How to Start a Magazine

Starting a new magazine is a daunting process. But there are ways to do it to minimize risk, and using a magazine publishing consultant to help you test the waters can be money well-spent.

The first thing to explore is your own motivation. Why do you want to start a magazine? Do you currently work in the publishing field and have a new idea that you think will make for a successful business? Do you have an interest in a particular topic and think it would be fun to produce a magazine for other like-minded people?

Do you like to write? Take photos? Create websites? Is that enough to be successful?

In my career as a publishing consultant, I have seen excited new publishers get into the magazine business for many reasons, some of them sound – and some not so well thought-out.

The truth is that starting a new magazine is more about running the business than choosing what goes on each page (though that is important, too). So it’s important to understand how the business will be run.

Who will sell the ads? The subscriptions? Who will create and run the website? How will customer service be handled? How will you produce the pages for print and/or digital delivery?

So how do you start?

First, examine your idea closely. Are there other magazines on the same topic? Who publishes those magazines – large, multi-national organizations, or a mom-and-pop boutique publisher? How many ads are in the competing magazines? What is the circulation of those titles? Are there other competitors in other media, such as books, Internet, cable television, apps? How successful are they?

 

Magazines compete for attention on the newsstand

What makes a magazine stand out from all the competition?

Define your audience and target market

Do some research on the size of you target audience. If someone asks you “who is your magazine for?” and you say “everybody!” you are not thinking of your audience correctly. Even general interest magazines like Time know that there is a subset of readers who are interested in paying for a weekly news magazine. They are of a certain education level, probably skew male or female, make a certain income, and like to read. That doesn’t describe “everybody.”

Once you define who your audience is, attempt to see how large it is. What other products or services reach them? If you are aiming at fly fishermen, how many people buy-fly fishing equipment a year? You need to be able to reach your audience so you can market to them, so you need to think about ways you can get to your target market. For example, one client had a great idea about starting a magazine for recovering addicts. However, because of patient confidentiality, it would be impossible to purchase mailing lists of this target audience.

If, after defining your target market and competitive set, you still feel enthusiastic about starting a new magazine, you can begin the real work.

Positioning statements, launch plans and prototypes

Write your positioning statement that describes your new magazine, and not any other magazine. “We’re the magazine that …” and however you fill in the blank cannot be said about another magazine being published.

I recommend that you build a magazine launch plan that minimizes your risk. The first place to consider starting is to build a prototype. The prototype would be your best shot at producing an issue that is very strong and shows potential subscribers and advertisers what the magazine is about.

It will take some money to develop the prototype. But you can use the prototype to:

Conduct research with potential subscribers

How do they respond to the magazine? How many of them would buy it? How do they describe the magazine? Would they recommend it to a friend?

Conduct research with potential newsstand distributors

When you show your prototype to newsstand distributors, do they get excited about it? How many copies do they think they could distribute? What cover price do they suggest?

Conduct research with potential advertisers

Can you get any commitments from advertisers for your launch issue? Can you even get them to place a free ad in the magazine? How does the response of advertisers make you feel about your revenue potential.

To develop the prototype will require an investment in editors, writers, art, design, printing, and research. It will require an investment in time, as well, from the publisher. The publisher is usually the person who also sells the ads.

You can often save money and avoid expensive missteps by hiring a magazine consultant to help you through the magazine-starting process.

Business planning and testing

If you get past this stage, you can move into the business planning stage. This stage also requires money. In addition to creating the plan (often with the help of experienced consultants), I suggest you do a “dry test” during this stage. A dry test is usually a direct mail promotion to a sampling of your target audience. You are not asking them to pay for a subscription at this point, but sending a “soft offer” (try it for free, write cancel on the invoice if you don’t like it). Your business plan should be built on some go-no go decisions. If the dry test produces what your plan is built on, you’re good to go to the next stage. If the dry test does not produce what you hoped for, and what you need to be successful, it’s back to the drawing board to fine-tune the product.

There can be other dry tests, like publishing a special issue to see how well it will sell on the newsstand (and to see how many insert card orders that issue produces).

If you pass the tests in stage one and stage two, then you can move on to publishing regularly. You can build a staff and rely on contract workers.

Each stage of starting a magazine requires money. Money that is worth spending.

More magazines have failed from not investing the right kind of money up front. Beginning to publish before you have a clue about whether the product can be sold is way more expensive than a staged series of managed risks.

Starting a new magazine is not for sissies. If you’re thinking about launching a new magazine, contact me for advice.