The Fundamentals of a Project

We focus on fanzines, but this page really does apply to all collaborative passion projects...

What to expect (and the three ways zines fail)

Making zines is work. The first reason zines fail is because people stop working on them.


Being an organiser on a collaborative zine means being responsible for bringing the project to life. Contributors invest time and buyers invest money. To organise the complexities, a moderator or a mod will communicate between different stakeholders, manage schedules, and mediate any situations which might prevent the project from coming to completion.


The second way zines fail is a result of conflict. Zines tend to be passion projects made in people’s free time. Conflict in this environment is more likely to be more intense and personal. A mod team might break up with each other. Contributors might break up with their mods. Like with all breakups, there’s hurt, anger, frustration, high tension, it might go public, and then everyone is dealing with commentary from people who are not involved in the process but still have an opinion about the matter.


You can expect to be misunderstood at least once. It’s fine. It happens. (The guide will go into planning for bumps later.)


You can expect your schedule to feel longer or shorter than you thought it was. (The guide will go into scheduling advice later and elsewhere.)


The third way that zines fail is when they are shut down by external factors, such as running out of money. This can be a more complicated line of dominos than not selling enough copies. Unplanned events can increase the cost of making the zine, e.g. supplier shutdown, manufacturing cost, not enough funds charged for shipping, or money going missing from the accounts. This stress will impact the mod team, sometimes leading to failures #1 and #2. Trying to make up for missing money can be difficult, but it can go from being very hard to absolutely impossible once buyers request mass refunds. Other external factors include being hit by Terms of Service violations and IP holders requesting takedowns (for fandom zines).


You can expect to make something cool that you’re really excited for! Sure, maybe you chose to do it by making it a group project—and chances are that you, the reader, has probably experienced a bad group project at least once in life. But it's through groups—teams—where the most amazing things are accomplished, and working with people who have the same interests is incredibly fun!


You’ll have an experience and gain lots of experience.


Let’s make a zine!


Additional material:

Everyday leadership - Drew Dudley (via TED)

Table of Contents

  1. Let's make a zine!

  2. Contributor Management

  3. Workload Management

  4. Recruitment

  5. Working in a Team

  6. Managing Risk

  7. Getting Help

  8. Running an effective mod team


Links open as new pages, sorry. The current version of Sites does not let it jump down.


If you are looking for how to run a zine, you want this page: Organization

Let’s make a zine!

Yay! We’re making a zine!


Do you know what your project is going to be about? Many zines are themed around a specific topic. Here’s a table of some common types floating around in 2021:

Zines do not have to fall under a single type. Having multiple types will make a zine more niche, e.g. a cookbook zine themed around one character, a crossover zine themed around a storybook, or a pairing zine where all the works are coffeeshop AU.


Niche zines come with a higher risk of lower interest. That said, risk means they can also be quite a success; we see zines in 2021 that combine elements from multiple types breaking past all stretch goals and even adding more. Some factors that affect the outcome of niche zines the most are:

  • How much experience the mod team has,

  • What influence the mod team possesses*; and,

  • The ability of the mod team to get contributors/audience members on board with their goals and their concepts.


Know how big of a project you’re prepared to work on and how many people you’re willing to work with. More people means:

  • Bigger projects that take a different amount of time and energy to manage

  • More costs involved in providing everyone a free copy

  • Higher prices presented to potential buyers visiting the shop in order to break even

  • Less work for individuals if your team runs smoothly and well. (Later sections on this page and other areas of this site will give advice for this.)


Some ideas might not lend themselves so well to professionally printed zines.

  • Maybe it needs workshopping first?

  • Maybe you could do it as a smaller zine.

  • If you decide against doing a zine, the rest of this page will still be relevant for (collaborative) projects. And the tips in the rest of the site might also come useful.


Zines can be as big or as small as you would like. Think about how much time you’re up to putting in. Small zines are 100000x less stressful than bigger zines and can be finished in half the time!


Have a vision? Let’s move on!


