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Notes from PWAC Toronto Seminars

 
 

 

 
 
Breaking Into US Markets

Notes taken by Catherine Watters & John Schofield

Panelists: David Macfarlane, Richard Morochove, Solange De Santis, Johanna Schneller.

David Macfarlane is one of the heavy hitters in Canada's magazine market today. As an author, he has written acclaimed family memoir The Danger Tree and \Summer Gone, a novel that was short-listed for the Giller Prize. He has won 11 National Magazine Awards and a Sovereign Award for magazine journalism. His forays into US magazine include a story about erotic hypnotists and another bout being a middle-aged guy in a basement rock n' roll band, both published in GQ. He writes the Globe and Mail's "Cheap Seats" column.

Richard Morochove is an accountant and president of a computer consulting firm who specializes in Information Technology writing. His ward-winning column, Computer Watch, is already familiar to Toronto readers but Richard has also been writing for the US market since 1985. He has published more than 75 articles south of the border in magazines such as InfoWorld, Business Week, eWeek and PC World. An article by Richard is currently available in the March issue of PC World. At our upcoming seminar, Richard plans to speak about the subtle but important difference of writing for American and Canadian publications.

Solange De Santis has written on everything from riveting performance on the Stratford stage to riveting vans together on a GM assembly line. Her book, Life on the Line, was short-listed for the National Business Book Award. Her American clients include Reuters, Associated Press, American Theatre, The Wall Street Journal, Buffalo News, Playbill Magazine, Dance Magazine and National Post Magazine. An American by birth, Solange has no fear of pitching American editors and says Canadians should feel the same way. Articles by Solange can be found at www.playbill.com.

Johanna Schneller has written for numerous American publications including GQ, Premier, TV Guide and Vanity Fair. She specializes in celebrity interviews and can count singer Shania Twain and actors Liam Neeson and Brad Pit among her many profile subjects. She currently is a columnist and writer at the Globe and Mail. Her interview of Dustin Hoffman is available online as his her interview with Australian actress Peta Wilson.

There was a full house on April 2 for this star-studded seminar, held in conjunction with the Canadian Authors' Association. 

Tech writer Richard Morochove, who contributes to U.S. tech titles such as PC World, kicked off the evening with the musical question, Why should a Canadian write for U.S. markets? In answer, he quoted U.S. bank robber Willy Sutton, who said, when asked why he robbed banks, "Because that's where the money is."

An accountant by training, Richard trotted out a few figures to tell the tale. Reading from his trusty PalmPilot, he said there are 5,175 business-to-business magazines in the States and 13,313 magazines overall. The Canadian market comprises 748 b2b publications and 2,027 magazines in total. Estimated ad revenue for U.S. consumer magazines in 2003 is $19.7 billion (U.S.), compared with $286 million (U.S.) for Canadian consumer mags--a 70 to 1 ratio. One company, IDC, which publishes PC World, chalked up $1.1 billion in revenues in 2002, exceeding all Canadian magazine revenues. Richard went on to say that magazines have a 12.6 per cent share of the total ad market in the U.S., but only a 4.8 per cent share of the ad market in Canada, down from 6.4 per cent a decade ago.

Richard said he can fetch up to $2.50 a word in Canadian dollars from U.S. magazines. Editors there compete for the better writers, and if you specialize in a certain area, that can be beneficial. Because it's a more litigious environment, U.S. magazine editors are concerned about detailed notes, and one, he remembers, asked that a record of every phone call be submitted with the story. Contracts are important and tend to be longer. The style of writing itself does not differ, except for U.S. spellings and references. 

Richard got his break stateside in 1985, when he wrote to an editor at InfoWorld magazine criticizing a review he had read and attaching some clips. The editor called a couple of weeks later and suggested that Richard write some reviews. It turned into a once-a-month gig. When an editor at PC Week (now E-Week) offered him a gig, InfoWeek offered him a contributing editorship and tripled his word rate. 

The U.S. market is more specialized, he said. In Canada, he can get away with simply telling editors that he writes about IT. In the U.S., editors would ask what aspect of IT, or what type of software. "They look for people with a lot of expertise," he said. "If they pay $2 a word, they have a right." Richard concluded by encouraging writers in the audience to take a shot south of the border.

