During my mercifully brief stint as editor of a fishing magazine, I did learn this about fishing: You have to go where the fish are. That's not as obvious as it may seem. Plenty of anglers spend all day making lovely casts into water where fish are as scarce as UFOs. To catch fish, you need to find the underwater structures where they like to hang out.
Selling articles to magazine markets is a bit like fishing. Trying to sell articles in stagnant markets is just wasting your stamps—the freelancing equivalent of the fisherman's "just drowning worms." You need to cast your ideas out where the editors are biting.
To take a ridiculous example, you might have a batch of great ideas for articles about horse-drawn carriages ("What's New in Buggy Whips," "Should You Switch to Clydesdales?"), but for most of a century now you'd have been better off pitching ideas about automobiles instead.
The same goes for the type of article as it does for the topic: Even if you're a whiz at cranking out movie reviews in the form of sonnets, if there's no market out there you're better off keeping this talent to yourself.
Netting new markets
Keeping up with the ups and downs of magazine publishing requires staying attuned to changes in the zeitgeist. Magazines reflect the culture as a whole, and successful magazines—like successful freelancers—latch onto the Next Big Thing and ride it for all it's worth. So it shouldn't be surprising that the Internet is transforming the magazine marketplace just as it is the rest of the world.
Here are quick tips on where you can keep up with what's hot and what's not in magazine markets:
Computers were the sixth-most-popular category for magazine launches in 1999, according to "Mr. Magazine" Samir Husni, who studies publishing trends at the University of Mississippi. But purely technical computing titles—such as PC World and PC Magazine—have actually been in a downturn, as computers become as familiar as household appliances (you don't see titles such as Refrigerator Life or Stove World on the newsstand, do you?). One computing stalwart, PC Computing, actually transformed itself into a tech-business magazine, retitled Smart Business for the New Economy.
In fact, so-called "new economy" business titles have led the boom in Internet-related magazines. Magazines such as Fast Company and Business 2.0 have grown so fat with ads that postal carriers can hardly deliver them without risking a hernia. Red Herring, another Silicon Valley-ish business magazine, recently moved to a twice-monthly publication. In addition to those three ad-rich magazines, among the titles jumping 10 spots or more from 1998 to 1999 in Advertising Age's ranking of the 300 biggest magazines by gross revenue were such Web-fueled publications as Yahoo! Internet Life, Interactive Week, Industry Standard, Internet World and Upside. And the boom continues with new magazines ranging from Time Inc.'s eCompany Now to IDG's Darwin, targeted at "CEOs and other corporate business leaders who want to thrive in the information age."
But, as a writer fishing for hot magazine markets, you want to stay ahead of the curve, not merely on it. So also look to the latest launches, which push the Internet boom to the home-consumer front: Three new magazines—Lucky, eshopper and hotdots—are focusing in whole or part on online shopping. Another launch combines the traditional travel magazine with the e-commerce explosion: Expedia Travels, a print companion to Microsoft's Expedia.com travel Web site.
If you can help readers keep up with and understand the latest technological innovations, you'll find editors eager for your articles. In the year ahead, for example, you should probably keep on top of the switch from PC-based Web browsing to mobile, wireless Internet connectivity via hand-held gizmos and souped-up cell phones. Somebody will have to explain this stuff to the rest of us—and it might as well be you.
Keeping it simple
Trends can also be like Newtonian physics, however, in that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. So, even as the world is rushing to be more wired, more connected all the time, more "e-" and "i-" centric, there's a countervailing trend to tune out, unplug and simplify. Bill Gates, meet Henry David Thoreau. And magazines are popping up to serve readers in search of the simple life, such as the recent high-profile launch Real Simple. Even the new Oprah magazine is strongly grounded in this quest for self-fulfillment and the desire to get control of your life.
Right here at Writer's Digest, we've launched Personal Journaling magazine, which shows how to use writing as a tool for self-actualization, rather than as a way to get published and earn extra money. Our parent company is also testing a similar title for artists, called Artist's Sketchbook.
As the baby boom generation ages and, at least in part, begins to turn from seeking success to seeking satisfaction, there's been an explosion of interest in genealogy. Made possible in part by the Internet, the family history phenomenon springs from a desire to discover who we are and how we got here. The magazine market has responded here, too: WD's parent company launched Family Tree Magazine, which Husni named one of the 30 most notable new titles of 1999.
Looking forward to new generations rather than back to previous generations, parenting magazines are also hot. Parenting was one of the top gainers in Ad Age's top 300 ranking by gross revenue, and it has new competition in Offspring, a launch from the publishers of SmartMoney magazine.
The lesson for writers? Smart service writing will never go out of style, and if you can spin your expertise to these hot markets you'll find editors eager for your work.
Young and restless
Writers in tune with the up-and-coming generation will also find receptive markets for their work, judging by the continuing popularity of magazines targeting teens. CosmoGirl, the teen spinoff of Cosmopolitan, proved a surprisingly big success in 1999 (when it was another of Husni's notable launches). It followed in the spinoff footsteps of Teen People, which was one of the biggest climbers up Ad Age's latest revenue rankings. New offerings in 2000 aimed at teens include TeenStyle magazine, TransWorld Motocross magazine, and Rodale's Men's Health spinoff, MH-17.
The outlook for magazines aimed at nonteen males is more mixed, with a number of men's titles biting the dust in 2000—Icon, P.O.V. and Bikini (which was merged into its sibling title, Raygun)—and Details being temporarily shelved until it could be overhauled.
Meanwhile, magazines modeled on British"lads" titles—Maxim and the new FHM—have taken the newsstand by storm. Other titles with a heavily male audience moving up the revenue ladder, according to Ad Age, have included Men's Journal, Spin and Men's Fitness.
Sports magazines have also been hot, led by the swift success of ESPN The Magazine. Sports were the second-biggest category of new magazines in 1999, according to Husni, behind only "media personalities" titles. And "sports" doesn't just mean kicking or tossing a ball around. Recent revenue-gainers have included Peterson's 4-Wheel and Off Road, Cruising World and Four-Wheeler magazines.
Finally, a lesson from recent magazine trends is that writers should look for markets in unexpected places. Custom publishing, a hot trend in the 1980s, seems to be making a comeback, with new magazines aimed at small-business customers of Kinko's and at female shoppers of JC Penney stores. You might not even know these titles existed just from haunting your local newsstand—you have to keep your eyes open for hot magazine markets wherever you are, from shopping to the doctor's office to the copy shop.
What will the hot magazine trends be in 2001? Make it one of your New Year's resolutions to stay on top of new launches, fattened page counts and other signs of where the editorial action is. (But if fishing magazines make a big comeback this year, just remember—I was there first!)
David A. Fryxell is editorial director of F&W Publications' magazine division.