Kiini
Ibura
Salaam

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KIS.list

Vol. 18, Pitching: A Study in Frustration

Posted on 6 February 2002


New York, NY

Pitching is a skill in and of itself. To be able to look at a magazine and create story ideas that fit with their thrust is a talent I haven’t mastered. Admittedly I haven’t tried very hard to master the technique. For me, the act of pitching steals away valuable writing time therefore it represents another of the uncomfortable and difficult elements of being an artist. It is a different hat from the creativity hat—it’s a publicity hat, a marketing hat. As artists we are required to bring our work to the attention of people who can bring it to the public. Visual artists have to get slides made and get meetings with gallery owners. Filmmakers have to make reels and circulate them to festivals. We all have to find producers and/or managers, or more often than not, we have to be that for ourselves. Pitching is something like that.

What frustrates me about pitching is that it requires me to reach outside of myself for the fulfillment of my creativity. Rather than nurturing an idea inside of me—i.e. thinking about it, discussing it with people, crafting an essay around it—I’m forced to figure out what thing would be of interest to others (and will simultaneously be interesting to me to write).

I’ve not pitched a successful article yet, so pitching the KIS.list could be considered a bold move. I haven’t done a LOT of work in magazines, I’m no expert and I’m not famous. Usually columnists are experts in their fields—a psychiatrist, an astrologer, a pet doctor. Past responses to my attempts to pitch have been vague at best, more often they’ve been non existent. Yet every time I speak to certain editors, they continue to encourage me to pitch something to them. Out of the few pitches that were received favorably by editors, one idea was already in progress at the magazine. And three ideas—which the editor said she really liked—seemed to fade into the sunset. When I asked her how it went when she pitched my article ideas at the editorial meeting, she said. “Oh yeah, I brought them up in the meeting, but we started talking about something else.”

So all that to say: I don’t put to much energy or attention into pitching. A magazine article is like icing on the cake in relationship to my central interest of publishing in anthologies. The motivating factor behind pitching to magazines, though, is the money. A good pitcher can make a career out of magazine writing because the pay is pretty good.

I guess the most valuable responses to pitching I’d received before the KIS.list batch of pitches was the response to a set of book proposals I sent out to a few agents. After there was so much hoopla about the “Navigating to No” article, I decided to propose a nonfiction book on the topic. A few agents didn’t respond. The two that did respond both thought the topic was too limited. One editor thanked me for my brief proposal [“Brief!?” I thought, “Dang, what do they want an encyclopedia?”] and invited me to expand the book’s theme to various aspects of male/female relationships (rather than just the question of sexual consent). I got extremely excited about the idea, but when I sat down to write the proposal I was overwhelmed. The topic was so broad, I didn’t know how to reference the millions of other books in the field and how to gather statistics and other support material to prove the topic worthy of a book.

The second editor (who also thought the topic was limited) called me one morning to say she wasn’t interested in the proposal, but she really liked my writing. She had noticed the amount of fiction I had published and asked if I had a novel in progress. I told her I did, but explained that it wasn’t in great shape. She said she didn’t care, and asked if I could send it to her. After she read it she was even more excited about my writing, but she understood why I was saying it wasn’t ready. It was more a series of short stories strung together rather than a novel. She said it was like being picked up and dropped, there was no throughline to make it whole.

Then through a series of coincidences [The agent was commuting while reading my manuscript. She let out a gasp when she realized what was holding all the stories together. An editor happened to be sitting next to her and asked immediately why the agent was gasping. The agent explained what she was reading and the editor went to work and told her boss about me. Her boss called the agent insisting on reading it although it wasn’t ready. We sent it, but the editor decided she couldn’t use it. However she returned the manuscript with a detailed letter that let me know she gave the manuscript serious consideration. Contained in that letter was enough encouragement to make me feel good about the novel and enough criticism to help me understand that this novel was going nowhere structured the way it was.], I got some valuable feedback that helped me feel validated in my work.

So the KIS.list pitches went out. The first response was from an editor who seemed almost offended by the pitch. Her first criticism was the mass nature of the column. She didn’t see anything specific about her publication in the pitch to the extent that she thought it was almost sent blindly without consideration for the content of her publication. To further that thought, she took issue with the fact that I included a photograph of myself event though her publication doesn’t run author photos. As an older writer, she went on to suggest that I not use the line “writer, painter, human being extraordinaire” to identify myself. [It’s a little phrase I playfully put on my answering machine one day and so many people liked it, I put it on my business cards.] She felt I would alienate my audience by presenting myself as superior to them. Ultimately, she said, her publication is about news and they don’t have space for writers to “write whatever they want to write about.” But she ended her lovely rejection with, of course, an invitation to pitch.

