Publisher Interview: Ed Pavelka
By Janet Roberts
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I became a statistic this year, but in a good way: I joined the growing legions of Americans who have gone back to the bicycle, now that we have more models to choose from at the bike shop and more interesting places to ride.
An email newsletter put me back in the saddle seat. I had been thinking about replacing my 22-year-old Raleigh touring bike, but that idle thought turned into an urge after reading my first issue of RoadBikeRider, a lively newsletter published weekly by Ed Pavelka and Fred Matheny of RoadBikeRider.com.
Ed and Fred seem to have found that magical place where they know what readers want and can translate it into type. This is no accident, though; both are longtime cycling writers and had published print books, ebooks and magazine pieces before going into the Web site/newsletter business.
The newsletter is fun to read, informative for people with different fitness and experience levels, a handy marketplace for buyers and sellers and a money-maker for the guys.
It's also a handy lesson in finding your niche and sticking to it, and not trying to be all things to everybody.
So far, Ed and Fred have published 64 issues and have grown their subscriber list to 11,500, with an average of 140 new sign-ups a week, all either from the Web site or reader referrals.
"We've yet to spend the first penny on marketing," Ed said.
He manages most of the publishing work. He went into business for himself after his employer eliminated his position as director of Internet content.
"I'll never forget the HR guy's explanation as I got my walking papers," Ed said. "'You've done everything we wanted you to do. Now we don't want to do that anymore." And you thought Dilbert was stretching it?
"With 20+ years of cycling journalism in my background, but having already held the top editorial position at the country's two major bike magazines, there seemed to be no way to stay involved in the sport unless I created my own job."
He built the RoadBikeRider.com site first, then launched the newsletter, using Angela Hoy's writersweekly.com site and publishing ebooks as his models.
In this segment of our interview, Ed talks about how he and Fred found their niche and serve their readers. In the next, he outlines the newsletter's financial background and where customer service fits in.
Janet Roberts: I know from your site and the newsletter that you are writing for road-bike riders instead of the knobby-tire mountain-bike set. Are there any other email publications out there that cover the same area, or are you pretty much it?
Ed Pavelka: One reason Fred and I picked road cycling for our niche is because roadies got buried in the mountain bike avalanche.
For several years, every cycling magazine was either pure mountain bike or half mountain bike. Old roadies like us were left without a dedicated publication of any type. We seized this niche, lots of former readers have found us, and we've quickly become the road leader. It wasn't hard without any competition!
Now, the cycling industry is actually seeing a swing back toward road riding. Even with only 11,500 subscribers and 50,000 page views per month, advertisers are showing interest in RBR because we stand alone with our list of dedicated roadies.
There's bound to be some competition soon, but we have a nice head start plus more name recognition than any other two writers in the road cycling world.
JR: What were the biggest challenges you faced in launching your online-publishing ventures?
EP: The newsletter has been the simplest part of the business, by far. All we do is write the same kind of helpful "how to" content that we've been doing for our entire careers. There have been technical hiccups along the way, of course, but nothing as challenging as learning FrontPage and creating the Web site. At least in the first few months. Now FP is easy and fun, too. But don't ask me about Adobe Acrobat.
JR: One of the things I find remarkable about your newsletter is the intense focus on bikes and riders, without lapsing into jargon. How do you find out what readers want, or what issues cyclists are concerned about?
EP: In my next life I want to play lead guitar in a rock band. When I tried it in this one, I started by buying every guitar player magazine I could find. Guess what? Nothing for beginners, everything way over my head. So they lost me.
We learned a long time ago to always remember what it's like to be a beginning cyclist. The trick is to write so they can understand but not be so basic that it's off-putting to more experienced riders. We have a glossary on the Web site but we don't want anyone to need it.
Nearly everything is written by Fred or me, with contributions also coming from "Uncle Al," a bike shop owner and good friend of Fred. We introduced the Unc to take on mechanical questions and he's been a huge hit, in part because his answers are gruff and funny, not just accurate. We publish reader questions and some of their tips and feedback, but all of the rest of the writing is ours.
What do RBR readers want? The same thing Fred and I wanted when we started riding in the early 1970s. They want to know how to ride better and get more fun and fitness from cycling. We learned the answers and have been giving them back to everyone who wants to listen ever since.
Ezine-Tips for October 16, 2002
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