Why editors don’t answer your emails

Stressed travel writer

This is the first question of an ebook I’ve just published, answering 40 questions in total from real travel freelance writers. See the book here, or over in the sidebar on the right.

A few weeks ago I wrote to dozens of freelance travel writers and professional bloggers to ask: what’s your biggest challenge? What’s the most frustrating problem you have as a freelancer?

More than 50 wrote back to me with their problems. Some were so frustrated with the trade they had given up altogether. “I never pitch to magazines or papers any more,” wrote one. “All I can tell you is that trying to sell a travel story these days is like pulling teeth, unless you know the editor personally.”

But others obliged. So here I turn agony uncle and try to advise on the best ways to resolve or at least ease the pain of indie travel writing as a livelihood.

1. Editor (non)communication.

“Why are editors such cold, silent, uncommunicative BASTARDS?”

 

By far the most common grievance was this. Conveyed with varying degrees of murderous animosity, this top lament, dripping with exasperation, is one I think all freelancers who pitch will have experienced. Some sample quotes:

“Pitching articles day after day while receiving little or no response is such a waste of time when you make your living as writer.”

“If the email is never opened, it doesn’t matter how good and targeted it is. I’m seriously thinking about going back to mailing paper queries.”

“After five sends of the query to two different e-mails … I still have no reply … I find this not only rude but outrageous … and I have checked them off my query list. I simply can’t waste my time and creative juices on that kind of treatment.”

“I don’t need lengthy explanations as to why my pitch didn’t work, but rather quick, helpful guidance helping me place ideas that are a good fit. An editor recently got back to me saying in one sentence ‘I have too many food stories and features on China and Thailand, and short on pitches on Japan, Burma and Malaysia.’ This was super helpful.”

“I don’t really buy it when editors say ‘do you know how busy we are?’ My answer is yes I do, because I worked on a travel desk for 12 years. We’re all busy. My favourite UK editor (who shall remain nameless) always gets back within 2 days (usually same day) with just the word ‘no’ or ‘yes’. It’s all I need to know!”

Editors are not too busy

Being ignored is never pleasant is it. And just to prove that I really do understand all those who mentioned this problem, I make a conscious effort to reply to all pitches I receive, even if it’s a cursory “No, but thanks.”

Let me start by agreeing with the last quotee. Many of these complaints came with some variation of the qualifier: “I know editors are crazily, insanely busy…”. This is a myth that needs to be busted.

Editors are not the busiest people outside of Donald Trump’s Twitter crisis team, no matter how much they’d like you to believe it. I’m probably the first editor to even contemplate busting this myth, because of the excuses it allows us to make. Sorry, I can’t answer that email, I can’t take that call, I can’t make lunch or dinner this week or next week or next month or next year, no mom I can’t come to aunt Sylvie’s funeral, sorry hun I can’t make the birth of our son, I can’t talk, I can’t breathe, I can’t even work I’m so damn busy.

Enough. Yes editors are busy. But the busiest editors are those who have no freelance budget and have to write everything they publish. We’re not interested in them. Commissioning editors, or editors lucky enough to work on a title that uses freelancers, are certainly not too busy to read your email (I guarantee they did. At least a few lines. No one wants to miss out on a great story, even if it means reading 100 bad ideas first). They’re not too busy to send a brief cursory reply (they just don’t want to). And they’re certainly not busier than the full-time freelancer trying to feed a family and pay bills and write stories and source pictures and find the next assignment. These editors start work at 9, finish at 6 and get a guaranteed, can’t-complain wage slip at the end of every month, no matter how many articles they write or edit. They get all the usual employee benefits, zero risk and could eat out for free at a nice hotel or restaurant three days a week or more should they want.

We don’t need to pander to the egos of this blessed crowd, despite our co-dependence.

At the same time, we shouldn’t expect them to reply to every pitch.

It may be polite, you may think it would make their lives easier in the long run by guiding you to pitch ideas better aligned to their needs, you might consider it a painless way to extend the simplest of professional courtesies, but actually that’s not your call. They’re doing their job the way they think works best for them, so you need to do yours they way that’s best for you.

That means retaining your professionalism in the face of such abhorrent insolence(!)

