Making More Money with Sidebars, by Gordon Burgett

Sidebars aren’t the meat and potatoes of selling, but tasty side dishes that enhance the overall flavor of the meal and increase its value. They do deserve special attention, though, particularly if you want to earn a healthy income from writing. You must know how they fit into the larger scheme of selling, when they can make the difference to a sale, and how and when they can or should be offered or provided.

When Should You Use Sidebars?

Sometimes you need more than a simple, self-contained article to make the sale or to explain the topic fully. Sidebars accompany perhaps a third of the magazine articles sold, so you must know what they are and how they enhance your saleability to editors. The good news: they usually earn you more money!

You may hear sidebars referred to as bars or boxes. They’re the same thing; secondary information linked to an article and contained in a box or sidebar. Time and Newsweek use them frequently, often shaded a different color to set them off. If the main story is about welfare change, the box will probably contain an in-depth account of how the changes affect one welfare family or a list of changes in the law.

If you’re writing about the turnip festival in Tulip, Michigan, your box might be (1) other town activities this year, (2) other points of interest to see within the 40 miles of Tulip, (3) a thumbnail history of the town and township, (4) six national figures born in Tulip.

You get the idea: If the main article covers the broad theme (taxation, life on Mars, illegal immigrants), the sidebar zeroes in (a state that lowers taxes annually, how microbes can exist in hostile environments, one family living in three countries). Macro/micro.

Or the reverse: The article is about type B blood and the difficulty of matching donors in Finland, Spain and Bolivia; the box tells how the mutant blood type began and spread. Or the article is a biography of Sandy Koufax; the box tells of Jewish ball players in the major leagues.

Which Editors Use Sidebars?

Most do, but you must study the publication to see if the one you want to buy your masterpiece is in the majority. Newspaper editors are the most likely buyers, particularly if the box is short and tucks up in an empty hole near the article. Sidebars create more problems for magazine editors, who are cramped for space. So they are more likely to break the article into components, the body and a box or two (before or after) only if they know in advance the total space needed and why the sidebar adds appreciably to the article’s content.

How Do You Sell Sidebars?

You really only have two means to get the additional copy accepted and bought. The best is probably just to write the box at the same time you write the article, create and print up each manuscript separately, and on the top of the sidebar, write in large letters, “SIDEBAR” so the editor knows it is supplementary material. Then the editor has four choices: (1) buy the article alone, (2) buy the article and the sidebar, (3) buy only the sidebar or, (4) send you packing, sans sale.

You won’t sell the article/sidebar package if you don’t send in a good sidebar that adds significantly to the original piece. Often enough, an editor will buy an article and not the accompanying sidebar. It is a rare day that an editor buys only a sidebar, although not so rare to kindly refuse the article for some reason but to ask you to expand the sidebar into another article with a new slant.

Those are the positives, that sidebars can not only increase your income, sometimes doubling it, but also offer sales opportunities in addition to the main article. The negative is the loss of time writing sidebars that are not bought.


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