Jennifer Sahn, executive editor of Pacific Standard, understands why writers sometimes feel frustrated when editors take weeks to respond to their pitches or don’t write back at all. But she wants writers to see the other side, too.
“Every editor is now doing the job that two or three people did 15 years ago. Meanwhile, the volume of correspondence has exploded tenfold,” she says. “There just isn’t a formula in publishing right now where there’s enough time to take the care to respond to everyone who wants to be part of your magazine.”
Yes, editors have to reject more pieces than they take, but they’re in the profession for the chance to say yes, Sahn says. “We’re looking for the stories that excite us and that we want to invest time in. The most exciting thing for an editor is to hear from a person they’ve never heard from before and know they’re going to be part of making that person a better writer. That magic moment of chemistry is the thing that makes your career as an editor.”
Sahn has been with the Santa Barbara-based magazine since 2015, when it shifted from focusing on social science to emphasizing justice. Under the tagline “stories that matter,” the general-interest magazine covers economics, the environment, politics, education and social justice around the world.
Sahn, who edits print features, spoke with me about pitching faux pas, how much Pacific Standard pays, and what happens on her end of a pitch email. We also dissected Joe Eaton’s pitch for “King of Boise,” which appeared in the November 2017 issue. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What are some of your favorite features in the magazine that exemplify what you’re looking for?
“King of Boise,” which we’re talking about today, is one my favorites because it’s unique and a powerful narrative that doesn’t let up. Kathryn Joyce’s “The Disappearing Soldier” was an incredible story that reminded me of “Into the Wild.” It’s about PTSD and the failures of the system once people come home, but also a forensic story about a missing person and a psychology story, because nobody knew how he ended up in the Adirondacks, where he died. Amy Irvine’s “Conflagrations” was a strong personal narrative, but at the heart of it was maternal mental illness, which is not very well-known and widely misunderstood.
What do you wish you got more pitches about, and are there topics you hear about too often?
I’ve been starved for really good stories about education. I would love to see some stories on innovative things happening or new movements percolating that seem to be getting traction. In general, the best way to grab my attention is to show me something surprising. Once we do a big print story about something, we probably won’t do another for a year or so. But I don’t think there are any areas in which we’re saturated.
What are the biggest mistakes you see in pitches?
Not understanding the magazine you’re pitching and sending something inappropriate, like an academic paper. If you don’t take time to research the outlet, why would you expect an editor to take time to read your pitch? It’s a breakdown of the system. But the biggest mistake is just failing to be really compelling. If a pitch doesn’t draw me in and isn’t articulating a unique enough story or argument, it doesn’t rise to the top. I’ll often encourage people to write the beginning of the pitch as you would the beginning of the story. Give a sense of the character, scene, narrative tension and narrative voice, especially if you haven’t worked with the editor before.
“I’ll often encourage people to write the beginning of the pitch as you would the beginning of the story. Give a sense of the character, scene, narrative tension and narrative voice, especially if you haven’t worked with the editor before.”
How common is it for Pacific Standard to assign stories based on cold pitches?
I don’t have a percentage for you, but it does happen. We do read pitches, and I have assigned a few just in the last six months. It’s not a black hole here.
What are your rates?
Our rates for print tend to be around $1 a word. The web rates start around $250.
What should writers know about your editorial calendar?
Our print magazine comes out eight times a year, including two special issues. Typically, we line up an issue six months before it’s in readers’ hands. Each includes three or four features, or occasionally a photo essay or longform interview. Right now, half of our 2018 issues have gone to press, are headed to press or are lined up and in editing. Of the remaining four issues coming out in 2018, one is a photo issue and one is a themed issue on borders and boundaries, for which we have been planning feature-length content for months already. Front and back of book have a somewhat shorter lead time. [Sections are described in Pacific Standard’s guide for writers]. We publish a dozen stories a day on our website.
When should someone pitch the web instead of print?
Web pieces are shorter, more timely, related to the moment and don’t rely on having major characters and scenes. A longform piece is told on the scale of a feature film, where you have different eras and scenes and characters coming in and out. We will do longform web-only stories that are timely and reported, but they tend to be more in response to things happening at the time.
Whom should writers pitch, and when can they expect a response?
We ask that writers send all pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org and identify what section they’re pitching. Everybody at Pacific Standard gets a high volume of pitches, and we’re not able to respond to all of them. We say clearly on our website that if you don’t hear from us in four weeks, please move on. I know that’s an eon for a freelancer, but given the workflow we just can’t promise anything faster.
How many pitches do you receive?
Pacific Standard receives 30-50 pitches a week to the general pitches in box. On top of that, each assigning editor also receives pitches directly, some of us more than others.
When should a writer follow up?