[They say invitations to pitch are a concession that your writing is good, but the editor doesn’t like what you’re proposing, so if you can come to them with a better idea, they may be interested in publishing.]

Obviously, this rejection made me feel uncomfortable and misunderstood. It was almost as if she were giving me a spanking. In my response, I thanked her for her interpretation of “writer, painter, human being extraordinaire.” I told her I had never considered the phrase would be taken that way, but I would definitely take her fresh perspective on it in consideration for the future. Then I explained exactly how I intended it.

[As an aside, it’s interesting to me how rarely we are allowed to compliment ourselves. Why is it possible for me to call myself a writer without someone assuming I think I’m the only writer on this earth, but I can’t call myself an extraordinary person without someone thinking I think I’m better than someone else or that I think I’m the most extraordinary person in the world? But I think her response was good because up until now I’ve only had feedback from people who know me and I guess to a stranger that type of statement comes off as arrogance or superiority.]

I told her I was well aware that her publication didn’t use author photos, but I didn’t think it would hurt my package. Then I began explaining to her exactly why I sent the pitch to her publication. I noted the particular column that inspired me to start writing a column and I described all the elements of her publication that weren’t news and that were quite author-centric, down to the gossip column. I ended by commenting if there’s space for a gossip column, certainly there’s space for a column about art and self-development.

I spent the rest of the day considering the criticisms of the rejection letter and feeling ill-at-ease. The criticism about the proposal being a mass pitch without specific references was right on point. Although I know pitches are supposed to be personalized to the publication it is being sent to, my pitch did not at any time specifically refer to elements of her publication. I didn’t really know how to include the publication-specific references; but as I was writing my response to her rejection, I realized the specific references I should include in a pitch would argue exactly where and how I see my piece fitting in the publication. I could have included a statement like “though your publication has excellent news stories, there is also a quiet core of interesting columns on housing, astrology, advice, and gossip. I see the KIS.list as augmenting this core by focusing on art, one of the central themes of your publication” to illustrate that I had considered the publication and I had a specific reason for sending my proposal to them.

Part of my difficulty with pitching is I don’t have a lot of patience for rigmarole. I feel like publications know exactly what they want. Essentially, either what I’m pitching fits in with their program or it doesn’t. I don’t think it’s necessarily the “best” attitude, but it helps me simplify the task. I can complete the pitch without dedicating too much time to tailoring myself or my idea to the publication (so far, it hasn’t earned me much specific success, but I have had fringe benefits-invitations to pitch, interest in my other work).

Of course my fantasy that if the work is on point for the publication, the editor will work out the rough edges with the writer is an self-centered perspective. Editors have egos, just as writers do. When I pitch, I feel like I’m saying, “Hey, publish my stuff the way I want to write it. Take me as I am.” And I feel like the editor is saying, “You study my publication and find out my likes and dislikes, then pitch me something that fits in with my program. Be who I want you to be.” I prefer to be published as a result of natural synchronicity between my literary approach and the editor’s requirements, rather than pull and tuck and position myself as what they’re looking for. Obviously, that’s not going to work if I want to be a great journalist. Luckily, I don’t want to be a great journalist. I just want to continue writing my personal essays and fiction.

I went to bed disgruntled with the rejection, but I woke up feeling like the editor’s rejection was an opportunity. I suddenly remembered the big catcalling project that was being developed and thought how wonderful it would be to have a full-length article about catcalling appear in a large publication around the time of the project. Of course, the editor probably thought I was even less professional, because as I pitched the idea to her, I told her in the same breath that I couldn’t write it. I know she must have a group of wonderful writers who can do the subject justice, but since I’m out of the country, it would be impossible for me to work on the article.

I never got a response from the catcalling pitch nor from my response to her rejection letter. But at least I now have someone at a major publication to pitch ideas to. Now that I’ve been disciplined by her, perhaps I’ll come up with some fabulous idea and be edited by her in the future. As usual, it’s in the universe’s hands.

Be well. Be love(d).

Kiini Ibura Salaam

==KIINI’S ACCEPTANCE/REJECTION O’METER==
: : : August 2001 – present : : :

Acceptances:
Publications: 4
Grants/fellowships: 0
Residencies/workshops: 0

Rejections:
Publications: 5
Grants/fellowships: 0
Residencies/workshops: 0

==KIINI’S ACCEPTANCE/REJECTION O’METER==

Because I won’t be sending out too much work for consideration, I don’t expect to be receiving many acceptances or rejections in the near future. The acceptance/rejection o’meter may stay as is for a few months, but it isn’t forgotten.

No acceptances or rejections this month.