September 20, 2014

So You Want To Publish A Newsletter

David Villano | 7/1/1995
In 1987, Don Causey approached New York publishing giant Bantam Doubleday Dell with an idea to start a subscription newsletter targeting sport fishermen. Thousands of weekend anglers, Causey reasoned, would gladly pay $30 or $40 dollars a year for a monthly, ad-free, no-nonsense report on sport fishing news and information. The company's market researchers agreed. Causey, already publishing one successful newsletter of his own out of his Miami office, signed a royalty agreement with the company and was retained as a consultant to the project.

But barely three years later, Bantam Doubleday Dell bailed out. After spending at least $175,000 to launch The Angling Report, the publishing house concluded that higher than expected production costs would always exceed subscription revenues. Convinced he could make it work on his own, Causey offered less than $10,000 for outright ownership of the fledgling newsletter. The company accepted the offer and The Angling Report, Causey proudly grins, has turned a profit ever since.

As Causey will attest, subscription newsletters may be the last frontier for the entrepreneurial Walter Mittys of the nine-to-five work force. Perhaps more than any other industry, newsletter publishing lends itself to small-scale operations where overhead is low and maneuverability high. Indeed, few other industries remain in today's complex economy where a good idea and a few thousand dollars in savings can launch a new career with high earning potential.

"[Bantam Doubleday Dell] was just spending too much money for the thing to ever make a profit," explains Causey, whose Miami-based Oxpecker Enterprises Inc. also publishes The Hunting Report for Big Game Hunters and The Hunting Report for Birdshooters & Waterfowlers. "The name of this business is keeping costs down, particularly in the beginning. Big companies can't always do that as easily as someone who has tapped all his savings and who is struggling to feed his family."

Although there is no precise definition, subscription newsletters tend to share a few characteristics: highly specific and narrowly focused in subject matter; compact, fact-filled articles that address industry trends and developments; an unadorned graphic style commonly produced in an 8.5-by-11-inch format; and entirely free of advertisements. Subscription prices range from a few dollars to a few thousand dollars per year. Perhaps most common and most visible are the investment newsletters, which provide financial insight and advice to both individuals and corporate subscribers (at least 30 investment newsletters are published in Florida alone), but other topics range from third-party politics to Latin American trade opportunities to trips you can take with your dog.

With a few exceptions, many large publishing houses and media concerns avoid newsletter publishing. While some early forays into the business proved promising, many ventures ultimately were undone by the sheer weight and expense of the parent company's own mighty resources. Of the estimated 5,000 subscriber-based newsletters published in the U.S. today, the great majority are produced by small, independent publishers who have learned that the economies of scale favor the proverbial kitchen-counter enterprise to the bureaucracy-laden media conglomerate.

Consider the math: a typical newsletter with 2,000 subscribers paying $100 per year will generate $200,000 in revenues - not a lot of money for a company to pay salaries, rent an office, purchase equipment and pay printing and mailing costs; but it's a nice chunk of change for someone working part-time from his home and using free-lance workers. Causey, whose three newsletters together generate more than $600,000 in annual subscription revenues, employs a full-time staff of only four.

At last count, Florida was home to 112 subscription newsletters - everything from Organic Food Business News to Psychotherapy Finances to Larry Hunt's High Speed Copy News. Some are single-publication mom-and-pop operations; others are produced by small newsletter specialists, like Causey, employing a handful of workers. Industry experts say more than half of all newsletters don't make it through the first year - often a casualty of inadequate marketing, under-capitalization and inconsistency of product.

"Newsletter publishing is an entrepreneur-driven business," says Howard Penn Hudson, president of The Newsletter Clearinghouse in Rhinebeck, New York, and the author of a book on newsletter publishing. "It's tougher than it looks, and it's a lot more competitive than it was just a few years ago, but there's still plenty of opportunity for someone who identifies a market niche that isn't being served."

Finding that niche, says Hudson, is deceptively difficult. For example, there are at least ten newsletters targeting the arcane world of plastics technology. Dozens focus on various aspects of labor law and there are literally hundreds of investment newsletters. The rule, he says, is that you've got to be either really different or really good.

The latter is true of Norman G. Fosback, whose Fort Lauderdale-based Institute for Econometric Research publishes eight investment newsletters. Earlier this year Fosback's monthly New Issues ($95 per year) was rated by The Hulbert Financial Digest as the nation's number one performer among all investment newsletters. The rating, coupled with the ensuing media exposure, greatly boosted subscription orders.

But for the rest of the pack, being noticed is not nearly as easy. Publishers say it's like trying to be heard in a room full of noisy people. "A perspective subscriber is going to ask himself, 'Why should I buy this?'," says Hudson, a newsletter industry veteran whose company publishes The Newsletter on Newsletters ($144 per year for 24 issues). "You've got to convince him that, for whatever reason, your newsletter has the information he desperately needs."

Charles Intriago, the Miami-based publisher of the highly acclaimed newsletter Money Laundering Alert, says the best newsletter topics are those affected by frequent legislative or regulatory action. Newsletters that print industry changes and developments, he says, are more vital than those which place new spins on old ideas. "When you pick an area to focus on," he advises, "be sure that it's being affected on a regular basis by new laws and regulations. It's got to focus on something which people can't afford not to be informed about."