So, why might an editor not want to reply to your pitch?

travel writer problems
Being a freelance writer can be a lonely existence.

Nine out of 10 editors prefer some other story

The first thing to realise is that no reply really does mean no thanks, at least 95% of the time. As I said, your email did get read, so if the story was of interest you would have had a reply probably within a few days. So straight away we’re looking at 19 out of 20 ‘no responses’ meaning no interest.

Why no reply? Editors are human, and humans tend toward self-interest and self-preservation.

Self-interest

“This email is of no use to me,” goes the thinking. “Delete.” The therapeutic effects of deleting emails and at least trying to reach inbox zero, however doomed the attempt, outweigh the small niggling voice in the head saying “It would be polite to reply. They’d appreciate it.”

Note that at that moment the editor is looking at and concerned with “an email.” Not a person, not a struggling freelancer waiting like a forgotten puppy at the other end of the Interweb. A cold, lifeless, useless email.

And he or she knows that another email, possibly a useful one with an idea they like, will be along very soon. There’s no need to spend any time or effort on this one.

Self-preservation

Second, sometimes an editor, possibly after having had a bottle of fine wine and a Death By Chocolate dessert at lunch, will reply to a failed pitch. And it’s like making eye contact with the beggar. (Apologies for the obtuse comparison. Beggars deserve better!) This happened to me often. You don’t want to be like the heartless masses who walk by without so much as a glance. So you acknowledge them. Maybe you even smile. And suddenly they latch on, their eye won’t let you go, they’re looking at you and suddenly they’re talking to you and you just want to walk to the store to get a pack of chips and a bottle of gin, and you wonder why oh why did I make eye contact, I knew this would happen, it pains me it really does, but no, you cannot have my money, I just wanted to buy some dinner, god why did I do it, I have to stop making eye contact with beggars. Until the next extravagant lunch, of course.

That initial email can lead to more emails, and if you’re really caught up in the moment of an editor finally engaging with you, maybe even a phone call. And there are few things editors dread more than phone calls from writers whose pitch they just rejected.

Those are just two reasons editors don’t reply to failed pitches – explanations, even if they’re not watertight excuses.

The follow-up

The 1 in 20 non-replies that still could lead to a job could occur for various reasons: out of office, spam folder, busy putting together a complicated feature for publishing in the next couple of days, simply can’t be bothered looking at/responding to pitches today, and a dozen more.

How do you tell if your non-reply is in the 95% or the 5%? And what do you do if it’s in the 5%?

Well, this is the crux of the question (sorry for making you wade through 1,500 words to get here). There’s a reason this was the most mentioned complaint from the writers I polled: unfortunately there’s no simple answer.

The only way to get information out of your target editors is to follow up. And despite what I said above phone calls are most effective. I’d suggest (and as an editor have no problem with) a follow-up email the day or possibly two days after the original pitch and a phone call a couple days after that follow-up email (if no reply to that either).

Yes, I said “the day after.” Many writers I’ve listened to ponder anxiously about waiting a week, or two weeks, or 18 days to follow up as if they’re lovestruck teenagers squirming over their courting strategy. Wrong. You’re a professional writer, he or she is a professional editor, and you just need to know what’s what. It’s best to do that while your email is still fresh and they don’t have to go scrolling too far down their inbox (or trash folder) to find it.

Disclaimer: this works if you’re dealing with an editor who has autonomy and can assign or reject ideas solo and as they come in (which is most). Some platforms however commission by committee, with weekly or monthly meetings to decide what gets assigned. Others state in their writer’s guidelines that it can take up to six or eight weeks for them to make a decision. Details inside writer guidelines can often be taken with a spoonful of salt though, and as long as you abide by any direct feedback you get after following up, I see no problem in harassing them at least once.

pitching travel articles
Why won’t that bastard reply? Lots of reasons, none of them about you.

Be direct and concise

Importantly, you don’t want to become known as “that annoying freelancer who won’t leave me alone.” So in both email and phone call, be concise and direct. Small talk is for amateurs. You’re intelligent enough to write your own scripts, but the message should be: I just want to make sure you read my pitch and understand why I think it’s a great fit for you and your platform.

