Five Deadly Magazine, Website and Newsletter Publishing Mistakes
(and How to Avoid Them)
By Cheryl Woodard, Updated March 2008 [PRINT
I guess publishing looks easy from
the outside. That's why so many people launch new magazines, newsletters and content websites
without any previous publishing experience. Sadly, most
newcomers quickly fail. My mission is to help people succeed
at publishing. So I've been looking at the worst mistakes people
make hoping I can warn help new publishers avoid.
1. Ignoring what your audience needs.
Obviously, you need an audience if you want to be a publisher,
but a surprising number of people don't bother to study their
audience before they create their publication. They concentrate
on what they want to write, not on what their audience wants
to read. Avoiding this mistake is simple: Before you start publishing,
learn what you can about your readers. 2. Underestimating your competition.
First, picture your readers. How old are they? How literate? How much money
do they have? How are they spending their time? Why are they interested
in your subject? How much (or how little) do they already know about
it? What motivates them to read: personal development, financial gain,
recreation? That is, what are they going to gain by reading your publication?
Next, get your audience to talk to you. There are lots of low-cost
ways to study your prospective readers, especially online. If you're already
in print, then run fax polls and surveys in your publication. Post polls on your website and ask for reader comments. Give your prospective readers every opportunity to tell
you about themselves.
Then, study your competitors. What's missing from them? What could
you do better? No matter how many other websites and print publications are already out
there, you can usually find a unique and valuable editorial niche,
especially if you thoroughly understand your readers.
Finally, after you get readers talking to you, and you train yourself
to listen to them, sit down to create your publication — one
that suits them.
When a field is hot, there will be lots of publishers jumping
into it. Before you leap, figure out who you'll be competing
against and how you are going to deal with them.3. Trying to do it all by yourself.
First, learn everything you can about each competitor. Study their Web content, print publications, e-letters,
media kits and their subscription promotions. Read their
Next, figure out how you can distinguish your publication from the
others. Some examples: target a different audience, publish in a different
format (like a newsletter instead of a magazine, or an e-zine instead
of a printed publication), or establish a unique editorial mission
(if theirs is late-breaking news, then yours could be in-depth analysis).
Finally, be realistic about your resources. If you're competing against
Goliath, then think like David.
Many small publishers survive by picking a market that is too little
to attract major publishing companies. Some of them are able create
a tiny niche they can keep to themselves. For example, instead of a
general gardening publication, make one for hybrid rhododendron breeders.
A narrowly targeted audience like that is cheaper to reach and easier
to hold onto. And that makes them more profitable in the long run.
Honestly, I think people try to publish all alone because they're
afraid to let other people challenge their opinions. That's a
deadly mistake for two reasons: first, your ideas always improve
when thoughtful people challenge them. And second, publications
are too much work for one person to handle alone.
4. Thinking only about the next issue, not your future.
Lone publishers either burn out from the work load or they simply run out of
good ideas. As a result, I've seen very promising publications fail just because
the publisher didn't include other people in the enterprise. Even if you can't
afford to hire employees, you can include experienced people in your business.
The key is deciding that you want help and then looking for it. Consider the
a. Vendors (like your printer or your computer dealer) can often help you improve
productivity if you ask them a direct question like, "Is there a better
way to do this?" Vendors can also help you find other qualified vendors,
consultants and employees.
b. Other publishers can save you lots of learning time by sharing their ideas
with you. Look for opportunities to befriend other publishers, especially those
who don't directly compete with you.
c. Industry experts who speak at conferences or write articles in journals
are often much more available than you might think. Look them up and
ask them to contribute to your publication. These other voices will
add some sparkle to your publication.
d. Professional consultants, freelance contributors, and outside experts
can provide valuable advice and support for a reasonable cost. Somebody
out there already knows how to do what you're trying to do. When you
run into a publishing problem that you don't know how to solve, instead
of trying to figure it out alone, look for someone else who might already
know the answers.
Lots of people start their publishing company on a whim. They
publish a first issue — just like that — and then
if readers buy their first issue, they make another one. And
so on. They live from issue to issue, never thinking beyond the
next feature article or printing bill. Then, something happens
that they didn't anticipate and they have to quit or give up.
Sadly, I've seen
people quit even when their problems are relatively easy to solve
just because they had no contingency plans. 5. Taking money from the wrong people.
You can easily avoid this mistake by making a simple long-range
First, study the publishing business by looking at the life cycles
and business practices of other publications. Read the books recommended in my bookstore for some excellent insight into the publishing business. How long does it take
to achieve profitability? What kind of resources do publishers need?
What are their revenue opportunities? Figure out what you can reasonably
expect to accomplish over the years, set some goals, and then consider
different ways to meet them.
Next, gather very specific information about your own publishing ideas.
How much will it cost to produce and promote a publication or website like
the one you plan to publish? How much can you charge for subscriptions
and ads, given the competitors in your market? Who will write, design,
edit and illustrate your publication issue-after-issue? Gathering concrete
cost and revenue information will force you to make sensible decisions
about managing your resources.
Finally, consider some contingency plans. What will you do if the advertisers
don't buy your idea as quickly as you'd hoped they would? How will
you keep publishing if you lose a key contributor, vendor or investor?
Having thought about these contingencies, you won't be devastated just
because something unexpected happens to you.
Sometimes publishers are so hungry for startup money that they
take money with too many strings attached to it. Usually, their
publication suffers. Beware of the wrong advertisers, for example.
You can become dependent on them, at the expense of your editorial
integrity. For example, Martha Stewart has never allowed canned
food ads in her magazine, Martha Stewart Living, because she
doesn't uses canned foods in her recipes. Of course, Martha doesn't
need anybody else's money because she's got plenty of her own.
But suppose you didn't have Martha's resources and you did have
Campbells and Del Monte pleading to buy space in your magazine.
If you accepted their ads, before you know it you would be slipping
their products into your recipes. I guarantee it.How to beat the odds . . .
Here's another example of "tainted" money — accepting
investment money from investors who will try to push you around. For
example, if your lawyer uncle is going to look over your shoulder and
second-guess every decision you make (even though he knows absolutely
nothing about the publishing business), don't let him invest in your
publication — even if you could really use his money. If he pressures
you to run your business like a law firm instead of a publishing company,
his money could wind up costing you much more than it's worth.
You can avoid taking tainted money in two ways. First, spend as little
as possible so that you retain your financial independence as long
as you can. Plan ahead, be cheap, and manage your cash very carefully
so that you need as little outside financing as possible. Second, when
you do need to borrow money or take on investors, look for people who
match your editorial and business goals very closely and hold out for
them. Be choosey. You can find investors who bring more than money
to the table if you look for them. For example, get people with publishing
experience to invest, or find lenders who are also influential participants
in your market niche. Blending money with influence or expertise is
a very smart move for an inexperienced publisher.
More than 75% of the new magazines launched every year are gone
within three years. And websites fail even more quickly. If you want to beat those odds, learn as
much as you can about publishing before you jump into it. When
I started PC Magazine back in 1981, there was no help available.
But now you can learn a lot about publishing from people who've
done it before.Questions?
I recommend my
book for first-time publishers. You can read it in one
weekend, and you'll learn everything you need to know about starting
for it in your local library, well-stocked bookstores, or buy it right now
Want to know more about starting magazines or newsletters, please
feel free to email
your questions to me. I work with magazine and newsletter
publishers of every variety, and the chances are good that I
can help you too.