I got a call the other day from an editor of a magazine I never knew existed, asking me to give a speech to a whole group of editors of magazines I never knew existed. But this is more a reflection on my ignorance than on these editors or their magazines: Evidently there were enough of them to pull together a convention at a very nice resort in Colorado.
This particular group of editors shepherded the publishing of magazines for fraternities, sororities and other such societies. Turns out, there are quite a few such magazines — which shouldn’t be so surprising, if you think about how many such organizations there are. And they have at least modest budgets. Most have professional editors, who often double as writers in chief, and some can pay — modestly — for freelance articles.
In short, here’s another place where up-and-coming nonfiction writers can get a toe in the water of “being published.” Whether for pay or just for clips that will help get you a paid assignment, such largely undiscovered markets offer far more opportunity for beginners — and are far more numerous — than the handful of Esquires, Mademoiselles and Vanity Fairs offering eye-popping sums for articles. You can bombard these big-bucks markets with queries (make sure to include SASE for the rejection), or you can start your writing career more modestly (there’s that word again) and work your way up, clip by clip. The former approach gets you a lot of practice writing query letters; the latter lets you learn the craft of writing actual articles.
The truth is, what you see on a newsstand — even a rich, sprawling newsstand like those in big-city downtowns or the larger chain bookstores — represents only a slender slice of the publishing world. Despite the explosion of specialty magazines in recent years (another market opportunity — and another column), non-newsstand publications remain an impressive, if largely hidden and untapped, chunk of the communications universe.
Just consider the publications you get in the mail without directly subscribing to them. Maybe you pay for membership to some club, and a magazine is one of the benefits. Possibly a company sends you a magazine to make you feel good about being a customer (and ultimately to keep you a customer). The college or university you attended probably sends you some sort of alumni publication; if you had a varied academic career, you may get several. Organizations you donate money to likely put you on their mailing list, to keep you abreast of the fruits of your generosity (and of future, hoped-for contributions).
The Fryxell household, for example, gets Amoco World magazine from our auto club, a magazine from our insurance company, multiple alumni publications, the Nature Conservancy’s magazine, a magazine from the local public-TV station, the Girl Scouts’ Leader magazine, and enough other nonnewsstand publications to compete, in volume, even with my obsessive buying down at Barnes & Noble. For years we used to get a slick magazine about the Arab world, as glossy as National Geographic — I think it was from Exxon. CompuServe sent me a magazine every month, even though I could go online and read the same stuff. And so on and so on, much to the delight of the nation’s printing companies.
The point is, just as somebody has to print all these publications, somebody else has to write and edit them. And that somebody might as well be you.
Old School Ties
I shouldn’t have been so surprised that fraternal publications added up to a conventionful. After all, I spent five years of my career editing a magazine in a category that’s a close cousin — college and university alumni magazines. Since I know that batch of nonnewsstand periodicals best, let’s start with alumni magazines as a prime example of these undiscovered markets.
It’s easy to miss the breadth and depth of alumni magazines. After all, even the most overeducated or peripatetic alumni are likely to see only a handful — publications from schools they attended. But the colleges and universities everyone else attended have magazines or tabloids, too. So do many of the more elite prep schools.
Taken together, alumni magazines compose a large, yet largely unpublicized publishing phenomenon. As colleges and universities have ratcheted up their fund-raising in recent years, the magazines they publish to promote their cause have likewise grown glossier and more, well, magazine-like. Nationally, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), based in Washington, DC, promotes excellence and improvement in alumni publications, including conferences, workshops and awards. (The alumni magazine I founded at the University of Pittsburgh, I’m still enormously proud to recall, won more CASE awards my last year at the helm than any other alumni magazine in the nation.)
I’ve already cautioned that you won’t get rich writing for alumni magazines or most other nonnewsstand publications — but can you do rich writing for such markets? The money is modest, but what about the creative opportunities?
You may be surprised. Though alumni and other association magazines have their own driving forces that constrain their editors (make the university look like a good place to donate money, for example), their freedom from commercial pressures can, in the hands of an inspired editor, translate into exciting creative possibilities. Here you can write articles that would never translate into cover teasers for Cosmo.
Where else, for example, could I have written a story about the myths and mysteries of mathematics and about the surprising ways math shapes our world? “A Beauty Cold and Austere” was the headline for my Pitt magazine story: “Mathematics is entering a new era, powered by the computer, in which it may change the world around us. But most of us still can’t do fractions.” Try querying Vanity Fair with that one.
