You've written for consumer magazines, but you'd like to break into trade magazines. That may not be a bad move -- it'll add heft to your portfolio. It'll also expose you to high-level contacts in whatever industry you cover. Yet, you may have some concerns that keep you from going down that path:
The answers to these questions may surprise you. First, understand that trade magazines are narrow in scope. Also, they tend to be technical because their audience consists of trade practitioners. Yet, you don't have to be an expert to get published. Let's look at why that is, and how you can get started as an author in the trade of your choice.
Trade magazines, as the name implies, are about business. In fact, the largest trade magazine publisher recently changed its name from Intertec Publishing to Primedia Business. If you have a particular business interest -- whether that's raising beef bulls or wiring electrical systems -- a trade magazine covers it.
Trade magazines are not professional journals. The professions (e.g., law, medicine, accounting) produce journals that are simply too technical and too complex for a layperson to write for. The trades, however, are different. Also, while professional journals rely heavily on theoretical content and long articles, trade magazines focus on the basics and short articles.
Because of this characteristic of trade magazines, you don't need expertise in a particular trade to be an author. If you have that expertise, you can present yourself as a subject matter expert. If you don't have that expertise, you must find a subject matter expert to represent.
Trade magazines look for two types of experts. One is a vendor or manufacturer, and you are not likely to snag an author of this ilk unless you go through a PR agency. The other one is a consultant or independent expert, and that's the person a beginner should seek out.
Where do you find these people? That's where trade involvement comes in. An all-purpose writer won't survive in the trade magazine arena. But, a writer who hobnobs with folks in a specific industry -- at trade shows, trade organization meetings, and the occasional technical seminar -- will have the credibility and background to thrive.
If you don't know anybody in the trade you're targeting, use a search engine or the local Yellow Pages to come up with a list of trade organizations and local chapters. If the trade doesn't have an online presence, visit a supply house (distributor) and start your search for an expert there. Many distributors have their own publications and may provide you with experience ghost-writing for them.
Get on as many industry e-mail lists as you can -- especially those of local chapters of trade organizations. Attend local meetings and get to know some folks. Ask what trade magazines they read. Mention that you are a writer who'd like to work with someone who doesn't like to write but would like to be published. You can probably convince an organization's newsletter editor to give you a free mention because you aren't selling anything -- just providing an opportunity.
Once you have an expert agree "to do an article," ask your expert for an article idea to pitch. Once you have a short author bio and a short outline representing a 1500 word article, begin contacting the trade magazines. Try to find their author guidelines online, before you call -- any advance information helps. You've probably read about how bad it is to phone an editor. Forget this advice when it comes to trade magazine editors. Most of them are on the phone quite a bit and don't mind a call -- if you are considerate with their time. Here's a sample pitch:
"My name is Robert Walken, and I'm a writer working with Suzy Smith. Suzy is a licensed Professional Engineer who specializes in power quality and I understand your readers are interested in that subject." Then, ask the editor to send you a copy of the magazine and the latest author guidelines. A good editor won't care about your credentials, but will care about those of your expert. Let the editor know you are pitching the article to other magazines. No editor wants to run the same article a competitor runs. You can say, "We are submitting the same outline, but we will not submit the same content and graphics." Good. You've now established that the topic is hot but the article is unique.
Don't directly ask the editor about the audience -- this makes you sound like you won't bother reading the magazine to find out. You might ask, "Do you want this article to be more hands-on or theoretical?" Ask the editor to identify some key issues or points the article should address. Observe the Golden Rule...
No yellow journalism. Trade communities are small and incestuous. You can't insult any of the players or even hint their products or services are flawed. Big names in trade publishing have been banished for doing this, so avoid text that gets you even close to thin ice. If an editor pushes you to do yellow journalism, decline the assignment unless you are very well-connected and very astute technically in the area being addressed by the article. Even then, soft-pedal any criticism.
The ideal article is one a reader clips out and files. Ask your expert to look at his/her files and come up with three reasons why those articles were such keepers. You'll hear "Because it was useful" repeatedly. The yardstick trade magazines live and die by is "usefulness." The reader always asks, "How will this help me?" Answer that question, or your article fails.
The PhDs who write for my magazine are wonderful on the theory part, and the consultants and expert witnesses give great case histories. But, trade magazine readers just shrug their shoulders at such information. What they want to know is, "What steps should I take?' For example, an article about a disease affecting beef cattle is interesting. Show what ACME Ranches did about the disease, and it's instructive. Add a sidebar "Five steps you must take now" and it's useful. Just make sure the sidebar doesn't look like an afterthought.
In addition to the usefulness mantra and the "no yellow journalism" rule, trade magazines have other requirements for content:
Trade magazine graphics are hard to acquire. Ask a manufacturer for help, and you'll get product shots -- which the better magazines won't run in their stories. Use your industry contacts, especially the service vendors, to assist you in getting a photo-op. Lunch and a photo credit will usually persuade them. If a technical drawing "makes" the article, ask your subject expert to produce a hand sketch, at the very least. Your editor will probably accept it, but an image done in PowerPoint would be better.
Expand your stable of subject matter experts. Your first expert will probably want to stop after a few articles. The magazine's fee rarely justifies an expert's time -- once the expert achieves the status of "being published," the carrot is gone and the stick remains. Or, the publicity has left the expert swamped with new work. Either way, industry contact development is an ongoing effort.
Once you've been published, you can tell an editor, "I co-authored an article on Topic X in the January Issue of Competitor Magazine." Even that will change, with time. Eventually, you can be an expert. One writer, who is not an electrical engineer or even a licensed electrician, writes authoritatively for electrical trade magazines and has even published a book on wiring. Because he has long-standing relationships with industry experts and editors, and because he has a reputation for accuracy and good writing, he can charge a premium rate.
So, you don't need to be an expert to break into the trades. But if you spend enough time with experts, your articles make you look like one.
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