Which Freelancers are Getting the Fancy Contributor Photos?
October 5, 2006 1:03 PM   Subscribe

How does one become a top tier magazine contributor?

I know a lot of experienced freelance writers who make a lot of money doing what they do. However, I've never seen any of them when I open up an InStyle, or Vanity Fair, or Town & Country and look at the contributors page. I know it's virtually impossible to break in as a freelancer at some of those publications, and at best, you can do little anonymous FOB pieces.

So who ARE the people who are getting the glamour contributor shots and how did they get there? Have they been grandfathered in somehow? Or are they the nieces and nephews of the publishers?

I'm not trying to get in myself (for the moment) but wondering how the people who have, have.
posted by clairezulkey to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I was told by reputable sources (i.e., ivy league journalists who in theory should have all the "right" old boys club connections) -- Vanity Fair only lets those with celebrity, royalty and other right connections in as interns. This may be somewhat of a hyperbole but I heard something along the lines of one of the elitist things I've ever heard when I talked to said friend, "Yes we know you can write, but why should we hire a nobody?" It was something along those lines.

I would assume that InStyle or Town & Country might be a little easier than the more elitist publications like Vogue or VF. But you asked about freelance. From what I understand you need to be well engrained and respected from second-tier publications to get in. That is to say if you are a great contributor to Rolling Stones and The Atlantic you probably can get into VF.

I think it is honestly probably easier to get into Harper's or the New Yorker than it is to get into the celebrity worshiping magazines. It is not that hard to write a piece on some heiress, so they can be a bit more choosey and making sure that who they hire is as important as how well they write.

Sorry for answering your question coming from second-source anecdotes.
posted by geoff. at 1:11 PM on October 5, 2006

And totally botched that last sentence, now you see why I didn't apply to journalism school.
posted by geoff. at 1:11 PM on October 5, 2006

There are probably as many ways as names on that page.

Grandfathering definitely happens. A young editor inherits a column, can't get rid of the writer and bring in a fresh new voice because she's been doing it so long and is BFFs with the EIC.

Nepotism, sure.

I'd be willing to bet a great deal of them are former editors of the mag (or former really high-up editors of smaller sister mags) who have left to become full-time writers or stay-at-home parents.
posted by lampoil at 1:18 PM on October 5, 2006

One way to do it is to slowly build up a clips portfolio. Say you publish your first five pieces in a student newspaper or magazine then you take those pieces to the local newspaper or independent weekly or whatever and use those to get a writing gig. Then you take the clips from the local newspaper and send those to Slate.com or a national magazine with a small circulation and pitch story ideas. This method of slowly moving your writing up through venues with greater and greater circulation is a fairly common way to "move up" as a freelance writer.
posted by mattbucher at 1:32 PM on October 5, 2006

The way Mattbucher describes is really the only way to do it if you're not already in that club.
posted by Mister_A at 2:17 PM on October 5, 2006

You need two things. One or the other will likely only get you so far if your goal is to freelance.

Clips.:Good, shiny, high-profile ones.
Connections: Celebrity ones. On which you can deliver.
posted by desuetude at 3:00 PM on October 5, 2006

I don't want to say everyone here is wrong, but... my experience has been a bit different. (15 yrs of freelancing for major and minor pubs, plus lots of editing gigs.) All the nepotism stuff is semi-true when it comes to internships and editorial jobs -- just like any other business, really. But editors don't write those multi-page articles in Vanity Fair. They edit them. Big difference. (They may write some little things like book columns, etc., but they're still on salary.)

To answer your question:

1. Write a (published) book. Fiction or nonfiction, doesn't matter. You could also be a screenwriter. Your reviews and your agent will help get you the magazine gigs.

2. Be a good journalist for a daily newspaper, local or national. Your editors and friends will know people at the magazines you want to write for, and your clips will get you a shot.

3. Write lots of little things for lots of little mags and pitch your way up to the top. The hardest route of all.

Freelance writers do not make a great living. James Wolcott (of Vanity Fair) wrote a piece maybe 15 years ago about how this was the dirty little secret of the journalism biz. Back then he called his colleagues "$30,000 a year men" (I think -- but close enough). When (most) freelance writers want to have a family or buy a house, they get jobs as... editors.