* influence does not necessarily mean a measurement in followers, but is more a reference to charisma / marketing and other things mentioned in the page: Head Mod (Leadership).

Questions to ask yourself

1. Digital or physical?
What is the product?

2. Free or paid?
Will you need to consider finances?

3. How much of your life are you thinking of putting into it?
This will help you determine size, timeline, and other factors.

Tip: Think back to previous group projects, assignments, or even if you have done a thesis before.
How big was the deliverable, how many people were involved, and how many weeks were you given to do it?

Contributor Management

Making a zine is as much about the experience as the end result. This experience happens all throughout the process, but you can’t have a collaborative zine without contributors, so let’s talk about how to manage your contributors.


Want Artists? Writers? Editors? Designers? Cosplayers? Chefs? Sculptors? Animators? Producers? Engineers? Members of a specific demographic? The theme will help you pick what types of contributors to accept. There’s so many methods for people to express themselves in art and fandom!


Once you decide your contributor types, decide how you will get contributors for your zine. Are they going to all be:

  • Invited?

  • Accepted through applications?

  • A combination of both?


If it’s both, your mod team may need to decide if these contributor types will be managed the same or through a different approach. (A simple “hey so are guest artists going to be the same as artists?” works fine!)

  • Different types of contributors may also need to be managed differently from each other. For example, cookbook zines may recruit for chefs before writers/artists, or some zines will choose to stagger writer and artist applications rather than run them at the same time.


When recruiting contributors, help people understand what you are looking for. Be organised, communicate clearly, and identify the right amount of direction to share. Examples:

  • If your zine is about allowing contributors freedom to choose their own ideas, state this upfront. Be clear.

  • How strict is the vision? If the vision is fairly strict, you may need more space to go into detail. You might also implement other communication methods such as graphics and visuals to convey elements such as mood, topic, style, character, or colour schemes.

  • New, or doing something new and unusual? Avoid conflicting assumptions by giving people context. Make it easy for them to understand the background and let the project have enough space to explain the planning that surrounds it. Orient them so they see the project from the right direction.

  • How much are you expecting from them after acceptance? How many pieces? What is the page count or word length?


As you send messages, do be polite, and thank people.

  • This can be thanks for their time, thanks for their interest, their passion, their being here... whatever you like.

  • Rejections in particular can be difficult to write. Our only advice is to be genuine and avoid over-promising.

  • Ways to manage giving feedback to rejected applicants could be to a) give them a timeframe to request feedback, b) let them know feedback is not guaranteed, or c) decide beforehand that your team will not be giving feedback to applicants.


Manage the expectations of your contributors throughout the entire process, including before they are even accepted. To do this, identify how much they should know and when they should know that information. Examples:

  • Contributors would like to know if a project is for profit or for charity before they apply (or accept an invitation) → therefore mods can include this in an FAQ.

  • Contributors will need to know how much work they will be expected to do before they apply → therefore mods may write individual guidelines for each contributor type.

  • Contributors want to know when they can post their pieces → therefore mods will need to discuss and plan for piece posting in their marketing plans.

  • Contributors expect to be credited correctly → therefore mods should share the credit(s) to check there are no mistakes before posting/printing.

  • If the mod team decides to be strict on deadlines, contributors should be informed at least 3-4 weeks before the deadline (minimum 2 weeks).


Managing contributor expectations builds trust in the mods’ capability to deliver. “Knowing what contributors would like to know” is one reason people suggest participating in zines prior to creating a zine.

  • Another good reason to participate in a zine first is to build your network. Having that shared project history is a great way to reach out and invite guest contributors or ask the mods (or other experienced mod contributors) for advice and help later on.


The amount of transparency in a zine is up to the mods’ discretion. That said, a contributor might feel like they should know something; they expect to know. A peaceful resolution can be reached by balancing the mods’ decisions with the contributor’s expectations, using communication, and conflict management.


To summarise, contributor management lies in balancing expectations. People in general will understand if they are given explanations for surprises. But don't forget, surprise can be memorable for the wrong reasons. Deliver information with the correct timing for a pleasant zine experience. Too many negative associations? Contributors will begin to lose trust in the mod team and the zine.


