Thursday, September 30, 2004

 

In Which I Have PMS...

Approximately once a month, every magazine--certainly every magazine I've ever worked for--goes through story pitch meetings. At one of my first jobs, we tracked all story pitches using a little DIY software program known as the Proposal Management System. Naturally, because of the nigh-menstrual cycle on which proposal meetings occur, it was automatic that we as a staff, men and women alike, should start referring to the software and, by association, the entire process as PMS.

Where I work now, there's a different name for the pitch process, but I still think of it occasionally as PMS. And tomorrow it's my turn to have it.

Since I got here, in addition to presenting my own meager ideas, I've been trying to cull story pitches from the massive slush pile of unsolicited queries and stories. I probably shouldn't reveal this fact, but there it is. I think that most working editors would rather not reveal that they ever glean ideas from the over-the-transom stuff that coms in. Why? Because, honestly, most of it is crap, and to even hint that one spends one's valuable time wading through crap would be to encourage the crap slingers to sling yet more crap our way.

Well, your humble editor is not afraid to admit it. Because I can remember a time long ago--but not long enough ago--when I was an unpublished writer, nary a clip to my name, just ulcerating to break into the business. the way to do this, all the guides and all my professors told me, was to pitch queries to magazines you wanted to write for. Before you did this, though, it was expected that you take some time to actually read the magazine you wanted to pitch to, get a sense of the kind of stories they publish (and also make sure they hadn't just published some variation on the topic you wanted to pitch. Nothing turns an editor off faster than getting a pitch for "7 Ways to Turn Your Kids into Happy Well Adjusted Young Persons--Without Medication!" when that is almost verbatim one of the cover lines of their last issue).

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what separates the contenders from the crap-mongers. Most people who pitch magazines--at least, most who pitch the magazines I've worked on--can't seem to be bothered to go to the simple expedient of actually reading your magazine before pitching an idea to you. I have never quite figured out why this is. Is it that everyone simply wants to get rejected, so when they finally break in, they can say they paid their dues and got their fair share of rejection slips? Often enough, I think it just boils down to a kind of weird-ass laziness. It takes too much time to read and retain two or three months worth of content from a magazine, even one you want to write for. It's much easier, somehow, to dash off your query and mail it in, often addressed to the wrong person, such as the guy who was here before me. It's been said that nothing is so sweet to a person's ears as the sound of his own name. I can confess here that it is true. I'm much more responsive to a query that is correctly addressed to me, gets my name spelled right, and shows at least a passing knowledge of what my department has covered recently.

Ah, but see, as you're reading this, you're probably starting to think, "gee, that all sounds like a lot of work for a query letter." That's exactly right. Hence the high level of sheer crap we get in.

Nevertheless, I keep sifting, looking for sapphires in the sewer. Maybe once every few months, I'll find a worthy, but often what happens is he or she has proposed an idea on the edge of something we have already assigned but not yet run. It's an ironic truth of the business that if you study your target magazine and successfully manage to develop ideas that are appropriate for us, of course you'll end up tapping into ideas that someone else will have already thought to propose. With these folks, I try to give them something beyond the usual form rejection letter, a form rejection letter that at least says "Not bad. You were on the right track. In fact, we already have a story like this in the works. Submit again." That way, I figure, it keeps that person from despairing they'll ever break in to the biz, and when the similar story finally does run, my note might prevent them from supposing that the Bad Old Editor simply ripped off their idea. The truth is, submitting an idea that we've already done is a really good sign. It means you actually are capable of proposing an idea that we would publish. Trust me when I say this: that puts you in the top 1 percent of folks who query us.

And every once in a while, the great satisfaction of wading through the slush pile comes when I find an idea or story that I actually have not seen before. This actually happened to me my first week on the job. I arrived in the middle of getting the issue out and we had a big gaping hole in one department. On a whim, I took the slush pile home with me in a big box and started wading through it. About 5 manila envelopes in, I found a peach of a story, written on spec. I couldn't believe it. It was almost perfect for the hole I needed to fill.

So it was that somewhere in Portland, Oregon, a phone rang around lunchtime, and a young housewife who had previously only ever written stories for her college classes, got a call from an Editor at a Really Big Magazine. I thought she was going to pass out, she was hyperventilating by the time she realized I was calling to buy her story. As a first-timer, I'm sure I could have rooked her and bought the story for a couple hundred bucks (still twice what I made on my first freelance sale, back in the Dark Ages). Instead, I paid her top dollar. She was so excited, she accidentally hung up on me. I called right back, though, and found her laughing through tears. The money I was paying would cover her mortgage payment and all of her utilities for a month. In other words, it was a real windfall to them and we hung up both feeling happy.

