Niche Publishing Goldmines

I started a new publishing business some years ago with a Mac Plus, a Laser Writer and two used desks. Just four years laser my company was grossing nearly $ 800,000 a year.

I was publishing NCEast, a regional magazine; the North Carolina Travel and Tourism Guide, Welcome to Wilmington, a slick four-color newcomer’s guide to this major metropolitan area; Homebuyer’s Handbook; Washington and Beaufort County Magazine,a city magazine; and Renter’s Helper apartment directories in nine mid-Atlantic cities. Earlier I had published the Mecklenburg Gazette,a weekly newspaper, and Dollarsworth, a free circulation shopper.

Brains and Time, Not Cash
None of my start-ups cost me one single cent in out-of-pocket cash.Getting into home based publishing, I found, takes its toll in brain power, time, and energy, but requires little cash investment. Others may find this claim hard to believe, but it’s true. I have always been able to finance my books, magazines and newspapers with sweat equity and the cash flow generated by the projects themselves.

Who Can Succeed?
I am convinced that I could take my computer, a toothbrush and a change of clothes to any town or city in the United States and generate a substantial income for myself in entrepreneurial publishing. What 1 can do, you can do too. I know successful entrepreneurial publishers who have backgrounds in sales; others come from the ranks of graphic designers; some are free-lance writers who are tired of sending articles to other people’s magazines and have created publications of their own. Some are simply, management types with an idea they believe in, and the willingness to give it try.

What Will Work: The Two-Way Test
Successful publications match large numbers of product-purchasing readers with similarly large numbers of ambitious, space-buying advertisers. To insure that this happens, and happens quickly, the start-up publishing entrepreneur should look for projects that have the possibility of intensive sales in a limited geographical area. Expanding the coverage area
beyond the easy reach of on or two people can create real difficulties – and much greater expense.

A city magazine, for example, is relatively easy to publish; a regional magazine (the mountains of your state, for instance, or the coast) is more difficult and more expensive; a statewide magazine requires an entire staff of sales and production people. A national magazine requires all of the above, plus a high-risk investor with several million dollars of idle money in very deep pockets.

When you focus rightly, several good things happen: You can start your business with little or no cash up front. You or your ad salesperson can make calls and sell the product without traveling anywhere overnight. Circulation, distribution and promotion are easily and inexpensively managed. You can do these jobs yourself if necessary.

What kinds of publications fall into these categories? There are many, but here are some that I have personally published:

Local Area Tourism Guides
Tourism guides range from tabloid newspapers to full-sized, extra-slick color magazines. The most popular format is the digest-sized (5.5″ x 8.5″), saddle-stitched, four color publication printed on economy,enameled stock. I have however, seen long-lived, successful tourism guides printed in black and white, with a little spot color thrown in.

The tourism guide has very short, pithy articles on things to do and places to go. Iris filled with little maps to help readers find their When 1 say “entrepreneurial publishing” I am not talking about way around. It lists restaurants and their specialties, nightclubs traditional trade hook publishing, in which you sell a product (your and every other possible kind of vacation or travel activity, book) through distributors and bookstores. That is a high-risk, including everything from the miniature golf course built to capital-intensive business, fraught with peril for the small guy. To create a cash flow that can float your business, pay your rent and buy new shoes for the kids requires at least ten successful tides in print. And even when your books sell, the returns come in slowly and unpredictably. No, I am talking about advertising-intensive periodical publishing, which can often be undertaken with no capital at all. In periodical publishing, the advertising that you sell pays the way.

The publications themselves are often distributed free.You do not depend on subscriptions or newsstand sales to makea profit, but on the sale of advertising space. Given away free in motel rooms, welcome centers,convenience stores, newsstands and every other conceivable place, these guides are always consulted by ever-renewable numbers of vacationers. Advertisers will be eager to buy space in any well-designed and widely-circulated guide to reach this constant stream of visitors.

Newcomer Guides
We are a mobile nation. The average family in the United States pulls up stakes and moves to new cities, towns and neighborhoods every five years. This means that 20 percent of all families in America are on the road at any given time.

We are also a nation of consumers. We need things. We need people who can do things for us. And when we move we need them all at once. Last week, securely nestled in our old home, we knew which doctor to go to. When we had a toothache, we knew which dentist to call. We knew where to go to buy a new car and where to get the insurance for it. We knew where to shop for clothes, go to the movies, eat a good meal, buy a book.

Yes, last week we knew all of these things. But this week we don’t know any of them. We need to find these things out all over again. And this is precisely what a newcomer guide helps readers do.

While the tourism guide focuses only on entertainment/leisure advertisers, in the newcomer magazine everyone from plumbers to electricians to interior designers and new car dealers are prime targets. For this reason newcomer’s guides are a staple of the independent publisher. Every metropolitan area of more than 30,000 is prime territory for such a publication, and they can be quite successful on a smaller scale in much smaller towns. I published one successfully in a town of 14,000.

