Guide to Starting a Print Newsletter

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I'm convinced that just about anyone with a special interest (regardless of what that hobby may be) and some writing talent can create a profitable newsletter.

Want to be a writer? Tired of rejection slips? Why not use this guide to starting a print newsletter.

Two years ago I decided to combine a cherished hobby–the study of genealogy–with my urge to write for a living. The result? A ten-page monthly newsletter that has given me both an outlet for my interests and a monthly profit of almost $200. The money isn’t much (yet!), but the excitement and satisfaction I’ve experienced have been tremendous from the start. And I’m convinced that just about anyone with a special interest (regardless of what that hobby may be) and some writing talent can create a profitable newsletter. Here’s my guide to starting a print newsletter.

Selecting the Newsletter Subject

Probably the most important step in launching a newsletter is to focus on a subject that will appeal to a sufficiently large, but as yet untapped, audience. For me, that choice was easy. Genealogy is a passion in my life, as it is for many other people, and I felt there was a significant potential market to explore. The most successful publication in the field, The Genealogical Helper, has a circulation of over 40,000; I figured that even 1% of that figure would be plenty for me to handle.

I also knew, however, that dozens of fledgling newsletters on all sorts of popular subjects fail each year in the face of stiff competition from larger, long-established publications. So my genealogical newsletter needed to be not only interesting, but also unique. With this in mind, I narrowed my scope to cover genealogy only in the seven-state Appalachian area (which is my main interest). I already knew that there was little data exchange available for researchers in this part of the country, and figured that my creation would fit nicely between small, one-county newsletters and large national publications.

I chose a descriptive name, Appalachian Roots, and checked an index of periodicals at the public library to make sure the title wasn’t already in use. I decided to feature some how–to articles, a where-to-buy section listing reference books, and a sizable reader exchange section where subscribers could swap information on their family research.

Print Newsletter Legalities

Once I’d decided on the subjects my newsletter would cover, I checked out the legal requirements for operating a business in my area, and obtained the necessary license, tax forms, and such. (Since regulations vary from town to town and state to state, you should check with the appropriate officials in your own region.) To keep my records straight, I purchased a pre-printed basic bookkeeping system (mine, published by Dome, cost $7.95), and I also opened a business checking account to make sure I’d have an accurate record of receipts and expenses.

Figuring Newsletter Costs

Of course, before I could set a price for my newsletter, I had to come up with a realistic estimate of costs; this meant determining how often I’d publish, what class of mail I’d use, and how much the printing charges would be.

After thinking it over, I decided to publish my newsletter once a month–frequently enough to provide my readers with up-to-date information, but not too often for me to manage alone. Since I felt timeliness was important, I chose first–class postage; second-class and bulk rates are cheaper but often very slow. For one first-class stamp, I could mail ten pages (five sheets of regular 8-1/2 inch by 11 inch twenty-pound bond paper printed on both sides), folded once and then stapled; so I decided this was as large as the newsletter would grow.

I called several local companies for offset printing prices and found that they vary a lot for the same quality work: The quotes I received ranged from $18.50 to $40.00 for 250 copies of one sheet printed on both sides. To save money, I decided to assemble, staple, and fold the issue myself.

After adding all my estimated costs and allowing for miscellaneous expenses, I set a price of $1.00 an issue, and promised myself I’d review my costs and cash flow after a few months.

Publishing Your Newsletter: Testing the Waters

To launch my publication, I typed a one-page sample issue outlining the proposed categories, had 200 copies printed ($13.00), and mailed them to libraries and genealogical and historical societies in the Appalachian area ($40.00 postage).

During the next two weeks I received orders for 15 subscriptions at $12 a year each, and received several article submissions as well. I was really in business!

Producing the Goods

The response to my sample outline was encouraging enough to convince me to stick to its basic format. Each issue starts with a full front page how-to article describing one phase of genealogy research, such as “Information from Old Cemeteries,” “Variations in Name Spelling,” and “How to Use Census Records.” The second section is called “Sources”; here I list and sometimes review-recently published reference books. I en courage my readers to submit information, and I scan other periodicals for mention of books, journals, and quarterlies. Each issue features at least ten such listings, including prices and ordering information. Everything from research method books and published census records to printed family histories is presented here. The newsletter also contains a “General Interest” page for announcements of meetings, seminars, reunions, and picnics for family groups or area societies and organizations.

Other than a half page for the “Editor’s Corner,” which I use to pass along last-minute news and notes, the remaining space is devoted to information requests from my readers. In genealogy these are called queries, and usually ask for specific help on a particular person or family. Many publications charge a fee for printing queries, or allow only one free query with a subscription. I allow each reader to send up to three eight-line queries a month . . . free. This keeps interest high (and, incidentally, helps to fill pages). I have no paid advertising.

The back page has two sections: The top folds over to form the address area, and the bottom contains a subscription order form with spaces for readers to fill in the particular surnames and family names that interest them.

Deadline for information to appear in any given issue is the twenty-fifth of the preceding month. Since I mail the copies during the first week, this gives me about ten days for final composition, typing, and printing.

Newsletter Layout and Typesetting

Because the newsletter follows the same general format each month, layout is relatively simple. The first page is topped by a masthead featuring a drawing of a log cabin on a hill, rendered for me by an artist friend, and the title Appalachian Roots, which I printed using a plastic lettering guide. I used the same lettering guide to print headings for the newsletter’s various sections, and put aside extra copies of these headings to use in setting up the “dummy” for each issue.

Preparing the dummy is just a matter of putting the headings and typed sections together in the proper order. A glue stick works well to hold the pieces in place on a base sheet of white paper.