Later sections in this guide covers how to choose the number of contributors, voting and other methods of operation, and what to do when people ghost on the zine.

Workload Management

A zine can be a large project made larger because of the responsibility that accompanies it. Balancing work and projects with personal life is an extremely important skill to learn and develop.


The authors of this guide subscribe to energy management instead of time management. Know your limits and learn to recognise when your energy levels or your mental health begins to dip.


As a reminder, the three ways zines fail are:

  1. People stop working on them

  2. A result of conflict

  3. External factors


Poor mental health can lead to #1 and #2. Please take care of it.


If you haven’t done some type of work before, start early and give yourself time in case any issues arise. Consider what happens if someone drops out; are you left with that work? What happens now?


Recognise that it’s alright for a zine to have a different pace to others if you need the time.


Keep an eye out for burnout. Sometimes this looks like resentment, negativity, and tiredness. In a remote working environment (which zines are), particularly those which cross many timezones (which zines also do), it’s much harder to identify where work begins and ends. You might find yourself answering questions as soon as you wake up, or trying to resolve some unexpected developments and staying up late into the night. During COVID-19, this deterioration of work/life boundaries impacted millions of ordinary people worldwide.


Know that you can always get help.


If you’re planning on recruiting people, the next section covers recruiting people to help make your zine.


Additional material:

- A good list of head and neck stretches (pick a handful you enjoy the most, no need to do them all)

- Still looking for a practical resource on managing COVID-19 work-life balance.

Recruitment

Broadly speaking, there are three ways of recruiting help on a zine.


Strangers:

Open Mod Apps to bring in experienced people. This requires trusting these people on the internet to stay around and believing in their ability to do the work.


Friends and family:

Look around at who you have that might know something. Family may be able to assist. Perhaps there are friends who are zine mods. Getting friends and family involved is something that happens sometimes with packing orders.


Partnerships:

This is a bit of a new-ish development, where a popular creator takes a larger role than an ordinary guest artist, while not exactly being a mod. So far it’s been a role called “Lead Artist” which is sometimes half Art Mod and half Influencer, like an in-house promotional illustrator. Otherwise, I am running a small zine now where we are able to afford some items with a higher minimum order, due to a partnership with a merch artist who is willing to purchase any unsold items at production cost (they have their own shop).


Overall, it’s a bit of a balance between how comfortable you are and what resources you have available to you. Friends and family might be a good idea in terms of familiarity, but then it can get tricky if you're required to manage disagreements. For strangers, most mods in the zine space are reliable, and mod applications typically ask for information that can help you determine:

  • The level of interest,

  • Their experience,

  • Their ability to deliver, and;

  • The time they can put into the project.


Some potential mods will list incomplete zines in their experience. This is something that you will need to keep an eye out for and consider if their head-start in knowledge is good enough to help you. (This can be enough for people who have real life experience.)


Some potential mods will be on multiple projects. This is possible depending on the mod. We have done multiple projects successfully while also doing our own personal projects and volunteering work. What to watch out for is overlap of the key periods of the other projects:

  • Applications voting (all mods)

  • Preorders open and the 2 weeks before that (all mods which will be managing deliverables, e.g. organization, art, writing, beta or busy setting up the shop, e.g. finance, graphics, shipping)

  • Week before Preorders close (graphics mods; check their workload and how they personally time manage countdown and marketing graphics)

  • Preorders - Production periods (formatting mods; check specifically when they are planning on doing their formatting and add 3-4 weeks extra just in case)

  • Production periods (finance/production mods; some can handle spanning multiple projects, but you will want to know how much experience they have)

  • Shipping periods (shipping mods; some shipping mods can handle shipping multiple, but you will want to know how they are keeping the projects separated)


For some mod positions, you can request a portfolio of works.


Real life experience can make up for zine experience.

  • Should you bring on a real life experience mod, they may take a while to adjust to zine-making, and you may encounter some resistance from people who may be expecting “the usual way” of making zines.

