Last month I introduced the forthcoming OWAA publication “Freelancers Guide to Business Practices.” The following piece is for the new booklet, shared here to help promote the “Freelancers Guide,” which is expected to be published in June.
This article is intended to help freelancers “break the ice” with new acquisitions editors. Sprinkled in are excerpts from OWAA’s Business Conduct Guidelines, our Code of Ethics and craft improvement pieces from the OWAA archives, previously submitted by members. Paragraphs or excerpts not mine are noted in italics.
Making the contact
Should a freelancer make the initial contact with the editor via phone, snail-mail or e-mail? To help answer this question, I consulted four OWAA acquisitions editors, all of whom helped update what OWAA’s Business Conduct Guidelines say about phoning editors:
Phone calls: Unless editors indicate other preferences, the transaction of business over the phone (queries, decisions or manuscripts, etc.) shall generally be considered unprofessional. Members are urged to submit via e-mail or on paper, for within the written word lies proof and protection for editors and writers alike. Editors may initiate work via a phone call, but such commitments should also be confirmed with a follow-up e-mail or letter. Phone calls are recognized, however, as legitimate for an editor’s inquiry into overdue work or a writer’s inquiry based on lack of editorial response, and as a good means of following up on changes, confirming details, updating material and keeping tabs on the progress of a job.
I also checked a previously published OWAA “Ask the Editors” column in which a member asked a panel of seven OWAA acquisitions editors about queries submitted by e-mail. The panel represented a cross section of magazine specialties, including buyers of travel, fishing, hunting, science and general outdoors pieces. Conclusion: All seven favored e-mail correspondence, with responses such as, “E-mail is fast …,” “I feel pretty good about e-mails …,” “I absolutely love e-mail queries!,” “I work best with e-mail queries …” and “I love ‘em.”
Do your homework
“Know Your Market!” says Dan Streeter, longtime editor of a specialty magazine. “Nothing annoys an editor more than a query from someone who has obviously never seen the magazine in question, nor studied the subject matter. Many was the time that I’d receive a completed manuscript about paint horses that was accompanied by photos of appaloosas or spotted Arabians.”
Mike Strandlund, editorial director and associate publisher of Bowhunting World/Archery Business, said knowledge of the topic (i.e. doing your homework), knowing what his publication is all about and how he presents information is key. “I will listen to any potential contributor who impresses me with intelligence and respect. …”
When corresponding, be courteous and professional at all times. Remember, you’re not only an outdoors communicator, you’re a businessperson. Be practiced in all regards. And remember the Golden Rule, cited here from Canon VI of OWAA’s Code of Ethics:
In Relationships With Other Members, We Should Be Guided By The Golden Rule: In dealing with other communicators, a member shall provide accurate and honest information, keeping the public welfare above all other considerations, even friendship.
Add a new twist
Search for new news and interview professionals. Streeter has read plenty of queries about how wonderful paint horses are because of their beauty and versatility. “If a magazine for a breed association has been publishing for more than 40 years, you can bet that stories such as that were really old news 35 years ago. Find out what the current topics of interest are today, and be sure you have the wherewithal to cover the subject in a new, informative way, complete with expert opinion from someone recognized in the industry.”
After having a thorough knowledge of the publication, perhaps with some ideas how to create a new twist on a previously published idea, it doesn’t hurt to analyze the editor’s work, too. The following is a craft improvement piece published more than two decades ago, and offered by Tom Gresham:
If you really study a magazine, you can know more about what an editor buys than the editor does. Preposterous, you say? Consider that the editor buys what “feels right” for the magazine without analytical review.
If you know (from really examining several issues) that stories in a particular magazine often use flashback leads, usually contain anecdotes in how-to stories, always close with a reference to the lead, or whatever trends you pick up, you can know what other freelancers only guess at. In fact, you could give a better answer to what a magazine is publishing than the editor, in many cases.
Supplement query or story with photos
An editor friend once told me he can patch up mediocre writing, and he’ll publish if the story idea is excellent. However, it’s difficult to fix bad photos. OWAA headquarters’ policy on publishing photos: No photo is better than a bad photo.
If you’re primarily a writer, acquire a decent digital camera and practice taking more than just snapshots. “If shooting photos for a specialty publication, know how to take the right one. When editors of a breed association magazine look at images, they want much more than just ‘pretty,’ ” says Streeter.
“Through lens choice alone, a horse can be photographed so its color and conformation shine, or made to look like a hammer-headed fleabag. That old cliche, head-down, end-of-the-trail pose just doesn’t cut it. And while the horse may be the star of the show, make certain that the rider or handler looks good, too. Stained and faded overalls may be great for working in the barn, but when it is time to appear in a publication that may be seen by an international audience, you don’t want your subject looking like a country bumpkin.”
Most editors would rather the initial contact be made via e-mail. Phone sparingly, and if you must, consider asking upfront when it’s appropriate to phone. Keep calls brief, to the point and be respectful and professional at all times.
Remember you’re not only a creative type, but you’re a businessperson trying to make a sale to a new customer. Think big – this could be a multi-thousand dollar sale. Your first impression, presentation and sale could be the first among many to a single buyer.
Get to know the publication and what type of pieces the editor purchases. Pretend you’re the editor. Learn the style and types of stories he or she wants. Brainstorm new ideas, different twists of story ideas already published.
Supplement your story with excellent photography. Look for different angles. Avoid midday light, if possible.
I’ll close with OWAA Past President Tom Huggler’s craft improvement piece, published years ago in Outdoors Unlimited. Huggler’s sage advice is worth repeating, and I recommend clipping and keeping his article close to your keyboard:
Why Editors Reject Stories
By Tom Huggler
Ever wonder the real reason your story got rejected? What is really meant by the checked comment “Material does not fit current editorial needs” on that printed, pre-stamped rejection slip? Consider these 10 thoughts:
1. The piece does not fit with the publication’s format. Is it too long? Too short? Too controversial? Poor topic? Rx: Study the particular market more carefully.
2. The story is not timely. You sent it too early or too late. The editor recently published a similar piece or has one slated for printing. Rx: Query before submitting.
3. Your piece is not accurate, or it is not honest or sincere. Do you have your facts straight? Have you defined the audience and your purpose? Rx: Think it through better and check your information.
4. The piece lacks focus. It wanders from point to point. Rx: Develop a single controlling idea before rewriting.
5. It is, at best, boring to read. Tight and bright sells. Triteness and cliches do not. Rx: Read the piece back aloud or have someone read it to you. Scrutinize every word or phrase that glibly glides by. Prepare for serious surgery.
6. The photography, um, is lousy. Rx: Buy a Nikon or Canon or Minolta or any one of several excellent new cameras on the market. Learn how to use it.
7. The packaging is ugly. The piece contains too many crossouts. Items are not in logical sequence. Cutlines are missing.
8. The story sermonizes. Rx: Get off the soapbox.
9. The lead (yawn) lacks impact. Rx: Write at least three new ones. Consider using paragraph 2, 3 or 4 as the basis for a new lead.
10. The editor has a headache. For some strange reason, which has nothing to do with the quality of your submission, the editor has chosen to send it back, Rx: Immediately mail it to the competitor, then charge a round of cold ones at the nearest tavern, certain of your ability to pay due to the impending sale.
The best antidote for rejection is to maintain a positive altitude; if you cannot pinpoint any of the above, then your material is good and it will sell. Put it back in the mail and forget about it. Keeping several submissions in transit helps remove the personal attachment that makes rejection so painful.