id you ever dream of being an editor or publisher? I did. I wanted to have all the fun and glory associated with laying out pages, picking photos, putting together an editorial calendar, and yes, even that cool task of fielding pitches from writers.
But the idea of dropping $100,000 or more—and taking a second mortgage out on our house—to start up a glossy magazine was not something this financially risk-adverse gal was willing to stomach—ever.
Instead, in 2004, I dipped a toe in the publishing waters by starting an online magazine, or e-zine, about a topic I was passionate about: New England travel. My total startup cost was just my frugal speed: $10 to buy a domain name and $12 a month for web hosting fees. This modest little e-zine began with a subscriber list of twenty of my friends who were interested in learning more about travel to northern New England. It has since mushroomed into almost three thousand loyal subscribers from around the world with over twenty thousand unique visitors reading articles on the site every month.
Most importantly, the e-zine was profitable within six months. I was so encouraged by this endeavor, I started a second online magazine about working from home.
While these online magazines have not catapulted me into the league of media mogul Rupert Murdock by any stretch, these e-zines have created a stream of revenue for me—enough to consider this side business as a “paying client.”
It has also positioned me as an expert in both New England travel and working from home. (I have gotten gigs as a result, ranging from a style editor for Comcast’s New England Connections magazine to a cover feature about Cape Cod for AAA Home & Away magazine.)
If you are a writer with an itch to add “publisher/editor” to your credentials, become a known expert in a field, and even add a few hundred dollars to your bank account each month, take these steps to launch your own online magazine:
Pick a Topic You’re Well-versed In and a Niche You’re Passionate About
As a freelance writer, you probably already know the topics that float your boat. It could be travel, business, pets, gardening, food, frugal living, or computers. These areas are great for specializing as a freelance writer, but much too broad for an online magazine. Narrow it down.
For example, you are food writer who really loves everything about bread baking. You bake bread every night for your family; you love experimenting with new bread recipes; you are thrilled when you discover new ways to shape bread; you just love the way the dough feels on your hands when you’re kneading...you get the idea. We’re talking passion here.
Passion is the fuel you need to launch a successful online magazine. It’s important because your passion will become contagious—and you need that excitement to attract others who are just as passionate about your topic as you are. These people will be your subscribers.
Stay away from topics that don’t give you that tingle of excitement. They won’t have the staying power for the long haul. Remember, you’ll be delving into this topic for many years to come.
Put Your Passion Aside and Do Research
Now that you’re fired up about a topic, set that excitement aside for a moment, and do some preliminary research to see if you have a market for your idea. The easiest way to do this is to conduct a keyword search. This will show you how many people are searching for this term in the U.S. and globally.
A handy online tool to help you do this is Google Keyword Planner (Add this to your favorites list. You’ll be referring to the site for the life of your e-zine.):
Let’s stick with our bread baking e-zine example. If you type “bread baking” into the keyword search, you will get a long list of words that relate to the topic. The term “bread baking” itself results in about 74,000 searches globally per month. That’s a decent number, enough to warrant starting an e-zine on the topic. But if you scroll down to “Additional Keywords to Consider,” you’ll find that the search volume for the keyword “bread” is more than 9 million, and “bread recipes” is more than 1 million! Ka-ching!
Take a closer look at all the keywords that relate to the word “bread,” and you will find good topics for numerous stories, including: “gluten free bread,” “sour dough bread,” “flat bread,” and so on.
If you have a topic that gets hits in the high thousands or even millions, you have an audience. Not a guaranteed audience—just enough people out in the world who are interested in the topic.
Now do some Google searches on your topic: “bread making e-zines,” “bread websites,” or “bread blogs” for example. Take notes on your competition. Find out what is being covered and any gaps in coverage. You will be filling those gaps with your e-zine.
Visualize Your Audience
Who will be your readers? Stay-at-home moms who love to cook? Urban young professionals who bake bread as a relaxing hobby on the weekends? Retirees who bake for fundraisers?
Find out where these readers “hang out” in cyberspace. Chances are if you are passionate about your topic, you already know the answers to these questions. If not, do some online research and note the websites, blogs, chat rooms, and discussion groups where your future readers may be. Write them down—you’ll need these links later.
Get a Name and a Domain
Do you want your e-zine to be daily, weekly, or monthly? For starters, I would recommend monthly until you have enough experience—particularly if you have other freelance writing assignments. But leave the option open to become weekly since this frequency is just about right. Weekly is probably the best in terms of getting your name out in front of your subscribers frequently, but not so much that it is a burden to your readers or to you.
