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Pitching: not maybe, but yes or no

WHAT problems do we have with commissioning editors, and what do we hope from them? These questions were put by veteran London Freelance Branch tutors Phil Sutcliffe and Humphrey Evans at an interactive training session in September's branch meeting.

One member described a publication that "slammed in other material", leaving only 400 words that were his in a 2000-word article, the remainder being copyrighted material lifted from multiple sources. The injured freelance felt that the brief was very clear, and that he'd stuck to it. The writer immediately emailed the editor on issues of liability for plagiarism, and after a series of emails they took his name off the website and gave an undertaking that his original work was fine and that publication "wouldn't do it to my copy again".

Branch Treasurer Jenny Vaughan described a problem peculiar to book-editing, usually paid on an hourly rate rather than a global fee. Freelances book editors make deals based on how long a book will take, they do the work, then send in their invoice, only to be rung up later because "there's a problem with the invoice, it's a lot, we didn't expect you to work full time on it, can you put it down?". Wherever possible, force an hourly rate to change to a global fee, named up front.

Editors sitting on your pitch, and not getting back to you until it's lost its news value, is common frustration. A rôle-played phone conversation between Larry Herman (playing an editor) and writer Angus Batey (playing himself) simulated this. From this we learned:

  • Check who you're talking to, and whether they have the knowledge or responsibility. Don't ring up the day before the event you want to cover, ring earlier.
  • Break down your requests into one question at a time, so you're getting them to say, yes, yes, to each point, rather than giving them more information that they can handle all at once.
  • Hint that one of the competitors is interested, advises photographer Guy Smallman. "I'd be quite keen to further a conversation I had with someone else," he tells editors. Specify a time limit before you'll take it somewhere else.
  • If you get an answerphone, you know the answer is no. You don't want maybe, you want yes or no, and you should have your list of contacts ready to pitch to the next one.
  • Phil Sutcliffe counsels: don't be aggressive, do it non- confrontationally and friendly.
  • Several freelances present recommended "multi-pitching" to several outlets. The Guardian and the Daily Mail claim they don't share any of the same market, and apparently have published the same article word-for-word.
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