You’re tooling along quite nicely, thank you, writing about CB radios for a number of magazines when BOOM! – along comes the mobile phone. Bye-bye CB radio specialty.
OK, that’s a hoary example – but it sort of actually happened to me. Back in the day, when CB radios were today’s iPhones, I wrote for several trade magazines that targeted retailers of CB radios. I say “sort of,” because the CB radio craze was not my specialty; retailing was. So I didn’t lose a specialty, but I did lose a reliable monthly income stream when those retailers (and thus the magazines targeting them) went out of business.
Fast forward to a more current example. What if you’ve specialized in writing about employee relations? But you’re seeing a decline in assignments as robots have pushed humans out of the assembly line, the warehouse, and soon, the fast-food kitchen. Hmmm … HR to RR (Robot Relations)?
The ‘Disappearing Specialty’ can happen to anyone
It can be distressing when the subject area in which you’ve built up an inventory of content, sources, and markets begins dropping off those editors’ menus. Better prepare, because no writer is immune.
A scientific or technological breakthrough in some obscure field can suddenly and dramatically shift editorial needs – with the “hidden” field now the hot one; rendering some other field (possibly yours) passe.
And it doesn’t only happen to pure science or tech writers – discoveries and innovations can totally erase topic needs for editors of parenting, agriculture, gardening, health, food magazines – and more. While the disappearing topics will still find a few outlets, most writers who covered them seriously will have to move on.
Making opportunity out of disaster
If your specialty suddenly dries up – or you see your usually robust sales in a specialty begin dwindling – here are steps to take:
1. Explore branches of your specialty. You’ve been working on one subject almost exclusively, delving deeper and deeper, as editors assigned more and more. But that doesn’t mean you can only write about that narrow topic. Revisit your previous articles, your research, your sources – looking for information beyond that no-longer-needed topic. Other areas of that specialty may still be current – and in editors’ short supply.
2. Re-examine the magazines and websites you’ve been writing for. What else are they covering – that is still in demand – that would be a natural for you? Which topics do they cover that your sources could weigh in on? When you have excellent sources you can reach, and an editor who likes your work, you have two parts of that three-legged stool. All you need do to fix that stool is pitch new topic ideas.
3. Look at your related skills. Did your specialty require you to do extensive research? And are you good at it? Put that skill to work. Contact textbook publishers, who often seek freelance researchers and editors to build out manuscripts submitted by expert teachers. Or track down (probably via social media) successful indie romance novelists who need good researchers.
4. Spend some time at newsstands. General interest magazines are usually the last to cover trending topics. Look for general interest magazines with cover lines on topics close to your specialty. The editors of those publications may be pleased to find a writer with expertise in the subject, especially if you suggest how you could do a follow-up to a story they are currently running. While you’re there, skim through specialty magazines new to you to see if they suggest a new niche for you.
5. Keep up with changes in your field. The best way to not become obsolete quite so easily is to keep ahead of the learning curve. Follow the reports from industry trade shows and academic meetings related to your field. Not only will you come away with ideas to pitch your editors, but you will know what future trends are likely to occur, and where you need to be researching for your own writing survival.
6. Prevention – the best strategy. Don’t turn down opportunities to experiment in other fields and disciplines. If you write about technology, but you also love to cook, spread your queries out to magazines covering food – especially on using technology in the kitchen. If you’ve done a story on, say, the chikungunya virus for a health magazine, consider a spin-off for a travel piece on where the virus is spreading and what travelers can do.
In my own case, as Walmart and other big box stores began wiping out the Mom-and-Pop retailers – prime targets of the magazines I was writing for – an unexpected opportunity came along to write on a medical topic. I grabbed it (it sounded interesting); and voila! a whole new specialty opened up in which I am still writing and editing.
Even the writer who is a generalist can see topics and markets dry up – as one article tends to lead to a similar one; one sale tends to lead to more at that same magazine – until the generalist builds up an accidental sub-specialty. And even on a small scale, the demise of that subject on editorial calendars can hurt the writer’s checkbook.
Before that happens, look for opportunities – follow the side roads to related ideas and markets; and explore completely new avenues – either by scheduling them in or by grabbing the opportunities offered. But begin doing it now – before you have to.