Typesetting, of course, refers to the preparation of typed pages from which copies are printed. There are expensive typesetting machines that produce clear, clean print in different sizes, but for a small newsletter, a good electric typewriter–with clean keys and a dark ribbon!–is sufficient. When I first started, I used an old manual machine; now I type every issue on a Smith-Corona electronic typewriter, which I bought with part of my profits. Any title or heading I want to emphasize is either capitalized, underlined, or highlighted by broad lines drawn in with a ruler after typing.

Printing the Newsletter

I had my printing done by a local company the first year. But when most of my subscribers renewed at the end of the year and I continued getting new orders each month, I began looking for ways to cut my costs and quickly discovered that my biggest expense was printing. I’d planned from the outset to hold off buying any major equipment until I could see the business growing . . . and since it looked as though I’d reached that point, I went looking for a printing machine.

The cheapest type of printing apparatus is a mimeograph machine (about $100 for a good used one), but it has definite disadvantages: It doesn’t print well on both sides of a page; the stencils or masters are difficult to prepare; only a hundred or so good copies can be made from one master. At the other end of the spectrum is offset printing equipment, which, though expensive (used presses start around $2,500), produces excellent copies and is suitable for long runs. An offset press also takes a fair amount of space, though, which I didn’t have.

So I decided to look at xerographic, or photocopy, machines, which I felt might provide a good compromise between price and quality. Most office supply and copier stores that sell new equipment take used machines on trade and recondition them for sale. I visited area stores, explained to the salespeople how I planned to use a copier, and after several tries, found a three-year-old IBM office copier, just reconditioned and suitable for my needs, for only $1,000.

There are three important questions to ask about a photocopier: [1] Will it print on both sides of the paper? [2] How much does the toner or ink cost per copy? [3] How many copies a minute will it produce? My machine does print on both sides of a sheet, but I have to run the paper through twice. Toner ranges from 20e to $3.00 for 100 copies. My copier makes 11 copies per minute. . . which seems fast enough until it’s the night before my mailing deadline and there are 2,000 copies to make! Of course, I try to avoid a last minute hassle by spacing the work over several days, but occasionally there is a rush to meet the deadline.

Putting the Newsletter All Together

There are machines that collate, or put pages together in the correct order, but they’re costly when new, and I haven’t yet located an inexpensive used one. I still do things the old-fashioned way: I lay out my five stacks of paper on the desk, put them together by hand, and staple each issue together. It takes me about an hour to do 175 copies. I then go back through the assembled copies and fold each over once, staple the bottom, and apply the stamp and selfstick mailing label–a process that takes another hour. Incidentally, you don’t want to try typing the name and address on each newsletter: It would take days! It’s much simpler to use a roll of inexpensive peel-and-stick labels (mine were $21 for 5,000). For several issues I addressed the labels on my typewriter; later, I used my profits to purchase an inexpensive computer with a mailing program.

Promoting Your Newsletter

After the first six months, when I had only 52 subscribers, I decided to do a little advertising. The cheapest way is always the best way when starting out (or at least so I think), so I sent press releases describing my newsletter to the historical column editors of area newspapers, and mailed review copies to other genealogical publications. My circulation increased immediately! The only paid advertising I’ve ever used is a continuing ad in the largest related publication, which costs me $14 a month for a 2 inch by 2 inch ad. I’m certain I could increase my circulation even more by advertising in other periodicals, but for now, I don’t want to spend the money. Word-of-mouth advertising by my readers has produced good results . . . and it’s free.

Looking to the Future

Both the newsletter and my custom research require the use of reference materials. It’s much more convenient to have these on hand, so I’ve purchased a number of census records, marriage records, and books. Recently, I bought some of these records on microfilm and was fortunate enough to find a used microfilm reader for only $25.

In addition to the newsletter and research, I’ve just begun selling blank genealogy forms of my own design to my subscribers. The forms are actually worksheets to use in organizing information found in different sources; produced on my copier, they’re starting to bring in a little extra income each month.

Also, after having written dozens of how-to articles for the newsletter, I have a good head start on a booklet to be produced and sold in the near future. And I’m now considering publishing some genealogical data for areas that haven’t been covered previously. Finally, as editor and publisher of a successful newsletter, I now have credentials to offer when submitting articles to other genealogical publications, newspapers, and magazines.

Summing Up

If someone were to ask me what I consider the key elements in creating a newsletter, here’s what I’d say: [1] Choose your subject wisely: It must be something you like and understand, and it must be of interest to other people. [2] Take care of the legalities: Get the proper business licenses, pay the taxes, and keep good accounting books. [3] Determine your costs carefully: Consider printing costs, postage, equipment, taxes, and every other aspect of expense before you set your price. [4] Launch your publication with vigor: Give free samples, send out press releases, and advertise. [5] Plan for growth: As the opportunities arise, buy your own equipment, look for related areas in which to use your skills and materials, and start branching into these areas as soon as your business is strong enough. [6] Most important: Provide a quality product . . . and always deliver your newsletter on time!

My at–home publishing business has helped me develop self-discipline and has given me a lot of valuable experience in writing and editing. The income is negligible right now, but it’s steady . . . and increasing. If you can write, if you have the desire to break into print, and if you have worthwhile information to share with others, a carefully planned newsletter may be just the vehicle you need-and one that can bring in some extra cash, as well.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Appalachian Roots, the author’s monthly newsletter, is available for $14.00 per year (or $2.00 per sample copy) from Appalachian Roots, Parkersburg, WV.