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I like writing for regional magazines. Some writers are all about getting into the big-name magazines, and that’s fine. I like writing for them occasionally, too. However, the bread-and-butter side of non-book income is writing for magazines so I need to keep the assignments and checks coming.
Here’s why I like to write for regional magazines:
- Larger market: If I wanted to write a story for a national history magazine, I have three or four possible markets where I could pitch the article. However, if I look at the local angles of the story, I could at least double that number of market, maybe even triple it. I live in Gettysburg, and there are six magazines that I can think of that directly cover the town.
- Easy to resell articles: I find that it is easy to resell article ideas between regional magazines. The article needs to be refocused a bit to fit the market of the magazine, but probably half of the article can stay the same between the markets. For instance, I wrote an article about the Tuskegee Airmen who were from Maryland for a Maryland magazine. I then repurposed it for both West Virginia and Pennsylvania magazines focusing on the airmen from those state. While the names were different and I had to interview different people, the basic information about the history of the airmen was the same.
- Multiple chances to impress: This ties into there being a larger market of regional magazines. Each of those magazines has a different editor, so you have multiple chances to build professional relationships that can serve you well. Once I have worked with editors for a few stories, they quickly realize I like history so when history ideas up in editorial meetings, they contact me to write the story. Also, if the editor moves on to a new job, they know they can contact me for assignments.
- Good payment: Certainly national magazines pay more, probably around $1 a word, but regional magazines easily pay 25 cents to 75 cents a word. If you repurpose your article idea for four magazines, you’ll probably make more for the overall idea by selling it to regional magazines.
- Unique stories: Because national magazines have a national market, I find that the stories they tend to tell are more generalized. I find that I have plenty of good articles ideas that national magazines wouldn’t be interested in because they are too local. For instance, I recently wrote an article about the year-long hunt for a supposedly escaped gorilla. It was a fun story that local people enjoyed reading about, but I doubt that a national magazine would have cared for it.
- Less competition: Regional magazines have fewer writers competing for the editorial space. That means you have a better chance of being accepted. While national magazines may pay more, if you don’t get the assignment, you won’t be making anything. Not only do I have a better chance of getting the assignment at an individual magazine, but if I’m pitching an idea to multiple magazines, such as the Tuskegee Airmen story, I have a better chance of getting the story accepted somewhere. The odds are against me getting the $1 per word story, but I could easily get 50 cents per word.
All that being said, national magazines still offer advantages.
- More-impressive clippings: When querying magazines for assignment, having national credits is more impressive to editors. That would make them more likely to see my query favorably. I do have some national credits, and I name them in my queries as well as pertinent regional credits.
- Better pay: As I already said, if you can get a national assignment, it will more than likely pay better than regional publication. This is particularly true if you can get an assignment from one of the big-name publications that might pay you even more than $1 per word.
- Author reputation: It doesn’t happen as much now as it used to, but some authors can build a following of readers who are anxious to read their articles.
From my perspective as a full-time freelance writer who needs to earn a living, these are my reasons for favoring regional publications. You may have a different perspective. If it works for you and gets you published, keep it up. If you find it failing you more often than not, try your luck with regional publications. There are some great ones out there. I should know. I write for them.
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I was listening to another indie writer talk about her business model that allows her to be a full-time writer. Besides books, she gets income from selling writing courses, speaking, and affiliate marketing.
That got me thinking about my business model. About 45 percent of my income is from book sales and another 45 percent is from articles. The other 10 percent comes from speaking. While I would love to see the book sales percentage much higher, I don’t think the article writing will ever disappear from my business model.
Article writing for me is obviously an income stream, but my articles are also seeds. I spread them liberally. Some will take root and grow. That growth might be humungous or it might be moderate. Some might sprout and die while others might not sprout at all.
Let me explain.
Many of my articles have become the source for books that I have written or other articles. For instance, my book, Saving Shallmar: Christmas Spirit in a Coal Town, grew out a pair of newspaper columns that I had written years earlier.
Another way that my article seeds have grown is when I gather some of my favorites for a collection.
Many of my articles have spun off other articles. For instance, after I wrote about the Tuskegee Airmen from Maryland for the Maryland Life Magazine, I wrote similar articles for Wonderful West Virginia and Pennsylvania magazines.
