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It’s the Dirty Story of a Dirty Man and His Clinging Wife Doesn’t Understand

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So you’ve decided that directly contacting publishers and pitching your work to them is the way to go. Good for you. Now you’re wondering just how the heck you’re supposed to do that.

Do you send them an e-mail begging them for a chance with a link to your blog? Unless you enjoy filling an editor’s trash bin with deleted items I wouldn’t recommend it.

Do you send them your 4,000 word article and a request for them to read it and reply with a decision of whether they want it or not? Only if they specifically request full pieces in their submission guidelines. Consider that you’re an editor and every day you have fifty potential magazine articles from aspiring writers sitting in your inbox that you didn’t ask for. Think you’ll read them all?

So what do you do?

The first thing to do when considering contacting a potential publisher is to do your research. Familiarize yourself with the type of content they usually produce. Is it something you can work with? Does it fit well with your writing style and preferred subjects, and if not, are you capable of tailoring your work to suit theirs?

The best way to gauge whether or not your work is a good fit for a publication is to visit their website if they have one and read some of their articles. If they have no web presence, be prepared to sit down with a copy of their magazine and read for awhile. Most have several categories, so take the time to read a few pieces from those that seem within your realm of expertise and abilities. Note the overall tone and direction of the publication as a whole as well. Although you may write excellent political opinion ed,  a publication that deals in clinical political analysis is not likely to accept such work.

What do they expect?

The next thing to do is find the publishers guidelines for submitting or soliciting. Most online publishers have an area dedicated to spelling out exactly what they will consider and how to present it. Some offline publications do this as well, but you may have to contact them by phone or mail if they have no obvious contact addresses or terms for proposals listed. The guidelines these publishers provide often make it very easy to determine just how you should tailor your approach and you should follow them explicitly if you want your proposal to avoid the recycle bin. If you can’t follow the rules for submitting a proposal, an editor is likely to assume you won’t be able to write according to their needs as well and immediately reject you. The guidelines are there for a reason, so follow them to the letter.

What do I send?

Once you’ve gotten a handle on who you’re going to contact and armed yourself with some knowledge of their publication and their submittal guidelines, it’s time to put something together.

If they require you to submit a complete article or piece, then you may need to include a cover letter. A cover letter allows you to provide the information necessary to inform the editor of your intentions, how to return contact, what you are submitting, and some information about yourself and why you should be accepted. Cover letters should be short, to the point, and demonstrate professionalism. Leave demonstrating creativity to your writing and focus on getting the important information across. At the top of your cover letter include your name, contact information and the date. Follow that with the specific information for the person you are addressing; their name, title, name of their publication and the contact address.

Start off your letter with Mr. or Ms. and use their name to address them and not some generic greeting like “Dear Sirs”, or “To whom it may concern”.  Include your reasons for contacting them, what they can expect to find enclosed with the cover letter, and a brief example or explanation of your qualifications or why they should consider publishing your work. This can be something like a list of your prior successfully published works, who you have written for in the past, your education, and anything related to your writing experience. The main thing to do is keep it brief and easily digestible while still giving the editor an idea of who you are and what to expect.  Close the letter with an expression of thanks and avoid anything that may sound insincere or like pleading. Your cover letter is little more than an introduction really and it is your writing that follows the cover letter that will make the sale.

Some publishers do not want to receive entire manuscripts or articles and prefer you send them a query. A query is much more involved and is an actual sales pitch that is intended to sell an editor on purchasing your work, or hiring you to write. A query will include as well as the basic information contained in a cover letter, an explanation of what it is that you are submitting and a synopsis of the work you are pitching. The idea is to entice an editor into requesting the full body of your work for review. You can see some examples of query letters here that will give you a good idea of what one should look like and how it should read. Although you still need to keep a professional approach with your query, make it conversational as well. You want an editor to become interested in what you are offering, so imagine you are trying to explain to a friend what a story is about and why they should read it. You don’t want to come across as trying to make a sale, but instead as trying to show why your story is interesting and worth reading.

Ok, I’m going in. Any last words?

 Never tell an editor you are new to writing for publication. Likewise, never be self deprecating or apologetic. Don’t be a suck up either. Editors are not going to be impressed that you think their magazine is the best ever published, or that writing for them has always been your dream. Stick to a confident, conversational and informational tone, and keep the letter to one page in length. If you’ve been previously published, include one or two clips with your query as well but do not direct editors to a website or give them pieces of unpublished work.

