Same Time Next Year

Make a date to study magazines' editorial calendars before you query—they'll tell you exactly what editors want and when.
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It's the time of year when calendars start to crowd out the books and magazines in bookstores, much to the consternation of those of us who write books and magazines.

But that magazine editor you're trying to convince to assign you an article has had her 2003 calendar for months. If your ideas don't mesh with it, your chances of pushing into those pages plummet.

I'm referring to magazines' editorial calendars, of course. Except for the year and the names of the months, these calendars bear little resemblance to the glossy hang-up calendars in the stores. No swimsuit-clad models, lush scenery or cartoons of Ziggy and Dilbert. Editorial calendars are usually bare-bones lists of upcoming issues and major features—or at least the cover stories or special sections. Not much to look at—unless you're a writer trying to crack that market.

Ad-ed value

To understand how to take advantage of editorial calendars, it helps to know a bit about why editors create them. Of course, all editors (at least those who survive in the job) plan ahead, penciling in story ideas for several issues into the future. A typical editor might have articles in the works six months in advance of the time readers receive them. (It's also helpful to remember that in the time-warped world of today's newsstands, the December issue probably goes on sale around Halloween; Dec. 1 is likely the date the last copy is removed from newsstands, not the date it first appears.)

But the editorial calendar is more a tool for the folks on the money side of the magazine business—circulation and especially advertising sales staff—than it is for editors and art directors. Many editors would rather just "wing it," at least as much as deadlines allow, and create their issues as the spirit moves them. Unfortunately, "cover story to come" and "special section to be announced" are not very effective lines for persuading advertisers to part with their dollars. Ad salespeople demand editorial wedges to help get their feet in the door. Similarly, circulation staff want to be reassured that last year's boffo cover package will be repeated, and that the mistake that sold only 15 percent at newsstand will not recur.

From the ad-sales standpoint, the ideal editorial calendar entry would read something like, "Roundup of advertisers' products," followed by "Paean of praise to advertisers' products" and "Feature on the joys of new category where we're hoping to sell ads." (I'm not complaining—hey, ad salespeople have to make a living, too.) Editors are caught in an eternal balancing act between the need to attract advertisers and the need to attract readers; the best editors find ways to make those needs not mutually exclusive.

As a result, most editorial calendars are heavy on the features most appealing to advertisers, and light on the happy accidents that make for superior magazines. The calendar reflects the "must-haves" for advertisers and finicky newsstand buyers, not necessarily what the editor hopes one day wins a National Magazine Award. Product pieces, "best of" roundups, and annual "special issues" are the basic components here.

The good news, from the freelance writer's standpoint, is that these meat-and-potatoes articles, promised way in advance to attract advertisers, are often the pieces that editors have the hardest time getting written. These "hated assignments," old hat to staff and veteran contributors, can represent opportunity for you.

Calendar clues

So how do you find these promised articles that you'd be only too happy to take off the editor's hands? This can be tricky—as much as magazines want their advertisers to know what's coming up, they're loathe to tip their hand to the competition. And remember that, despite the name, editorial calendars are created for the business side, not for writers.

You also need to realize that 2003 is probably about half-over by now for most monthly and bimonthly publications, at least from the standpoint of putting that editorial calendar into action. The editor likely drew up the 2003 calendar in early summer, for inclusion in media kits printed up in time for the fall ad-sales season. Issues in the first half of the list for 2003 are mostly assigned, if not already at the printer.

That means you need to be thinking about the second half of the year already—and scheming ahead to get on that 2004 calendar. Over the next few months, consider pitching ideas that fit a magazine's fall and winter needs (that's next fall and winter, mind you), as well as seeding ideas that might find a home in 2004.

Here are quick tips on magazine editorial calendars:

Editorial calendars reveal editors' content plans and cover packages for the upcoming year. Meat-and-potatoes articles, promised way in advance to attract advertisers, represent an opportunity for you. To get a magazine's editorial calendar, get its media kit (or check its Web site). Study magazines' past issues so you can guess at their blueprint for the future.

Of course, it would help if editors would just share their calendars so you could, for gosh sakes, help them out! Unless you have a connection with a potential advertiser who can request a media kit, your best bet is the magazine's Web site. Some publications post their whole media kit electronically. Others include their editorial calendars in their guidelines for writers, which you can request by sending a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE). Many magazines now also post their writers guidelines online; you can click right to these from the Web edition of Writer's Market at (subscription required).

History repeats itself

Even if a magazine you want to query keeps its editorial calendar under wraps, you can still make an educated guess about this blueprint to the publication's future by studying its past.

Think about it: Do you suppose Sports Illustrated will have a swimsuit issue on its editorial calendar for next February? And I'm betting Vanity Fair will have a special issue on Hollywood planned for right about Oscars time.

If the title you're targeting isn't so high-profile, all the better. Special-interest magazines have a steady diet of old reliable cover stories they'll repeat year after year, with little more than cosmetic changes to the concept. (Can you blame staff writers at such magazines for getting a tad weary of these perennials—and wanting to fob off at least bits of them to writers like you?)

Here's an insider secret about this very magazine, for example: The January issue of Writer's Digest has been a package on "Get Published in (fill in the year)" since roughly the invention of movable type, and in recent years May has reliably been "101 Best Web Sites for Writers." But you don't have to be an insider to figure this out—just look for patterns in what a magazine publishes.

City and regional magazines' editorial calendars are even less inscrutable. When I was editing a city magazine, the annual editorial calendar might as well have started with half the cover stories already filled in. August would be "Best of," May was the restaurant guide, March would be "Best Doctors" or "Best Lawyers" (alternating years), and so forth. Less obviously, special sections designed to appeal to real estate firms, hospitals, interior decorators and other advertiser groups would be predictably sprinkled throughout the year.

Sure, you can try to break in at a magazine with a wildly innovative, off-the-wall idea the likes of which the editor's never published before. Or you can fill a need the editor has already announced to advertisers, solving a problem for the editor so she can spend time developing those wildly innovative ideas that were the reason she got into this business in the first place. Human nature being what it is, I'm betting the writer who studies the editorial calendar is going to have a much more productive year.

This article appeared in the November 2002 issue of Writer's Digest.

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