Then, of course, the articles help keep my name in front of readers. I have even gotten speaking invitations from my articles.
If I were to give up article writing, I would be giving up a lot of the inspiration for my books. So if I’m going to grow my book business, I’m going to have to do it without cutting into my article writing much.
When I used to work as a reporter, I didn’t have a whole lot of leeway in what I wrote. I had a beat and it was my job to cover as much as I could in that area. A lot of times that meant I was writing about meetings or events that I was not too interested in. I used to come up with some great ideas when I was writing for a newspaper, but I couldn’t write the story because it wasn’t part of my beat.
That’s one of the things that I like about freelance writing. I write about topics that interest me far more often than when I was a reporter. The drawback is that usually I have to be the one to pitch the story to a magazine or other media outlet.
The way to make that pitch is with a query letter. There have been books written about how to write a query letter and they are filled with lots of examples that you can use as patterns. So if you are really having trouble putting a query letter together, I would suggest borrowing one of these books. Check out the list on Amazon here. You can also check out writers’ web sites. One good place to visit is Writer’s Weekly. There are lots of different articles about what to do and not to do when writing a query.
It all comes down to this: The sole purpose of the query letter is to hook the editor, intrigue him or her, and make them want to learn more.
In that respect, a query and your article work the same way. They both need to hook the reader. So that first paragraph is very important. Many times, the first paragraph in my query also ends up being the first paragraph in my article. If it hooked the editor and got me the assignment, then it can hook readers and keep them reading.
After I catch the editor’s attention with a paragraph or two, I lay out the article I am proposing. If I have a title, I’ll add that, but mainly I’ll let the editor know what the article will be about, who I will be interviewing, and any other resources I have that will help paint the picture that I am the person the editor wants writing the article.
The next paragraph is where I lay out my qualifications to write the article. I list pertinent publications that have published my articles and that I have won 25 newspaper writing awards.
Finally, I wrap it up by letting the editor know how to get in touch with me and asking for the assignment.
My queries aren’t long, but I have found that this is the format that works best for me. I have sent hundreds, maybe even thousands, of queries out over the years. This is the format that seems to get me the most assignment.
Check out the query letter books, though, and try a few of the formats that seem to catch your attention and see how they do. I occasionally change my format if I think the subject lends itself better to something different or I see a different type of query that catches my attention. Always look for ways to improve.
A couple other points to consider when writing your query:
- Always check and see if there are writer’s guidelines. Nowadays with just about every publication having a web site, you will often find them there. Even if you don’t you will see current articles and be able to judge the lengths.
- Consider writing for a department when trying to break into a new market. Editors will usually assign large feature articles to writers whom they know will deliver. If you are trying to break into a new market, pitch an article for one of the magazine’s departments. These are smaller pieces and less important to the magazine, which means the editor has less risk by assigning it to a new writer.
- Address the query to a specific editor. Unless otherwise stated in the writer’s guidelines, find out the name of the editor who handles the type of article that you are proposing. This can be found by looking at the magazine’s masthead, which lists the magazine’s staff.
- Use only published clips. If a magazine asks for clipping, use only published clippings. Scan them into your computer and attach them to your e-mail query. If you don’t have published clippings, then simply don’t attach anything.
I’ve written about the pros and cons of freelance writing from the writer’s perspective in other blogs. That all still holds true if you are considering writing on a freelance basis. However, the person paying the bill needs to find benefit in using freelance writers, too. Employers don’t care that you can select your own projects or have a flexible schedule. They want quality work at a good price with as little hassle as possible.
Part of being successful as a freelancer is understanding what role you as a freelance writer play for with an employer. How you help them? Knowing that, you can fulfill their needs better and improve their satisfaction. This allows you to more easily retain those businesses as clients and get more work from them.
Magazines like to use freelancers because they provide new sources of ideas and perspectives. If a magazine uses full-time writers, it might only be able to hire a handful, but if it uses freelance writers, the number of potential writers is limitless. The editor can pick and choose the most-promising stories from a large pool of possibilities. So not only does the magazine get more new ideas, the editors can choose from the best of new ideas.
