Pitch perfect: how to sell more stories

John Gierach is likely the only person who can send just about anything in and have it published. I’m fairly certain he could scribble “Fish on!” on a cocktail napkin and it would receive top billing in whatever publication he sent it to. And why not? The man could make the phone book interesting — and people know it. But his byline likely didn’t carry the same weight until he was established. That means even he had to pitch at some point.
Pitching to editors is many writers’ least favorite part of freelancing, but it’s a necessary part of the job.
Editors want to hear from you. They need quality content. But theirs is a busy job with a variety of duties and an often overflowing inbox. If you give them enough information to make a decision quickly you will receive more positive responses.
The quality of the content you present is one of the most important parts of the puzzle, but it is not the only one. There’s a long list of what can make a pitch more attractive to editors, from when it’s received to how it’s crafted. But good pitching starts long before you hit send, or even draft your proposal.
In this issue of OU I’ll offer some insights into preparing to pitch. In the August/September issue I’ll tackle drafting and sending the query.
While not a comprehensive guide, these are insights I’ve gained after making a lot of mistakes and could help you avoid similar blunders, and sell more stories in the process.
If I learned anything from my limited time in retail sales, it’s that you need to be less concerned with what you find appealing and more with the interests of your customers. If you’re a freelancer, your customer is not just the editor, but the publication’s audience. The two likely have similar tastes, but in the end, the editor is looking for material the publication’s established readership will find interesting. If you are a long-time reader of the magazine you are likely the target demographic, or you understand who is. Otherwise, sit down with back issues of the publication and thoroughly read them, noting tone, style and topics.
Many of the larger publications have a media kit hidden somewhere in the recesses of their website. This is usually designed to attract advertisers, but oftentimes the editorial layout for the following year is included. This is your Rosetta Stone. Knowing that October is elk month, you can send in all those rigging tips you have learned over the decades loading pack mules. May is the top water bonanza? Turn in your favorite popper tying instructions.
Sometimes you will be fortunate enough to find a set of instructions for submissions on the publication’s website. Follow them. This is the roadmap to getting published in that magazine. This will tell you if the editor would rather have a completed piece or just a query. If there’s a style guide, study it. The easier you make the editor’s job, the more likely they are to hire you. Pay close attention to the requirements for each section of the publication; unless you are Gierach they will be unlikely to deviate from that formula.
You won’t need to fully report the piece, but you do need enough research to show an editor why it’s newsy and why their readers will be interested. A simple social media search can provide data to indicate the popularity of the subject you can cite as “a recent Facebook search showed that hunters in the Midwest were actively discussing the rut at this time last year.” Statistics and facts also help. “The summer was the hottest on record, with surveys by the Bureau of Land Management indicating less standing water in the arid Southwest than any other time in the last 15 years. This fall, if you find water you’ll find the pronghorn.”
Social networks can be powerful tools to help market your work and find more. Carefully timed posts can draw attention to your recent stories, build interest around your body of work and increase your credibility. Building a network of publishers and editors allows you to share your articles and lets people review them at their leisure. This will highlight your areas of expertise.
In addition to helping promote your work, you can often find and reach out to the decision makers at a publication directly. LinkedIn is tailor-made for this approach, creating a who’s who right at your fingertips, often with email addresses.
Facebook can also be a good way to score some work. Trophy photos that are not appropriate for a professional networking site may pique an editor’s interest into your secrets for pulling greenheads when no one else can seem to buy a duck. And that outsized brown may just make an ideal cover for the “All About Trout” edition coming out next spring.
It’s also a great way to find publications that might be perfect for your pitch, which I’ll talk about drafting in the next issue. ♦

Joseph Albanese’s tenure in natural resources has taken him from the shadow of the Empire State Building to the Alaskan bush, with experiences as varied as the terrain. He now works as an outdoor communicator, creating text and video for publications including Field & Stream, Outdoor Life and The FlyFish Journal.

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