  • We have written our section “Organization” so that real life experience mods should be able to have an idea what to expect and therefore are more able to perform Contributor Management effectively.

  • There is no requirement for the real life experience mod to follow “the usual way” of making zines should they have their own experience to draw from.


Trust is key to a working mod team. Always make sure to pick people you think you can work with.

Working in a Team

The initial phases of group formation involve:

  1. Understanding what is needed and how people like to operate,

  2. Getting used to the work and knowing how people like to operate, and;

  3. Discovering where everyone differs in individual working preferences.


There may be conflict and struggle before reaching a consensus. Individual mods may need facilitation to get through these situations. They are not yet a “team”.


Should the group get through this, its members will become used to each other, slowly be able to work in harmony, and eventually support one another when a person looks like they’re in need of a helping hand.


This concept is a model dating back to the 1960’s and is taught in every project management course: Tuckman’s theory of group development.

  • Note: This is a theory of group development. It’s just as applicable to the wider team of contributors and mods, as it is to a central mod team.

  • Look it up if you’re interested in project management.


There are things that can be done to help facilitate the transition to the stage where the team is capable of smooth performance:


Being clear with expectations is just as important among mods as it is with contributors.

  • Your mod team may need discussions on who is taking responsibility for what moving parts.

  • You may need to set deadlines.

    • For instance, if discussion decisions are time-sensitive, you can tell people a deadline for people to respond and tell them you will move ahead if they do not.

    • Be sure this deadline is realistic enough to give them a chance to respond; 2-5 days should be acceptable within a mod team, 7-10 days is ideal for contributors/everyone else.


Task ownership is the term for assigning an “owner” who is accountable for getting something done. This ensures that they are completed and finished in a timely fashion. Tasks can have multiple people on it, and there can be one owner of a task or multiple people responsible for getting something done. If there are multiple, they will require more communication between them. At this point, you may consider making a new Discord channel to accommodate their discussions.

  • For example: Multiple people are involved with formatting the project. One person is responsible for doing the formatting, while the second person plans the formatting and works with contributors during the whole of the creation period to arrange the pieces together. Formatting will extend across the entire creation period, and making a “formatting” channel will help keep conversations together.

  • If there are two people responsible for making decisions, ensure there’s a third person on-call in case they require a tie-breaker!


The types of deadlines which are set by the team should suit the team’s members.

  • Relative deadlines are good for people who are self-managed.

  • Fixed deadlines are good for people who require concrete motivation to finish their tasks.

  • If something must absolutely be done before a certain date, then set it some time ahead of when it is needed.


Some people prefer being reminded of deadlines. Some people prefer to do all modding work in a server instead of DMs. Some people prefer to be tagged in conversations. Some people don’t have an opinion about things you might think need an opinion.

  • If you’re uncomfortable asking questions directly to a fellow mod, start easy with less sensitive questions (e.g. pets, favourite characters) and engage with the answers using follow-up questions. This will build rapport in a natural way, making it easier to ask.

  • You can also do inverse reminders like: If you aren't alright with this, let us know before #####, otherwise we will go ahead


We recommend using unambiguous reacts such as 👍🆗 to confirm reading messages, because nobody likes being put on Read.

  • We also like to leave happy or heart reacts and thank mods for doing their work, because you never know if today is the day your message will brighten up the other person’s shitty week, and it’s a small way to show you have someone’s back!


The glue that keeps a team together is trust. Trust that everyone will do the work, and belief that the work will be done. This means, in practice:

  • Not talking behind each other’s backs.

  • Being aware that people come from different backgrounds, bringing different approaches and levels of communicativeness based on personality and preference.

    • Sometimes managing this requires a rule which is about avoiding political or overly personal discussions.

  • Exercising patience in challenging situations.

  • Being curious about differences and being willing to learn about other people.

  • Being honest with yourself.

  • Recognising that trust is a commodity that is given freely and, if broken, is hard to earn back.


