Right on Time
Devyani Borade | June 2013
Getting the Timing Right – is There a Perfect Time to Pitch?
‘Thank you for sending me your wonderful article,’ read the editor’s reply. I smiled. ‘I would have accepted it but...’ I frowned. This did not bode well. ‘...but in the next issue we are publishing a similar article. So I am sorry but I cannot use your piece – bad timing!’ Damn. I swallowed my disappointment and got to work with my next story. But two weeks later when the same thing happened again (‘We just did a pretty major feature on this in our June issue, hard luck!’), and yet again (‘We have covered similar themes in the not-too-distant past, I’m afraid’), I was really upset. Three commissions lost just because I was too late to query? Maybe luck had nothing to do with it. Was there more to blame here than just the fourth dimension?
Time is money. More so when a well-timed query can make the difference between a three-book publishing deal or a form rejection letter. Whether you are pitching a cricket ball on to the wickets, a story idea to an editor, a PR release to the media, or a book proposal to an agent, getting the timing right can be crucial in getting the results you want.
Why is it Necessary to Pitch in a Timely Manner?
Magazine editors, literary agents, and book publishers are busy people. They have limited time at their disposal and lots to do within that time frame. Your query is competing not only with the next issue’s deadline and the upcoming staff meeting, but also this week’s sales targets and next month’s literary conference, after which those good folk still need to be able to find time, somehow, to feed the dog and read the hundred-odd submissions from other writers just like yourself. If you catch them at the wrong time (perhaps when the starving dog’s just got a meaty bite out of the hand that feeds it), of course it’s going to cost you. Others may have had the same idea and beaten you to it. Or your pitch could lie buried under mounds of correspondence over time until it goes past its validity and is not even relevant anymore.
While it may not be possible to track canine feeding times in every editor’s life (although with the things people post on Twitter nowadays, who knows), it is still important to pitch at the most opportune moment so that not only will your current pitch get accepted with alacrity, there is also a high chance that your subsequent pitches will be met with approval. In addition to the dough you make, this will avoid you having to waste time and effort marketing yourself repeatedly to the same person.
So When is a Good Time?
“It’s a tricky question,” admits Jonathan Telfer, editor of the hugely popular Writing Magazine in the UK. “In my experience there isn’t a particular time of day, month or year that is always well-timed for pitches. I would say that if you have any idea of a magazine’s publishing schedule, to time your pitch for just after the print deadline, not just before! For us, July and August are always frustratingly quiet, so a submission then might fare well and get more attention than it would in spring or autumn. You might expect January to be busy, but once the post-Christmas backlog is clear, I find it’s also quite quiet – so around the second week of January could be a good time, which is also when I’m doing a lot of forward planning. But I’d take all this with a pinch of salt – I’d expect it to be completely different for other editors.”
To get to the bottom of this issue, I first Google to check if there is indeed any truth in the phrase ‘timing is everything’ when it comes to pitches. Is there a particular time/day/month/season when queries (be they for stories or books) are most or least welcome by editors/publishers? I don’t mean reading periods (obviously those need to be adhered to), but someone may have noticed a pattern in that firing off an email message first thing in the morning often fetches a response, while querying just at the end of the month finds most editors too busy to reply. Or perhaps marketing a book during the holiday season doesn’t work, whereas pitching to an agent in the middle of summer lands an acceptance.
The Ayes: Timing is Crucial
Lynne Eppel, editor of the food magazine Edible Front Range, is clear about what she wants. She prefers a heads-up before a pitch. “I appreciate an email first, that asks me where I am in the production calendar. If I’m in deadline, their email (pitch) will go unattended. It also shows some knowledge and respect for an editor’s crazy schedule.”
“There are obvious things like pitching a seasonal or topical story in time for the editor to accept it in time for the relevant issue of the publication (always know if it’s a weekly, a monthly, a quarterly etc. and the editor’s lead time),” says Syd Baumel, editor of new age magazine Aquarian.
Many writers claim Tuesdays to Thursdays can be good time because it misses the Monday mania and the Friday early escapade. Says Dana Cassell, longtime freelance writer, book author, and founder of the Writers-Editors Network, “One day I would not send a query is a Friday afternoon – too many people – editors, clients, PR sources – are anxious to get away for the weekend and often leave early. Similarly, I would avoid querying on the day prior to any holiday – especially multi-day holiday breaks.
