Knocking on the right door

If the main entrance is locked, try the side door.

Certain magazines have an emotional allure for us–we’ve dreamed of seeing our bylines in them. High-profile, large-circulation publications pay the highest rates and often have the most prestige. Part of the allure, admittedly, is the challenge, but unless we know someone inside, it can start to seem useless to keep repeatedly knocking. It’s time to look for another way in.

“It is rare that we will assign a feature article to a writer with whom we have not worked,” read the editorial guidelines for freelancers on the Travel + Leisure website. “The best sections to start with are those in the front of the magazine.” Most major magazine editors would echo that advice.

The front of the magazine, commonly called “the front of the book,” refers to the pages of shorter articles that appear before the feature articles begin. Often they are grouped into “departments,” each covering a subject such as travel, people, style or entertainment. But sometimes they are not organized at all–a string of pearls. (Hint: WD’s FOB is the Inkwell department you’re reading right now. And, yes, it’s the easiest place to break in.)

FOB articles have a little less gravitas, are often more of-the-moment, and typically pay less than features. If a writer’s byline and existing credits are not on a par with the magazine’s reputation, an FOB piece is usually his starter assignment to see if he is worthy of being considered as a features writer. It gets you invited into the house when you could still be banging at the front door.

In my own case, some sympathetic editors who have turned down my features pitches have instead asked me to write a short article–an unspoken but welcome consolation prize.

PREPARING THE PITCH

FOB articles are not to be taken any less seriously than features. Flub one and you probably won’t be asked back.

Prepare for the article

Study the departments carefully, as these are very targeted pieces. Many magazines have editorial calendars with theme issues announced in advance, which you can usually access in the “advertising” section of their sites. These calendars can both guide you to new ideas and better target those you already have.

Before making the pitch, answer these questions: Why would the reader care? What’s the best angle? Why now? Why me? Your query for a short piece might sound very much like the final article–consider it your writing test.

MAKING THE PITCH

Finding the right editor to pitch–or even any editor to contact–may not be easy. As with any business, a magazine may be run top-down with the executive editor calling the shots on all assignments. At other publications, department editors are kings and queens of their own fiefdoms. But regardless of who sees your query first, most pitches that pass the first hurdle will likely be further vetted by others on staff.

The first part maybe the heardest, you have to wait for the pitch

For editorial guidance and contact info, I first check the current Writer’s Market or writersmarket.com (both from WD Books), and then look at the magazine’s website. Some have staff directories with email contacts, but many give only one entry: info@ publication.com. In those cases, I select an editor from the magazine’s masthead, title my message “Writer’s Query” and give the salutation to the chosen editor.

Then I wait.

LEVERAGING YOUR FIRST FOB

To paraphrase an old business dictum, “The purpose of the first article is to sell a second article, hopefully a bigger one.” At least six magazines for which I now write features started me out with FOB assignments. And truth be told, I still pitch them ideas of lesser importance as FOBs. It’s extra money.

Then with your second job, you can start have a better wage

Moving up isn’t easy or guaranteed. I’ve sold seven front-of-the-book pieces to one national mag without achieving a features byline–I have yet to pitch the right idea at the right time. But I’m getting paid, colleagues and other editors comment on my pieces in this flashy publication, and every pitch I send them–FOB or feature–gets real consideration because they now recognize my name.

Finally, department editors generally become your advocates in moving up to features. They are often young, ambitious and loyal to those they consider “their writers.” They will remember you in their next editing incarnation.

FINDING THE THIRD DOOR

Increasingly, there is a third door to publications, one I think of as the “stage door.” That is website features, very similar to FOB pieces, but generally lighter and more topical or timely. There is perhaps less pay and prestige in these Web articles, but they get you in the door, and give you an opening to become part of the site editor’s entourage.

Of course, always be bold enough to pitch a great feature idea to a great mag–it can and has worked for many writers. But don’t give up easily if you fail. There’s more than one way to get that coveted byline.

Roger Morris writes from Pennsylvania, primarily about wine, food and travel for publications including Town & Country, USA Today’s Co/Escape, Wine Enthusiast, Beverage Media and The Drinks Business. His most recent book, The Brandywine Book of the Seasons, was co-authored with his wife, Ella.

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