Meet a Creator: 6 Rapid-Fire Questions with Julia Evans

Julia Evans makes zines. But not just any zines – she makes zines that explain complicated computer programming concepts in simple terms. In 2015, after watching The Punk Singer, a documentary about punk and riot grrrl zine culture, she realized that zines could be a fun way to explain programming concepts:

“I was really excited about a program called strace,” Julia says. “So I wrote the zine with a Sharpie, printed out 200 copies, and gave it out at a conference talk I was giving. Everybody really loved the zine, so I kept going.”

We asked Julia five questions about being a creator. Here’s what she had to say:

Gumroad: Why do you make zines?

Julia: There are a lot of things I’ve learned in my career (strace! How Linux works! Computer networking!) that I feel are both REALLY IMPORTANT, and I think took me WAY TOO LONG TO LEARN. I didn’t learn what a system call was until I’d been programming for 10 years! I didn’t know how DNS worked for probably 12 years! It took me SO LONG to figure out how I was supposed to work with my manager. What’s up with that?! Why did nobody tell me?

And it makes me kinda mad every time I meet an engineer who’s missing some important basic information that would really help them because they’ve never seen a good explanation of it. A lot of these important things are also honestly not that complicated – once you know them, you can explain them to someone else really quickly. For example, I showed someone how HTTP works in a café the other day and explaining the basic idea took, like, 60 seconds!

So, my goal with my zines is to explain things that have a reputation for being “hard” (but are actually easy!) in a simple way. I really believe that most computer things aren’t really that hard, they just need to be explained well.

G: What is the most rewarding part of doing education work? The most challenging part?

J: I love hearing aha moments from my readers, like “Wow, I’ve been working in this field for 20 years, and I never knew bash could do that!” or “Oh, THAT’s how content delivery networks work! That’s so simple!”. To me, teaching is sort of like a puzzle – I really like condensing a complicated tool or idea down to the very few basic points you need to know to get a lot of different kinds of tasks done.

Finding the right thing to write about is always hard – I’m always on the look out for things that people on Twitter are saying they find hard or confusing.

G: How do you get yourself out of a creative rut/writer’s block/feeling unmotivated?

J: The way I wrote Bite Size Linux was I decided I was going to write a comic and post it on Twitter every day in April, no matter what. I didn’t quite manage “every day”, but I wrote 20 comics in 30 days and got the zine published by the end of the month. Making rules like “I need to publish something every day” really helps me.

I’m doing the same thing again right now with a zine about the HTTP protocol – I get up every morning, write a page about how HTTP works, and post it on Twitter.

G: Why Gumroad?

J: I really appreciate how fast publishing a zine on Gumroad is. The last time I published a zine on gumroad, I uploaded the PDF, uploaded the cover, that took maybe 10 minutes. 15 minutes later, somebody had already bought it, printed it out, and tweeted a picture to me of the printed-out zine on their desk.

You can’t get from “I hit publish on the Internet” to “Someone across the country has a print copy on their desk” in 15 minutes with traditional publishing!

G: What have you learned about running a business?

J: Originally, I didn’t sell my zines – I gave them away for free (and the first 5 zines I wrote are still available for free at https://wizardzines.com!). For a long time, I was really scared of selling my work for some reason – I was really used to writing my blog for free, and the idea of charging money for something I’d written felt really weird to me.

It turns out that people are really happy to pay to support great work, and literally nothing that I was afraid of happening has happened. Instead, 2 really nice things have happened: first, I take the work more seriously (I spend more time on it and work harder on the polish), and I’ve also noticed that my readers take the work more seriously (because they paid for it, they’re more likely to actually print out the zines and read them and learn from them, which is what I want!).

At this point I make enough to live on from selling zines which I think is really incredible – for a long time I thought education work in tech wasn’t valued and that it wasn’t possible to make money by teaching people, but I was wrong!

G: Do you have any good tips to share for staying motivated, meeting goals, or boosting sales?

J: I’m a huge fan of doing things one baby step at a time. I’ve been working on this project a little at a time for almost 5 years now, while working full-time as a programmer and also spending a lot of time writing a blog. Here are a few of the things I’ve learned:

  • Start at the intersection of what’s needed and what’s fun. I wrote a zine, printed it out, and gave it away at a conference. People liked it, and I decided that it was fun. This gave me the motivation to write another one.
  • Be willing to put in the time and work. From 2016-2018, I published six more zines. I also ran a tiny Indiegogo campaign to ship 100 zines to people. I handwrote all the addresses and licked all the envelopes myself.  
  • Put in the details that make you stand out and look professional. For the crowdfunding campaign, I got a custom “strace” stamp printed to stamp all the envelopes with. I also started hiring illustrators to illustrate the covers (since I can’t actually draw to save my life!). I registered a custom domain (wizardzines.com) and started a mailing list called “Saturday Comics”.
  • Know your value. I started giving away zines in my talks at every conference I spoke at. But instead of paying to print them myself, which was getting expensive, I asked the conferences to pay for printing instead. Then, in April 2018, I finally decided to start selling my zines instead of just giving them away.
  • Use profits to reinvest in your business. I bought an iPad with the profits from the zine. This was actually a big deal for me because the iPad is a WAY BETTER drawing tool than what I was using before and helped me work a lot faster.