There are definitely exceptions that prove the rule (Wolcott being one of them), but it's a rarified club. Regular columns are the key -- it means steady income, which means you can get a mortgage and send your kids to college. Just because a freelancer you know gets $2 a word for a 1500-word article, doesn't mean he/she gets it once a week -- more like 4 times a year. (You do the math.)

clairezulkey: I want to know who your friends "making a lot of money" write for!
posted by turducken at 4:35 PM on October 5, 2006 [1 favorite]

"The secret is out. Take a dozen or so cultivated men and women; dress them becomingly; sit them down to dinner. What will these people say? Vanity fair is that dinner!

- VF editor Frank Crowinishield, 1914
posted by bingo at 5:59 PM on October 5, 2006

"That is to say if you are a great contributor to Rolling Stones and The Atlantic you probably can get into VF."

RS and The atlantic are considered second tier compared to VF? (seriously curious about this)
posted by afu at 1:08 AM on October 6, 2006

Response by poster: terducken, I recommend subscribing to the Freelance Success board--there are several freelancers on there who make $100K a year doing what they do.

(Me, I moonlight freelance on top of a day job)
posted by clairezulkey at 11:05 AM on October 6, 2006

clairezulkey (and other aspiring writers)... A word to the wise: Any website that asks you to pay for information about how to freelance for magazines is a scam designed to separate you from your money. The Freelance Success board is a bunch of hooey (IMO). Much of its "exclusive" info is available for free elsewhere on the web, and for real writers, is pretty much useless. Do yourself a favor and spend that 89 bucks on health insurance. (And if you must spend time on an online writers'-market site, go to Media Bistro, which has the same info -- and is free.)

While I do indeed know a few freelancers who make 90-100K in a good year (ahem), most of them are working like fiends and have no time to post their "secrets" on web boards (except this one).

I may be wrong, and John Updike may be posting on Freelance Success. But I don't feel like spending my hard-earned money to find out. I may sound crochety here, but I hate the fact that writers -- who are wonderful, brave, interesting people who choose this profession despite the long odds -- are constantly being taken advantage of by shysters, as well as hacks who don't copyedit their résumés.
posted by turducken at 4:02 PM on October 6, 2006 [1 favorite]

I think you write for Nick Denton for a while for peanuts, without ever even meeting him. When visiting a friend in New York, you find out there's a party, and scam yourself an invite by dropping the name of the site you're posting for. At the party, you stumble into one of the associate editors for one of these rags just as you're leaving. You don't recognize the guy, but after a few other people greedily eyeing this homely old guy who's clearly not a hot indie-rocker, you start to quietly think, "I wonder who that guy is!" Sadly, you've got places to be (crashing on your friend's couch with the laptop, reading MeFi!) so you stumble out of the party and back home.

A good amount of time passes. Maybe it's 18 months. You're not settling for a Gawker pittance anymore, you've got your own gigs, modest though they may be. But you're back in the city, and this time it's a different connection -- you've scammed your own place on the guestlist. You see the same homely old associate editor, just after you walk in the door. But now he's more gray, and more importantly, now he is the EIC. Bingo! A quick stop at the bar for some liquid courage, and you're there to make the pitch.

"Remember me? From that party a while back? We also share our good friend name drop, name drop -- she keeps saying we should talk! So hey, listen, it's a good thing I ran into you; I've been meaning to email you about this piece I'd been doing on spec. It felt like New Yorker work when I started, but honestly, I think it's a little too... broadly appealing for them. Damn elitists. Can I shoot you a quick outline next week to take a look?"

And then we all bask in the glow of knowing you back when you still had time to read AskMe. Or do the classic: Blog for an alt-weekly or on your own, make the leap to one of the "serious" sites, graduate to Slate or Salon as a stringer, parlay into 3 to 5 pieces for the inside pages of the Times, do some throwaway work for an in-flight airline magazine, get spiked at the last minute on what you thought was a serious shot at the Sunday Times Magazine, and then rework the piece to reuse it elsewhere and ask your editor for an introduction to one of these magazines' editors as a consolation prize. At some point along the way, you should definitely get a book deal, but it's easier if you just get the deal, flake out on the book, and return the advance.

Either way, you should move to New York.
posted by anildash at 1:09 AM on October 7, 2006 [3 favorites]

(I overstate my point. I think Gaper's Block is a perfectly acceptable gateway to this goal.)
posted by anildash at 1:12 AM on October 7, 2006

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