taking some shots near the Flatiron Building.
Hello, Bongo! They're the ones with the short, fat, hairy legs!
Okay, home sweet home, computer, sweet computer. Last night being on the Upper West Side made me think about when I started my magazine fishwrap. However, it didn't start as a magazine, it started as a zine. Let me tell you all about it.
Fishwrap: The Zine Years
I published, wrote and edited a magazine called, fishwrap, from 1993 to 2000. It evolved out of a fanzine I started which itself was born out of frustration at trying to get a staff-writing job here in New York City.
When I moved to New York City I got some freelancing writing assignments right off the bat. However, I soon found out that it’s not so easy to get a staff-writing job. After having interviews at People magazine and Entertainment Weekly and failing to get a job at either one, I aggressively sent out portfolios and writing samples to editors at magazines and writers all over town. The response was as lively and loud as one hand clapping in an empty theater. I got close to a job at New York Newsday after writing three lengthy features for them, but my editor was shocked when I told him I hadn’t gone to college and he stopped communicating with me. After a few months and with my income going in the reverse direction of my expenses—it’s not cheap to live in New York, even if you limit your drinking to six packs of Meister Brau and subsist on a steady diet of macaroni and cheese and hamburger—so the writing was on the wall that soon I would have to get a night job. I was a little depressed, but at least I was in New York City and my writing was getting published.
I remember thumbing through magazines one day and thinking how stupid a lot of the articles were in them. A lot of the writing was just shameless, celebrity ass-kissing. It was that day I decided to do a zine that would be a big “fuck you” to the world of mainstream magazines and publishing.
Zines were big at the time (zine is short for fanzine), although most were published and written by kids decades younger than me. They were usually focused on one thing or subject matter that the publisher was interested and/or obsessed with. I was no different. I wanted to produce a zine that would ridicule all these magazines that refused to hire me. The catch-phrase I always used was, “I was going to bite the hands that refused to feed me.”
I had published and edited a magazine for three years in Peoria, Illinois called, POP, so I was no stranger to the publishing world. I had lost buckets of money on POP and was determined not to do that again. I decided to go the cheap fanzine route and drop it off and mail it to every single editor and publication that refused to hire me. I called my friend Clare who helped me with the art direction and layout of POP, told her my idea and asked if she was interested on working on it with me. Of course, I didn’t have to tell her there would be no pay. She loved the idea and said it sounded like fun. All I needed now was a name for this fanzine. I obsessed over it for a day or two and then it hit me, like so many good ideas, right out of the blue. The name “fishwrap” just popped into my brain.
“Perfect,” I thought.
I called Clare and she loved it. She started working on a logo and some layout and cover ideas and I started writing and coming up with ideas for columns and short feature articles. Within a month the first issue was done. I output it at Kinko’s (I had some problems and couldn’t use Clare’s logo on the first issue, which I always felt bad about) and took the master pages to a cheap copy shop in my neighborhood.
One thing about zines is, you had to be a little off your rocker to publish one and you certainly didn’t do it for the money. There may have been an exception to the rule, but 99% of all fanzines lost money. And unless you had a friend who owned a bookstore, the odds of getting some place to stock it was tough. And making a fanzine was a ton of work. Not only did you have to write everything, you had to lay out the pages, get copies made and then put the fucking things together.
For the first issue of fishwrap, I had to get a long stapler and it took me hours to staple and fold all the pages into separate issues. Finally they were all put together and I was pleased with them. The pages were packed with sarcasm, bitterness and even more sarcasm. Did I mention it was sarcastic?
There was one column called, “Other People’s Mail,” where I answered letters sent in to other magazines; “Page Turning’s” was a two page section that mocked writer’s and the bullshit they wrote, “The Questions Mark The Spot” was a page that made fun of interviewers asking stupid questions and there was a lot of other smartassery stuff packed in those twelve black and white pages. I made fun of writers, edtors and stories in Entertainment Weekly, People, Details, Playboy, Ebony and dozens of other magazines. I was happy with the writing and felt I had found a real “voice” while writing it. It was pretty abrasive, but always done with humor and a sarcastic edge.