To save their time, have the exact subject line you used ready so they can search for your email easily, should they want. For this reason it helps to use a unique subject line in your query email, not a generic “Freelancer pitch” that could easily get lost among dozens. And if they’ve lost your email or prefer to hear you pitch over the phone, have your pitch in front of you and read it out as you’ve written it (and according to my advice!): potential headline/angle, quick summary, then, if they want more, further details.

If you’re the sensitive empathic type and can’t bear the thought of firing off a follow-up email without some kind of excuse (you have a schedule to arrange, a travel itinerary to produce, a workload to organize, you’re going to be out of Internet range for the next week, the spam folder has taken a dislike to your address recently) I’d strongly advise you to get over this little quirk. You’re a pro who deals in information and you need to be businesslike, as well as pleasant and amiable, in these dealings. You’ll come across far better and what matters is getting the information you need.

It’s not personal

If you hear nothing on email and the editor refuses to take your call, you can reasonably assume you’ve been rejected. No hard feelings, take it on the chin, button yourself up and pitch elsewhere. You did your best. Remember: this doesn’t mean they don’t like you, it just means they didn’t like this idea. What won’t help your cause is getting emotional or offended. Striking non-replying titles off your query list as one quotee claims to have done above may feel gratifying in the short-term, but potentially deprives yourself more than it does the title.

Okay I’m going to leave it there; 2,000 words and there’s still so much to say!

Other related queries from freelancers who wrote to me included:

  • If I don’t get a response, when can I pitch the same idea to other titles?
  • If I need a confirmed assignment before a fam trip how do I get an editor’s quick response?
  • How can I tell if the email even got opened or received/spammed?

I’ll be going into these and all the other questions in an ebook I’ll be publishing, probably for free. If you’re not signed up to my newsletter to hear about that and new posts and tips as I write them you can do so here or in the sidebar.

As ever, put your comments or questions down below and I’ll be glad to respond.

15 thoughts on “Why editors don’t answer your emails

  1. You are so right! I’m a member of a travel organization and I pitched to that organization’s travel magazine, thinking I’d have an “in.” A week later they acknowledged it saying they’d look at it “soon.” Four weeks later I followed up and two weeks after that was accepted along with their (generic?) “we look forward to future submissions from you.” Hey! Now I’m really in! I’ve got that editor’s ear! Hmmm …

    My next 3 submissions to them were all met with equal or worse correspondence from them and only my follow-ups prodded out the acceptance. With 4 articles published by that same editor, the 5th should be smoother, right? Well, in a way it was, but only because she automatically (I guess) accepted it. Because next thing I knew she’d sent the proof copy, no acceptance letter, just “please proof this and get it back to us tomorrow.” Hey, all my articles were accepted and I got a decent check for each one. So my bottom line is to just be professional on MY end, do my polite follow-ups as a matter of course, and not agonize over the fact that most editors just really aren’t so hot on communicating.

  2. Great piece! As someone who has also been been on both sides of the travel editor’s desk — as an editor at Fodor’s and Frommer’s in New York and Rough Guides in London and at the Tucson’s main paper, the Arizona Daily Star — I would add that sometimes it was a little bit personal; in one case, I couldn’t bear to be honest with someone I’d semi-promised work to and then read her original clips. And I also — insanely — labored under the delusion that good writers knew they were good and didn’t need me to tell them. Ha! Karma bit me on the butt pretty quickly as soon as I became a freelancer. Would that every editor be required to work as a freelancer for a minimum of six months as a pre-requisite for the job.

    1. Yes, editors would benefit from freelancing wouldn’t they! Actually I think that transition – freelancer to editor – is not that uncommon. Even more beneficial would be freelancers working as editors, to really get into the mindset of what editors look for, what makes them cringe, laugh or go back to freelancing!

  3. Hi James,
    I’m a freelance cartoonist and have just come across this item and your site. Sitting here on a large pile of rejection slips, I figure some info you have here is equally applicable to cartoonists. So thanks, and I’ll put myself on the list to receive future items from you.

    I’ve had 3 gigs with my editorial/political cartoons in newspapers, but with the evolution of the print and internet media it really is impossible to crack the code these days. Have had a comic strip published as well as several panel cartoons.