I used to do a lot of stories for a now-defunct magazine called Maryland Life. As the name suggests, the magazine’s coverage area was the entire state of Maryland. If the magazine had had to hire full-time writers to cover the entire state, it would have been too expensive. By using freelance writers, they don’t have to pay benefits, which can account for around 30 percent more above a full-time employee’s salary.
It can be simpler to hire a freelance writer. The company pays the writer a set fee for the article and the writer is responsible for dealing with paying the employment taxes on that amount.
In general, a freelance writer would charge less than an agency a company might hire for public relations or advertising. They can also get a higher level of expertise if they search for a freelance writer with the skills they want.
These are just a few things to keep in mind. While you become a freelance writer because of the way it benefits you, the only way you can stay a freelance writer over the long run is if you find ways to benefit your clients.
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I just finished reading The Renegade Writer: A Totally Unconventional Guide to Freelance Writing Success by Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell and found it very useful. How do I know? I made a lot of notes to follow up on.
This is a book for magazine writers, which I don’t come across too often. It takes you through the entire gamut of the magazine writing business from breaking in to collecting on unpaid invoices. It is also easy to understand, which allows you to get more from the book.
The format of the book was very easy to follow. You have chapters that group “rules” by subject. I guess the rules could be classified as the consensus thinking. I think if I had to define it idea behind the book is that there’s no one right way to do things. The authors list each rule that should be broken and why it can be broken. They also include plenty of anecdotal stories to illustrate their points, too.
I found that even when I didn’t agree with breaking the rule, the explanation often had me seeing how breaking the rule could be useful. Sometimes, I even changed my mind about breaking the rule.
In between each chapter, there’s a profile on a renegade writer. I didn’t find these particularly interesting, but I can see how some writers might find it useful. You can look at these profiles as rule breaking in action.
As I said, I bookmarked quite a few rules to follow up on and decide if I wanted to try breaking them. I may be too set in my ways to change on some things and other things are working fine for me without breaking the rule.
What I found amusing when I read is how many rules I am apparently already breaking in my magazine writing work. I didn’t think about these things being rules when I started freelancing. They were simply changes I made because they worked.
That’s what this book does well. It causes the writer to think about why they are doing something. If you can defend why you are doing with something other than that’s the way it’s done, then it is probably a rule you shouldn’t break. If you are only conducting your freelancing in a certain way because that’s what you were taught, then maybe you should try breaking a rule or two to see if it jumpstarts your business.
When I started out as a writer, rejection letters were commonplace and usually they were simply form letters. I got a sense of dread seeing them arrive in the mail. I didn’t want to read them, but I had to see if it was a rejection or acceptance.
I knew my writing was starting to get better when the editors started adding little notes to the rejection letters like “Almost” or “Keep trying”. Then the rejection letters started becoming specific to my submission.
Finally, I started getting those treasured acceptance letters. Nowadays, I get more acceptances than rejections and I even get editors asking me to take on assignment.
That doesn’t mean that I still don’t get rejection letters. They don’t bother me, though. I’ve developed ways of dealing with them over the years that work well at keeping me focused on the positive.
Keep things in the mail
When I started writing, I would send out a short story and then wait for three months before I heard back a rejection. I spent those months wondering and worrying about what the editor was going to say.
After I had a few stories written, I got into the habit of not worrying about the stories that were in the mail but finding markets for the new stories that I was writing.
As soon as a story would come back in the mail, I would simply send it back out to the next market. By not having to focus on the rejection and let it get to me, I started focusing on the future and finding new markets. With dozen of queries in the mail at any one time, I don’t have time to focus on a single rejection.
Have a list of markets
After I send a story out to the magazine I most wanted to see it published in, I would create a list of additional markets. When I would get a rejection letter, I would simply prepare the story for the next market on my list.
By keeping a list of my top five or ten markets, I didn’t have to look at an unsold story sitting on my desk.
I always have a new market to send my stories to so I don’t worry about a rejection.
Enjoy positive comments
When you do start getting personalized comments on your rejection letters or even personalized rejections, pay attention to the comments. Some of them can help you improve your writing. If the comments are positive, enjoy them. Let them inspire you to write more and write better.
If an editor is interested enough to write you something personal, it means that he or she is interested in your writing. It is a market worth trying again.
