From Hunter S. Thompson's correspondence.

I’ve always been fascinated by how narrative journalism gets commissioned, reported, and published–but the most perplexing part of the entire system is the continued power imbalance between writers and publishers.

This imbalance persists in spite of the internet “democratizing” publishing. More digital publishers are embracing feature writing, but the process behind the scenes feels stuck in the past–a time-consuming marathon of unanswered emails and rejection.

Part of this seems to be based on traditional etiquette — that writers should only pitch stories to magazines one at a time, and that they should offer them exclusively. This creates the worst possible negotiating position for a writer: editors are in no rush to answer, and writers have no competing offers to consider.

The Risks of Going Public

It’s not just etiquette, though. Writers themselves are reticent to reveal, even semi-publicly, what stories they are working on, lest some other reporter try to swoop in and try to steal it.

But if they can avoid “giving their story away,” it seems like public story pitches–on Twitter, Facebook, or their blog–can help change the power balance between writers and publishers. And perhaps for some writers, editors can be forced to do some pitching of their own, to win the rights to publish a story.

Lately, I’ve seen more national magazine writers try this tactic, so I asked two of them, Jason Fagone and Ted Genoways, to share their own public pitching experiences.

‘Screw This. Maybe It’s Faster to Write a Note on Facebook’

Fagone, who’s written for GQ, Esquire, The Atlantic, and The New York Times, and is the author of the forthcoming book The Cryptologists, explains:

I’ve tried a few things like this recently. One was an attempt to help a freelancer friend who had a good/worthy story killed. I was trying to help him find a home for it, so I tweeted, basically, “Hey, my friend wrote a good newsy story about agriculture that needs a home, and he’s a pro. Get in touch if you’re interested.” And I did get one or two tweets or DMs from good editors and was able to connect him, although I don’t know if it will ultimately work out.

The other thing I did was post on Facebook that I was looking for a contract with a site or a magazine. I was trying to plan out my work for 2016. I’ve had year-to-year contracts before, but I stopped working for 9 months in 2014-2015 to do a journalism fellowship, and after the fellowship I did some one-off stories for places. A contract is obviously good for a freelancer because it’s a steadier income and you can plan out your life more effectively, but you also tend to get more regular and meaningful communication with an editor, which makes for a stronger pipeline of ideas, and I think that’s good for publications too. So I was looking for a relationship like this. But how do you get one? I don’t know! I think I emailed one of the places I’d written for and asked if they had any contracts available, and they wrote a kind note back saying ‘sorry, we like you but our budget is spent,’ and it was kind of discouraging — I imagined sending 10 similar emails to places and it wasn’t a fun thought — so I just had a moment like, Okay, screw this, maybe it’s faster to write a note on Facebook and see if anyone’s interested. It wasn’t some planned-out thing. The post was two short sentences, I think. It felt very low-risk. The worst that could happen was that nobody would offer me anything and then I’d delete the post, maybe, and never speak of it again? But I did get multiple offers from really good editors. I’m negotiating a contract now with a great editor who saw the post and reached out. So yeah, it worked, I’m glad I did it.

A Facebook Post to Editors

Genoways, author of The Chain and contributor to magazines such as Mother Jones, says he was inspired by Fagone, so he went onto Facebook a couple days ago with his own pitch:
“If you are an editor who might be interested in a profile story about a pivotal figure in the tequila industry, please let me know. I’m already scheduled for a trip to Jalisco at the end of February and have lots of research (and a full pitch) already done. If you’d like a story about a major figure in history of tequila, with an important past that has never been told, please send me a direct message. Thanks!”

It’s too early to know the results (email him now if you’re interested), but Genoways says the risk of public pitching “cuts both ways.”

“Editors want to feel like they are getting something exclusive–and may not want some insiders saying, ‘Oh, I remember when this idea was pitched on Facebook,’” he says. “But I think it’s equally scary for writers. If nobody picks up your pitch, then you’ve flopped in a rather public way.”

‘I Never Considered It Until I Saw Jason Do It’

Fagone and Genoways have an advantage that they are already well-known national magazine writers with editor friends on Facebook. But Genoways says it’s “tricky at any level”:
“That’s why I never even considered it until I saw Jason do it–and do it successfully. Jason was in a position where he was at the end of a big project and could essentially say, ‘If you’re looking for a contributor, I need magazine assignments.’ I was in the opposite position. I’ve got a book project that I’m working on, and I need magazine editors to commit to some very specific parts of the project that need funding. The challenge there–and it’s the same challenge, I think, for young writers–is that you have to say a bit more, in public, about what you’re working on. That always creates the possibility of someone more senior and just better connected swooping in and scooping you. For me, it was worth the risk this time, because I’m traveling in a few weeks, no matter what. If an editor is interested, then they will get a strong story and fast. If no editor bites, I can still travel and get that part of the book completed before anyone else beats me to it.”
Even if you’re not ready to go fully public with a story pitch, there are variations that could work for any writer. We’ve received pitches at Longreads that clarify that the writer is pitching this to other publications. Or they set a specific deadline for a response, after which point the writer will assume that the publisher is passing. This can shrink the time spent hopping from one editor to the next.
Do you have experience pitching stories publicly? Share them in the comments.