The Production Mod Guide

Since this is the “Production” section, this does not apply if your project lacks a physical component.


To run an “average 2021 fanzine”, we suggest putting aside at least $800 USD prior to production. This number should be around $1,500 if you aim to guarantee free copies and free shipping to all mods and contributors.

SAFETY CHECK: Before going any further, are you making a physical zine “the usual way”? Is the money above available to you? If the answers are “yes” and then “no”, please prioritise both “Finance” and “Head Mod (Leadership)” sections before continuing down Production.

(If the answers are “yes” and then “possibly”, you might want to consider a smaller or DIY zine.)

Deciding what to produce

Identify the scale of your project. Will you be aiming to produce (include contributors and mods and whoever gets free copies):

  • Less than 100 units?

  • Between 100 - 300 units?

  • 300 - 500 units?

  • 500+ ?


Less than 100 units

  • Handmade products are feasible.

    • By handmade products, we mean unique products which would require specific crafting skills, or unique one-off prints/commissions, etc.

    • These might cap out at 1, 5, 20, 50 or 75, etc. Depends on what it is.

  • Hand assembly is feasible.

    • By hand assembly, we mean assembly line tasks such as manual bookbinding, cutting prints, assembling charms, punching button badges, etc.

    • We use 200-300 items per person as a number for reasonable hand assembly.

  • Single prints are cheap, however multiple designs gets moderately pricey unless a mod cuts prints themselves.

  • Sticker sheets are moderately pricey.

  • Standard charms are moderately pricey.

  • Enamel pins are possible, depending on the finance mod, but their prices can come close to standees. Both standees and enamel pins are expensive.

  • The cost of die-cut stickers will vary greatly depending on the source and how they are produced. Vast majority of die-cut stickers copies the prints pattern.


Between 100 - 300 units

  • Handmade products are feasible as limited tiers.

  • Hand assembly might want to recruit multiple people.

  • Multiple print designs become cheaper. Non-standard size prints become more affordable.

  • Die cut stickers resemble prints, multiple designs can be cheap.

  • Charms and sticker sheets are affordable however multiple designs can get moderately pricey.

  • Enamel pins are moderately pricey.

  • Standees can range from moderately pricey to expensive.

  • Custom packaging becomes possible, but can be moderately pricey.


Between 300 - 500 units

  • Handmade and hand assembly begins to become difficult. This includes packing bundles; check in with the shipping mod and plan bundles so they are easier to ship.

    • Time taken for complete fulfillment time will expand by a great amount from here onwards.

    • If multiple mods are in the same country, consider exploring if they are able to meet up.

  • Enamel pins are inexpensive, but remember they are handmade, therefore be mindful of the way that quality might scale in larger quantities.

  • Standees can range from inexpensive to moderately pricey.

  • Custom production of items which have high minimums but accept multiple designs is possible. (These tend to be specialised printing, e.g. fabric products, printing+custom cutting such as die-cut sticky notes)


Over 500 units

  • Custom production of anything is suddenly possible.

  • The mod team should have a discussion about financing priorities, if they have not done so already. (You can spend $500 on something, or that $500 could be more benefit to charity or $10 extra profit per contributor.)

  • Be mindful of increases to shipping weight!

For additional details refer to this table

(Sorry about the formatting. )

Additionally, on the usual process of producing softcover books, price may be optimised by careful decision of paper type, then total surface area (dimensions x page count), then paper weight, then the number of colors of ink.

What about MOQs? MOQ, or minimum order quantity, is a number provided to describe how many units must be ordered at a minimum. Factories scale up one person’s work and make it more affordable to produce items at very low individual unit costs. By setting minimums, they can make “enough” profit after set-up and admin fees.


From the perspective of a zine, it is absolutely possible to order 250 copies of an item for $400 and sell 50 copies, which makes the real unit cost* $8 each (= $400 for 50). If your team and your finance mod wants to spend that money and contribute to the problem that is zine waste, that is another matter...


* this is how some places offer no MOQs, they distribute set-up and admin fees across a smaller quantity of product; they may potentially also set their pricing so that they compensate for lower end margins by not being the cheapest in larger bulk.

Getting products made:

If you approach a manufacturer directly, or use a middleman, it’s different.


We do not think it is bad to use middlemen. Production is so complicated, they can take care of a lot of the difficulty. If you have limited time, and do not have a very specific vision, then this is a good option to consider.


The manufacturer might offer you lower unit prices, however the minimum quantities might end up higher. Dialogue will also be more frequent. It gives maximum control but also at maximum headaches from all the research, etc. (Sometimes it’s ok to be honest and think that blaming a middleman might be therapeutic.)


Anyway, this section is for talking to manufacturers.


Communication

  • BE CLEAR with your manufacturer. They aren’t here to judge you, they are just rude/standoffish/abrupt because they need to narrow things down. Like with fast food clerks, it’s enough to be polite and thank them at the end.

