Pitching the World

What would happen if you queried every market in the latest freelance directory? From A–Z, one writer decided to find out. by Steven Rowland
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Whoever coined the phrase “No news is good news” deserves a beating. Quite a thorough one. For a freelance writer, the absence of bad news is far more uncomfortable than the presence of good news. Bad news, at least, is something concrete. A definite. As it stands, huge slabs of this writer’s life are spent in some kind of hellish limbo waiting for news—any news—and it’s a hellish limbo that is growing more pronounced or gaping or whatever it is that limbos become.

Let me explain.

A few months ago, after a short break from writing articles for a living, I decided to pitch every magazine listed in the most recent edition of a market guide for writers in the U.K., where I live. Aimed at established and aspiring authors, journalists and artists of all persuasions, the book lists the contact info for publishers, agents, commissioning editors, production companies—that sort of thing.

Frankly, I can’t stand the sight of it. I can’t bring myself even to mention the name of it. It sits on my desk, all garish red and yellow, gently mocking me. There are 642 magazines listed in its pages, beginning with Accountancy, Accountancy Age and Accounting and Business, and ending with Yours, Zest and Zoo. Somewhere around the middle you’ll find such gems as Model Boats, Mother & Baby and Motor Caravan Magazine. Cover to cover, they taunt me and my decision to try to write for all these titles and an excess of 600 more—and at the end of it all, I’ll probably be mad and broke and bald.

Why on earth am I doing this?

For a start, I get paid to write for a living. Surprising, perhaps, but over the last few years I’ve managed to hunt down enough people who are willing to compensate me for doing this. For three years I sat at my desk and hammered out work on all sorts of subjects. I wrote about illegal organ trading, about rugby and about house prices in Bulgaria. I wrote about drugs that can enhance cognition, prison conditions in South Africa and why the society in Easter Island broke down. But after three years I’d had enough of the freelance life. The late payments, the constant pitching and rejection, the solitude, the inertia—almost everything about freelancing got to me, and so I quit.

I took a job writing rather dull reports for governmental agencies, but I soon quit that, too. I then took a job as a political speechwriter in the Caribbean that turned out to be far less glamorous and far more hair-raising than it sounds, and so—you guessed it, I wrote my resignation letter. With no job, little money and a wife who was becoming increasingly frustrated at my attempts at a “career,” I decided to go back to freelancing.

The thought, though, struck me with horror. I couldn’t face the editors I used to write for; I could already picture myself pathetically asking if they’d take me back, and then spending all my time, once again, waiting for no news. I wanted a challenge, wanted to test myself. And so the idea came to pitch my way through the directory, front to back.

And now I’m stuck with it. My heart sank when I first counted the number of magazines listed. The figure, 642, still makes me slouch in my chair a little every time I think of it. And I slump down further still when I think of all the magazines whose focus I know nothing about. At some point I’m going to have to query Cat World and Your Cat. I don’t have a cat. I know nothing about cats—nothing that would warrant a feature, anyway. And I probably know less about astrology and caravans and what might be interesting to readers of Black Beauty and Hair, Trout and Salmon and Legal Week.

But I’m determined to learn. Even though I’ve only recently limped into this experiment, there have been successes. I’m striking up good relationships with editors and have had one or two pieces commissioned. And I’m thinking more rigorously and more creatively than ever before. Earlier this week, for example, I spent the morning pitching accountancy magazines and the afternoon writing poems for—wait for it—magazines that publish poetry. Both required me to think in new ways, and in the evening I came up with ideas for other articles—on stuff I wouldn’t normally dream of writing about—one of which I pitched to a national publication that promptly commissioned it.

That day taught me a lot. First, it taught me that I am a terrible poet. Second, it taught me that shaking oneself out of one’s comfort zone can be an incredibly good practice. I realized that over the years I had been too reliant on pitching in a standard, uniform manner on subjects that seemed varied but actually weren’t. Although I’m still daunted by the prospect of pitching hundreds of other publications, a part of me wants to sing. There’s a lot to learn about the world, about writing and about the way things work, and this project is giving me the opportunity to know things about subjects that I thought I never would. I may even—and here comes the schmaltz—learn something about myself.

The beauty of having 600-odd magazines to approach is that I can be experimental and bold. While this could rub some editors the wrong way, for others, a fresh approach could be just what they’re looking for. These are the times that try journalists’ souls, and a novel approach could help me stand out from other writers.

Type “the end of journalism” into Google and you get more than 27 million results. That’s about 11 million more than if you type “the end of civilization” into the same search engine. I’m not sure what this means. One possible interpretation is that the business of journalism has gotten itself into a bit of a pickle, and if you want to succeed in this business you have to stand out. One way to stand out is to pitch 642 magazines. Another is to develop your own voice—something that editors will recognize amongst all the other thousands of voices clamoring to be heard. Perhaps a way of developing this voice is to spend your time writing about things you don’t want to write about—until you realize what it is you do want to concentrate on.

Let’s hope so, at least. In the meantime, if anyone has any interesting information about cats, caravans or legal issues, please drop me a line.

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