Christmas articles are a big deal—but you may be too late for 2012!

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Yesterday was Valentine’s Day, as my wife kindly reminded me, and it brought to mind why Christmas articles were such a big deal, and so oddly placed on my working calendar when I lived by my freelancing. (A quick check with friends still fervently freelancing: nothing has changed!)

Christmas is an off-season pot of gold. One, a ton of copy is needed—and new angles or slants are warmly embraced. Two, newcomers don’t know about the early buying deadlines, and when they figure it out, the holiday ship has sailed.

Most of the major magazines start their Christmas issue in March or April, and deadlines are usually in June, or the latest July. The actual publication issue is either ready to go, with the ad holes waiting to be filled as the fall ad deadlines come, or the entire issues are actually printed in the middle of summer and stored for early release. Often as not, the Christmas issue has a different editor too, frequently an assistant editor put to the test. That means a fresh mind and eyes to send your queries to.

Which also means that if you have Christmas ideas to hawk, you have to ask the editors of your query targets about their submission deadlines. I usually did my Christmas plotting just as the previous season ended, getting my prioritized market list for each idea or piece ready to go so I could make four or five query submissions—the same topic sent one at a time, then pursued repeatedly if it met ill favor with editors as I descended the list. Some took 10 days for a reply, others took 40. (If the first or second editor agreed to read it—almost always a sale if I lived up to the query promise and got it in on time—I would then find a clearly different slant to that idea, refashion the core query, and start over on that same list, leaving out the editor who gave me a “go-ahead.”)

There was another bonus: it was so easy to see what editors sought by studying what they had just bought for their holiday pages. If you spent an afternoon at the library listing what the 30 mainstream magazines used in November and December (probably in December or January), and sorted that into key idea/query piles—like “evergreen” (always used), “regional” (find other examples in other regions), “religious,” “crafts,” “food,” “historical,” “famous people,” “terminology” (what the Christmas-related words meant), “customs,” and so on, you could focus on the articles that that were interesting, different, and you particularly wanted to write.

But you’re only half way there—the hard half because most freelancers work only the major magazines. Do the same thing to the niches you serve: they have Christmases too! There are lots of magazines that have tightly-targeted readers, they pay well, and only a few daring writers fill a lot of their pages. So get in this shorter line. If you’re a foodie, mix the holidays with new recipes, modes of serving (or new presentations), food with a holiday twist. Make a list of the niches with magazines: food, seniors, decorating, outdoor ornamentation, Internet (“shop digitally this year!”). Maybe even seasonal Santas have their own magazine. (Ask your librarian.) The submission process is the same: a list of ideas you want to write, target publications in order of what they pay, how likely they are to use that idea, what percent of freelance material they buy, how many issues they print per year, and if they pay on acceptance or publication. (The latter are fit only to buy reprints if you are serious about survival!)

You get the idea. But if you’re going to cash in, you’d better get going. (The good news is that some of the magazines do nothing different. You can query them until September!)

Merry Christmas!

Gordon Burgett

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