Respected Canadian writer David McFarlane, a regular contributor to GQ magazine, says his foray into the American market was aided by the publication of his books in the States. There's a well-worn path between books and magazines in the U.S., he said, and the literary community there pays more attention to the magazine scene and potential bright lights. After his most recent book was published in the U.S., it wasn't long before his agent in New York began fielding requests from magazines to write. 

In the case of GQ, McFarlane said his publisher made the first approach, and began talking about stories he might write for the magazine with a connection to the book. The magazine asked for four or five story ideas. Four were closely connected with the book, but the fifth was an offbeat proposal for a story about erotic hypnotism. GQ liked it, and sent McFarlane on a magical mystery tour of LA, Chicago and Atlanta, exploring this unusual sexual proclivity. "Most Canadian writers are so curious about the U.S.," he said, "so it was fantastic to be able to explore it."

U.S. consumer magazines often have many staff writers and contributing editors, so it can be difficult to propose a story that doesn't tread on someone's toes, said McFarlane. At one point, for example, he suggested to GQ a profile on a film director he knows well, but it fell into someone else's territory. Try to find something that falls between the cracks, he advised-something like erotic hypnotism.

For the next pitch, McFarlane actually went to New York to meet with his editor from GQ. He happened to be carrying some sheet music, and the editor asked him about it. He told her that he plays in a band with some friends. Much to his surprise, it piqued the editor's interest, and formed the basis of his next story. 

McFarlane said he found it difficult to get a foot into the U.S. consumer magazine market, and found it difficult to know how to follow up. Writers there are more agent dependent. His editor at GQ says of the writers she deals with approach her through an agent, and half on their own. 

Joanne Schneller is American and has worked in the US at GQ magazine as an assistant to the Editor for years. She moved to Canada and has been freelancing exclusively since 1994.

If you're coming out of nowhere, they want to know who you are, and what you specialize in, she says. Schneller specializes in celebrity news. She says, do your homework. Are there any Canadian editors working on US magazines? Try them first because maybe they'll be more receptive to getting stories from Canada.

Women's magazines are and endless sponge for personal stories, the kind of stories only you can tell. It's an area that's growing. 

And, one final piece of advice: PERSEVERE! If you get rejected, keep trying. You can develop a relationship of sorts with a magazine even though they're rejecting you, because they see your name repeatedly. Eventually, they may give you a chance.

Solange De Santis grew up in the US and moved to Canada in 1986. She has worked in the US at Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, and other notable media companies. When she got to Canada, she realized she couldn't compete in some ways. She enjoyed covering the arts and if it was something that was already happening in the US, then the US editors didn't need it from Canada.

Her husband is from PEI. The first summer she was going there, she looked through the PI tourism book and thought up some stories. For example, PEI has the only full time bag-piping school outside of Scotland, and that school gets students from all over the world, including New Zealand, Japan, and even Scotland.

"A lot of things in Canada are considered exotic in the US," she says. Her story on the bag-piping school appeared on the first page of the Wall Street Journal. After the story appeared, Americans called the school told them it was a great contribution to Scottish heritage.

She looks for the odd, the unusual. She wrote about a play that was 'new' because a man was playing the part of Peter Pan. For another story, she had heard that that Americans and Germans pay thousands of dollars to fish in Alaska. So she looked around and found an area in Canada where you can pretty well have a lake all to yourself, figured out how far it was from Albany, USA, and pitched the story to the Albany Times.

Some of the things she wrote about for the Wall Street Journal include: the Bata Shoe Museum, and interview with Ben Heffner, the National film Board of Canada, Canadian Viet Nam Veterans, the Bridge to PEI, the Glenn Gould gathering in t Toronto 15 years after he died, and Canadian Wine. 

She says if you want to sell to the US market, you need to think about it from the US audience perspective. Don't ask if it's new; ask is it new to them?

Question Period

Q. How do I get into writing celebrity news?

Joanne says one angle that is not exploited enough by Canadians is the fact that a lot of films and television shows are being shot here. It's getting harder to convince magazines to send a writer across the country or to another city to cover a story when they can get someone who lives closer to do it. If you want to do celebrity news, pitch it to the editors by telling them you're already here, in Canada, and can get the scoop on things that are being filmed here, without the magazine having to pay lots of cash for travel expenses.

