Let a thousand gardening writers bloom

CAN YOU still make it as a writer in a specialist field, such as gardening? That's what June's London Freelance Branch meeting asked. Our speakers were Deborah Stone, editor of the Express "Garden" section and Marcia Macleod, founder and editor of micro-local publication Your Allotment magazine for North London.

London Freelance Branch's seed swap table; photo © Matt Salusbury
LFB members examine the Branch's seed and seedling swap table.

The meeting also featured a seed and seedling swap table for the gardening enthusiasts among LFB. But the debate went beyond the gardening niche market and entered new ways to make journalism pay territory, and some of the speakers' advice for gardening writers was equally relevant for writers in any field.

Deborah had been at the top of her game before she moved into gardening writing, and found she had to start all over again from the bottom, an experience which can make a journalist "lose confidence in being able to write". She first went into journalism at 18, and via the Essex Chronicle came to be Daily Express regional editor. When she had her first child 16 years ago, she found she "couldn't do nights", news reporting became difficult, so she turned to "something I enjoy writing about: gardening ".

Deborah Stone; photo © Matt Salusbury
Express online gardening editor Deborah Stone, with French marigold in foreground

Said Deborah, "for gardening most nationals will only really employ big names". Alan Titchmarsh had been taken on the write all the gardening matter for the Daily Express at around that time, so there was "no room for anyone at all" there. It came as a shock to Deborah when she rang the Telegraph with gardening feature ideas, only to be questioned: "'Are you a specialist writer? Do you have any [horticultural] qualifications? No? In that case we're not interested.' That was a big learning curve!"

So Deborah "became qualified" - it took her three years to get the Royal Horticultural Society's Advanced Certificate in Horticulture (current RHS courses here). Her garden journalism top tip? "Consider getting some qualifications [even] on a part-time night school basis" - City & Guilds have entry-level courses that are less demanding that the RHS's.

Other advice for green-fingered scribes? "Never say no to work. Even if you think you can't do it, say yes." Even if you're taking on the sort of work you've never done before, "you know how to communicate from the start... I am living proof that you can do it, never ever say no to anything. " And "go to as many networking events as you possibly can... get your name on a byline." Also, "start a blog." These days that's your best way in.

Money's "going to be the problem," warns Deborah: "the rates of pay are going down." Deborah says "I don't like to work for free, " but in her opinion, while experienced writers entering the gardening niche should, after careful consideration, consider taking on some work initially even "if you're not offered any money, it is worth doing something for an amount of time that you feel you can until you get a profile. If you haven't got a profile you haven't got a chance."

Deborah passed on advice from the very small number of gardening commissioning editors (a small enough pool that one can be identified by their gender). "Phone up the commissioning editor, pitch them a few ideas, check that they are the right person. They have more of a sense of knowing you when you email stuff in. If you live anywhere near them... phone up and say, shall we go for a coffee?"

And there's the Garden Media Guild, of which Deborah is chair. You can join as a probationary member, and later "get in as full member if you're published, this could include blogs. The £70 fee to join includes handbook with list of PRs... magazines, book publishers, national newspapers details."

Marcia Macleod; photo © Matt Salusbury
Marcia Macleod, founder of Your Allotment magazine, with LFB Chair Dave Rotchelle (right), Freelance editor Mike Holderness (left) and two French marigolds

Marcia was writing for the industrial and trade press when she "got an allotment in Barnet. Someone on a nearby allotment suggested starting a newsletter. It covered Barnet, Camden, Haringey, expanding across North London" until it became Your Allotment. It is deliberately not free, "not online, not national". Readers don't want to read it online, they want to take it to their sheds.".(And when a print run goes over 200, "digital" is "not much cheaper".) Marcia did consider making YA free, but "I do get a little bit of money for sales and it helps to pay the printer.". The magazine's now bimonthly - "I can't afford to turn down my other journalism work."

Keeping it local, explains Marcia, "means we got local news (some national as well) interviews with local growers, tips on growing on clay - which is what most of London has." National newspapers have articles about growing things in "different soil... different weather... if there's someone doing it up the road then readers think, 'maybe I can do that too'."

To go from being a journo to a publisher, as Marcia did, you need three very important people: "an ad rep, a designer and a printer. (The printer should be "reliable - and let you run up a bit of credit".)

"I was very lucky to find an ad rep semi-retired... who was willing to work on commission only." Marcia's resisted pressure to lower ad rates for YA, "dropping ad rates means you have to take more ads, which means more pagination, which costs more to print."

You'd think YA would be an instant success, but it's taken two years to break even. Wholesalers won't touch it, because they fear that at 20 pages YA is "too thin.". YA's in Budgens supermarket in independent supermarkets, a few garden centres... those allotments that have trading huts, and in "allotment sales, plant sales, every one I can physically get to in a day."

Marcia's lessons from Your Allotment? It's going to take a lot longer and cost a lot more money. Get people to do things you can't do, ads, etc. ("photography I do"). Don't be embarrassed to ask friends for help. Network like mad. Contact your local press. Follow your instinct - not going national, not going online in Marcia's case. Finally, "don't give up, but know when its time to call it a day, according to my friends I missed that point."

There are also political stories to report around allotments. Councils "would prefer to get rid of allotments, they'd rather not spend the money on them" and there are current or imminent struggles around allotments in Watford, Barnet and Hackney.

Marcia ended with an offer of a possible franchise opportunity for a South London version of Your Allotment - presumably writing about growing in sandy soil rather than in clay - contact her via editor@yourallotmentmagazine.com.

Last modified: 29 Jun 2013 - © 2013 contributors
The Freelance editor is elected by London Freelance Branch and responsibility for content lies solely with the editor of the time
Send comments to the editor: editor@londonfreelance.org