Persistence Wins With Most Editors

magazinefreelancerWhen you’re fishing for assignments, a good idea and a sharp query letter are essential bait, but it may take several phone calls to reel in the editor, more if it’s a specialized group. Seven years as a magazine freelancer have taught me a secret that “how-to” books don’t often disclose: Be persistent!

Calling etiquette

Editors are chronically swamped, and your query probably isn’t a high priority for them. Although some editors do respond without prodding, many will never answer at all. Your letter may have arrived on the busiest day of the month. It might be buried under a mountain of unread mail. Why leave it to chance? A quick phone call will remind the editor that you–and your idea–exist.

I’m not suggesting writers put an editor’s number on speed-dial or pitch a tent outside his or her office. There’s a line between persistence and pest, and as a writer, you don’t want to cross it. Deciding where to draw that line is a judgment call. After I send a query, I like to wait about six weeks before picking up the phone.

When making followup calls, I keep my query letter handy, just in case the editor answers her phone. If she does, I get right to the point: “My name is Laura Kaminker. I sent you an article proposal about a month ago. I wonder if you’ve had a chance to look at it?”

Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised: The editor remembers my name. She might use my call as an opportunity to pass, or she might want more information about the topic. But frequently, she won’t remember my letter. If that’s the case, I offer to fax it to her, then do so as soon as we hang up. After that, I wait another two weeks–and I call again. If you’re feeling timid, remember: The editor can fill her pages without you. It’s up to you to dangle that juicy morsel in front of her face.

More often than not, however, you won’t reach a live person. Don’t hesitate to leave a message. I actually think voice mail is better for everyone–you can leave a gentle reminder without interrupting anyone’s day. Keep it short and simple: “Hi Ms. Editor, my name is Laura Kaminker, I’m a freelance writer, and I sent you a query in early April about such-and-such. I wonder if you’ve had a chance to look at it, and if you have any interest in the story. My number is 555/555-5555. Thank you.”

At this point, I don’t think it’s necessary to wait another month to call again. On the other hand, a weekly call lands you in pest territory. My personal rule of thumb is a call every two weeks; you’ll determine your own comfort level. The most important thing is that you call. Most of my assignments have been the products of followup calls, and several editors have thanked me for persevering with an interesting idea.

Track your followups

Can’t remember if you’ve called an editor, or when the last time was that you phoned? It’s impossible to remember these details, especially when you’re aggressively pitching several stories at once. Calling too often looks sloppy and obnoxious. Not calling at all won’t get you contracts. You need to keep track of pending proposals and followup calls.

I keep a file on my computer listing what I’ve sent: magazine, idea, date sent, date called, response. Every Monday morning, I check the list to see who I need to call, then I update as I go along. When I get either an assignment or a rejection, I delete the entry.

You can track pending proposals on a log sheet, in a notebook, by date or by magazine–whatever makes sense to you. As long as it’s in a format that’s easily accessible and includes all the essential information, you’re in business.

Getting to the payoff

Think of your query letter as your shoe wedged in the editor’s door. Your followup calls push the rest of you through. After mailing a query to Seventeen, I left several voice mail messages, to no avail. Eventually a kind receptionist clued me in: That editor had left the magazine (even though his name was still on the masthead). I asked for his replacement, and left her a brief message: “…I sent an article proposal to your predecessor, but since you might not have seen it, I’ll fax it over to you.” Then I faxed my original query with a short cover note. The new editor called me–she was interested in one aspect of the proposal, and asked me to resubmit it with a different slant. After a rewritten query, another fax and three more calls, I got the assignment.

Sometimes, editors simply don’t respond, no matter what. But don’t give up before you’ve called at least four times. A perfect example is my experience with New York magazine.

I crafted a proposal and mailed it in June. Nothing. After the July 4th holiday, I left a message on the editor’s voice mail, then I continued to call him every two weeks. He never returned my calls. After two months and a half-dozen messages, I still hadn’t heard a peep; if the editor wasn’t interested, couldn’t he just say no? By late August, some of that irritation crept into my message: “Mr. So-and-so, it’s Laura Kaminker again. Could you please let me know if you have any interest in the Whatshisname idea? If you’re not interested, please call me, so I can offer the idea to another magazine.”

Ten minutes later, my phone rang. I was shocked to hear the voice of the elusive New York editor. I was even more surprised when, after apologizing for not returning my calls, he said he had been intrigued by my idea all summer! Pleading fall-preview madness, he asked me to call him again in two weeks. Exactly two weeks later, I left another message. Big surprise–he didn’t call back. But because he had expressed interest and specifically asked me to contact him, I felt free to call him more frequently. I ended up leaving four more voice mail messages–but I got the assignment. My log for this plum job read:

New York–Adoption Crossroads–mailed 6/9–vm msg 7/9, 7/16, 7/30, 8/14, 8/25, 9/3: “Very interested in idea, putting out fall preview issue now, call back 2nd week in September”, vm msg 9/17, 9/23, 10/1: assignment!

Is persistence a magic potion, guaranteed or your money back? No way. There are just too many factors beyond your control. But if you don’t knock–and keep knocking–no one will open the door. If I’d waited for editors to call me, I’d still be unpublished.

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