Money Laundering Alert ($345 per year in the U.S., $425 overseas) targets banks, insurance companies and other financial and non-financial institutions worldwide which need to stay abreast of changes in U.S. money laundering laws. Intriago also counts a large number of U.S. government agencies among his subscribers. "With all the new laws and regulations, originally designed to stop drug smuggling, I realized that there was a great need to collect, organize and streamline this information," says Intriago, a former assistant U.S. attorney. "So we've became kind of like an insurance policy for banks against money laundering."

Intriago launched the publication in 1989 while working full time as a civil litigator in a Miami law firm. Working nights and on weekends, he and his legal secretary combed wire service reports, contacted government sources for inside tips and researched legal cases dealing with money laundering. Six months after the first issue, Intriago quit his law practice to work full time on the newsletter.

A similar story is told by Dr. Leslie Norins, who gave up a lucrative consulting practice in 1974 to focus exclusively on publishing Hospital Infection Control, a newsletter that provides practical advice to health-care administrators on how to combat disease and infection within hospitals. Norins, a seven-year veteran of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, says the idea came to him while lecturing at hospitals around the country. "There was no source for the ?how-to' information," he explains. "For example: what strength bleach should be used to clean hospital floors. This kind of information is too nitty gritty for medical journals, so there was a real void that needed to be filled."

Within ten years Norins' company, American Health Consultants, was publishing 56 monthly newsletters targeting the health-care industry. Among them were such titles as Internal Medicine Alert and Hospital Peer Review. In 1984 Norins, who says he is a physician by training but an entrepreneur at heart, sold the company and started over again. Today his Naples-based Global Success Corporation publishes two health-care industry newsletters: Laparoscopic Surgery Update ($265 per year for 12 issues) and OB-GYN Malpractice Prevention ($98 for individuals and $179 for corporate subscribers). Other titles are being planned.

But finding an unfilled market niche does not always translate to subscription orders. A few years ago Causey, a former editor of Outdoor Life magazine, was offered ownership of a newsletter, Fishing Lure Collectors, with the condition that if the newsletter made a profit, a percentage of it would be paid to the original owners. Causey's market research identified a large, information-starved audience of avid collectors, so he decided to accept the offer. However, shortly after he took over, few orders were being placed, and Causey bailed out. Additional research revealed the problem: many fishing lure collectors pride themselves on frugality and ingenuity. "They make an ethic out of not spending money," laments Causey. "So it was doomed from the start."

Some publishers and industry experts say consumer-oriented newsletters are a tough sell. It's one thing for a hospital, bank or law firm to place a $100 subscription order for a newsletter that presents industry-specific trends and regulatory changes; it's quite another for an individual - more accustomed to a $15 annual magazine subscription - to shell out $40 or $50 for a newsletter on gardening tips.

Whatever the target audience, the experts advise a thorough market analysis before starting a newsletter. "It's very common for people to overestimate the number of potential subscribers," says Patricia Wysocki, executive director of the 700-member Newsletter Publishers Association in Arlington, Virginia. Wysocki says a good response rate following a direct marketing campaign is a 1% or 2%. "People's expectations tend to be quite high," she says.

Many first-time newsletter publishers, Wysocki adds, also tend to underestimate start-up costs. Although overhead can be kept low (a computer, a phone and a fax machine), marketing expenses require a substantial cash outlay. And those who skimp on marketing efforts, she warns, rarely print their first issue. Norins says his 56-newsletter empire was started with just $15,000, drawn from a government retirement account. Virtually all of it went to a single mass mailing to potential subscribers. Intriago said Money Laundering Alert required close to $75,000 in seed capital. Although some successful newsletters have been launched with as little as a few thousand dollars, the Newsletter Clearinghouse's Hudson says $50,000 is a more realistic figure for first-time publishers.

Hudson also advises publishers to develop an editorial vision and focus and stick with it. Too many newsletters, he says, alienate readers by occasionally losing sight of their mission. "You have to create an identity and not deviate from it," Hudson says. Norins and his staff refer to their products not as newsletters but as useletters. "We developed a formula that worked and so we cloned it again and again and again," says Norins.

Money Laundering Alert is known for exhaustive reporting and comprehensive analysis of new laws and regulations. The newsletter is cited frequently by major media for having broken important news stories. For example, earlier this year the newsletter reported on a secret Internal Revenue Service crackdown on jewelers, auto dealers and real estate brokers. Intriago also says his reporters were the first to uncover documents showing that the Bush Administration lied when it declared that the removal of Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega would curtail money laundering in that country.

Intriago says new readers often are surprised by the depth and quality of his newsletter's reporting, most of it provided by himself and two young writers. "A lot of people think of a newsletter as being somewhat less professional or responsible than magazines or newspapers," he says. "But we take great pride in what we do as journalists." A similar message is heard from other publishers. Fosback, from the Institute for Econometric Research, demands not only good investment advice from his newsletters, but also accuracy and fairness. He recently adapted that formula to his first magazine venture, nationally distributed Mutual Funds Magazine.

Causey hopes the success and recognition of high-quality newsletters will attract more young journalists to the field. He says journalism schools often overlook newsletters when advising students on career options. In fact, he adds, some journalists prefer the newsletter environment because of its narrow reporting focus and editorial freedom.

"We don't have advertisers or anyone else telling us what we ought to print, so we're solely driven by the desire to break news and find the stories that need to be told," Causey insists. "And I think this kind of work is among the purest and most exciting forms of journalism being practiced today."

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