I compiled a mailing list of about 150 writers and editors at magazines around town. Anyone who had ever rejected me was on the list, along with editors who had used me for freelance and friends of mine. On top of that I added anyone who I had made fun of in the first issue and picked some random writers and editors from mastheads.
I had mailing lables printed up at Kinko’s (this was pre-home printer days), stuffed the magazines into envelopes, plastered the labels on them and then I set the next day aside for dropping them off all over town. Like I said, this wasn’t an easy thing to do. It took me an entire day, but I got them all dropped off and those that weren’t in Manhattan I mailed. All in all, I think it cost me a couple hundred bucks. The reaction from most people I knew was universal. Everybody thought I was fucking nuts!
The most common comment I got from people was: “You’ll never get hired now.”
My way of thinking was I wasn’t going to get hired anyway, so I might as well tell them what I think of them and their sorry-ass magazines. Years later after fishwrap grew into a 48 page magazine, I told a writer who was interviewing me that fishwrap was kind of like a small child throwing a tantrum. In a way, I was a precursor to Charlie Sheen! I was winning!
I ended up getting a night job at a pre-press service bureau. The good news here was that I could output the master pages for free and the quality was better than Kinko’s. That alone saved me about 75 bucks per issue. Winning! The one thing most zine people had in common was that most of us worked in print shops so we could cut costs on our zines. That was another thing I liked about doing zines, there was a real community of people doing them and I got to know a lot of other zine publishers. Most of them were quirky, eccentric and really interesting people.
I had mainly heard from friends of mine I had mailed it too and was curious as to what the editors and writers thought of the first issue. A friend of mine was the receptionist at Spin and she told me that a lot of the writers there weren’t too thrilled with it. Especially the one’s I had made fun of. The editor of Spin, Bob Guccione, Jr. loved it though and sent me a note saying I was doing a great job with it and he found it hilarious. He told me he was putting me on their comp list and if I wanted to submit freelance ideas I was more than welcome. He told me to send a ptich list of ideas to one of the editors there, Jay Stowe.
The only problem was I had made fun of Jay Stowe in the first issue of fishwrap. I had mocked a review he had written of a Jimi Hendrix tribute album. I sent him a pitch list anyway and it came back almost in about two days (this was pre-email days.) The note he sent me along with my rejected pitch list was simple and to the point. It consisted of two words: “Forget it.” Poof, it looked like I had burnt some bridges!
After I had written and published three issues, I had been in New York for over six months. I kind of thought about stopping the production of fishwrap. It was costing me money and between working fulltime and doing fishwrap, I didn’t have much time to do freelance writing. Although by then, the thrill of a New York byline had long worn off. I had been published in a slew of the weekly papers and in the NY Daily News and Newsday, two of the biggest papers in New York and I wasn’t always happy with the cuts and edits that copy editors made. Sometimes I felt like they had wrecked what I had written, but my byline was there, so it looked like I wrote what the final edtied copy turned out to be.
Truth be told, I was a lot happier losing money on fishwrap. At least it was all mine, along with Clare’s help in the art direction and page layout and I was proud of it. In the end, I did what I usually do. I just said, “Fuck it,” and kept doing fishwrap and working nights.
I had even gotten it into a store. There was a magazine and book store in the East Village called “See Hear” and they stocked all the best fanzines from all over the world. They didn’t take just any fanzine and I left one with the owner so he could check it out. He called me the next day and said he wanted to stock it and that really made me feel good. Not so much that it was going to be sold somewhere, but the fact he deemed it “See Hear” worthy. That gave me some status in the zine world.
