A Guest Post by Anna Brones
As a writer, I’m always thinking of new projects, which is why I started an indie food zine. Even when I don’t have something concrete in mind, ideas end up marinating in the back of my brain. That’s how Comestible came to be.
Comestible is a bi-annual publication I started self publishing in 2016. I never know exactly what to call it, but it’s somewhere between a zine, a periodical, a journal, and a magazine. It’s 64 pages long and illustrated in black and white. It features stories and artwork about food, the places food comes from and the people who produce it. Comestible also uses food as a lens for looking at other larger issues, like gender, economics, and sustainability.
I write a letter from the editor, and on occasion a recipe or a Q&A. Each issue of my food zine features pieces by 10 to 15 writers, as well as the work of an illustrator. For the last two issues, I employed a copy editor to help with proofing and additional editing — it’s helpful to have a second set of eyes on all the content. I do the rest myself: editor, publisher, illustrator, graphic design and layout, marketing, and distribution.
Why I wanted my own food zine
I’ve written about food for quite some time now. I have published several cookbooks, been the editor of a food vertical for an online publication, and ran my own food blog. While I am not a trained chef, I grew up helping my mother in the kitchen. I also love how food intersects with culture and tradition. No matter who we are or where we live, we all eat, and that food can be a connection point, a way to bring people together.
But despite an interest in food, and in food writing, a few years ago I became disenchanted with most food media. I felt like almost all of it was focused on the end product — a dish, or the experience of a meal at a restaurant — and not necessarily the production of the food itself. I also had a lot of food writer friends, and I wanted to give them a platform for the stories that they felt they couldn’t tell elsewhere.
And finally, I wanted something that didn’t have photography in it. I like photography, and take a lot of photos myself, but I often feel like the amount of visuals that we are exposed to often detract from the written word. Instead I create simple illustrations that are a combination of line drawings and papercut illustrations.
Doing it all
As a creative, I also wanted the challenge of going from concept to finished product on my own. I had experience with publishing as an author, and Comestible was a chance for me to be at the helm. I launched the first issue of my food zine in the spring of 2016, thanks to a Kickstarter campaign.
Since then I have continued with the same formula: a simple layout, no advertisements, 100% reader supported, self-distribution, and printed locally on recycled paper. I pay writers and artists for contributions, even though it’s a small amount.
The struggles of going indie
Seven issues in, I still find myself riding the same emotional roller coaster every time I publish a new food zine. I usually oscillate between “Yes, I love doing this, I’m so excited,” and “What have I gotten myself into? Should I stop immediately?”
Most independent publishers experience some version of this. There is no one way to run a food zine or magazine, but if you’re doing it alone it’s certainly a hustle. I have a lot of respect for all of the indie publications out there, particularly Crop Stories, Standart, Eaten, and Farm Food, a cross between a cookbook and a magazine. Food Book Fair’s “Foodieodicals” program, which I took part in last year with Comestible, gave many new food publications a platform.
From a financial standpoint, I am close to breaking even. That’s not where I would like to be. I don’t pay myself for my time, but publishing Comestible has paid off in other ways. Because it became a platform for my artwork (every cover is a papercut illustration of mine), my work has become better known. I get paid projects because of it. Paying for the editorial is a large part of the budget. If I didn’t pay the writers, I would make a bit more money. But I don’t want a business where I making money off writers but don’t pay them.
The elements of indie publishing are similar across the board:
- How many copies will you print?
- How will you front the production costs?
- Will you contract with a distribution company or will you do it yourself?
Finding the right format and printing
The first year, I published four issues and that was too much. Last year I went down to two issues per year. I dropped the number of copies I printed, from 1000 to 500. Lately I have been thinking about how much longer I want to keep publishing Comestible, given the current financial reality. I will publish publish the two issues this year and then reassess.
I chose to keep Comestible small. While that means a bit more work, it also means it’s a little more nimble. I can do what I want. If an issue comes out a few weeks later than I anticipated, it’s not the end of the world. I also like having a variety of projects. Even if the opportunity presented itself, I don’t know if I would want it to be my one thing.
Is it worth starting a food zine?
The food media landscape is saturated. On the other hand, so many stories go untold. There is space for rich, diverse content that showcases a variety of backgrounds, experiences and voices. It’s so nice to see initiatives like Equity at the Table and digital media like the Racist Sandwich podcast who are truly pushing the industry forward.
Do you have a perspective that you feel is underrepresented? Are you excited about the creative challenges that come with launching your own publication? Try it! Fortunately for those who want to experiment with self publishing, there are so many great resources for small publishers nowadays. And lots of people willing to answer questions.
As a publisher, I hope that Comestible can continue to be an open and welcoming platform for all voices. If the day comes that Comestible ceases to continue, I won’t regret any part of the process, because I have learned so much along the way.
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Want to Write for Comestible?
I look for stories that use food as a lens for looking at other issues, as well as stories that showcase the production of food and the connection of food to tradition and culture. That could be an essay on sexual harassment in the food industry, a reported article on diversity in agriculture, or the history of an heirloom seed.
I take recipe pitches too. I’d like recipes that are seasonal. They could be either for the spring/summer or fall/winter issues. They should use simple ingredients in a creative way, or showcase culture and tradition. I am also open to publishing poetry and artwork.
Email pitches to email@example.com with a short description of the piece you would like to write, as well as some writing samples. Payment is $50.
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Now it’s my turn to ask you: Have you ever thought about starting a zine or journal? What has held you back if so?
Elizabeth Minchilli says
I love this story!! Thanks so much for sharing it. It’s a new side of publishing, and one that is ever evolving. I hope you continue, Anna, but even if you don’t, it seems well worth the effort to have done so.
jennifer b says
Inspiring! I love the hand made aspect, especially the art illustrations instead of yet more over-styled photo compositions. Many of my cookbooks from back in the 1970s have simple drawings or woodcut prints as illustration and I’ve missed that.
I wish you every success!
>>I don’t want a business where I making money off writers but don’t pay them.<<
Brava to Anna for this.
I've often thought about starting a food publication that tells some of those 'untold' stories, by commissioning writer friends to write what they are passionate about. But I'm absolutely clueless about how to even begin.
I would have loved to read a bit more from Anna about the nitty-gritty — how do you find a printer? How do you lay it out? Etc. Etc.
I liked that too, although she can’t afford to pay her writers much at all.
Re the nitty gritty, I’m sure if you contact her she would talk with you.
Well, she pays twice as much per piece as a certain well-funded two-time James Beard award-winning website does for some of their food pieces, so I give her a lot of credit!
OMG you are right. There is yet another website that pays the same amount and won an IACP award. I wish there was a way to protest them. Want to write a rant for me?
Enticing. Let me think about it….