Greg Neale sets out a pitching plan
What do commissioning editors want? This was the subject of April's London Freelance Branch meeting. The speaker was Greg Neale, founding editor of BBC History magazine, Wapping refusenik, and historian in residence for both Newsnight and the NUJ.
"I don't know what I want, but I want it now!", to quote Sir Henry from Vivian Stanshall's Sir Henry at Rawlinson's End. Editors know their publications and their schedules and they know what they want, and more importantly they know what they don't want.
Bad commissioning editors "avoid taking calls, forget or misplace copy and lose emails. Forgive them - be kind to them on the way up, you may need them on the way down."
Greg's Top Ten Tips are:
1: Know your target. Know their lead time and deadline. Look at their bylines - are the writers exclusively academics?
2: What does the publication do? What does it not do? The Guardian Media Guide is "worryingly out of date": look at the publishers' websites. Get to know a contact, cultivate them, keep your contacts list up to date. Most editors respond well to "I'd like to meet you."
3: Pitch. Find out the format for pitching - fully done piece, synopsis, tips? Your email is a cold call, and needs a clear and eye-catching title to stand out among an inbox full of ads for Viagra. (Suggested titles could start with Pitch, Story, Proposal or Re: Conversation with ... and a named person.)
4: Be persistent, but not a pest. Follow up your pitch. Editors are overworked, but you owe it to yourself to check they've got your proposal. It's fine to ask, "Is it OK if I call you every..." or "If I don't hear from you, should I assume you're not interested?" or "How often should I pester you?"
5: Take advice. If your rejection is not explanatory, ask if they can explain quickly why it fell.
6: Deliver on time and to length. But first, it's your responsibility to get as much information on a commission as you need.
7: Agree a fee and rights in advance. This should include how long payment takes.
8: Invoice promptly.
9: Keep documentation. Keep a record of what you've agreed. Follow up with emails thanking editors and saying you're happy to do the piece for a specified amount.
10: Know when to cut your losses if you can't get hold of an editor. Time is money, so stop wasting it. There may be an invisible layer of infrastructure above the editor's head that may stop them from commissioning. It's not personal when they reject you. Pitches can legitimately state that you need a reply by a certain date or you'll take it to somebody else.
Greg concludes that "It's never as bad as it seems" and emphasises the need to keep sharing tips and experiences through Branch get-togethers. "The old idea about mutual aid is as true now as 99 years ago" when the NUJ was founded.