Great Worm Distro Interview


Do you remember the first zine you ever saw, or bought?
My first zine was possibly Brad Yung’s Stay As You Are, bought at Zulu Records in Vancouver, in the spring of 1999.  It was a satirical comic strip that really embodied the 1990s’ spirit, it was really amazing, and once I started the distro, was my best-seller for a couple years (exactly until September 11).

Yeah I liked that zine a lot, I wonder what he’s been doing since?
Some time in the late nineties, he was paid a few thousand dollars to write a screenplay, which was more money than everything he had earned doing comics.  At that point he stopped drawing comics, hoping on a screenwriting career. I don’t think that screenplay ever got filmed, and I don’t know if he wrote more of them, but in any case, after September 11, the zeitgeist changed and we were living in a different world, very serious and terrified (either of Al Qaeda, or of the havoc wreaked by American forces in Afghanistan and then Iraq).

When and why did you decide to start your own distro?
Following that, I bought a few more local zines, and eventually I happened upon the last issue of Factsheet 5. F5 was the bible of zine reviews in the 1990s, with hundreds of zine reviews every issue, all of them good. (They received so many zines to review that they just couldn’t afford to publish reviews of lesser zines.) I was totally blown away by how many great zines were out there, and talking about so many different things. I must have ordered a few dozen zines from the reviews there right away. Broken Pencil was also in print at the time, so I started ordering Canadian zines.  I was just so ecstatic. I wanted everyone to know about zines, I wanted to give zines to everyone. That would have quickly led to financial ruin, so eventually I stumbled upon this idea of the “zine distro”, and I knew I had found my calling. I started the distro in March 1999, very few months after discovering zines, towards the end of the 1990s’ “Golden Era” of zines, really.

Great Worm is one of the longest running distros around. What are some of the biggest challenges you have had to overcome, financially or otherwise? 
Personally, my biggest challenge has always been my website  I’m a techie, and I’ve always had good ideas about what I wanted for a website, but never the patience or the knowledge to build what I could envision, for starters.  And then there’s the publishing of zine descriptions, scanning the covers, etc. Already in 1999 I had a good idea of what a great zine distro site would look like. When Microcosm’s site came about, I was absolutely livid, totally jealous.  It was everything I wanted in a distro site.  The guy that coded it did it for free, that was probably $15K worth of web development right there.

In 2002 I quit my decent corporate job and decided to go back to school. During one procrastination bout, I think December 2002, when I had a bunch of essays due, I designed and coded what’s still the current site in a few weeks, and that’s what stayed for a decade. Since 2006 I have really let the site lie fallow, rarely adding new zines online, mostly just tabling.

That’s changed in the last year; I’ve taught myself Ruby on Rails, a great web development platform, and I’m in the process of creating a new site for my distro at first, and then when I’ve got that done, I want to be a platform to support other zine publishers and/or other distros. Imagine Etsy but not focused on getting commissions from publishers, supporting paper and PDF/electronic alternatives, etc.

Being as involved in zine culture for as long as you have, both as a reader and a distributor, you have witnessed seismic shifts in the independent publishing “industry”. What are your thoughts on the state of DIY publishing currently?
There have been two seismic shifts in DIY publishing: 1) it’s easier and easier to self-publish on paper, and 2) it’s less and less essential that anyone publishes on paper. There are really two main eras, from a format perspective, for zines: pre and post internet.  Kathleen Hanna, who started a whole subculture with her Riot Grrrl band and zine, said that if she was to do it again today, she would be publishing a blog and certainly not a zine. So what these two shifts have done is bring greater emphasis on the zine as a physical artifact, rather than simply a medium to carry words. Bring back a focus on an Issue, rather than the blog’s River of News, the Stream of Consciousness. The single issue is a lake, and if you’re lucky, the zinester has a whole archipelago in store. These last few years have seen the resurrection of the risograph, which to me seems like a cheaper alternative to get the glorious textures that screen printing can bring to zines.

You were great in Jonathan Culp’s 2004 feature film, Grilled Cheese Sandwich. Any other acting roles on deck?
I can’t act, but I’ll welcome any offer to make a fool of myself, in front of a camera or otherwise.

Excuse the generality of this question, but what do you usually look for when deciding to stock a book or zine?
Different zines work for different reasons. A zine works well when it has focus; you read a couple pages, get a sense of what the zine is about, and then you get 30 more pages of it. Most often it’s just the zinester’s voice, someone who knows who they are and explore that thoroughly; I’m thinking of Carrie McNinch’s /Assassin and the Whiner/, and /You Don’t Get There From Here/ zines. Sometimes it’s a theme; Infiltration and Helen Luu’s How to Start a Coup are good examples of this. Sometimes it’s a good writer. Even though they’ve been going on a for a long time, I only discovered Scam and Burn Collector recently. All of these zines and zinesters show a certain consistency of purpose, of style, of self-assurance, of intelligence that is just amazing to read about. After that, I also look for some decent layout.  It doesn’t need to be fantastic, but it needs to be readable, and to have very good contrast. And finally, it’s sad to say, but it needs to have a good cover.  When I’m tabling, I take about 2 square metres with about 100 zines, in a room with another 20 to 100 tablers, so visitors are bombarded with well over 1000 zines and other publications.  If your zine cover sucks, no one’s going to pick it up and see how awesome your writing is. There is one zine-book I still have copies of, /3/ by Robnoxious, years after getting them.  It contains three stories, including the amazing tale of punks sailing down the Ohio river one summer with DIY pontoons. But the cover has only this silly watercolour “3” digit on it.  So I made a dust-cover for this zine to make it more attractive. I had a lot of stock so I had to move copies.