As you can imagine, queries aren’t easy and are something of an art to craft. Expect writing one to drive you nuts the first few times you take a stab at it. Also expect the first few you send to be rejected. If they aren’t you’ll be pleasantly surprised, and if they are you’ll already be set to make the next attempt.

The most important thing here is to maintain your motivation and determination. Publications actually make it easy most of the time and tell you exactly what they expect from a contact and how to do it. It’s up to you to follow their rules and determine the best approach to use with each publication. That, and to submit your work and queries to as many publications as you can. Stick with it, learn from any feedback you get from either approvals or rejections and modify your tactics accordingly, and eventually you’ll find that combination that works best for you.

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This article has 12 comments

  1. Terez 11/18/2010, 5:30 pm:

    I really appreciate how detailed this post is. I feel like I know exactly what to do to pitch to a magazine!

    I have one question. Let’s say you have this great idea for an article, and you really want to write it. So you decide to pitch the same idea to several magazines. How long do you wait to hear from a magazine before pitching your idea to another?

  2. paul novak 11/19/2010, 2:45 am:

    Pitch it to all of them Terez. You never know who will want it, and nothing says you have the give two publications the same article;) Seriously though, I’d rather have to decide which publication to write for, than worry if anyone is going to accept my idea.

  3. Julie Weishaar 11/19/2010, 5:43 am:

    Hi Paul. Very thorough explanation of what to do and what not to do when pitching your writing to a publisher. It is akin to marketing in that you have to make sure your “message” is the right message to the right person at the right time. It sounds like common sense that one should read the submission guidelines yet so many people don’t. A publisher is not going to be impressed or compelled to read more when they specifically ask for a query letter and you submit an entire manuscript or story. Also great advice to do one’s homework prior to submission, know the publisher’s name, and get a feel for other works they have published. My grandfather was a published author of children’s books. It literally took him 25 years to get his last book published. Granted he didn’t religiously submit it consistently over those 25 years, and it was a long time ago – but there is a great example of persistence. That last book was dedicated to me and my sister when were little girls and THAT was a LONG time ago :)

    • paul novak 11/20/2010, 5:15 am:

      Wow, THAT is persistence all right. I hope I have that kind of patience when it comes time to push a few short stories, but on the other hand, I certainly hope I don’t have to wait too long.

      It very much is marketing, that’s for certain.

  4. Catherine Lockey 11/19/2010, 6:41 am:

    Hi Paul,
    Sounds like pitching an article to an editor requires a much work as acquiring a big client or applying for a job. Thanks for the inside tips.

    I love Julie’s story about her Grandfather. That he spent 25 years to get his last book published and then dedicated it to her and her sister is very touching.

    • paul novak 11/20/2010, 5:17 am:

      You’re welcome Catherine. Basically, you are applying for a job. As a freelancer you just don’t want to call it that;)

  5. Sherryl Perry 11/19/2010, 9:25 pm:

    Great tips Paul. Researching potential publishers before you approach them sounds like solid advice as does familiarizing yourself with (and following) their guidelines for submitting your work. This is a well thought out guide. Lots of people should find this article very valuable.

    • paul novak 11/20/2010, 5:18 am:

      Thanks Sherryl. I’m trying to think of what would have helped me and saved a lot of time when I got started. Maybe I can save a few people from a couple long months.

  6. Rosanne Dingli 11/20/2010, 9:13 am:

    Hi Paul

    I have awarded your blog with a Versatile Blogger green square! To see the details, please visit mine at http://rosannedingli.blogspot.com
    I hope you enjoy many visits.

    Rosanne

  7. paul novak 11/21/2010, 6:59 pm:

    I do appreciate it Rosanne, really, I do. It’s always great when someone thinks of you like this and includes you in their choices when these make the rounds. I really wish I had the time to reciprocate and pass it along as well but I have to pass for now. Congratulations.

  8. Susan Oakes 11/22/2010, 8:01 pm:

    Excellent tips Paul. This is a good example of how to target and communicate. Doing research sounds like it takes up time but it does pay off and I think save time along the way.

    I have passed this post on to a couple of people who will benefit form your tips.

  9. paul novak 11/23/2010, 6:44 pm:

    Thanks Susan, much appreciated.

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