Don’t get overconfident. Communication, Emotional Intelligence (EQ, ability to empathise) and Cultural Intelligence (CQ, ability to assimilate) are all soft skills which can always be developed further and make you a better professional.

  • Should you have mods and contributors from different countries, be mindful of the fact that language is understood differently.

    • Practicing ways to improve personal EQ will help you better understand when to speak.

    • Practicing ways to improve personal CQ will help you better understand how to speak.

    • (Sometimes it might feel uncomfortable trying to talk when you are not feeling understood. A later section has advice on managing this.)

  • Consider the subtle difference in framing a question positively and framing a question negatively, e.g. “Are graphics going to be ready before Friday?” VS “Would you say graphics can’t be finished before Friday?” The first is more like affirming the deadline, while the second has an effect closer to seeking confirmation.

  • Learn the power of compromise as a communication tool, and how to use it. Compromise can be used as a way to build a relationship, allowing both sides to feel heard and like their position is important.

    • But mods communicate from a position of power, and it can also come across heavy-handedly if used incorrectly, generating resentment.


Make sure the whole team understands the vision of the zine.

  • With the increase of “professionalism” as a concept in the zine sphere, your team will also want to be sure about how professional you plan to come across. There is an observed trend that more “professional” projects are judged differently to casual ones.

  • Maybe your team will benefit from being more casual with a single “professional” channel, e.g. email.

  • If you’re aiming to be “professional”, presenting the answer “I don’t know” and the response “Yes I messed up” are literally forms of art. Do your research on how to apologise professionally.


It’s okay to make mistakes. Teams exist to help people overcome them.


Learn each other’s time zones.


Lastly, always have someone triple check after 1. formatting, 2. important graphics posts (e.g. contributor lists, anything with a date on it), and 3. important emails.

  • Do not forget any pieces/contributors.

  • Do not write the wrong dates/names.

  • Do not send the wrong attachment.


Do not trust in a mod’s experience. We’re still people and we still mess up. We need teamwork. This stuff can be avoided.


Save us. Please.


Further reading:

Dear AD, What do you look for in a freelancer? (via Dear Art Director on Tumblr)

Managing Risk (Important!)

As a mod, you have a responsibility to your contributors, future buyers, and to the rest of your mod team. Risk Management is an entire area with many books written on the topic. For the sake of this guide we will be referring to the easily accessible 2012 Harvard Business Review (HBR) framework available here.


Risk is basically asking the question: What could go wrong?


The 2012 HBR framework identifies three categories of risk:

  • Preventable risks,

  • Strategy risks, and;

  • External risks.


Preventable risks are elements which are controllable and can be eliminated or avoided. In zines, these could be:

  • First impressions - Is there enough information? Does the mod team look like they have a plan?

  • General impressions - How does the mod team respond to criticism?

  • Public behaviour - How do the mods behave? Will it lead to conflict?

  • Burnout - Will the mods be able to see the zine through to the end?


If you have ever seen a list of zine red flags, many are commonly made in response to the category of preventable risks. It’s not enough to have a plan; to gain trust, a mod team must communicate that they have planned. Most zines will use an FAQ page to clarify their position. HBR calls a document like an FAQ “the first line of defence.”


With the prevalence of CuriousCat, there is also an increase of behaviour which publicly challenges a zine in public. How you handle it will be taken as a reflection of your project and your abilities. If in doubt, have someone else review what you have written, preferably someone who thinks a bit differently, to cover more viewpoints.

  • You are welcome to find us if you aren’t sure about lines of contact. Our contact information is available on the homepage.


Strategy risks are a category of risk which is voluntarily accepted because they are in some way desirable. In zines, this could be:

  • Subsidising international shipping costs to attract more international buyers

  • Offering certain merch/stretch goals

  • Only allowing certain people to apply, be a part of, or purchase the zine.


The first two would be attempts to attract more sales but if improperly planned, they present the risk of costing more than they would otherwise earn. The last is something which has manifested out of the current maturity of the zine space, with examples being zines having limited writers, age restrictions, or LGBTQ+ only zines.