If anyone is actually crazy enough to try and launch a distro what advice would you give them?      
My advice for new distros: if someone is willing to table at a few zine fairs per year, and/or publish a decent basic website (there are a lot of tools to make that happen with not very much tech knowledge now, it’s great), anyone can start a distro. You don’t have to carry many zines.  One observation I’ve made early in my distro is that consignment leads to too much administrative overhead, so I decided that I would pay for zines when I order them from their authors. Since I’ve paid for the zines, I’m then stuck with them, and I have to sell them in order not to lose money.  The interesting effect this had is that it made me ruthless about which zines I would carry; I would only pick the very best. Once you do that, everything becomes much easier (except when people ask you for your favourite zine!)  So that’s my advice to people starting a new distro: only sell what you think is the very best stuff, the stuff that gets your heart pumping, the stuff that makes you beg the author for new issues. When you table and people ask you about the zines, your passion will be evident and people will buy some zines from you.

Financially, I’ve never had much trouble, mostly because of what I talked about above; most of my zines sell well, I end up with some extra liquidity, which I use to expand the inventory. I’m usually in good employ so I can afford to lay out a few hundred bucks to make a larger order of some zine or another, but that’s not necessary to run a zine distro.

One more recommendation I would make is that letter and package postage costs have increased significantly in the last few years, especially international shipping, and in Canada they’ll increase drastically again this year. So I would say focus more on your own country, unfortunately. In my case it’s a good thing because I’ve realized that I was focussing a bit too much on American zines, and I really need to sell more Canadian zines.

What are some of your favourite current and all time zine reads?
My selection of favourite zines aren’t very original, and they’re pretty much white male; that’s an aspect of my distro I’ve been working to change. Cometbus is the undisputable king for me, and he gets even better as time goes by; the last two issues were really awesome for me, very mature and thoughtful. Seeing Aaron read was awesome, and learning that this was the first time he was doing that in 30 years of publishing was mind-blowing and made me feel extremely privileged that I witnessed that not once, but twice. Jeff confided that Aaron had been practicing, reading to his cat, for over a month prior to the first event.  It really showed because Aaron was very fluid, it just seemed like a conversation with an old friend. The Montréal Q&A was very good; we had a great crowd asking thoughtful questions. I can honestly say that zine-wise, I could die right now and be happy. That’s how much of a fanboy I am.

Apparently there are other zines out there. Infiltration is clearly the best zine that ever was published in Toronto. Doris remains a favourite, another zine that really matures well with time, and seems endless. Mimi Nguyen’s Race Riot 2 is a mainstay of my distro. Fish Piss was the best zine to come out of Montréal, and remains a standard for me.  Both these last two zines were compilation zines, with many writers; I’m guessing it would be more difficult to publish a compilation zine, trying to achieve a cohesive whole and maintain a certain level of quality writing at the same time. I think these two did it very well. On the creepier side, Robin Bougie’s early Cinema Sewer and Deviant were local Vancouver faves. The Future Generation and Ghost Pine were also early favourites, and Don’t Have a Cow remains my favourite vegan zine.

What’s next for Great Worm Express over the next few years?
As for what’s next, my new website would be the next big thing. Someone punch me in the face if I don’t put it together in 2014. Otherwise, it should be the same old. Reading zine reviews, exploring zine fairs to discover new gems, writing reviews for Broken Pencil, writing zine descriptions for my site, and tabling everywhere I can book at table at. I’m thinking of publishing my own first zine ever, after 15 years in the scene, but it’s just an idea right now. It could be published as a stand-alone issue 8)

How do you balance your DIY publishing duties and your job and/or family responsibilities?            
(I don’t publish anything, it’s pure distro.) I don’t.  The distro’s always been a hobby, I certainly never came close to make a living off of it, although I possibly could have reached Microcosm scale if I had been unemployed long enough. So it’s always been the second violin, as we say in French. But I’ve always kept at it, because I love tabling.  At the core, I’ve always wanted to get zines to be read by more people, and I love the interaction with random strangers and regular customers alike, coming to my table and asking what what they should buy from me. Then I love talking to zinesters, getting a sense of why they’re doing it, what makes them put these 28 pages together. The act of publishing is usually a solitary one, but everything around it is very social; even if you don’t buy your zine from the author, you will have more social interactions around a zine than anything else you will purchase, anywhere. That’s a lot of fun.

Where do you see independent publishing culture going in the next 5, 10, 15 years?     There has been a significant shift I’ve seen at fairs in recent years, where many people produce high-labour, short-run artistic zines, often with much less text and more “visual” than the traditional zine, and also pricier ($5-$20).  In Montréal, it’s a part of the strong silkscreening heritage they have there; in Toronto, this seems to be influenced by the ongoing zine teaching that’s done at OCAD (the main art school) in particular. As a distributor it’s almost impossible to sell these zines because they’re often sold at or below cost, so they’re a bit annoying that way. As a reader, they’re interesting, but just like in the pre-internet days for the written word-focussed zines, there is a lot of crap out there. So while it’s not my thing, there is a huge trend going that way. Beyond that trend, I’m curious to see if anyone’s going to manage to link zines and ebook-type products.  “e-zines” pre-date the Internet, so I’m not talking about that; I’m thinking more about the “using eBook formats to send zines to be printed elsewhere” idea. Who knows?  I mean in a way, we’re swimming in independent publishing, what with Twitter, Facebook, tumblr, instagram, pinterest, WordPress, etc. There are so many ways to express oneself, it’s the air we breathe.

Visit the new Great Worm site here.

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