Keep writing to remind you why you do it
Don’t let an editor’s opinion make you doubt your writing ability. Write because you love it and want to do it. Keep at it. This is probably the best way to keep from feeling down because of rejection. Write because you love it. Write because you want to do better.
When I started out freelancing full-time, I sought out as many different clients and magazines as I could. I wanted to get the assignment. I wasn’t so focused on getting repeat business. Looking back, I probably should have done more to build stronger relationships with those editors and businesspeople to get repeat business as well.
It’s hard to go for both breath, which I define as the lots of assignments from different publications and businesses, and depth, which I define as multiple assignments with the same business or publication.
The advantage of going for breadth is that you don’t have all your eggs in one basket. If one magazine ends publication, it won’t cripple your income. The disadvantage is that you are going to have to do a lot more marketing. If you’re like me, you didn’t become a freelance writer to have to market yourself all the time.
The advantage of going for depth is that you create a semi-steady stream of income and , if you’re lucky, the client will come to you with assignments. The disadvantage is that it will hurt financially if the client stops using your services for any reason.
Over the years, I did manage to create depth with some magazines and businesses, but when I look over my list of clients and publications, I see more that I should have been building a relationship with. Now that I have a list of over 110 publications that I’ve had articles in, I try and build more repeat business with my favorites or the ones that pay more. This still allows me to add a few new titles to the master list.
My recommendation for freelancers starting out is to apply the 80/20 rule with 80 percent of your effort being new clients and 20 percent being repeat. Then begin shifting it by about 10 percent each year until in your seventh year of business 80 percent of your work is repeat business.
I thought submission management software was supposed to make my life easier. I sure haven’t seen signs of it yet.
For any non-writers out there, submission management software helps you:
- track the editors you’ve got articles/stories with
- know the status of those article/stories
- alert you to what you need to follow-up on
Some programs can do more, but this would be the core functions for all of them.
I am now juggling about 125 active article ideas that I have to keep track of and this doesn’t even count any short stories, novels or copywriting project I may be marketing. In the past, I have lost track on some of those projects. I haven’t missed any important deadlines, but I have forgotten about story ideas that I needed to remind an editor about.
I did my research and after some careful consideration made my first pick. The program was a web download, which I thought would make my life easier. I could be up and running in an hour.
Here are the snags I hit:
- I had trouble accessing my PayPal account from their web site.
- I had to wait half a day for an access code.
- The program wouldn’t load on my computer.
I probably spend at least 2 hours trying to load it before finding out from the company that an installer problem with my type of system hadn’t been overcome yet. The company was quick to give me refund, but I had wasted a few hours with nothing to show for it.
My second choice had a had been taken off the market until the company could overcome a similar type of problem it was running into like the first company.
My third choice was a free program called Sonar. It’s pretty basic, but it is free so I can’t complain. It is also easy to use.
Now, I’m faced with entering all of my markets, article and submission info. Like I said, I’ve got 125 active article ideas so it will take awhile, though I can see how the software help me once I’m up to date.
Sounds a bit like Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
I’ll think I’ll go eat some porridge.
I find myself looking forward to 2011. This year marks the beginning of the sesquicentennial remembrances of the Civil War. States have put together a lot of plans that will be unfolding over the next four years to remember their roles in the war and the battles fought in their states.
For a writer who enjoys writing about history, it looks like it will be a boon for my business. I’ve already picked up two article series that will span at least a year and a number of stand-alone articles that I will be writing about the Civil War. I will have one, maybe two, Civil War-theme non-fiction books published in the next four years. Plus, there editors still considering other Civil War ideas I submitted.
One thing is for sure: I will know a lot more about the Civil War by 2015 than I do now. I mean I know the overview of the war and some of the stories that I’ve written about in the past. I’ll be digging a lot deeper now, though. I’ll be writing about the soldiers who fought and the people who stayed behind. I’ll give familiar battles new perspectives and find out more about little-known skirmishes and battles. I’ll even look at modern-day ties to the war.
It’s one of the reasons I like my work. I never stop learning.
Since I live in Gettysburg, I imagine I’ll also get an interesting perspective on life during the Civil War. There will be more re-enactors than usual in town in the summer, particularly in 2013 when the Battle of Gettysburg is re-enacted on the 150th anniversary of the battle. Living history is always interesting for a history writer to see.