Then one of the highlights of the fishwrap run happened. One of the magazine’s I consistently mocked was Sassy magazine. It was easy fodder and I ridiculed them from the first issue. In actuality, I actually kind of liked Sassy. I had never read it before fishwrap, but since I wanted a variety of magazines to make fun of, I included in the mix. The cool thing about Sassy was, it didn’t talk down to their teen audience and they wrote about things like drugs and birth control, which no other teen magazine would touch.
I had made fun of Sassy in every single issue, so imagine my surprise when I came home one morning after work and got a message from Christina Kelly, who was the managing editor of Sassy. In a voice that sounded like she was crying she said, “Marty, this is Christina from Sassy...why do you keep making fun of us?” Then she laughed and said, “Hey Marty, call me when you get a chance, we all think fishwrap is hilarious here.” She left her number, so I stayed up till ten in the morning and called her.
She was really nice and told me everybody at Sassy loved what I was doing. She said they didn’t know what to think when the first one came out, but after the second issue, they thought what I was doing was funny and much of the time was right on the money as far as my criticisms were concerned. Christina said they were going to make fishwrap the “Zine of the Month” and asked me a few questions. One thing she asked me was how much was a subscription. I told her it was twelve bucks for twelve issues, but that was a lot of money for a teenager. I told her that she could put in there that if anybody wanted a sample copy, I’d send them one for a buck. I didn’t really expect to get any replies, but I was excited to get the press.
All of my friends made fun of me for being excited about being the “Zine of the Month” in Sassy, but I didn’t give a fuck. It was a national magazine and I was happy they got the joke and liked what I was doing.
I was anxious for the new issue of Sassy to come out and the day that it did, I ripped it open at the store I was in, flipped through it till I found it and there it was. “The Zine of the Month!” They used a cover for art and wrote a positive review of fishwrap, noting the fact that I made fun of Sassy and about every other magazine out there. They included a line saying Sassy readers could order a sample issue for a buck and put my address in there.
I was thrilled and bought six copies. I immediately called Clare and told her I’d send her a couple copies.
The next week letters started showing up in my mailbox. All of them had a dollar in them and most of them had hand written notes, with circles dotting the “i’s.” The average Sassy reader was between 13 and 15-years-old, I was probably older than a lot of their parents. Another Charlie Sheen moment! One letter was in pink magic marker and there was a drawing of a boy with Mickey Mouse ears. Below it, the caption read: “Marty.” Ha! One girl said she couldn’t wait to read fishwrap and asked what grade I was in. That one made me laugh out loud!
When all was said and done, I received over one hundred requests for a sample copy. I thanked all of them in a note when I sent the sample issues out and said if they liked it and wanted a subscription they could send me twelve bucks and I would send them the next twelve issues. I got over fifty subscriptions. Without really trying, I was hurled back into the publishing world.
A couple weeks after Sassy came out, I got a call from a guy who worked for a distribution company called Desert Moon. It seems some girl had pitched a fit in a Barnes and Noble because they didn’t carry fishwrap and she didn’t want to bother sending away for one. Desert Moon specialized in fanzines and the manager called to see if they had fishwrap available for distribution. He told me he’d like to see a sample copy, so I sent him one and got a distribution deal and fishwrap was being sold in stores. Desert Moon turned out to be crooks and burned me for about five hundred bucks, here’s another guy who got stiffed. But the guy who worked there quit and started his own distribution company and I got an even better deal with him and he wasn’t a crook.
After a year, I upped the pages, went with a four color cover and fishwrap morphed into a full blown magazine with national distribution. And yes, even though I swore it would never happen again after POP magazine, I lost buckets of money on the thing. But I loved doing it and how often in life do you get to do something you love?
I published fishwrap for about seven years and we got a lot of press: Spin magazine, NY Daily News, NY Post, Men’s Journal, The Chicago Tribune, USA Today and even my hometown paper the Peoria Journal Star all did positive stories about fishwrap. But my favorite piece of fishwrap press was always that Sassy piece. Some of the girls who subscribed told me they were going to start their own fanzines and I often wonder what they’re doing today.
They probably all have blogs.