Next, think of some names for your e-zine. While it is tempting to go for a cutesy title (such as Knead to Know), what you want is a title that includes your key words—remember those? For example:
- Bread Baking Weekly
- I Love Bread Baking
- Bread Baking Made Easy
- Bread Recipes Weekly
Next find out if these URLs are available. Visit Godaddy or any other domain name retailer to do a free check on these domains. A quick check while writing this story found that www.breadrecipesweekly.com URL is available. I would pick this URL since “bread recipes” ranked very high in searches.
Get Your E-zine Online
In order to potentially make money from your e-zine, you will need a website. Designing a site is beyond the scope of this article, and it is probably the hardest part of creating an e-zine, particularly if you don’t have web design experience.
You could opt for hiring a web designer, which will drive up your start up costs. Or you could, as I did, jump in and design one yourself. This is not as hard as it sounds, particularly with WYSIWYG software (pronounced wizi-wig and stands for “What You See is What You Get”). You will not need to learn HTML (or very little of it), and you can get your site up and running in a few days. Most WYSIWYG design software comes with templates, full instructions, and tutorials.
I use a free WYSIWYG software called Yahoo Sitebuilder, which is available if you host your site on Yahoo. There are advantages and limitations to this software, and I would suggest you take your time researching the type of web design software available since it is difficult (but not impossible) to switch later on when you have a site filled with hundreds of pages of content.
You could also consider computer applications such as CMS (Content Management System). Examples of free CMS tools are Wordpress and Joomla.
You will also need to decide how you will send out your e-zine. There are a few options.
- Provide a link in an e-mail that your readers can click on to get to the new issue, which lives online.
- Put the e-zine content directly into an e-mail.
- Put some of the content in the e-mail with a “read on” link to the rest of the story, which brings readers directly to your site.
There are plusses and minuses to each of these techniques. I prefer to put the entire e-zine on the website, so it is searchable by the web spiders and gets me some clicks (and revenue).
You will also want to make sure that you have a subscription sign-up on each page of your site. Don’t try to manage your subscription by using your personal e-mail. When your list gets above 50, it will be too unwieldy for your e-mail program to handle; instead when you are starting out, opt for a free listserv or even start a business page on Facebook Pages.
You could also pay for an e-mail distribution service such as ConstantContact or Substack—where you can place your entire e-zine within the e-mail and a link to an online version as well.
Whatever you do, don’t spam. Read and understand the rules of the CAN-SPAM Act.
Add Content to Your Site
Before you even hit the “publish” key, make sure that you have at least ten to twenty pages of content on your site. Since you are passionate about your topic, you probably already have articles you have published elsewhere. (Check with the publication first to see if you own the copyright for electronic use.) You can create stories of your own and post it to the site. But you don’t want the burden of adding content all by yourself, and you don’t have to.
You can solicit free articles from a variety of sources. For example, for Bread Recipes Weekly you could ask:
- Flour manufacturers to send along recipes for credit and a link
- Artisan bread makers to send hints and tips about their craft—again, for credit and a link
- Lodging establishments (such as bed and breakfasts) to send favorite bread recipes or tips for bread making for credit and a link
You can also get free articles. Here is a sampling of sites I sometimes mine for stories:
Remember to read the disclaimer carefully to find out exactly how you may use these articles. Never put your own name on the article; make sure you give the author credit and provide a link back to the author’s site.
Once you get going and get some revenue, you can start to solicit pitches from freelancers and pay for articles.
Monetize Your Site
The easiest way to monetize your site is to join a contextual advertising network, also known as Pay Per Click (PPC). It’s as simple as placing a piece of HTML code onto your website. Voilà! Ads matching the content of the page magically appear! It is quite amazing, actually, and I use these ads on each and every page of my sites.
There is no cost to apply to these programs (although you will need to go through an approval process), and you get paid on a per-click basis. The big three providers are Google, Chitika, and Infolinks:
If you want to get even more revenue from your site, consider becoming a marketing affiliate for companies that sell products that are compatible with your content.
For example, for the bread making site, you can become an affiliate for companies that sell bread baking machines, cooking bowls, spoons, cook books, and more. Here are the two affiliate marketing companies that I use:
Once your e-zine is well established, you can also approach potential advertisers and sell ads yourself.
Get the Word Out
Lastly, make sure that you let the world know about your online magazine. Print businesses cards that include your URL; make sure your website URL is on every e-mail you send out.
Promote your e-zine through social media networks such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. Participate in forums and discussion boards, related to your topic, and provide helpful information. (Please don’t do bold-faced advertising on these sites—you’ll be booted out. Just provide a link to your website after you post.)
It may take months to get your website off the ground. But it is a thrilling ride. Best of all, you’ll fulfill a dream to publish your very own magazine—without going into debt. If you keep at it, you’ll even earn some extra cash for your bank account.
Marcia Passos Duffy is a full-time freelance business and travel writer who is also the publisher and editor of two online magazines, The Heart of New England and Home Office Weekly.