At this point it’s no secret that writers get a pretty lousy deal in the publishing business. Every day someone asks me if there’s a way to fight back. In fact, there’s one common practice that writers take on that hobbles them from the very start, and it’s our fault that the problem exists at all. Most journalism schools, editors, and old-time-freelancers advise new writers to only pitch one magazine at a time when they are trying to sell a story. In turn, most editors assume that pitches are exclusive material and will go as far as to say that they wont even consider an idea if another publication is reviewing it as well. This is called “silo pitching”, and it’s the surest route to penury for a writer.
That silo pitching is the standard method to market story ideas to publications is indicative of just how scared writers are of the people they work for. Most writers tell me that they would never take their ideas out to multiple publications because they worry they might be blacklisted and never find work again. Loyalty, they say, also has its perks because a good editorial relationship might secure future assignments. Unfortunately the loyalty that writers feel to their editors is rarely reciprocated. At the mainstream magazines editors almost always take a very long time to respond to pitches. Even after an initial expression of interest, an assignment can take months—yes months–to finally receive a green light. Sometimes editors don’t even bother to respond in the first place which means that a good idea that might have found a home at another magazine could malinger and die in the inbox of the first editor you sent it to.
A more serious problem with silo pitching is that by extending exclusivity to a single magazine in advance means the the writer has effectively given up any ability to negotiate the contract when it comes time to sign. There’s never a chance to allow the market to value a writers’ work by getting input from multiple potential buyers. Instead the writer has almost no option than accept whatever deal the magazine puts up. This is why bad deals are now the industry standard. Forget the lamentable payment terms, most magazines now also suck away film and reprint rights, offer low kill fees, and won’t pay their writers until months, and in some cases, years after the magazine has appeared in print.
Silo pitching completely violates any attempt for a writer to receive a market value for their work.
In Hollywood and in book publishing exclusivity deals are well compensated. A good script writer might make upwards of $50,000 a year from a single studio just so that they have the right of first refusal on whatever they come up with. That journalists give away this right by default shows just how sick this business actually is.
The solution, of course, is simple. It’s called “market pitching,” which is exactly the model that exists in Hollywood and book publishing. In a market pitch a writer puts together their very best material (I can’t stress this enough: your pitch needs to be a work of art) and then takes it out to every potential publication on the market. While each publication might get a slightly tweaked version of the story, the idea is fairly straight forward: if the idea is good enough you will get multiple offers. At the very least this might mean the difference between a feature that runs 5000 words or something that runs as little more than a long paragraph in the front of the book.
Let me give you an example. A few years ago I pitched a story to thirty magazines about the death of a single mediatory in the mountains of Arizona. After far too long, I received an offer from the Atlantic for a 1000 word piece that would run in the front of the magazine. It wasn’t nearly long enough for the story that I wanted to write. Luckily I’d also pitched Playboy and they came back a day later with an offer to run a full feature at 6500 words. It was more than six times the money. If I had only pitched the Atlantic I would have never gotten the deal that eventually matured into my forthcoming book “A Death on Diamond Mountain”. Even worse, if I had only written to the New Yorker and waited for months for them to never respond, I would never have written a story at all.
Of course, another advantage of market pitching is that it also give you leverage to negotiate publishing contracts. Standard contracts at different magazines might vary widely, and some publications are more open to negotiating contract points than others.
At the very least, market pitching offers a writer the ability to say that they got the best deal available for their work. If you pitch 20 magazines and only one gives an offer, then maybe the deal they give you really IS what your story was worth. Then again, if three or four offers come in then you have the ability to take the best deal on the table. Now think about what happens if you come across an important story that every magazine wants to have in its pages. Something that will likely steer the national conversation for a few days or weeks? There’s no reason why you couldn’t hold an auction and have magazines bid for the right to have you. In that case the sky is the limit for payment because the magazine knows that it will be able to sell more advertisements–often for upwards of six figures each–if they have your story in their pages. It’s entirely possible that a writer in an auction could receive hundreds of thousands of dollars for the right story.
Of course, writers are incredibly reticent to try market pitching because it seems risky. Writers cherish their relationships with editors and often worry that playing one magazine off of another for a better deal will put them on some sort of black list. I admit that this is possible. But any editor that doesn’t understand the pressures that freelancers face is probably not worth working with anyway. Risking the ire of one person is not a reason to submit yourself to a life of poverty. Instead, take heart in a depressing fact about the publishing industry today: most magazines have an incredibly high turnover rate. While you may cherish your relationship with a particular editor, most editors wont last in their positions more than a few years without moving on. Call me cynical if you like, but in my ten years as a freelancer I’ve learned that just about anyone you upset will be at another publication pretty soon, or, more likely, end up in an entirely different field.
It’s far more important to cultivate a market strategy than worry about any one particular person’s feelings. After all, it’s not personal. It’s business.
UPDATE: This, of course is pretty bad news for freelancers, but there are a few ways to fight back. I recently started offering an online video course teaching some of the tricks that I use to negotiate better contracts, and grow my freelancing business from nothing to becoming a New York Times bestselling author. It might be useful for you. Check it out.