    Tried all sorts of angles since, but obviously not the right ones (at the right time).

    In desperation, I’m even looking at the world of Advertising and basic animation.

    I probably receive the negative response from around 70% of editors. The other 30% remain silent. The main excuse is “sorry, we don’t have the budget for a cartoonist”.

    Good luck to yourself and all your creative followers.

    Cheers
    Mick

    1. Good to hear from you Mick. You’re right, I focus this blog on travel writing/pitching, but the lessons within could apply to many sorts of freelance work. Cartoonists I imagine have an even tougher time than most – how the hell do you survive? I know the cartoonist for the SCMP here in HK – he’s lucky in that he has that as a regular gig every day, but I’m not even sure that pays enough for him to do nothing else.

  4. Hello James,

    Thanks for your excellent advice.

    I’m a die-hard journalist who has worked in PR for over a decade. I’ve seriously missed writing so have started pitching travel and entrepreneurship feature ideas and mostly to editors I don’t know.

    As a former full-time newspaper staffer and travel editor (who wrote the travel section in full), it’s not an easy transition to freelancer attempting to sell carefully-crafted story ideas, so your tips are much appreciated.

    Looking forward to your e-book.

    All the best,
    Helen

    1. The lure of the dark side is a strong one isn’t it! Good to see your journalistic soul is in tact though. I recognise your name, have we worked together in the past?

      1. Hello James and apologies for the long lag in my response! Missed the memo, it seems.
        My journalistic soul is firmly ingrained!
        I don’t believe we have worked together in the past.
        Great to be in touch!

  5. Sorry for taking some time to reply to this brilliant piece. It’s Thanksgving weekend here in Canada, which means family time–and turkey time.

    Thanks for the notes along the way. It was worth reading the entire post. This is indeed great advice, and helps understand the folks on the “other” side.

    I’ve just sent off a query to an editor. This one was fairly long but I was pitching two related ideas and there was some context necessary. I pitched the two together to avoid having to repeat the context.

    I will definitely follow up, I appreciate the advice of not waiting too long.

    Cheers,
    Christine

    1. What I didn’t add is that sometimes a well-timed, reasonable and persuasive follow-up can turn a 50-50 or a ‘doesn’t sound right’ pitch into a successful assignment. Especially if the editor is short of ideas for whatever reason. Good luck!

  6. Hmm it looks like your blog ate my first comment (it was super long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I had written and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog. I too am an aspiring blog writer but I’m still new to everything. Do you have any helpful hints for beginner blog writers? I’d certainly appreciate it.

  7. This post is so spot on — thank you. As an editor and a former freelancer I can verify all of the reasons listed above as to why we don’t get back to writers — in a timely way, or at all.

    I don’t work in the travel writing industry, I edit for a tech publication, but the reasons still apply. I get pitched infrequently compared to editors in some of our other tech groups, and I am indeed not so busy that I can’t answer an email. And I well recall those nail-biting waits as a freelancer, hoping an editor would respond to my query.

    But I don’t always get back to freelancers for a couple of reasons. The biggest is that like everyone else I get a lot of email in my inbox, so a pitch can get buried in there. I recommend 2 things: make sure your subject line is direct, not coy — I want to know that it’s a pitch from a freelancer, so I can find it later — and definitely, definitely follow up in 24-48 hours if you don’t get a reply.

    The other reason is when a freelancer sends a pitch that seems generic and signals that he or she spent little or no time researching our publication(s). Those are the ones I’m least likely to respond to at all. So it’s important to indicate that you at least read some of our articles.

    Finally, if I say “thanks but no thanks,” or “your idea isn’t a good fit for our publication,” don’t be afraid to reply and ask what *would* be a good fit, or what kind of articles we’re looking for. I’ll do my best to tell you. We *do* need freelancers for occasional projects, but we don’t publish writing guidelines, so it’s the about only way for you to know exactly what we’re looking for.

    Hope this provides a little encouragement — I know it can be very tough when you’re sitting on the outside wondering just what the heck an editor is thinking. (Lunch. We’re mostly thinking about lunch. Death By Chocolate sounds really good right now.) But it really, truly is not personal if we don’t get back to you.

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