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From Zine to Book: An Interview with Jay Ruttenberg of The Lowbrow Reader

June 20, 2012

Most zine makers set out with a simple goal or two: to tell a story, to reveal something personal, to make people laugh.  The Lowbrow Reader, started in 2001 by editor and music writer Jay Ruttenberg, has been doing the latter through eight issues over more than ten years.

And now the Reader has achieved a goal most of us wouldn’t even dream of: a book dealOut now from Drag City, The Lowbrow Reader Reader compiles the best of the best as well as new material only for the book.  Thankfully, our favorite piece has made the cut: an interview with Mo’nique and the other Queens of Comedy about “The 10 Commandments of Sex,” originally commissioned by Glamour Magazine and then deemed too vulgar to print.  (But The Lowbrow Reader disagreed!  Read the interview here.)

In this interview, Ruttenberg talks with the Brooklyn Zine Fest about the pleasures of collaboration, the trials of creating a long-running zine, and why zines turn out best if you really enjoy making them.


Brooklyn Zine Fest: Was a book deal always one of your goals when publishing The Lowbrow Reader as a zine?

Jay Ruttenberg: No. I think around our sixth or seventh issue, we started talking about the prospect of a book (especially once I thought of a title). I may be wrong, but my sense is that starting a zine primarily to get a book deal is a good way to neither get a book deal nor publish a zine. Aspiring authors should take note that the surest way to win a book deal is to star in one’s own network television program.

BZF: Over the last decade, you’ve released eight issues of The Lowbrow Reader.  How did you sift through all of that material to choose what would end up in the book?

JR: We have published eight issues plus a stream of online-only articles, so there was a good amount of material from which to choose. But in the end, winnowing it down was a pretty easy process. It had to flow well as a book — not a time capsule of some zine that nobody had heard of. The Lowbrow Reader Reader features all eight covers, which are illustrated by John Mathias and designed (as with almost all Lowbrow Reader stuff) by Matt Berube. But most of the content comes from our later and, I think, stronger issues. And in the end, we used nothing from the website. Some of it was funny but tied to long-forgotten current events. Who was this George W. Bush guy, and why did we keep making fun of him?

“Starting a zine primarily to get a book deal is a good way to neither get a book deal nor publish a zine.”


BZF: Did you commission the book’s new material specifically to complement/fill out the anthology work?  Or were you just looking for funny, current stuff?

JR: Well, the bulk of the book is taken from the issues. Although the sprinkling of new content, if I may say so myself, is quite sterling. It includes a poem by Shelley Berman, a cartoon by David Berman, and tons of new illustrations by unjustly talented folk like Mike Reddy and Doreen Kirchner, commissioned to accompany articles that originally ran with photographs or as blocks of naked text.

BZF: What has been your experience in the whole book-creation process?

JR: The book was published by Drag City, which is an unusual company. They are a record label that for years has published books and also issued DVDs, theatrical movies, and god knows what else. I’m a big fan of what they do. It’s my longstanding hunch that they work from intuition and taste rather than marketing mumbo jumbo or trend anticipation. All of which is to say, there was no 40-page pitch proposal, and working with them on the book has been a real pleasure.


Photo by Sam Johnson (Jay Ruttenberg is on the right)

BZF: How have you seen the zine/self-publishing landscape change since you started publishing in 2001?  Did people think you were nutty to start a zine at a time when everything seemed to be moving online?  If so, do they think you’re more or less nutty now?

JR: I think 2001 was the last year that you could start a zine without having people roll their eyes and lecture you about how great the Internet is. The ’90s were still in the air; there was even a store in the East Village from which a man in a Hawaiian shirt sold zines. But in a weird way, by now people seem to respect a print publication more—it’s a rarity. The mere fact of a zine’s existence shows some level of dedication.

BZF: What kinds of challenges/rewards have you experienced over the years while working on this zine?

JR: I think it’s always challenging to work on something you really believe in that yields no palpable gain in terms of money or even career mobility. The rewards, however, far outweigh the challenges: First and foremost, collaborating with an army of really talented, funny writers and illustrators; also shepherding a project from start to finish, the only censorship coming in the form of your own incompetence.

“Once I came to terms with the fact that it was not going to make any money—at all, ever—it became liberating and more interesting to work on.”


BZF: Aside from the zine, book, and your paid writing work, what kinds of projects do you work on?

JR: I’ve been working on what I hope will be a second book. I think it is funny, but maybe nobody else will share this opinion.

BZF: Where/how did you distribute the zine over the years?  Any advice for zine makers trying to increase their reach and distribution?

JR: I am probably not the best person to give advice about this, as I do not think distribution has been our forte. We worked with different distributors over the years and I have done a lot myself, too — oftentimes just approaching a store clerk in New York or, if I’m traveling, some other city. My one real droplet of wisdom is not to get too hung up on money. I am, by nature, a pretty cheap person. When I first starting publishing the Lowbrow Reader, I tripped over myself trying to collect every penny that may have been owed to it. Once I came to terms with the fact that it was not going to make any money—at all, ever—and that with each issue I might even lose a hundred bucks or so, it became liberating and more interesting to work on.
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