HBR identifies three distinct approaches to manage strategy risks - independent experts which can directly review a risk (Asking an unrelated experienced zine mod), having facilitators to collect disparate data into a risk profile (Research and identification of trends and data across the zine space/your target market, running surveys such as polls or interest checks), and embedding experts (Having an experienced zine mod on your team).


Refer to the HBR page for more on mitigating these risks.


External risks are those that are harder to avoid or reduce. By nature, they lie out of your control, and can include:

  • Price changes, machine maintenance, manufacturers closing shop (all three have occurred on zines)

  • Hacking/Data loss

  • Ghosting (Mods and contributors)

  • People dropping out

  • People being minors


Managing ghosting and people dropping out is something that mods will have to decide (ideally early). If somebody is ghosting, work out how long you will wait and what you will do if it is a contributor and if it is a mod.

  • As best practice on a physical zine, we do suggest that at least 2 mods among the Head Mod/Shipping/Finance/[Bank account holder] roles consider exchanging emails, phone numbers, and the social media contact details of somebody who is able to find them in real life.

    • If it seems too much, Production usually does find out the phone number of Shipping, and Shipping does know everybody’s addresses if it is a physical project.

  • We do politely request you remain kind while being firm. Severe emergencies can and have happened on zines we have been on.

  • Perhaps consider how you wish to manage recruiting of pinch hitters in the case of needing to replace contributors dropping out of the zine.


Hacking and data loss is important. Remember to delete all personal information if it is no longer needed. You can be legally liable in certain jurisdictions for mismanaged data.


Mitigating these other Financial/Production issues is covered across other sections of the website.


On being a minor:

Your age may be out of your control, but your approach to projects does not have to be. Though minors have less experience than adults, it is seen they can have more free time which they can put towards the success of a zine. We advise you to listen and take your time, demonstrate awareness, learn to ask (better) questions, and ask more of them. Get a trusted adult who you can ask the most stupid of stupid things to. You can borrow the experiences of others as you work at building your own.


Risks are a natural part of being a mod, which is a role that carries responsibilities. Youth and inexperience might make it harder, but a properly prepared group can demonstrate enough maturity to be entrusted with the responsibility of taking care of contributors, future buyers, and any other mods on the team. To avoid being caught unawares, assess the potential impact of risks for each project and plan ahead how to mitigate each one.


Your zine might have more risks or different risks than what is listed here. Risks depend on the type of your project and any other decisions made by your mod team.


Additional material:

Managing Risks: A New Framework (via HBR)

Being young and making an impact - Natalie Warne (via TED)

Getting Help

It’s 2021. Modern management theory tries to focus on using people’s personal strengths and treats weakness as something that can be managed or worked around. In other words, there are some things people can do easily that may be less easy for you to do, and utilising other team members is encouraged.


It’s 2021. It’s more than okay to ask for help. Remember that zines are not your job. The aim is to have fun.


You can ask mods you trust. You can also ask your contributors -- the zine space has matured to the point where many contributors on zines also do have modding experience.

  • Take your time to craft a question which includes how much context they need to know in order to give you a proper answer.

  • Understand that the people you are asking might also be mistaken as they often do not have a full understanding of the complete situation.


Identify if what troubles you is a personal matter (e.g. mental health, burnout), or a technical one (e.g. manufacturer specifications), or both.

  • If it’s a personal matter, you might need to step away from the zine, either temporarily or permanently stepping down. Discuss with your team if you have one. Either you or another team member can bring it up with your contributors when you are ready.

    • Contributors and mods may offer suggestions in good faith. These are at risk of coming across negatively if the mod in question is in a poor mental state. A third person may need to mediate.

    • Take your time and let people know if you will need time before you are able to answer.

    • Should you still be feeling pressured, be mindful. Some emotions are destructive (e.g. blame to yourself or others) and the way to overcome them is to stop feeding it.


