with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

A Visit With a Publisher – Understanding the Editor, Photo Editor, and the Job

graphic of a loupe and slides on a light tableWhile traveling on the road full-time, we got a chance to spend a couple days with one of our publishers. What we learned from those few days reflects the same things we hear from publishers and editors around the world. The most important thing we learned, which you will hear over and over, is this: Make it easy for them to work with you and they will keep on working with you.

The Typical Editor

There seems to be a lot of myths and misconceptions about what an editor does and how they should act. Our favorite myth is the one that goes something along the line of “if the idea is good enough, the editor will fix it, even if the writing is terrible.”

The reality is that many editors don’t have time to go through everything that crosses his or her desk. They have articles to read and review, decisions to make about content, planning sessions, people who want to talk to them all the time, email to read, phones to answer, faxes to respond to, and many editors have their own articles, columns, and writing assignments that have to meet deadlines, too. They allocate their time as well as possible, giving time and care when and where they can.

When it comes to writing, some ideas are worth fixing, but most consume the editor’s time and energy when they could be doing something else more profitable. If they have a personal investment in the writer, or if they know the writer or photographer’s name is enough to help sell the magazine, they will put a lot of work into making the article wax poetic. Otherwise, if it ain’t good, they won’t take it any further than the trash bin.

Editors enjoy working with the same writers and photographers over and over again. From a beginner’s perspective, it looks like these writers have the field sewn up. There is room, but ask yourself why they keep going back to the same writers? The reasons you will hear from editors and publishers are professionalism, excellence in work and production, ability to meet deadlines, and a joy to work with. From our visit and working with editors from around the world, we’ve learned these tips which should help get your work in the door and keep them coming back to you.

To Be Professional, Act Professional

Open any “how to write” book and they say the same thing: “Read the magazine, read the guidelines, and give them what they want.” In other words, be professional and don’t give them articles and images they don’t need. Don’t waste their time. What stands out from the crowd of submissions is always professionalism. There are no excuses nowadays for handwritten articles or letters or poorly prepared submissions. There are many books available on how to submit material to a magazine or publisher. Yet, many times during our visit we witnessed violations of basic submission instructions.

Appearance is everything. When the editor or publisher won’t ever see your face, what you send them via email and regular mail is your face. It is your appearance. Make it professional looking and you will take a giant step towards getting published. Here are some of the things we learned on our visit with a publisher.

If you haven’t read the guidelines, you don’t know what they want and what their restrictions and preferences are. Don’t waste their time. The guidelines layout exactly what they are looking for in material, how it is to be delivered to them, how it will be handled, and everything you need to know to work with them.
Do Your Homework
Even if you are familiar with a magazine, go back through recent past issues and do your homework. Really evaluate the magazine, not just from a writer’s perspective, studying writing styles and presentation, but look at it from the reader’s point of view and the advertiser’s perspective. The editor can spot someone who knows the magazine in how they talk about it and what material they are submitting. If you send them a proposal on photographing wildflowers three months after they just published an entire issue dedicated to that subject, they know you didn’t do your homework.
Mailing Material
We watched mail being sorted and handled, much of it unsolicited articles and images in all shapes and sizes. It amazed us what people think they can get away with. We saw things in oversized boxes, stapled nightmares, and poorly labeled containers. The greatest tragedy were the packages wrapped in miles of scotch or strapping tape. It took a knife to slice some of them open. Use a professional looking envelope or package that is easy to open and you make everyone much happier.
Label Everything
One photographer sent in 10 zip disks with no labels, no delivery memo, nothing but a note saying, “Pick out what you want and let me know.” The editor’s assistant, with no ZIP drive, took the disks to the production group and interrupted someone working under a deadline to print out copies. It made everyone mad and screwed up their schedules. The assistant wanted to send the whole thing back with a refusal. Always include the required paperwork as outlined in the guidelines. Include a delivery memo specifying everything you are sending with descriptions of the images. If they are on disk, make sure the editor has the equipment to handle them and print out good quality sample pages, clearly labeled with what the subject is and where to find it on the disks.
Put Contact Info on Everything
Graphic image of slides on a light tableAs your images and article go through the editing/production process, they can get scattered around. Make sure your contact information and article title is on everything you send. If the editor wants more information or more photos, or maybe even another article, they have to know how to find you quickly and easily.
No Unsolicited Material
Almost all unsolicited work is returned by most publishers. This information is stated right on the masthead of the magazine. Do what it says. Query first, before sending valuable images and/or manuscripts. When they say they will not be held responsible for unsolicited work, they mean it. When our editor told me the monthly cost of returning material, even unsolicited, I was shocked. Many publishers just can’t afford it. Take them seriously when they say don’t do it.
Send Good Cover Material
When writing a feature article, provide images for the cover, too. Cover images have to fit within their format. Each magazine cover has specific requirements. Some include people, others feature only scenics. Some want images to reflect the articles inside, others want the image to represent the season or just be eye catching. Research how they use and include images you recommend as covers. Nothing is more exciting than getting a cover image! Help them help you get there.