    • It's often more effective to tell them what you're looking for rather than what you want.

  • Sometimes your rep is a sales rep, not a manager. The sales rep is taking your English request and relaying it to a production manager. Clear diagrams are good, and knowing the lingo will help the exchange from becoming a game of Telephone (especially across language barriers).

    • It can be more efficient to take screenshots and circle/draw arrows in a situation with multiple possibilities.

    • Sometimes the best supplier for you isn’t the cheapest but the one which understands you best.

  • If you plan to negotiate, it is important to remember cultural context. Negotiation is very culturally sensitive.

    • We do recommend production mods negotiate without being assholes. The win-win situation is better than a win-lose.

  • In a similar vein, consider helping out your rep if you need something, such as asking if they are able to produce free samples if you pay for a large order first.

  • In return, you can also request conditions, such as 80/20 payment (80% at the start, 20% after confirming images of the product at the end).

    • Obviously this only works if your order is large enough.

    • This adds an extra layer of insurance, but it has a risk of slowing down the overall order due to extra overhead.

  • It is YOUR responsibility to supervise the details. Ask for confirmation and be clear while doing so. If there is a contract, inspect all the details.

  • It’s not over until you get the product. Make sure to check over the product. You can let the manufacturer know if all went well or not.


Manufacturers strike a balance between what is desired and what is possible within the limits of their tooling, their experience, and reality. Different manufacturers will have different tools and different amounts of money put into their equipment. And your rep is tasked with communicating their capabilities to you much as you would be tasked with understanding what they are capable of.


Sometimes it's ok to not go in asking for price. Work out your main concern and ask about that. Even if you don't ask for price, factories might try to quote for you / produce samples to demonstrate their competitiveness.




Note: While it’s their job to tell you what they can do, you will most definitely get points for coming prepared and knowing what you want. If you are able to ask precise questions, it demonstrates a respect for their time, which strengthens your position.

  • An intro letter we have sent while sourcing a new product: Hi. Looking to use this product for ecommerce. May you help advise the total weight of XXXXXX? Wishing to calculate my freight cost to customer.

  • During chat: The rep was engaged in a conversation and further explanation was added that we ship via air and not via sea. As the rep did not respond about the exact weight, we asked "10 grams?" directly, and they replied with "about 20 grams" as the direct question leaves them open to liability. That said, there is still a risk that needs to be managed. Therefore, Finance was still calculated with a margin understanding it is an estimate.




Will add to this as more is thought of.

A charm is a charm, right?

Not exactly.


Much of the time, the most substantial costs are materials and labour. As an example, is your acrylic charm made of ordinary plastic or special coloured/recycled plastics? And do your charms come pre-assembled, or will you be doing the assembly yourself?


Another large factor of production cost is the exchange rate. Currently, the USD is lower against the CNY, which means that Chinese suppliers have raised their prices to cover their costs.


For these reasons, the average production price of merch will vary greatly depending on what is being produced and when. Be mindful of changing prices. You will need to assess if it is worth asking to lock in a price in the 2-4 months before production begins. If the price changes, and your order is large, you may also be able to convince a manufacturer to go ahead with the original price. (Please don’t be a jerk about this, they’re doing you a favour hoping you will come back.)


A good production mod understands the production process, works with Finance and Shipping to determine the zine’s balance between comfort and price, and is able to make choices that can help the zine make the most of its money.

Do It Yourself (DIY Zines)

DIY is:

  • The original way of making zines

  • The cheapest way to get things made (unless you go ham with materials)

  • A way to control the quality of the product (since you are making the product)

  • An ability to source original items (nothing is more uniquely original than handmade)

  • A way to add customisation that cannot be done in mass-production (without high costs / high MOQs)


There are a lot of ways to create DIY zines, prints, stickers, and more. Youtube has many tutorials for bookbinding, sticker making, charm making, all sorts of projects.


The type of fanzines which this guide focuses on are something that might have come out of the commercialisation of fandom, which some people would say is ironic considering where the origins of zines are rooted in. But these DIY zines still exist and have been very fulfilling to those who run them.


It's not very scalable. But it's very incredibly worthwhile to do.


More on DIY Zines:

How to make a zine via The Creative Independent

Zines 101: Make a Zine via Cornell University Library

A detailed breakdown of a collaborative DIY zine’s financial structure by tempural

Additional material:

Having a More Eco-Friendly Business (via Byte Size Treasure, 2020) - breaks down the different materials and terminology that surrounds the business of sustainability


Section: Managing Risk

Section: Timelines and COVID-19


It's also possible to team up with another production mod to run a group order. If your orders are large enough, the manufacturer might agree to ship to different locations.


A lot of the time production all depends how the factory has their processes set up. But if your question eventually leads to them getting money, it does not hurt to ask.


Always remember to assess and manage risks, though. What could go wrong?