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Smells Like Zine Spirit 

Factsheet 5 Publisher Seth Friedman comes under attack from some of his own

Wednesday, Aug 27 1997
Nothing corrupts thriving pop subcultures faster than a big wet kiss from corporate America. This year, it's zines' turn for the deadly em-brace, with all the divisiveness that would be expected.

Publishing houses of all sizes are releasing books related to or inspired by zines: anthologies, how-to zine guides, and zine spinoffs. But the transition from underground, low-budget ephemera to mainstream, yet still pretty low-budget book projects has created turmoil and suspicion among the most prominent publishers in zinedom.

Two longtime zine publishers are at the center of the infighting: Seth Friedman, San Francisco-based publisher of Factsheet 5, which bills itself as "the definitive guide of the zine revolution," and Chicago-based Chip Rowe, whose Chip's Closet Cleaner, published since 1989, has won him a wide following.

Their low-key rivalry erupted into a full-blown feud with the recent release of their competing zine anthologies from different publishing houses. The conflict has inspired a third leading zine publisher, Ben Is Dead's Darby Romeo (who also has a book contract), to write a zine laying out the details behind the bitter affair. In her soon-to-be-released Socially Fucking Retarded: The Killzine Zine, she lambastes Friedman for attacking Rowe and spreading accusations that Rowe and she have sold out to corporate interests.

Friedman won his credibility for salvaging Factsheet 5 4 1/2 years ago after founder Mike Gunderloy burned out on publishing the quarterly, which he started as a mimeographed handout in 1982. In the zine world, Factsheet 5, with a circulation of 16,000, is a looming presence; each issue provides capsule summaries of more than a thousand zines, giving Friedman the power to vastly expand the minuscule audience -- rarely more than 1,000 readers each -- that most zines enjoy. (Among the dozens who have worked for Friedman, this writer free-lanced for Factsheet 5 in 1995.) As its best-known arbiter, Friedman has become the de facto mainstream mouthpiece for what passes for zine culture.

Rowe has a slightly more mainstream pedigree. In addition to publishing the well-put-together Chip's Closet Cleaner and the This Is the Spinal Tap Zine, he scouts zines for the Readings section of Harper's magazine and injects zine coverage into Playboy, where he is an editor.

Although Friedman has given differing accounts of the contracting process, here is what apparently happened when he and Rowe began looking at publishing books: On April 2, 1996, Rowe signed a contract with Henry Holt for a zine book he'd been pitching, an anthology of zine articles on pop culture. A month prior, he says he made a point of letting Friedman know his intentions; Friedman told him in turn that he'd been shopping a zine book with an even larger theme. Both say that neither saw a conflict.

Only after Friedman scored his contract weeks later and started contacting potential contributors did the truce begin to break down. (Typical of the lag time for zines, which are by definition underfinanced and understaffed, a year later, the conflict is still topical in a few zines.)

"I'm moving along, doing my thing, and all of the sudden people are saying, 'Seth says you stole his idea,' " says Rowe.

In August of last year, Friedman went further, complaining to the alt.zines Internet newsgroup, a widely read zine forum, that Rowe was signed on by Henry Holt specifically to compete with Friedman's Crown Books anthology.

In an April 24, 1997, interview with online magazine Tripod, Friedman accused Rowe of "back-stabbing." Behind the scenes, though, Friedman was displaying cutthroat behavior of his own. He complained to other zine publishers that Rowe had merely culled the pages of Factsheet 5, specifically the Editor's Choice section that highlights the best zines published in the previous three months -- an honor bestowed on Chip's Closet Cleaner in 1993.

Friedman also tried to pressure some zinesters into ignoring agreements they'd made with Rowe and signing up with him. Ralph Coon, publisher of The Last Prom, says Friedman asked him to renege on his promise to allow Rowe to reprint Coon's article on the history of driver's education films and sign a contract with Friedman. Friedman denies it.

Until now, Rowe has kept quiet in public. He says he didn't want to respond to Friedman for fear of starting a dispute. As he saw it, Friedman was weaving an "absurd" conspiracy. "A feud is two-way," he says. Friedman, too, sounds leery of outright confrontation. After spending 45 minutes in an interview taking shots at Rowe, Friedman said he "thinks zine feuds are a waste of time" and he wishes the matter would pass.

It's not likely.
Within the next month, Darby Romeo, well-regarded among zinesters as the longtime publisher of Ben Is Dead, will release her special, one-off 80-page zine that, with characteristic obsessiveness, attacks Friedman as a hypocrite and egomaniac and describes how Romeo was caught in the crossfire of Friedman and Rowe's tiff. (Romeo provided an advance copy for this article.)

Socially Fucking Retarded: The Killzine Zine details the foibles of a summer 1996 publicity road trip for the Killzinesters, a group of publishers who were promoting their own zines and their online zine-making resource (

Romeo says Friedman tried to sabotage the Killzinesters tour because it was partly sponsored by Rowe's publishing company -- with a $500 contribution. When a volunteer Killzinester publicist called Friedman for help in promoting the tour, he denounced it as a ruse for promoting Rowe. Jennifer Brannon, the publicist, says Friedman also vowed to squelch the tour's San Francisco appearance. Friedman, who eventually attended the event, denies it.

Just before the tour stopped here last year, Friedman railed against Ben Is Dead, which has a circulation of 18,000, and local Bunnyhop, another participant. Epicenter, the Valencia Street punk-rock collective originally scheduled for the tour stop, canceled, citing "corporate" links. And in a short article about the cancellation in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Friedman denounced the event as "much more about publicity, and more about making profits." Friedman's own corporate links -- with Random House, which owns Crown Books -- went unremarked.

In the past five years of publishing, Friedman's had few convincing detractors; his critics were usually fringe players in the already marginalized world of zine publishing. Romeo is Friedman's first credible critic -- though she readily admits her motives aren't completely pure.

"After the slagging Seth got us in S.F. via the Guardian and screwing our Epicenter event, my main interest for including this section in Killzine was to publicly state what exactly happened from our perspective," she wrote in an e-mail message. "Besides, it's funny.

About The Author

Jeff Stark


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