Depending on the role, you can feel quite alone as a zine mod. Being alone on a role doesn’t mean you can’t get help, or other mods can’t offer help. We have two examples from production, which can often be a one-person job:


Ray has a trait where they talk before they think. This is something they manage, but when they get really stressed and need some changes to files, they’ll sometimes ask for another mod to help them communicate with a contributor on their behalf. They do this because they know that if they’re stressed, they might come across poorly and the contributor might end up feeling mistreated.


Calamari will make elaborate merch which needs prototyping and rep/designer/factory back and forth. This sometimes carves out more time or mental capacity than anticipated. If production appears to fall behind schedule, they would ask other mods to help with ordering simpler products (such as prints) and check their work as they do so, ensuring items are still being produced in parallel.


Collaboration doesn’t have to be difficult. Look around. Dare to ask.


Maybe it’s small, like having people check drafts before they go live.


Maybe it’s a little bigger than that - you’re feeling like you’re supposed to be deciding something but you’re not sure how to do that.


Or maybe you need to swap out as a formatting mod a week before production because of a personal tragedy affecting your life.


We did. So can you.


Additional material:

Masterpost For Rough Times (because you deserve to be okay) - Have not actually used this, but it has 72k+ notes, so it must be good

listen to this every time you hate your art - yes, the Ethan Becker video. It helped someone dear. Maybe it’s something you need too.


P.S. We know that some advice on this website is not suited to all peoples. But were not in a position where we can give them adequate or responsible advice.


Please consider this message as our request for help, that we might be hoping someone more appropriate than us can assist with some tips, advice, or any kind of resource for those people that we are unable to cover. Thank you, if you can do that.

And if you let us know, we will find the best way to share it in our networks and get the word out too.

Running an effective mod team

In other sections, we refer to requiring leadership in your team if your project has no guaranteed funding source. We also mention that social media in the current zine space is something that can be solved when more people are involved.


If you are reading this, chances are that you have had a horrible group work experience. It feels awful. People don't know what they should do. There are clashes of opinion and ego. Microaggression. Someone is feeling excluded. Nobody wants to be there. Low quality of work. The worst enemy of the team is the team itself.


We cover the basic theory of how teams operate in “Working in a Team,” which contains information drawn from professional project management training. Please consider reading it. This section also contains information from notes taken in “anti-toxicity” culture presentations.


The fact is, there are ways to not only try and avoid negative team culture, but also actions that can be taken to mitigate it. People who have been surrounded by good managers and well-working teams will do it naturally wherever they go; this is the whole secret of many “superstar mods”. Others who have not, you might find it harder to get these concepts. So please consider properly putting in some time to look into project management and leadership tutorials the same way you might look for art tutorials or writing help. Be mindful, open, honest. I would say, “ask more questions,” but don’t settle for that. Listen and be curious. Work out how to ask the types of questions that open you to learning more than you could ever imagine.

  • What, Where, Who, Why, When and How will all give different answers. (It’s also been personally observed that some people might respond better to a specific type.)

  • If you don’t know what to ask, you can always ask “What should I be asking?”...


When an effective mod team runs, contributors are able to also feel like they are a part of the project. They’ll have more investment. They will be more likely to turn pieces in on time, make better pieces, be more willing to do extras, and more likely to help promote.


If your contributors are self-managed, then the mod team has more time and energy to put into promotion and making more assets.


And there are many types of contributors. Some are more free to engage. Others might be going through things. Some are quicker to jump while others are slower starters. People who have done fandom events might be more experienced with dealing with fandom creatives than some zine mods! Everyone works at their own pace.


Here is a non-exhaustive list of what contributors appreciate, pulled from some of our feedback surveys, in alphabetical order:

  • Approachability

  • Clarity

  • Comprehensiveness

  • Diligence

  • Fun people

  • Good organisation

  • Hard work

  • Kindness

  • Meeting goals

  • Quality presentation

  • Timeliness

  • Transparency


This collection of survey responses is from a section with 181 respondents in The Fanzine Survey 2020, and appears to support this at:

  • Page 27: “About Positive Experiences As A Contributor”

  • Page 28-30: “About Negative Experiences As A Contributor”


What does this mean?