But that was a rarity indeed, and now on the eve of PMS, I find myself way short on story ideas for the next month, and not looking forward to facing the collective executive editorial brain trust of the magazine (who for the record are scary smart and just a wee bit intimidating, in a good way) and trying to sell each one of them on the merit of my ideas. In many ways, I feel just like I did back when I was trying to break into the biz and my stuff was sitting in slush piles in half the magazines in New York. The only difference is, I don't have any excuse not to know my magazine, and there's no hiding behind a manila envelope.

PMS is tough.


Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead

Thursday, September 23, 2004

 

In Which I Catch A Thief...

One of the best things about finally landing a job at a Really Big Magazine is NOT the thrill of seeing my name somewhere on the masthead, or even as a byline (although those were goals I would have given my third nipple to achieve, back when I was a lowly freelancer, tacking rejection letters to the walls of my tiny apartment because I believed I could feed on the negative energy). It's not the obvious pride of my parents, although that is pretty cool, too, considering how much they suffered and sacrificed to make up the shortfall to put me through college after my scholarships ran out.

Right, so what the hell is it?

It's all the free stuff, of course.

My first week on the job, I was back at my house with a carton of wine, cookies, a couple of steaks, a few CDs and an action figure. Being a Really Big Magazine means you're a target for every single PR rep on the planet. I mean, let's face it: getting a free mention in a publication with several million readers is SO much better than shelling out $850,000 or more for an ad in the same magazine. So of course you would send lots of product to various editors, hoping that if you throw enough crap at the wall, something will stick.

In this analogy, I'm the shit-covered wall.

But I don't really mind. Free stuff is the best stuff. I've already learned that I'm on the review list of most major movie studios and toymakers, as well as other manufacturers of everything from binoculars to those plug-in massage chair things that you put in your car. Every week, the mail comes in the form of several interestingly-bulked envelopes or large boxes and it's as though someone has signed me up for the Grab Bag of the Week club.

Today's mail, for example, brought:

Three galleys of some very highly anticipated books, two fiction, one nonfiction.

A set of Donkey Kong bongos that plug into a GameCube so you can apparently bongo your way through the game. Was this designed by beat poets or something?

A gallon container of ice melter guaranteed to be safe for pets and children (I can see it helping dogs, who walk around in their bare feet. But what kids are going to cavort on an icy driveway with no shows or socks on?).

Two DVDs, one a recent major motion picture, the other, a very independently produced video involving the charmless antics of a person in a yellow dog suit, who disptaches muffled lectures to overacting children.

Some weeks it's great (as when I got my own copy of the Star Wars DVD set) and some weeks it's not (as when I got the carton of maxipads for Plus size women and the homeopathic menopause kit). But I must admit: it's almost always interesting.

And I can see where it would be hard to leave this job. I mean, really, getting free swag is a perk, and to take another job where no one sends you this. Well, it would be tough.

All I'm saying is, I can see the lure. I can see why people would want to sign up for this kind of treatment. So I do have some sympathy for the guy who tried to scam a movie studio out of some DVDs -- and used our name to do it.

I learned about this last week, when I was introducing myself to a nice guy who handles PR for a major studio. We were talking about DVDs we might like to review and possible cover in one of our holiday issues.

"Wow," he says. "You guys are doing a lot, what with that Home Theater special and your holiday issues," he says.

Now, I've only been here a short time, and I know that, like a lot of big magazines, we occasionally publish special one-shot magazines under the magazine's brand name, covering in detail some aspect of live that we cover more generally every month. Reader's Digest does it with books and special issues. Rodale does it with special cookbooks and diabetes books. And we do it with all manner of lifestyle topics.

But Home Theater? We've never really addressed it in the regular magazine, let alone as a special.

"Uh," I says, "what's this about a home theater special?"

So my contact proceeds to tell me he was approached by a fellow in New York, claiming to be a freelancer working on a DVD roundup for our Home Theater special. He wants to review family-friendly movies and TV shows.

"So, what did this guy request?" I asked.

"Season 2 of Roswell," comes the reply.

Now, come on. Roswell may be a fine show, but it's not up there with Waltons or Happy Days as family-friendly entertainment. It's more like the sort of thing a geek might ask for for his own enjoyment.