“Another risky time frame is Monday morning – simply because it is typically filled with meetings, and inboxes are already overflowing from Friday afternoon through the weekend mail.”
And what about any particular time of the day? Is that just as important? Journalistics, a blog, reports that on a survey from eROI, an email marketing agency, almost 50% of respondents reported sending email messages at midday (10am to 2pm) was best.
However, Cassell begs to differ. “I’m not sure whether time of day makes a big difference, as so many editors and other business people have long been indoctrinated to use some kind of folder system. If a writer is a regular at a publication, his or her query will likely be read at the editor’s first opportunity. The new (to that editor) writer’s query will likely be transferred to a folder where it will be handled at the editor’s scheduled convenience.”
She continues, “Agents typically spend their days phoning, emailing, lunching and meeting with book editors to pitch their clients’ works, deal with their clients’ issues, and search out what editors need to fill out their lists. Their non-time-sensitive emails, etc., tend to get addressed very late in their afternoons.
“As an editor dealing with queries coming in (although as a newsletter featuring short pieces, I much prefer completed pieces), I move them (query or complete piece) into a ‘tonight’ folder and read them during my evening shift. I usually clear out that folder each evening, but if on a deadline, the query or article may sit there a day or two or three.”
The Nays: Perhaps not so Crucial
Others advise that there is no ‘best’ time to pitch. ‘It may come down to what the editor ate/didn’t eat for breakfast/lunch!’ laughs Virginia Howard, editor of literary magazine Thema.
Baumel concurs, “There are so many idiosyncratic variables. Consider this: Does the editor work office hours (and in what time zone?) or night owl hours or after day job hours out of his/her home? Perhaps, if you’re confident, you’ve given your query email an irresistible subject line, it’ll get read even when the editor is under email siege as s/he begins the work day (if s/he has a regular workday). If the subject and from lines of your ‘rush hour’ query are resistible, it may be permanently forgotten, unless you query again. So, by that logic, it would be safer to query when you know/suspect said editor is not super busy, maybe even on the weekend – unless it’s a working weekend to make the next deadline or an ‘off grid’ weekend at the cottage.”
“Some writers worry too much about whether or not it might be the right time to send a pitch, rather than getting on and just sending it!’ says Rachel Newcombe, an award-winning UK-based freelance writer, copywriter, blogger, editor, and researcher who specializes in health, property, parenting, and lifestyle topics. “If it doesn’t result in a bite, you can always send a follow-up email or ring to jog someone’s memory.”
“From my experience as a magazine article writer, there didn’t seem to be a ‘good time’ to query editors,” says freelance writer Denene Brox. “I would just send queries whenever they were ready to be sent. Now, during the summer or around the holidays, you may find that editors are slower to reply due to vacations. But generally speaking, I didn’t notice a more effective time of year or day to query. You do, however, want to pay attention to seasonal queries. Don’t send Christmas article queries during the Christmas season. Magazines plan months in advance.”
Technology may well have made the time of the day obsolete. Cassell says, “I have noticed just in the past year or so that emails from editors, PR contacts, and others are coming in increasingly at odd hours with a ‘sent from my iPhone’ or ‘iPad’ or some Android device – so timing may not be as critical as it once was.”
Another freelance writer, Chryselle D’Silva Dias, says the same, “I’ve personally not found any co-relation between the timing of a pitch and a reply. Now that most editors and writers have email on the go with their phones and other mobile devices, an interesting query often gets a response soon. A long holiday might be an exception, where editors might not be keen on mixing business with pleasure, but in most other cases, it makes no difference. If an editor is not interested, they usually will not reply.”
How Can You get the Timing Right?
“I don’t think timing is something that can really be generalised, as it varies so much from publication to publication,” says Newcombe. “It is worth finding out when a particular publication goes to press, for example, as some people find it beneficial to avoid emailing or chasing pitches then, when editors may be stressed and busy. Likewise, it’s useful to find out when magazines are having their weekly/monthly planning meetings, as timing your pitch to arrive in time for that can ensure your idea is brought up for discussion.”