Helping the Editor Help You

Graphic of a typewriterBy doing everything you can to make the editor’s job easier, you help yourself get published. It isn’t just about looking professional, it is about being professional and giving quality work.

Edit Your Work
Edit your writing as well as your photographs so the editor will get the best you have to offer. Keep the number of slides you submit to a manageable number, one to three per main point in the article. If the editor requests 20 slides, don’t send them 25. Make sure the images are sharply focused, clean, and worthy of publishing. By self-editing your work before you submit it, you set a professional standard.

Counting Counts
Most word processors have word counting tools. In WordPerfect, it’s “File, Document Info”. In MS Word, it’s “Tools, Word Count.” Editors layout articles by the column inch, something difficult for a writer to figure out. It is based upon the font and font size, column width, margins, and page size of the publication. By giving them a fairly accurate word count, an experienced editor can estimate the column length, finding a place for your article quickly.
Word Counts and Length
Some people, like me, are voracious writers. Other people find meeting a 1000 word deadline the stuff of nightmares. Stick to word count maximums. If anything, go under. For photographers, the fewer the words, the more room for photographs. The more words, the fewer photos. If your story is a visual one, suggest having fewer words and more pictures. If the story is a verbal one, have more words. One editor told of a photographer asked to write an article about exposure. The writer wrote over 8,000 words. The limit was 1,000. He COVERED exposure. Work hard, long before the editor ever sees the work for the first time, to narrow your points down. Put the word count on the front or last page of your submission, AND in the cover letter.
Article Titles
How many ways can you say “How to take great bird pictures?” “How to take pretty scenics?” How many times can you use cliches like “Birds of a Feather?” Month after month, a magazine publishes the same kinds of stories. How to take pictures. How to work with flash. How to plan a trip. How to lose weight. How to…whatever it is. A good title helps the magazine sell itself but a catchy title also helps you sell your submission. Titles are an art in themselves. What may sound perfect to us may not work for the publishing company. Your title may describe the article, but the publisher wants to sell the story and magazine to readers. Few articles get published with the title the author originally came up with, but give them a good one and it can give them ideas and help you sell your article to the magazine in the first place.
A Magazine is a Work of Art
graphic of slide pagesA magazine is a “designed work of art”, not just a bunch of pretty pictures and words. We watched the production staff laying out pages, shoving this and that around, figuring out how images would go across a fold, horizontal or vertical, and how the text wraps around, fitting in advertisements here and there. I suggested they flip one picture so the subject was out of the fold. “We don’t do that!” This particular magazine will not crop or flip an image without permission from the photographer. Nothing sets off readers writing nasty notes more than a picture of El Capitan on the right instead of the left of the Merced River. Designers will adjust photographs so they are printable on their presses: too dark is made a little lighter and colors that won’t print are tuned to something printable within the CYMK range, but they will not crop or flip without permission. The graphic designer in me struggles with this, but this is the respect they give the artistic photographer. Your images are yours and any changes could violate the trust this magazine has with their photographers. NOTE: If you are willing to have your images cropped or graphically manipulated, then make this clear in writing on your submission. Sometimes helping the staff do their job better helps your reputation.
Be Fair and Patient
There are lots of stories about photographers and writers making an editor crazy: demanding to know when the article will be published, not responding well to criticism or edits, demanding to be paid on acceptance and not publication…and bugging them via phone, fax and email so much that they don’t want to do business with them. Be fair and you will get fair treatment back. Yes, publishers want to make every dime they can, and writers and photographers are usually the first to feel like they are shafted with issues like compensation and rights control. When you find a company who treats you fairly and for whom you have respect, treat the relationship well and treasure it. They will do the same. In the long run, we all will benefit from that treatment.

Visiting with the Publisher

We saw editors and staff who CARED about what they did. They were committed to making their work the best they could. The great writing, the creativity, and the delight of working with the good material seemed to cancel all of the problems of the bad. Not all magazines are like that, so we treasure the ones we work with who have that kind of respect and appreciation for what they do.

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