I asked the PR guy not to send anything, but instead to email this guy and ask who his editorial contact is at the magazine. If he's bluffing, I figure, he'll clam up. But if he's legit, he'll give his contact at the magazine (and really, for you aspiring freelancers taking notes at home, it's the sort of thing you should do with your first phone call. If you're legit, there's no reason not to give up the name of your editor. It establishes your bona fides and saves you loads of hassle).

So I hang up with this contact and go back to my work. A few hours later, I get an email that the freelancer replied by giving the name of an editor at the magazine: Michelle Doe. Did I know her?

No. But I asked my assistant, who's been at the magazine since I was in 8th grade (as I love to remind her in my more devilish moments).

"Oh sure, I remember Michelle," says my assistant. She was indeed an editor at the magazine...in 1992.

And now I slip into Boy Detective mode. I'm envisioning a home body. He's an adult, but still living with his mom. His mom who subscribes to our magazine and, like a lot of our loyal readers, keeps years and years of back issues lying around the house. He's got his internet and his DVD player but not a lot of money to spend on new DVDs, certainly not the $100 or so clams it takes to buy a whole season of a show. What he does have, though, is plenty of free time. And he concocts this scheme to get free DVDs. Just call up a few PR reps and tell em you work for a Really Big Magazine. Heck, they probably won't question you, and if they do, you can always demur by saying, well, it's not a formal assignment. You're doing the story on spec, etc.

But then someone DOES question you. Do you clam up and let your silence reveal you as a fraud? Or do you take it to the very edge of brinksmanship and pull a name out of the masthead of the nearest magazine your mom left lying around (in this case, a 1992 issue of the magazine)?

Well, this guy obviously had balls enough to give em a name. But I wasn't going to let this go. I finally found out where this editor was now: she's long since married and living somewhere in the Midwest. But she still occasionally freelances for us on special projects, so maybe this guy is legit after all.

I get Michelle's number and call her. She has NO idea who this alleged freelancer is. And she certainly isn't working on any home theater special.

Busted!

I informed the PR guy, then called our legal department, who were decidedly unruffled by the news. Apparently this happens quite a bit. Often enough that they actually have a pre-formatted Cease and Desist letter that they issue when they catch someone posing as a freelancer for us. Apparently, when you're a Really Big Magazine, you're not just a target for every PR rep on the planet, you're also a target for every enterprising scammer who wants to get in on the free-stuff gravy train.

Well, not this time.

I wish I could be a fly on the wall when this guy gets the registered letter from our lawyers. I bet his mom will ground him and take away his computer privileges for a month.

Yours,

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Friday, September 17, 2004

 

In which the phone never stops ringing...

So, I've started my job.

It's a good job. Damn it, it's a prestigious job. I love to call someone up and give my name, followed by the words, the ones that make little fireworks pop in mouth, the ones that cause my personal soundtrack to switch from instrumental noodling to Main Theme: "I'm the Deputy Editor of The Magazine. Do you have a moment?" Everyone has a moment for The Magazine. Not like when I was working for a trade magazine devoted to the manufacture and sale of the high-strength metal shelving such as you find in home improvement super-stores. Back then, half my day--hell, half my waking life--was spent trying to explain to people that there actually existed magazines devoted to such specific minutia as shelving. Big money, this was. That was when I worked for controlled-circulation magazines, what other folks like to call B2B (Business to Business) mags.

and it's not just that I can call people and say my magic words and listen to the excited response on the other end. It's that people are calling me. By the dozens. I must get at least a hundred calls per day. If only they were people I wanted to hear from.

This is the first of what I will probably come to call Dirty Little Secrets of the Business: life as an editor of a big magazine means fielding more calls from people who want something from you (from your magazine, more's the point) than just about anything else. That's why I almost never answer the phone. Especially at lunch. Somewhere out there, there's a book advising PR professionals on the best way to get a hold of an editor and get them to agree to receive whatever press release or piece of crap product or service you want to send them, and the first tip it must have is: Call folks at lunch.

What is this about? Is it that you suppose I'm sitting around at lunch, waiting for my mom or my family to call? Was there some study done that showed more magazine editors sit around their office during the noon hour and so have nothing better to do than pick up the phone when it rings.

Thank God for voicemail.

Oh, and my assistant.

