October's Publishing Tip comes to you from Canadian writer Phoebe Wang. In her article, she explains why writers should submit pitches to publishers, editors, and literary journals, and she encourages emerging writers to start pitching early.
Phoebe Wang is a Canadian poet, reviewer and educator. Her debut collection of poems, Admission Requirements, is forthcoming with McClelland & Stewart in Spring 2017. She is also the author of two chapbooks, Occasional Emergencies (Odourless Press) and Hanging Exhibits (The Emergency Response Unit). She lives in Toronto.
Pitching season, for a writer, happens all year round. It may not require a uniform or strong-arming a potential editor, but it does take some precise handling. A strong and coherent pitch can not only result in an editor’s interest and a publication credit, but it might even help to establish a long-term relationship that benefits everyone on the playing field.
What is a pitch and why do it?
You don’t need pitch works of fiction or poetry—send out your sample along with your query letter as per usual. Pitches are typically necessary for magazine features, opinion or think-pieces aimed at a general audience, as well as for interviews, reviews, essays and criticism for a non-academic, yet in some ways, specialized readership.
A pitch is a 100-300 teaser version of the potential piece that you wish to sell to the publication. It’s best to pitch at one venue at a time, especially since it should be tailored for a specific publication. If you can’t sell your unique story to an editor, the editor won’t believe your piece will be right for the publication. Your pitch, therefore, should show a strong familiarity with the publication’s style, tone and readership. It should reveal your stylistic quirks so the editor can sense the type of writer who he or she is dealing with—ideally one who cares about well-crafted writing, is diligent, careful and timely.
How do I know if my piece will be relevant?
Timeliness is one of the toughest things to gauge, as pieces for magazines or newspapers with a general interest have a long lead time, around eight to ten months (even up to a year) from the time the piece is pitched until the publication date. Twitter is one of the ways I use to stay informed about debates and controversies, but not all of them will be compelling in a year’s time. However, don’t always give in to the lure of the trending and new; even hackneyed tales and familiar subject matters can feel fresh in the right writer’s hands.
For literary journals that publish reviews and criticism, such as Arc Poetry Magazine, CNQ, The Puritan, Rusty Toque, The Malahat Review, Winnipeg Review, etc., the lead time may be shorter, around 6 months, but that may or may not include the time a writer requires to conduct the interview, order the books, read them thoroughly, etc. For reviews and interviews, track forthcoming new titles though Quill & Quire or the BNC CataList, and get a head start by requesting review copies from the publishers.
In some cases, it may be necessary to also include samples of published work for the editor, if you have never worked together before. I had a few book reviews I wrote for free for the Toronto Review of Books, and I also started a blog for this purpose.
Getting inside the mind of the editor
Most editors receive dozens, if not hundreds, of lobbed shots across their inboxes or Submittable accounts a week. It’s best to send the pitch in the body of the email, after a brief introduction of yourself and your work, as editors read while on the go. Include all your contact info in case they want to discuss your pitch immediately. Editors are not only looking at your writing, but also at how willing a writer is to be a part of the process of shaping the piece for publication. Attitude, lack of ego, efficiency and adaptability are what separates the professional freelancer from the aspirants.
An invaluable tool for pitching is a simple spreadsheet that tracks the date you pitched the piece, the date you sold the piece, the amount paid, the date of publication, and any notes. You can set a quota for yourself for number of pieces pitched per month or season, and also get a sense of which editors respond quickly and which publications pay on time.
If an editor solicits a piece from you, do a little victory dance. This is a wonderful stage to have reached, and can start to happen even after a very short period of publishing work. Follow up quickly, even if you don’t have the time to work on the piece for several months; some editors can be flexible about publication dates if they are soliciting several months in advance. Take the time to write a formal pitch anyway, in case the editor who approached you needs the approval of a senior editor or editorial board.
I wish that I had started pitching at a younger age, especially since statistics and numerous first-hand accounts from editors show that female and or minority writers pitch with much less frequency than male writers. Many insecurities haunt aspiring freelancers: the belief that you’re not ready, the fear of bothering an editor, the dread of rejection. What’s the worst thing that can happen? A politely worded, “Sorry, we’re not interested”, a ball that didn’t land where it should have. Applaud yourself for your effort, brush the dirt off, and send it flying out again.
* * * * * * * *
The Malahat Review posts "Publishing Tips" as a bimonthly guest column on its website and in Malahat lite. Follow it in order to learn how to improve your professional skills, from the writing of cover letters, to what house style means, to choosing a rhyming dictionary, to having an author photo (as opposed to a selfie) shot. If you have a Publishing Tip you'd like to share, email The Malahat Review at firstname.lastname@example.org, with "Publishing Tip Idea" in the subject line. Tips should be 750 words or less. If yours is accepted, you will be paid an honorarium of $50.