In a recent issue of our newsletter, a reader asked: "I started a writing course a few months ago and I am stuck on one of my assignments. I need to get either a letter and a filler item published. I did the letter -- eventually. But as to the filler, I've tried and tried but without success. Do any magazines even accept fillers anymore? Does anyone actually write them?"
It was clear from our readers' responses that, today, many writers have no idea what fillers are, whether magazines (other than, say, Reader's Digest) still buy them, or how to go about selling them.
So let's take a moment to fill in the blanks on the question of fillers -- what they are, where you can sell them, and why no one seems to know.
The first question is the easiest to answer. No one seems to know what fillers are -- because they are an outmoded concept. Back when I started out as a freelance writer, lots of markets claimed that they accepted "fillers." Lots of articles and books on "how to get started as a writer" urged fledgling writers, like myself, to write "fillers" as a great way to "break in." Even then, no one seemed to spend much time explaining what fillers were, but everyone seemed to consider it just about "gospel" that this was a great way for new writers to get published.
Folks, that was 30 years ago.
To understand why no one seems to know, today, what fillers are or where you can sell them, it's important to know what they are. And to do that, you have only to look at the name: "Filler." Fillers were originally designed to do exactly what the name implies: Fill up space. Back in the "olden" days (again, 20-30 years ago), editors sent their articles off to the typesetter. The typesetter manually retyped all that information, and printed it out in long, long strips. These strips were the width of the publication's columns, whatever that width happened to be.
The strips then went to the magazine's art director, who would paste them up on "boards" (big sheets about the weight of greeting card stock, marked with lines like graph paper; for magazines, each sheet accommodated a two-page spread). Armed with the typeset copy and any photos or illustrations that were going to be included in the article, the art director "laid out" the issue.
Sometimes, articles would end up too long for the allotted space, which is why, when you finally saw your piece in print, you'd discover that entire paragraphs had been cut from it. But quite often, articles would be too short. You'd have a few inches left over. And that's where fillers came in. Editors would stock up on short pieces, such as anecdotes, light poetry, recipes, tips, "household hints," etc., that could be plugged into these holes. Often, they'd be typeset and ready to go. The art director would simply rummage around for a piece of "filler" that was precisely the right number of inches to fit into the gap. (Content really didn't matter at this point!)
Back in the days when I worked at Dog Fancy (almost 25 years ago), we still used typesetters and we occasionally used fillers -- but even then, fillers were heading the way of the dinosaur (and typesetters would soon follow). By this time, it was much more appealing to simply stick in an extra photo, if we had one -- because it was no longer so horribly expensive to use images. If we didn't have a photo, quite often the space would be filled with a "service ad" -- either an ad for one of the publication's other products, or an ad for a charity. This saved money all around, because you didn't have to pay for service ads or photos that had been part of the author's original package.
Today, it's even less likely for a magazine or newspaper to have a gap, because layout is done entirely on computers. All you have to do is tweak an image, increase the font size of your headline, add a subhead, and your space is filled. The problem of "leftover" gaps is history -- and that is why there is no longer a large market for what used to be known as "fillers."
These days, "fillers" tend to appear only in specific columns. News round-ups are a common place to find fillers, though they're not usually a great place to break in, because publications get most of that information free through press releases. Reader's Digest, of course, is famous for its humor columns, but the competition is fierce. Another place to look is some of the women's tabloids that you find at checkout counters, which often run lots of very short nuggets, like a round-up of herbs that can prevent dry skin or something along those lines. Often, too, fillers aren't known by that name; here at Writing-World, for example, the occasional humor piece that we run would officially qualify as a "filler."
If you look in the Writer's Market today, you'll see very few publications offering to buy "fillers." Gone are the days when this offered an easy "foot in the door" for new writers. And fillers were never a great way to build your publications list, because, again, they sat in the file until a gap of the right size appeared, which could be months or even years.
But here's the bottom line -- the part that concerns me most. And that is that there are would-be writers taking classes from instructors who do not know this. Any instructor who believes that fillers are still being regularly published in today's market, or that they are a viable tool for "breaking in," is out of touch. Any instructor who makes "selling a filler" a required homework project is doing a disservice to his or her students. Yes, fillers can still be sold -- but it is no longer a matter of sending a favorite recipe off to a women's magazine and waiting until they need to plug a gap. "Fillers" today are just as competitive as any other writing market -- not the easy answer for "beginners."
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