Yep. It's weird to say, but I gotta say it: I have an assistant. Not sure how I feel about it yet. I really hate asking someone else to do work I feel I should be doing. I mean, no one nailed my ass to a board: why in hell can't I just haul myself down to the copier and make those damn copies myself? I have a feeling I'll get over it though.

For now, my overwhelming feeling at the thought of having an assistant is guilt. Today, for example, after three days of deciding not to answer the phone any more, I realized that my calls were bouncing out to my assistant, not to voicemail. I'm sitting three feet away here in my office. My asst. knows it, knows I'm in there, not answering my phone, forcing her to pick the damn thing up and say, "Deputy editor's office." A hundred times per day. Man, did I feel bad when it dawned on me. But she took pity on me when I came out with a sheepish look on my face an admitted I had no idea my calls were bouncing to her (how the hell was I supposed to know. I never had an assistant!). So, now we've straightened it out: NEITHER of us will answer my phone.

And if you want to reach me, don't call me at lunch. What, you want to hear me talk with my mouth full? No, I'll tell you a secret: best time to get me to pick up the phone is between 5 and 5:30. That's when family members call to see how late you're going to be, so you better pick up. But just be ready for me to be mad because you're not anyone I care about.

No, all in all, you're better off emailing me. But then you'll be part of the endless stream of story ideas from freelance writers, which is what anyone with email access and a desire to write for us seems to call themselves. And I could call myself a race car driver. But does that mean I am? It does not.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead

Thursday, September 09, 2004

 

In which I become a deputy in a world without sheriffs...

A wiser man than I once said that people don't read magazines for who they are, but for who they want to be. That in every magazine there is inherent promise to grant a wish. We all read Spy in the late 80s because we all wanted to feel hipper and cleverer than we actually were. We read Money because we wish we had some. We read Real Simple because we wish our lives were. Spend enough time with magazine editors, especially editors of a magazine with any kind of service element, and you will hear people talking about "the promise". What is the promise of this story? Have we got enough of the promise on the cover? The promise is that particular piece of verbiage that tells the reader not only what the story is about, but also what they can hope to have or become by reading it. Men's Health became the magazine phenom of the 90s because its editors knew that guys could never get enough of certain promises: Lose Your Gut, Banish Your Belly, Get Rock Hard Right Now, Have Great Sex Everyday Until You Die. The better you are at articulating the promise, the more people will buy your magazine and the happier you and your bosses will be, because your newsstand sales are up, as revenues are up and everyone's happy.

I got into magazines by virtue of a very different kind of promise. When I was a wee lad, I was a voracious reader. When I ran out of kids' books, the Great Brain, Encyclopedia Brown, even the musty old Hardy Boys books we had in the attic, I would read whatever my parents had on hand. Often as not, what they had was magazines, piled high in a big old wooden barrel in our living room. I got into the habit of reading to my mom while she did chores. I'd start with Women's Day or Better Homes and Gardens. I always saved Reader's Digest and its humor departments -- Laughter, the Best Medicine, Life in These United States (as opposed to some other United States) -- for last. My mom loveds those little nuggets. Oh, they made her laugh. "You know," she used to tell me. "Someone writes those for a living."

I pointed out that readers sent in the anecdotes for the Digest. "Yes," my mom countered, "but someone at the magazine polishes them up, makes them sound better, funnier. They get paid to play with words."

Paid to play with words.

It was compelling promise, especially for me. I loved words. Picked them apart, played off them, strung different ones together to see how they looked on a page, or hear how they sounded spoken aloud. The idea that you could make a living doing this was an arresting one, even at the age of 10.

And now, here I am, 25 years later. After a decade and a half of writing and editing, after playing with words for a variety of venues, some you've all heard of, some you haven't, I'm here.

I just accepted a job to be a deputy editor at one of the biggest magazines in the world. Trust me, you've heard of it.

It sounds like a dream job, and in many ways it is, but it is also a crazy one, requiring me to work with some truly odd folks: the thousands of ambitious people who write to me, in the mistaken belief that they are writers (trust me, they're not). My fellow editors. My boss. Myself. We all have our crazy moments, moments that anyone who is working in the industry will certainly understand, and anyone who isn't would no doubt be shocked to learn.

Either way, this is my attempt to cope with it all. To tell some hard and funny truths about this business, and maybe even to offer some useful advice that will help others.

But mostly, I just want to use this blog as another opportunity to work with words, in whatever way seems to suit me.

You're welcome to follow along.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead

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