City Magazines
City (or county) magazines are attractive projects for the independent publisher. These arefour-color, 8 1/2″ x 11″, self-covered glossy magazines. They focus on the culture, history,personalities and business of a single community.

Since the advertising rates will be relatively high, the city magazine needs a fairly large metropolitan area to support monthly or bi-monthly publication. But an annual city magazine can be successful in small towns.

There are fringe benefits that some entrepreneurial publishers will enjoy. As editor and publisher of a “real” magazine (as distinguished from the promotional Chamber of Commerce variety) you will be courted and admired by writers and artists, and be invited to be the featured speaker at many a civic club dinner. You will have a showcase for your own writing, and even begin to wield a bit of influence in molding opinion in your community through the articles that you publish.

City magazines are most successful when they are part of a mix of publications brought out by the same publisher. They are not likely to produce a large enough cash flow to float your business as a single activity.

Chamber of Commerce “Quality of Life” Magazines
If you are planning a move to a new city and you write the Chamber of Commerce for an information packet, you will receive maps, pamphlets and other materials. Among these will be a publication that looks like a magazine, with a strong mix of editorial and advertising. These are the so-called “quality of life” magazines that virtually every Chamber of Commerce in the country publishes annually

Usually the money is good, the time commitment reasonably small, and the public recognition for you and your company gratifying and valuable.
Again, you have three pluses going for you: intensive sales, in a limited geographical area, with targeted circulation.

I won’t say that ad sales are ever easy, but with the quality of life magazine they are as easy as they’re going to get. The businesses that are Chamber members have been conditioned to “participate,” issue after issue, year after year.

Association Directories
My introduction to publishing association directories came when a friend suggested that I design and print a directory for the newly-formed North Carolina World Trade Association. The directory would carry the names and addresses of the hundreds of members of the organization, plus advertising from many of them. I would produce the directories free of charge for the association, and give them a check for 10% of gross advertising revenues.

I was immediately interested, for three reasons:

1. The project could easily be handled by the people I had in place – by me alone, if necessary.

2. I did not carry the financial baggage of excessive overhead the other, larger, periodical publishers would have to factor into their profit and loss analysis. I could be very competitive at no loss in quality or profit.

3. The ads could be sold by telephone, for the most part, to members of the association. There would be no need for any hard sell, and there would be triple motivation for these members to buy:

* They could afford it. Most of the advertising prospects – major banks, shipping lines, large industries had budgets more than adequate to handle the cost of advertising.

* They would be likely to buy ads out of loyalty to the organization.

* Finally, the directory would offer a strong, targeted advertising opportunity. There was no other place where these advertisers could so easily reach their most sought-after potential customers: those involved in the import-export trade and international distribution of manufactured goods.

Check your yellow pages for association names and addresses. Perhaps there is a directory out there for you.

Weekly Newspapers and Specialty Tabloids
Weekly newspapers and specialty tabloids are very attractive entrepreneurial projects, and well within the reach of the two-person publishing company. These publications meet our criteria for success: they have a clearly defined and trade area and target a finite list of advertising prospects, all of whom are easily reached. Moreover, tabloids are inexpensive to design and produce.

Virtually negligible up-front costs are more than balanced by the short weekly billing cycle you will be working on. By the time your next month’s lease payments come due you will already have four or five (yes, some months will have five Wednesdays in them!) weeks’ accounts receivable to pay them. If, in the beginning, you do not need to draw out great amounts of cash for your own living expenses, it really is quite possible to start a newspaper and pay for it out of current revenues.

Among the population segments that could form the base of a profitable publication are people with shared interests, ethnic and religious groups and, for university towns, guides for incoming students.

Apartment Comparison and Real Estate Guides
You go into a motel in a new town. In one corner of the lobby are wire racks stuffed full of pamphlets and booklets offering apartments for rent and homes for sale to every eventual newcomer who might be passing that way. These modest publications are chock-full of ads, each of which may cost anywhere from several’ hundred dollars to a thousand or more dollars per page.It was not unusual for one 126-page issue of my apartment directory to contain over $ 100,000 in advertising.

How Much Can You Make?
Independent, home-based publishing is a business in which you can earn almost as much money as you desire to earn, so long as you are willing to work for it and learn the business. Can I guarantee your success? No, I cannot. What I can guarantee is that the ideas presented in this article have worked for me; they have worked for others; and they can work for you, to the degree that you study them carefully and put them into practice with energy and intelligence.

THOMAS A. WILLIAMS, PHD, is one of the country’s leading authorities on the niche market periodical publishing and the self-publishing and marketing of books. He invites you to check his blog at

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