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Janet Roberts

How the Pros Stay Inspired: Fred Langa
By Janet Roberts

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If you are a sole-proprietor newsletter publisher, you surely have days when the job gets you down.

Assembling interesting copy day after day, or week after week, dealing with subscribers, cursing the mail server that just ate half your list - these are some of the challenges that don't get solved with a quick tip.

How do you stay inspired? That's the question we asked three longtime email-newsletter publishers, all of whom have been turning out high-quality products for at least five years. That might not seem like a long time, until you consider their newsletters are original products each time, full of engaging material you won't find anywhere else and plenty of reader interaction. In other words, they aren't cut-and-paste jobs.

It's a daunting job, but these three guys are up to it: Fred Langa (the tech-oriented weekly LangaList), Dana Blankenhorn (his a-clue weekly ranges widely around the Internet-strategy landscape) and Adam C. Engst (TidBITS for Macintosh owners and developers, published since 1990).

Beginning today, and for the next two Tuesdays, we'll run a brief inspirational interview with each publisher. If you're not familiar with their publications, check them out for ideas and strategies.

Today's publisher is Fred Langa, whose LangaList newsletter reaches 145,000 free readers twice a week, plus 20,000 who pay $12 a year for an enhanced edition. Fred has 29 years of publishing experience, both as a freelance writer, consultant and speaker and as an executive for tech magazines. He launched the free newsletter in 1997 and the paid version in 1991.

Janet Roberts: How do you manage the process of publishing your newsletter week in and week out?

Fred Langa: Lots of coffee. 8-) I set aside two days a week for managing the infrastructure - billing, processing subscriptions, updating the list servers and Web sites, etc. The other three days are research and writing. Email is a more or less constant background task all week long.

(OK, I'm lying. Too often, running this business is a 6- or even 7-day job. If everything goes smoothly, I can get the week's work done in five 10-hour days, but when there are snags, it will spill over into the weekend.)

JR: Do you have assistance, or do you handle it mostly by yourself?

FL: I'm a one-person shop. I do use external Web hosts and a mailing-list host so I don't have to physically maintain Web and mailing-list servers here; I also use an external credit-card processing gateway server for the same reason. But all the content, and the integration of the various pieces of the business, is done by me.

JR: What's the single greatest motivator (aside from having to meet advertising commitments) that helps you get your newsletter out every week?

FL: I like to write, and I prefer to work alone. I've done the corporate thing (e.g. I was a VP in a New York publishing house for quite a while); I've had large staffs (ditto - I oversaw about 100 editors); and I much prefer having no one to answer for or to but myself, and to spend most of my time creating content. This job lets me work the way I prefer.

Yes, burnout is a constant threat: The pace can be exhausting. But it's not boring: I'm still learning new stuff all the time, and that keeps it interesting.

For example, my first challenge was just "how to start an email newsletter." Then it was how to run a newsletter; then how to run a large and growing newsletter; then how to go commercial; then how to run a subscription service; how to handle renewals; etc.

At each step, I've had to figure out new methods, build new systems (in some cases, writing small custom software tools to help automate things), and learn new concepts (e.g.: becoming a credit card "merchant").

As long as I'm making enough money to meet my family's needs, and as long as it stays interesting, I'm OK. If the day comes when everything's totally monotonous and routine, or if I can't pay my bills, I'll pull the plug and try something else.

Next week: Adam C. Engst, publisher of TidBITS.

Ezine-Tips for May 14, 2002

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