Cassell, likewise, advises thorough research before querying. “If I were to query editors today, I would examine their websites, media kits, and editorial guidelines to try to discern when they go to press and when they publish. Just prior to going to press, the editors are on their own deadlines for putting that issue together – and likely do not have time to read anything unnecessary. If not deleted immediately, email queries are likely to be shunted aside into some holding email folder. If the writers are lucky, those emails will be read eventually; if unlucky, they will grow old and outdated and be deleted eventually. Right after publishing, editors are more likely to be catching up on mail, email, and phone messages.”
So, in summary:
- Avoid pitching when you know the recipient will be busy. You’ll need to have some idea of their normal schedule to determine their slack time.
- When it comes to news updates, the distribution timing is more critical when targeting the dailies in major markets than when targeting monthly magazines.
- Understand production frequency and constraints like lead times and issue releases.
- Don’t do it when everybody’s doing it. Know the industry’s trends and pitch at off-peak times when your story has a better chance of being seen.
- Be aware of any financial regulations or other compliance requirements that may need to be adhered to, before your story comes into the public eye.
- Don’t send in stories around big holidays, popular vacation times, or times of significant regular events (think the Oscars or the Olympics) if there is a danger that their coverage will overshadow your story.
Getting the Query Right is More Important than Getting the Timing Right
Almost everyone surveyed agrees that the quality and content of the query itself outweighs the time at which it is pitched.
Says Howard, “The burden is more on the writer to offer a ‘well-prepared’ pitch, rather than worrying about whether it is ‘well-timed’ or ‘ill-timed.’ And what is a well-prepared pitch? It should be well written (of course!) because it is a micro-cosmos of the writer’s ability. It should be brief and to the point, because editors/publishers are busy creatures – seeing a long query/pitch is a turn-off. The writer should refrain from saying anything along the lines of the piece being ‘heart-wrenching emotional’ or ‘hilariously humorous’ – these are red flags that the piece isn’t as emotional or funny as the writer thinks it is. The editor/publisher thinks, with suspicion, ‘Oh yeah?’ And the writer should refrain from trying to be cute.
“So, in my opinion the onus is on the writer to prepare a succinct yet riveting query that captures an editor/publisher’s attention, regardless of the time/day/month/season it is sent.”
“I haven’t noticed any trends regarding submission timelines,’ says Bonnie Way, editor of Christian writing magazine FellowScript. “I think it helps to develop a relationship with the editor. For example, I’ve written several times for a magazine in Ontario, and now when I send pitches to them, the editors respond to me quite quickly. We have a working relationship, so they recognize my name when it appears on an email. As an editor myself, I also appreciate getting submissions from writers whom I’ve worked with in the past, as I know that the submission will probably fit my publication and require little editing. It’s very easy to tell when someone has not read the submission guidelines or even looked at the magazine; we are clearly a writer’s magazine, yet I still receive articles that aren’t about writing at all. So study the publication and the writer’s guidelines, then submit your work; when you get an acceptance, keep submitting!”
“I haven’t noticed anything special,” echoes Lorna Loveless, editor of BackHome magazine. “I always look at e-mails first thing in the morning, but don’t pay attention to what time of day they may have been written. Since much of our material is seasonal, all we really need is an article far enough ahead of that season in order to schedule it. As far as an editor’s reaction, if a writer sends something too late to include in the relevant issue, I simply answer that next time to give more advance time. We get a lot from fairly nonprofessional writers (we’re looking for experience) so I don’t expect perfection.”
“What really puts me off,” says Telfer, “is a phone call the day after an email saying, ‘Have you had time to look at my...?’ If I had had time, there would already have been a response, and if you’re after a snap decision on the phone, it’s more likely to be no than yes!”
The bottom line? It doesn’t matter if you pitch when the sun is shining or the leaves are falling, as long as the pitch hits the mark. As for me, I’ll be beavering away at my desk completing my next story, just in time to watch the News at Ten!
Devyani Borade writes on the humour and pathos of everyday life, and her work has appeared in several publications across the world. Visit her website Verbolatry at http://devyaniborade.blogspot.com to read and contact her.