When pitching celebrity stories, ask yourself what new, fresh angle you can provide. Everyone knows the celebrity is coming out with a new moving. What do you have that's special? Why would you be the best person to write about this person? Do you have special access?

Q. How pushy can you be in your approach to US editors?

The most difficult thing is getting your foot in the door. It's not very different than dealing with Canadian magazines. I didn't feel any more or less constrained in editorial content. Canadian editors are more willing to go through rewrites. In the US, they don't have time for that.

Q. How to you pitch your story?

An audience member said, in Canada, it's okay to send it by email and follow up with phone calls. But if feels like when you pitch to the US, you're supposed to send it by regular mail and don't follow up. If they want it, they'll tell you, or they'll ignore you if they don't want it.

Solange said she had not problems with sending her pitches by email and following up with a phone call. She says it's not really that different than with Canadian editors.

Q. Finding contact information?

An audience member gave some examples of magazines that bury their contact information, or have removed it completely from their periodicals. She wants to find out who is really doing the assigning of stories, and never pitches to the people listed first on the masthead because she figures they're spammed with email. Her question is: what do you do with publications that put up a big wall? For example, she said that Conde Nast Traveller does not list a mailing address and now have an unlisted telephone number.

Some suggestions: check for information on the web site; ask around to see if other writers have the contact information (for example, through the PWAC list-serve discussion group); if they list no phone number listed in their magazine, check with media directories (available at large libraries), or go through their advertising department to get the correct contact name and phone number. Also check through back issues of annual directories, such as the Writer's Market and The Writer's Handbook, which list numerous US and Canadian magazines. 

Another method of contacting magazines: David has an agency in New York working on his behalf. The agency he deals with has a staff member that specializes in magazines. In her day-to-day life, she's in contact with numerous magazines. Instead of cold-calling magazines on his own, David talks to her, and she talks to the magazines. She also gives him feedback on whether she thinks it's a good story idea or not.

Q. Can you adopt a story from a Canadian magazine and resell it to the US?

Joanne: Americans don't like the smell of a reprint.

Richard: I've taken the same idea and given it a new angle.

Solange: Specialty magazines aren't necessarily as picky.

Q. Do you have to change your voice for the US magazines, i.e.. write more aggressively?

David: No. When writing for GQ he used a few idioms, like 'real fast' instead of 'really fast' and mentioned 'drinking Jack' when referring to the alcoholic beverage, Jack Daniels. The editor found the Jack Daniels reference odd but left some of the other idioms alone.

Q. Why would an American Literary Agent be interested in a Canadian writer and how do you get one?

David: I published my first book in Canada, without an agent, and I received no calls from agents. When I published my first book in the US, I got about ten calls from agents in one week. I met with several to see who would be best for me to work with. It's difficult to get an agent without a book to use as a 'calling card,' but they are very open. They're hungry for product. It's just the first step that's difficult.

Solange: I had an idea for a book and called one agent who wasn't taking new clients so I sent another agent a letter (in New York) and got their interest. If a proposal letter is well written and dynamic, it'll get attention. No Canadian editors were interested in my books, but the US editors were.

Q. Will magazines pay for travel expenses?

If a story requires travel, the magazines should pay for it, however, it's harder to get those stories now because it's so expensive to travel and they have correspondents everywhere. If they assign you the story, they'll pay for the travel. But get confirmation in writing first.

Q. Newspaper travel sections: is it a bias to mention I'm Canadian?

It isn't relevant to the story you're pitching, why bring it up? Prior to the war (US vs. Iraq, 2003) it wasn't an issue. If using a .com address in your email/web address they don't know. (several audience members said it's never been a problem for them in the past.)

Q. How important is it to pitch your stories in line with the editorial calendar?

Joanne: Magazines that do celebrity cover to it a year in advance. The editors pay attention to the calendar and so should you. This is also important for holiday and special occasion stories. For general magazines, the editorial calendar may not be as important.

Q. How much research do you do in advance before you publish a story?

Not much. Do enough to be able to say why the story is a good one and fits well with this magazine, and speak a little on the topic. You want to be able to say that 'yes, I have access to the sources.' 

