How To Pitch: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

How To Pitch: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

(Image: John Malathronas with fellow travel writer and friend Mary Novakovich. Photo taken by Adam Batterbee, courtesy Mary Novakovich)

John Malathronas was the author or co-author of 20-odd travel books, including various Rough Guides, Michelin Green Guides and other tales of his travels, from Brazil to Singapore. His byline also appeared regularly in various top-end travel publications such as the Sunday Times Travel Magazine, CNN Travel, National Geographic Traveller and more. 

He was also a contributor to the Travel Write Earn book “Travel Writing 101 – Everything You Need To Know To Start The Best Job In The World (30+ ‘how to’ lessons from professional travel writers and editors)”.

John died earlier this year, and his chapter on how to pitch is republished here in his memory.

You’re an experienced travel writer now – do you still need to pitch like you did when you started out? What has changed if anything?

Yes, like everyone else, I still need to pitch and expand my client list, if only because even the most trusted of editors can disappear. They may switch to a job with a more limited budget, change desks from travel to lifestyle which is not my area, move from print to online where different rules apply, overspend their budgets or of course, get sacked or resign altogether. Once four of my regular editors disappeared within the space of a month – from a mixture of the above reasons – and left me gagging for work.

What percentage of your pitches win assignments? How has this changed over the years?

I estimate 5 percent early on in my career, but I can tell you exactly from 2012 onwards. It was then that I developed an Excel spreadsheet which allows me to track what I pitched to whom and when (to follow it up 1-2 weeks later). Reading it now, out of my first twenty pitches in 2012 three were accepted. Two of them were ‘cold’, that is to people who had never heard of me before. Out of my last twenty pitches, six were accepted and none of them were ‘cold’. 

However, one of these pitches was an idea that I’d already sent to three different editors who’d rejected it. The fourth one thought it was a good match for his audience. I think it’s important not to give up if you have a good idea and to circulate it to various people over a period of time before you give up on it. You should be mindful of where you pitch, of course. A tour of Bauhaus sites in Germany may be good for the Daily Telegraph but it won’t wash for Travel Africa.

Do you have a template or ‘formula’ you follow when pitching and can you describe it?

Not a template as such, but yes, I have a ‘formula’. I think you need a catchy headline, a short in-depth description of the pitch that is tailored to the publication, and finally a reason why you are a good match for the story. 

A headline can be catchy for many reasons but an anniversary like the moon landings will certainly catch the eye of an editor. Something new like a new attraction will also work. This all requires a lot of proactive research.

A good match for a story is never “I’m going there next week”. If you’ve been offered a press trip then the editor you’re pitching to very likely knows about it and has either commissioned it already or isn’t interested. If you’re going to an unknown corner of La France Profonde and speak fluent French, have written a guidebook and several articles about the country then you are a good match.

Do you pitch for every pay packet you bank? How else do you ensure an income?

Once you develop a relationship with an editor then you get contacted for assignments that have been planned by the desk you’re working for. This is particularly noticeable in magazines that work under strict deadlines and plan most of their content months in advance. For instance, once I established a relationship with a well-known magazine, I was sent to Japan, to Austria’s Christmas markets and on a Danube cruise for specific features they had already chosen. However, in order to achieve such trust, you need to spend a long time – and we’re talking years not weeks – cultivating a professional relationship. Plus of course there are guidebooks whose updates ensure a regular income of sorts. These are, however, drying up at the moment. 

Can you recall any pitches that make you cringe now? What would you change?

I keep all my pitches on file, so I’ll dig one out. This is my third pitch to one national newspaper in 2006. It was an on-spec pitch, that is, I’d written the article beforehand.

30th anniversary of the Soweto riots 

Here is a piece for you in case you want to include a travel feature for the 30th anniversary of the Soweto riots (June 16). I have just come back from Soweto and I am writing about the township from a traveller’s point of view 30 years afterwards. It is offered to you on a First British Serial Rights basis at your standard rate (photos separately considered). 

There are four problems with this pitch, even if I thought that sending the article along removed any necessity to expand. I doubt if the editor ever opened the Word file. No catchy headline, no description of the content (except for the cringingly obvious “I am writing about the township from a traveller’s point of view 30 years afterwards”) and of course no reason why I was the right person to write it. (In fact, I’d written a whole book, “Rainbow Diary”, about South Africa that had been published by Summersdale only a year earlier.) 

But the worst part was the timing. I sent this email on May 6 for an anniversary happening on June 16. I should have sent the email three months in advance. I didn’t get a response, quite rightly. Note also the by now almost obsolete BSR reference. You may still find it useful if you’re pitching to a magazine that doesn’t publish online. There are still some.

Can you recall a pitch that worked surprisingly well? Describe it.

This is my second pitch to a national magazine that was accepted in 2016. I’d just met the editor at an event and we got on very well, so I pitched to her immediately afterwards.

Shoulder Season Santorini: Seven Things to do in Santorini in September

Explain why best season for Santorini is September: fewer tourists, lower prices, sea warmest after the summer. 

Then a para each on:

  • Watch the sunset from Oia (July-Aug it’s a scrum).
  • Shop for jewellery at Fira (will find a nice jewellery shop).
  • Have a cocktail at Franco’s (chic bar-with-a-view).
  • Sunbathe on the black beach at Perivolos (out of several black beaches this is the best).
  • Take a boat cruise in the caldera (swim by the newly formed volcanic islets).
  • Go wine tasting (there are several wine estates and Santorini’s Assyrtiko dry white wine is excellent).
  • Visit the mythical Atlantis at Akrotiri (this well-preserved Palaeolithic village is said to be the mythical Atlantis).

I speak fluent Greek and I am the co-author of the Rough Guide to Greece and the Rough Guide to the Greek Islands. 

< followed by links to my books and several articles on Greece>. 

I think this is a very good pitch. The headline is alliterative (to the extreme), the outline body shows I know exactly what I’m talking about and I let the editor know why I am the right person for the job.

Is there a publication you’ve pitched and really want to write for but haven’t been able to crack? What do you think the reasons are?

I’d love to write for Atlas Obscura. I have the hardback, I subscribe to their email lists and I’m totally tuned into their mindset. I’ve had three pitches rejected but very politely. The editor has kindly encouraged me to persist and I will. I just haven’t found a subject that interests them sufficiently.

What publications seem easy to win assignments for and why?

I’ve found no publications easy to win assignments for. I just think that people go straight for the nationals without having honed their pitching skills first. They fail and get demoralized. If anything, competition for such articles is fierce. Start by pitching something lower down the food chain and only when you become reasonably experienced – especially in your pitching – consider the nationals.

One final ‘must do’ piece of advice for early-stage pitchers?

Do not ever offer to write for free. “Building up a portfolio” doesn’t wash, because we all know which publications pay (and therefore have more stringent standards) and which don’t. By all means showcase articles in your own blog or website, but never write for free for others – unless they are friends. Not only will you continue to write for free in the foreseeable future, but you’ll also undermine others in our profession.

John Malathronas was the author or co-author of 20-odd travel books, including various Rough Guides, Michelin Green Guides and other tales of his travels, from Brazil to Singapore. He blogged at

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