Discover more from Adventures In "Journalism" by Sari Botton
Why I Rarely Pitch Magazines
Confessions of a gun-shy industry veteran.
The other day I talked shop with a friend who’s also a writer. I’d called to ask her advice about something, and after she helped me figure out a solution to the problem at hand, we discussed essays we’d each like to work on in the near future.
I mentioned I wanted to write a piece about having felt so ready to fly the coop mid-June—so ready to enjoy the long-awaited summer after the most desolate winter and 16 months of sheltering-in-place—only to have my wings immediately clipped by mononucleosis. I wondered how many other people with weak immune systems like mine had similar experiences, staying healthier than ever while effectively quarantined during the pandemic, then catching infections as soon as they exited their homes and stopped masking. I noted I’d add a reported element to the piece to cover that.
My friend said, “Oh, you should try the ‘Dept. of Returns‘ series at the New Yorker. It’s about people’s re-entry into the world after Covid.” And I laughed.
“Oh, god,” I said, “I don’t think I could ever sell a piece to the New Yorker.”
“Why not?” she asked, earnestly.
We went back and forth and finally agreed that even though the New Yorker is perhaps the most coveted, competitive outlet in the entire market, one that even some of the best of the best haven’t been able to break into, it was at least worth a shot. Then I started investigating who the editor for the series might be and how to pitch that person. A predictable defeat ensued.
First I tried some very targeted googling that turned up zip. Next I tried DMing New Yorker editors who follow me on Twitter or who just have their DMs open; no response. I asked a New Yorker cartoonist who’s a close friend, who then considered writing a piece for the series herself, and even she hit a wall of silence when asking colleagues about it. She sent me a link to the magazine’s submissions guidelines, which state: “We regret that we cannot consider unsolicited Talk of the Town stories or other nonfiction.” Oh.
I shouldn’t have been surprised that it was a dead-end endeavor. Still, it dashed what tiny bit of hope I’d perhaps foolishly allowed myself to let in. I berated myself: “Who the hell do you think you are???” Then I reviewed a lifetime of rejections and failures, and got deeply depressed. It reminded me of why I rarely pitch most magazines: it’s nearly impossible to get an acceptance, or even a response, and each time I don’t, I can’t seem to avoid putting myself through that kind of self-flagellation.
It doesn’t matter that I’ve been a gate-keeper myself, that I know it’s in part an impossible numbers game—that I know first-hand how overwhelmed editors are. At my last job, I often received between 50 and 100 submissions per week, and couldn’t possibly respond to them all. I’m resisting putting out a call for submissions for a place where I’m a contributing editor because I don’t get paid to read submissions—I only get paid per piece I edit. I know how this works!
Writing, especially for legacy magazines, is an endeavor with exponentially more aspirants than opportunities. Even if you’re a fairly accomplished writer with other impressive magazine and newspaper credits, it’s hard. Even if you’re dialed into one of the cliques of writers and editors who regularly work for them, it’s hard.
Although, to be honest, that definitely helps.
There are people who see me as an insider in this world, and I suppose that relative to some, I am. But it’s been a long time since I wrote for magazines because it was rarely worth the trouble—and because I stopped being willing to write certain kinds of pieces for women’s magazines, like about weight loss, or potentially harmful cosmetic treatments such as nuking your sweat glands so you don’t wind up with pesky dark under-arm spots on your couture. Even if I wanted to at this point, what contacts I used to know have pretty much all moved on to other things, either by choice, or because they were let go by new regimes. The truth is, what little intermittent freelance success I had in the past came from a disproportionate amount of Sisyphean networking and pitching, not to mention rewriting to almost completely eliminate my voice and instead adopt that of each magazine—particularly true in the case of women’s magazines.
I’ve had my share of bylines in glossies over the course of my career, but in all honesty, it has only ever happened when I’ve personally known editors at them, or had close friends who knew editors. (In one case, a woman who regretted having bullied me at a job waited until the day after I left to hand me a written apology, then made it her business to connect me with an editor at a top women’s magazine to make up for it.)
I almost always had to initially persuade those editors to take my work in the midst of social interactions. Email pitches only worked after I’d persuaded them personally, socially. I hated engaging in that kind of careerism, and refuse to do it anymore. I mean, most of my friends are writers or editors, and sometimes we talk shop, or ask for advice, or offer to help each other. I’m all for that kind of thing when it happens organically, and is reciprocal. But the days of trying to befriend people in the hopes that they can help my career are long behind me. It’s gross, and I want nothing to do with it.
I don’t mean to imply that all prominent magazine writers have succeeded only because of their associations. I recognize that many who write for the best magazines, including the New Yorker, are way out of my league, and deserve the success they enjoy. But it’s also not by any means a perfect meritocracy. And it is very much a clique-y, clubby world, with its doors closed to most.
I’m still going to write that piece. I’m not sure where I’ll pitch it—I’ll worry about that after it’s done. I plan get busy with it once I rebound from the emotional rollercoaster ride I just unnecessarily took myself on (note to self: learn to skip the expectations and then the self-flagellation, and maybe you’ll get somewhere), and also recover a little more from the energetic bulldozer that is mono.
Post Script: A quick update on my condition, since many of you have kindly been writing to ask how I am. (THANK YOU).
Toward the end of this week I clearly shifted from the “acute” phase of mono to the asymptomatic but exhausting “convalescent” phase. My doctor told me to prepare to feel the most tired I have in my entire life, and he wasn’t kidding. Yesterday I had to lie down between bites of my lunch. I felt equally desperate for nourishment and rest, and couldn’t tell which I needed more, so I tried to alternate bits of each. I could barely stand as I was heating up my food. If it weren’t so trying, it would have been comical.
It’s incredibly hard for me to work right now (other than writing first-person stuff like this, the need for which feels urgent—go figure), but I’m attempting to do bits here and there, as I can. It’s as if my brain’s information processor has gotten gummed up, and is only operating intermittently, at a snail’s pace. I can’t beging to tell you how frustrating it is. But I really need to find some patience with this, especially since things will kick up for me in August, and I will need an abundance of energy and presence of mind for that.
I spent most of yesterday horizontal, until I got to 6pm or so, the time of day when I weirdly tend to experience a surge in energy. (The day before that I was belting songs to no one but our plants at that hour.) This whole thing has been so baffling and weird. For instance, my palate is foreign to me; I, a coffee lover, can’t fathom drinking a cup, instead drinking tea with lemon and honey each morning. On Thursday I started liking chocolate again after a month—ran out to the ice cream place around the corner get chocolate-chocolate chip because I was craving it—and that felt hopeful.
I’m starting to spend time with people again, in little windows bracketed by naps. I had lunch with a friend on Wednesday, then immediately headed home to jump into bed. A couple of friends came over Thursday evening, and it was so nice to talk and laugh and gossip. A few other friends will come over for pizza Sunday evening. I’m desperate for socialization, but am trying to remember to pace myself.
I can’t wait for this to be over…