Look at each magazine you want to pitch to so you can say why your story would fit with the magazine. If you have the time, check several back issues, up to a year, so you're not pitching ideas already covered by that magazine.

Payment Q.'s:

Joanne gets between $2 and $3 CDN per word for US magazines.

Solange hasn't received more than $1/word for US magazines.

The Wall Street Journals pays $1 US per word.

InStyle pays $3 per word but keeps ALL rights, forever.

Solange warns that some US periodicals pay very little. She once received only $50 total for a book review.

Q.' s about selling Rights and dealing with contracts:

David: I haven't sold all rights. I found in the States, articles have lives after they've been published. For example, it appears in GQ, then it gets printed in GQ Korea (and I get paid again.) Keep movie rights. Movie producers pay a lot of attention to magazine articles.

Another panelist noted her husband, a software architect, has been known to strike clauses from contracts that he doesn't agree with. For example, he's received contracts that say he gives up his creative product even if he thinks it up in the shower. Don't be afraid to take control of the contract and call the editors to get clarification. She received a 27-page document from Amazon.com containing many items that made no sense for her to agree to. She spent a lot of time reading through it and asking for clarification from Amazon's legal department. She sold right to use the articles, but liability issues were important to her and she needed something from Amazon's legal department stating what she was, and was not, legally liable for. The original document stated she was liable for quite a bit! Her advice: Don't be afraid to ask questions, don't be afraid to say NO, you're NOT selling all rights.

Solange's mother wrote a book that was 'work for hire.' She put two years of research into it and got paid a mere $5000. Solange notes it's a great book, and her mother never saw any royalties for it. Now, the publisher is defunct and her mother has passed away. Who has the rights to the work? Solange still doesn't know. She warns, be careful about signing contracts on a 'work for hire' basis. 

Someone said, "work for hire" is just another way of saying "getting screwed." If you sign a "work for hire" contract you are giving up all your rights.

Q. How can you protect yourself so you can take your previously published articles and put them into a book, and keep the magazines from walking off with your money?

You have to negotiate. You probably want an agent to deal with it for you.

Travel expenses and other payment issues:

Canadian magazines also pay freelancers for travel expenses. One panelist got paid more for travel than she got for the piece she wrote. 

A woman from the audience worked for a US company and when they asked her for her social security number, she couldn't give them one. (Only Americans have a social security number, and she lives in Canada.) The company refused to pay her. She had a difficult time convincing them that they wouldn't get into trouble for paying her without getting her security number. After much discussion and arguing, they finally agreed to pay her, but she had to sign a waiver stating that she was living in Canada. The US company was very nervous about the whole situation.

Income Tax Q.'s [Note: PWAC advises you to discuss Tax questions with your accountant!]

Method 1: Assuming that we all declare our foreign income, the conversion rate in effect on the date you invoice your client is the rate you use. For example, if you invoice an American client, and the day you invoice her, the rate is 1.35 cents CDN per 1.00 US, then it doesn't matter at the end of the year whether that rate has gone to 1.33 or 1.40. Your rate is 1.35. 

Method 2: Collect all the foreign income you can throughout the year, and just use one conversion rate for all of them, based on the conversion in effect at the time you submit your income tax.

Method 3: Give it to your accountant and let him or her worry about it.

Disclaimers: For accurate information, contact the Canadian Customs and Revenue Agency yourself, and make sure you get everything they tell you in writing, or make your own notes including the date and person you spoke with. (An audience member said she had problems with getting conflicting information from different people at the CCRA, at different times.) You can get information online as well: www.ccra.ca


Q. In the US, many people like to sue at the drop of a hat...

Because of this, some of the US magazines will want you to keep detailed records of who you speak to, about what, when (including date, time and duration of telephone calls). You are to send in these notes to the editor along with your story. Other magazines want you to tape record everything. Make sure you know what the magazine expects of you before you begin working on the story.

Final words of encouragement:

If you can get into a glossy here, you can get into a glossy in the US. Providing glossy clips to US editors helps.


For more information about  workshops, seminars and events for writers in and around the GTA,visit www.networds.ca

Please see PWAC Toronto's list of Evening Seminars and workshops conducted by PWAC members.