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The Surviving Small Press: Starting a Magazine
by Tom Person
Since Fall I've noticed many of the requests that come in for sample newsletters are from people either thinking about or actually getting started in magazine publishing. The most frequent comment they make is there isn't much information available on running a magazine, and they want advice, so this seemed like a good time to touch on periodicals again.
Publishing a magazine is a very different animal than publishing books, though they can easily go hand in hand. Books can be compiled from the magazine, and the magazine can support the books, bringing in not only a consistent revenue, but keeping you out front in your field as well.
To do it right, magazine publishing is less a one-person operation than self-publishing books. There are more hats to wear. You've got submissions coming in that have to be answered, schedules to keep, and most magazines rely on selling advertising or obtaining grants for operating capital. Not to mention carrying on a long term relationship with printers, distributors, and probably a fulfillment house.
A magazine also requires a well thought out commitment to sticking with it until it starts to pay off. That can mean carrying expenses for a year or more until it starts paying for itself. The single biggest problem I've seen with magazine startups is they put everything into the first issue expecting it to sell when really you end up giving the magazine away for several issues.
My advice is always to work on a someone else's magazine before starting your own. For pay or as an intern, either way you are going to save yourself the time and expense of a hundred mistakes, large and small. You'll have a much better idea what you are getting yourself into, and what you need to do to make your own magazine work.
The kind of magazine you work for isn't as important as just getting your feet wet in the day to day business, though it would naturally be preferable to work on a magazine similar to the one you envision starting up.
There are at least four types of magazines based on audience and funding. The simplest to start and toughest to sell is literary. A very successful literary magazine will have a circulation of a few thousand, but most have a couple hundred. You will be overrun with submissions while fighting an uphill battle for subscribers. The reason: There are just too many literary magazines, and too much variety, for any to build a substantial circulation.
Literary magazines, the ones that can afford promotion and longevity, rely on grants from agencies, corporations, or patrons for funding. They often also sell advertising, publish books, hold contests charging reading fees, and sponsor community events.
The first thing the na´ve beginning literary publisher assumes is their writers will become subscribers. Forget it. Since they usually receive payment in the form of contributor copies, and they are sending work off to dozens of magazines at all times, this just doesn't happen very often.
Another kind of magazine publishing that has become popular is the trade magazine. In this case, you build a circulation within a given industry by giving away free subscriptions, then the magazine is paid for purely by advertisers who want to reach the people on your mailing list.
For instance, there is a trade magazine for magazine publishers called Circulation Management. Anyone publishing a magazine should get on this mailing list. Call 1-800-775-3777 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to get a subscription. It is a slick magazine with a lot of ads, but very good articles on magazine circulation issues. The magazine is free to anyone involved in magazine circulation. You just fill out a form that tells how large your company is and what your responsibilities are (i.e., the person who makes decisions about buying CM's advertisers' products).
At the other end of the spectrum are magazines that rely solely on subscribers. These are by and large newsletters. The production values are minimal, but then the subscribers are paying strictly for information. For a regular magazine to subsist on subscribers alone, the subscription price could not be competitive.
The vast majority of magazines rely on a combination of advertising and subscriptions for revenue, with a balance set between the going market price for subscriptions versus the amount of advertising subscribers will put up with. And this is where most of the start-up magazines I've heard from fit in.
The ideal mix for a magazine is to write about a product subscribers will also want to buy through advertisements in the magazine. One of my favorite examples is Chile Pepper, a magazine published independently in Fort Worth, Texas.
It covers restaurants serving and recipes for cooking spicy foods, and most of the advertisers sell designer hot sauces and other items related to cooking those foods. Chile Pepper hits on all the requirements for a successful magazine:
Other ways any magazine or newsletter can make money is through renting their mailing lists, publishing books that either grow out of their content or are compilations of articles from the magazine, and other ancillary products like T-shirts and software.
There are many types of magazines, and there are many ways they can make money, but even more so than in self-publishing a book, this is a serious and unforgiving business. It can be fun, fulfilling, and a money making enterprise, but also demands a lot of work and financial risk.
The most important assets you have in the magazine business are your mailing lists. The number and demographics of your subscribers are what sell advertising and make your lists worth renting. Lists have to be kept clean (free of expired addresses) and, as you grow they need to be audited to qualify for special postal rates and for you to sell advertising. A fulfillment house can handle all that, but then you need to watch over them, too.
There are not a lot of books or resources to find out about magazine publishing, like there are for book publishing. Apprenticeship is really the only way to get hands on experience without putting yourself at risk. Do lots of research on the competition, get someone to teach you the ropes, and have a business plan to get you through the start-up period.
Look at who is advertising and ask the magazine for their ad rates. Make it your business to find out everything you can about them, and use that information to build your own business and marketing plans.
If necessary, start small with a less slick, more information packed version of your magazine. Then as time goes on, add the more expensive touches. The nice thing about periodical publishing is it evolves.
A guy I worked with at a big corporation in the 1980's started a little newsletter called Boardwatch out of his desk to cover the growing interest in computer billboards. It is now a full color magazine you can pick up at Barnes and Noble, but for years it stayed small as his reputation, resources, subscription list, and ability to attract advertisers grew. Then, when the time was right, he quit his job and he and his family have been living well off the magazine ever since.
The lesson to be taken from him is patience. He was passionate about his subject and built a small, but growing, number of subscribers who were willing to stick with him. As he grew, the computer companies heard about him and took notice. They began sending him equipment and buying advertising.
Check out magazines like yours. Find out what their circulation is. This is available in Writer's Market and other directories, and it's published at least once a year in the magazine to comply with postal regulations if they have a second class permit, along with a breakdown of how many copies are sent to paid subscribers, how many are sent out free, how many are sent to newsstands (and how many are returned), and how many are kept for office use or trashed.
I've seen a lot of small press magazines that started up either too grandiose or with a lot of assumptions, but no clear plan. They seldom make it past the first couple issues. There are far too many magazines being published for this to be a business for the timid or faint-hearted. But with planning, research, training, and above all patience, it can be done.
Magazine Publishing Resources on the Web
There isn't nearly as much information about magazine publishing online as there is about book publishing, but here are some sites worth looking into.
The Magazine Publishers of America, at www.magazine.org, includes the Magazine Handbook, a collection of articles and studies on magazine publishing, circulation and editing, and the American Society of Magazine Editors.
The Periodical Publishers Association (www.ppa.co.uk) is a British site with information about careers and training, publishing news, and articles on all aspects of the magazine publishing business.
The Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) certifies circulation of over 3,000 magazines around the world. Their site is at www.accessabc.com.
BPA International (www.bpai.com) provides independent verification of business magazine circulation and web site traffic.
The Publishing Business Group is a consulting firm for magazine, newsletter, and e-zine publishers. Their site, www.publishingbiz.com, features articles, books on magazine publishing, and an online forum where you can post questions, find answers, and find out what other publishers have to say.
Publishinghelp.com is a publishing consultant's site that offers special reports on magazine publishing issues.
The Newsletter & Electronic Publishers Association is at www.newsletters.org. They offer numerous services through membership and there is a substantial links page to information about newsletter publishing.