Other articles I wrote or edited for Pitt magazine tackled the search for other solar systems, the archeology of old steel mills, a database of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood TV shows, revisionist thinking about environmentalism, and fond memories of Pittsburgh’s old Forbes Field. Except for a few popular-science magazines and a cluster of thumb-sucker policy journals — almost all with circulations less than Pitt magazine’s then-270,000 copies — where else could such thoughtful, deeply researched, often innovatively crafted articles find an audience?
You still need to target your queries for non-newsstand markets, just as you would with commercial magazines. Part of the point of my mathematics story, after all, was to shine the spotlight on the university’s otherwise-underpublicized (for obvious reasons) math department. We published plenty of stories about high-achieving Pitt alumni — because they were Pitt grads, and hence proof that the university was doing something right.
Every non-newsstand magazine has some sort of agenda, however subtle. Figure it out — just as you’d scope out a sale to GQ or Redbook — and you can unlock a new market for your nonfiction.
Home Is Where the Hunt Starts
Finding these markets also starts much like the best place to begin crafting commercial queries — at home. Look at what association, membership and alumni magazines you get in the mail. You already have a connection or an interest in this subject matter, something that can spark article ideas.
To again use alumni magazines as an example, think of other prominent alumni (besides yourself, of course) suitable for profiling. If you live far from your alma mater, your query on another distant grad might be the only way the magazine can get such a story — since such publications rarely have fat travel budgets. On the other hand, if you still live close to your old school, you can capitalize on this tie: The magazines of large universities, in particular, are almost like city or regional magazines for their home area. The University of Minnesota’s excellent magazine, for example, chronicles and captures the life of the Twin Cities almost like the local city magazines.
If you care enough about a cause to donate to a charity, maybe you know (or could painlessly learn) enough about that cause to write for the charity’s magazine. If you’ve somehow wound up on some corporation’s mailing list for its slick image-boosting periodical, you might also have some insight into a subject that others like you would want to read. Whatever your hobby or passion, why not write about it for the magazine or newsletter published for members of your hobbyist club? If you’re a Lion or an Elk or some other species of fraternal order, you’re more likely to be able to address an audience of your fellow Lions or Elks.
Beyond the nonnewsstand magazines you already receive, next branch out into those published close to home. If you can connect with an editor by phone or in person, you’re more likely to get your foot in the door. Your local library has hefty reference books that list periodicals of all sorts not only by subject but by geography; you’ll discover magazines aplenty in your own backyard that you never knew about or thought to query, because you can’t buy them on the newsstand.
Rewards and Readers
Pay for such markets can vary widely, from zero to competitive with commercial markets. Magazines like those for motor clubs or insurance companies pay much like newsstand publications. Many smaller such magazines have little or no budget for freelancers, however, depending instead on overworked editor-writers, organization administrators and volunteer submissions from members.
But if you’re still at the stage in your writing career where getting published is more important than being paid a lot, volunteering your writing may be a worthwhile investment. Particularly if it’s a worthy cause or an institution you care about — you can do some good with your talents while also honing your skills. Nonnewsstand magazines may help you break out of the catch-22 of “you can’t get clips without getting published, but you can’t get published without clips” — and the editors you send those clips to don’t have to know you wrote them as a labor of love. Making yourself known and proving yourself at nonnewsstand magazines may also get you the connections that can land you a job at such a magazine.
Increasingly, too, thanks to desktop-publishing technology and graphic sophistication, these magazines look every bit as good as their newsstand cousins. So your work may get handsome display, which means impressive-looking samples for you.
The small budgets of non-newsstand magazines don’t necessarily mean small audiences. Many association, alumni and club magazines have circulations in the tens or hundreds of thousands. You’ll enjoy a readership often several times bigger than that of commercial, newsstand magazines. When I edited Pitt magazine, for example, I liked to point out that we had more readers — even more readers just within the city of Pittsburgh — than Pittsburgh magazine.
In short, so what if your mom can’t pick up the magazine on the newsstand and see your byline? These magazines offer a huge, mostly untapped opportunity to do creative work for an audience that, by and large, cares passionately about the subject matter.
And that sounds like a pretty good description of why most of us got into writing in the first place.