It means*:

  • The way you respond to criticism is crucial.

  • There should be processes that you can fall back on as a failsafe.

  • The team should be able to provide external value and offer internal support.


This can happen through discussion with everyone, but in reality, free discussion does not exist until the team has developed maturity and trust. To get to this stage takes time and work by multiple people over a span of at least six weeks to three months. Unfortunately, holding zine mod apps in the current zine space, accepted mods are almost expected to integrate seamlessly from day 0.


Its possible to learn to work with new people instantly. The kind of activities which will teach this experience are things like captaincy roles or anything involving demonstrating personal leadership. If you are without this experience, you can consider if it’s a skill you’d like to develop for yourself.


* It was hard to narrow a list down into those 3 points. But the above reasoning is why we think those 3 points are the most crucial. And, it’s why this guide is structured like this.


It should be obvious


But zines are passion projects, and passions don’t always align, and then egos getting in the way makes it not.


Why keep trying?


Dunno. You ask yourself.


When people are in a place they feel like they are valued and supported, they will do more.


If you aren’t feeling valued or supported now, sorry to hear it. Just remember that you can ask for help, your schedule can change if you need a break, and contributors are always watching. They can tell who is active, who seems to be doing more work than others, and who seems to be more talk than substance.


If the mod does their job and does it well, they get a positive reputation because they have proved themselves. When mods prove themselves with contributors, contributors will follow “superstar mods” across different projects - all for another chance to work with them or purchase from them again.


Working on projects like these will teach transferrable skills like nothing else. If you want, you can choose to play the long game, for life isn't short.


Take care of each others' health.


Sometimes being responsible is to tell another mod to take a break.


This doesn't mean you will pick up the work. You can find someone else or make it into a discussion about alternatives that can be done while the overworked mod is resting.


As a reminder, its important to do this tactfully. Stress causes people to act unlike themselves. If youre not sure you can do that - is there another mod you might be able to go to who might be able to raise this within the mod team? (Be careful. In the limited communication medium of text chat, and with moderators who are strangers, there is a thin line between being genuinely concerned and accidentally coming off as negative manipulation and/or triangulating.)


Drama is part of being human


We said earlier, zines are passion projects. De-escalation and conflict resolution skills should be part of the package.


If it was easy, we would have solved all zine dramas out there already.


Additional material:

Section: Working in a Team

Individual guide: Head Mod (Leadership)

How to Mod a Zine - Advice from tumblr users compiled by Fanzine Watch in 2020


How to Moderate a Panel Discussion (via Toastmasters) - not quite a zine, but there is a crossover of skills between zine moderation and moderating a panel:


When you are the speaker, the spotlight is on you. When you are the moderator, you become the spotlight operator. It’s your job to make the panelists look good and you should fade away into the background.

For some, moderating a panel is terrifying. “You have no control over what people are going to say,” Vaden says. “You have to spontaneously navigate an infinite number of dynamics that are perpetually changing at any given moment. It’s difficult to weave together points, create value for the audience and shine an uplifting spotlight on panelists, all while keeping it entertaining!”


An example of different cultural behaviours:

Some mod teams are OK with being transparent before contributors about how to contact mods, specifying very clear lines of communication, that some mods should always be tagged, etc. Others might be more wary of “losing face”, where an active mod would instead directly message another mod or tag them privately so that the mod is able to respond to the contributor as if they were present always. These are two extremes that are just a result of whoever is in the team. Both are valid and can also exist in the same project simultaneously.


An example of team play:

Even when Ray is not Head Mod, they spend a lot of time keeping the team together as 1. they know they have skills in this area, and 2. they know theyll rarely be directly asked. If the rest of their mod team demonstrates interest, they’ll also exercise personal leadership by instructing some quieter, less experienced mods to make announcements and organise micro-projects by themselves (Giving them these responsibilities gives the new mod more experience and allows contributors to see more mods visibly doing work).


A final note:

In addition to people who make surveys for zine mods, we would love to see more contributor-centric research. (Hint.)