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Five Deadly Magazine, Website and Newsletter Publishing Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them)

By Cheryl Woodard, Updated March 2008 [PRINT VERSION]

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.

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.

2. Underestimating your competition.

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.

First, learn everything you can about each competitor. Study their Web content, print publications, e-letters, media kits and their subscription promotions. Read their press releases.

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.

3. Trying to do it all by yourself.

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.

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 following people:

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.

4. Thinking only about the next issue, not your future.

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.

You can easily avoid this mistake by making a simple long-range plan:

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.

5. Taking money from the wrong people.

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.

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.

How to beat the odds . . .

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.

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 publications. Look for it in your local library, well-stocked bookstores, or buy it right now from


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.


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