I have to smile at listings in Writer's Market that advise would-be contributors to read "five or six back issues" before submitting. Yeah, right! I don't know about you, but I can hardly keep up with my own subscriptions, let alone the sample copies I tend to order in abundance. And at an average of $4 per back issue, the cost of ordering more than one issue of anything would be prohibitive.
At the same time, those publications make an important point: If you don't know anything about a publication, it will be very difficult to target an article or query to its editor. How can you hope to understand the needs and interests of the audience? How can you hope to match the style or tone of the article? How can you catch the editor's eye? How can you avoid making a fool of yourself by submitting an article on a topic that was covered two months ago?
Fortunately, there are ways to explore the marketplace without breaking your bank account. Consider the following possibilities:
1) Start with magazines you know. What magazines do you subscribe to, or purchase on a regular basis? Chances are, these publications best reflect your interests and expertise. Look especially carefully at the craft, hobby, or special interest publications on your list. Most likely, you buy these because you pursue that interest, and could therefore develop an article for that market. A word of warning, however: If your subscriptions or purchases include only the top "general interest" or "women's" magazines, and you are a beginning writer, this advice does not apply. Never assume that just because you read Redbook or Cosmopolitan, this will enable you to "break in" -- those markets are flooded with submissions from thousands of readers who make exactly that assumption. (That doesn't mean you won't be able to write for those markets; it simply means that you'll have to work very hard to get in the door.)
2) Become a "magazine hunter." Watch for "back issues" of magazines wherever you go. Browse through the magazines in your doctor's waiting room, or any other waiting room you happen to occupy. If you find a magazine that looks particularly interesting, ask the receptionist if you can borrow it for a few days, or if you could replace it with another comparable magazine of your own. Another place to check is your local library; many offer "recycle" shelves where patrons can "swap" old magazines. (You'd be surprised at some of the unusual and obscure publications you can find in such a location.) Take a peek at the magazines your host leaves in a guest bathroom -- just don't spend too long conducting "market research" in that particular chamber!
3) Visit newsstands. Bookstores like Borders and Barnes and Noble offer extensive newsstands featuring magazines you won't find in your local grocery store. You may also find publications that aren't listed in Writer's Market. If you can find a "real" newsstand -- a store that is devoted entirely to magazines -- so much the better! (Many of these carry international magazines as well as domestic issues.) Newsstands are treasuries of new markets, and the issues usually cost less than special-ordered "back issues" (for which you often have to pay shipping as well as the cover price of the magazine itself).
4) Check Writer's Market for free back issues. I usually rank the listings in Writer's Market by price: Free, "postage," less than $3, and more than $3. I send for the free copies first, then those that ask only for postage costs (provided those costs aren't outrageous). Then I order those that cost less than $3, and finally, after careful consideration, I order the most interesting of those that cost $4 or more. When ordering a back issue, save yourself a SASE and ask for the writer's guidelines at the same time.
5) Ask for writer's guidelines (GLs) of any publication that interests you. Some GLs are excellent, giving you far more information than you can glean from the Writer's Market entry. Others, however, are often less useful; some mention nothing about rates or rights or other information vital to a writer. Others are simply vague: "We want sharp, well-written articles that will appeal to our audience." (Well, duh!)
6) Research "back issues" online. Many publications post extensive archives of articles on their websites. These archives are often the "best of the best," which will give you an excellent idea of what excites the editor of that particular magazine. Print a few articles and read them carefully to get an idea of their tone, style, content, and depth of coverage. Are they written for a technical audience or for the layperson? Do they offer general overviews of a subject, or in-depth reporting? Do the authors have special credentials, or can "anyone" break in?
7) Look for back issue indices. Even if a magazine doesn't publish articles online, it may offer an index of back issues. This will give you an opportunity to determine what has already been published in the past year or two, so that you don't waste time with an article or query that duplicates past effort. (Once a magazine has covered a particular topic, such as a destination in a travel magazine, it will usually wait at least two or three years before considering that topic again, even if your article offers a completely different angle or focus.) Many magazines also publish an annual "print" index, which you can obtain with a SASE.
8) Look for guidelines online. Many magazines are now posting their GLs on their websites. This makes life easier for everyone: You don't have to send a SASE and wait six weeks for a response, and they don't have to print hundreds of paper copies of their GLs. When you locate a magazine's website, look for such options as "guidelines," "submissions," "tips for writers," "write for us," or "contact us." Also, explore some of the guideline databases online, such as Writer's Market Online. You can search databases not only for a specific magazine, but also for certain categories, such as subject area or payment rate. Specialized guideline databases are also available -- see Writing-World.com's links to Guideline Databases for more information.
9) Look for new markets online. Electronic newsstands (see our Magazines and Newspapers links) offer extensive links to magazines not only in the U.S. but throughout the world. You can search these listings topically or geographically, and you're certain to find publications you never heard of (and that aren't listed in Writer's Market). Also, explore each publication's website for additional magazines; for example, while Writer's Market lists two or three pet magazines belonging to "Fancy Publications," that particular company actually produces over 30 monthly and annual publications.
10) Subscribe to a marketing newsletter. Several free marketing newsletters (and other market sources) are available online; for more information, visit Writing-World.com's links to Guidelines and Publications for Writers. Whenever you see a listing for an interesting publication, follow up for more information -- e.g., visit the website, write for guidelines, or request a sample copy.
For more information on finding free (or cheap) sample magazines, see Finding Sample Magazines - Without Breaking the Bank, by Moira Allen.
Finding publications is only half the battle. How can you determine whether a magazine is a good market for you? What clues can you glean from a magazine about how to "break in"?
To the reams of information already written on "studying markets," I will now add my two cents'-worth of advice. When I review a new magazine, I am looking for answers to three sets of questions: Demographic, Technical, and Personal.
"Demographics" simply means "audience": For whom is the magazine written? What type of person will be reading your article? The answers can be found not only in a magazine's editorial pages, but also in its advertisements and illustrations. For example, are all the photos of models (or people who look like models), or does the magazine include pictures of "real" people as well? A close look at any publication should give you valuable clues about its audience's --
Added together, "demographics" can give you a good picture of your target audience. But is that all you need to know? Just because a magazine targets young, upwardly mobile professional women doesn't mean you necessarily want to write for it. You may also wish to consider:
The technical aspects of a magazine include:
Personal issues and technical issues sometimes go hand in hand. When I evaluate a magazine, I want to know not only what it says to a reader, but what it says to me. For example:
Obviously, many of these decisions are highly individual -- which is why I clustered them under "personal." Your decisions might be very different from mine, and neither of us would be "right" or "wrong." The point is that as writers, we are individuals, and our tastes and values are as important as those of the markets we are trying to penetrate. If those tastes and values don't mesh, we could waste a lot of time trying to break into markets that will never be right for us -- and "success" may not taste so sweet. By learning to evaluate markets across a broad spectrum of issues, however, you'll find those that you can not only work with but thrive with -- and to which you'll become a valued contributor.
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Directories of Magazines, Newspapers & Periodicals · Market Guides & Guideline Databases