It depends who you’re pitching and what that person does. For me, if I’m on deadline with a long story, I’m definitely not reading pitch emails. If my gut feeling is no, my instinct is to give a pitch one more look and make sure, and then to try to write something helpful. Perhaps I wait too long with the expectation I would be able to say something useful while saying no. When I get a pitch that interests me, I spend quite a bit of time on it. I do some research on the story independently to find out what I can. I want to identify the context and find out the scope of it: Is the story bigger than it’s been pitched? Is the pitch too broad? How much coverage has the story already received? If it’s a writer I haven’t worked with before, I am going to read clips. That’s a lot of work. I think it gets lost how much time editors spend on pitches. And that doesn’t include the editing of longform stories, the process of fact-checking them and getting them into print, coordinating with 15 people in your office, and going to meetings. I don’t fault anybody for checking back in, but I don’t tend to respond to those emails. If I spent time on follow-up emails, it would take time away from coming up with a thoughtful answer on something. Everybody deserves a response. Have I been able to give everyone a response? I have not. I’m one person, and there’s not a good solution that hits everybody’s needs.
How do you feel about simultaneous submissions?
Speaking for me and not Pacific Standard, I don’t mind it, as long as the writer is transparent. I understand the need for a freelancer living story-to-story to put the seeds out there.
My questions are in red, her responses in blue. To read the pitch without annotations first, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button.
The King of Boise
The proliferation of prescription painkillers has created a public health crisis. For drug dealers, it has launched the opportunity of a lifetime.What stood out about the pitch overall? This was a topic that everybody was publishing stories about, but this viewpoint had been ignored by all of them: the perspective that dealers are also addicts, are victims themselves. Even if Austin created a lot of havoc and pain for families and individuals who suffered from addiction, he himself was suffering. When as a reader you’re divided about how to feel about a character, that’s interesting territory. Also, we already had in mind doing a “black market” issue, though he didn’t know about that.
Austin Serb started selling drugs at 13, after he made a marijuana connection while working at McDonalds. Six years later, in 2014, Serb was the largest dealer of the prescription painkiller oxycodone in Boise, Idaho, bringing in more than $100,000 a month in profit. How effective was his decision to open the pitch in this way? My thoughts were: He’s only 13—wow, that’s really young. He’s working at McDonald’s—that’s super specific. The author has really gotten some of the story already. We’re following him for six years. He’s the largest dealer in Boise. $100,000 a month. It’s kind of an amazing accretion of facts. Even though it’s a quiet beginning to the pitch, the numbers grab your attention.
This is the story of how the proliferation of highly addictive prescription painkillers has created a major market for a new age of drug dealers in cities and towns across America. It illustrates the opioid public health crisis from the other side—through the tale of an unlikely dealer who profited from expanding painkiller addiction and easy access to supplies of prescription drugs. Is this kind of explicit zooming-out, “so what” section always necessary? This introduced the idea that we’re looking at the opioid crisis from a different perspective. This is him saying: My story is different from other stories you’ve read about this.
The story is set in Boise, a city of 200,000 in one of the most conservative states in the country. Like many rural states, Idaho faces a serious opioid addiction problem, ranking fourth in non-medical use of prescription painkillers, according federal statistics.
The story traces Austin Serb’s drug dealing career from his early days selling small amounts of marijuana, through making his first oxycodone connection and taking over the trade in Boise, to his downfall and arrest after he becomes addicted to the drugs he sells. This was a story about one dealer, probably in many ways unremarkable, not a huge drug operation. What made him a compelling character? The answer was access. The writer was in correspondence with a person whose experience seemed like it would yield a good opportunity to look at the opioid crisis from a different perspective.
A skinny homeschooled kid who never left Boise, except on drug-buying trips (where more often than not, he was robbed) Serb was an unlikely drug dealer. He stumbled into his role as top dealer in Boise after a chance meeting with a California painkiller source at a concert of the rap artist The Game. The operation lasted more than five years, through high jinx and associated petty crime as the kids involved got rich beyond their wildest dreams.
It’s a story not of a highly-organized and disciplined criminal operation, but of a group of high school kids who threw giant house parties, flashed wads of $100 bills and bragged about being the biggest drug dealers around. That Serb and his group operated for so long and generated so much money is a testament to the community’s appetite for painkillers, a unique class of drugs that sold out as fast as the group could acquire them.
At the end of his spree, Serb was approaching 20, a kid with 50 pairs of basketball shoes, a series of rental houses with televisions and video games in every room and a Mazda RX-7 modeled after a car from the “Fast and Furious” film franchise. As the DEA moved in on the group, Serb doubled down, expanding his operation and his addiction. What effect did including all these details have? That was totally key for me. I felt he’d done a lot of research on the story and had been in conversation with the subject. The details make it real, and they’re quirky. They make you feel like you’re there. They’re priceless.
Serb is currently serving a 10-year sentence at a federal prison in California. We have traded dozens of email messages, and I plan to visit him to prison while reporting the story. I am also in contact with Ajellon Dedeaux, Serb’s supplier in California, who is also serving a prison sentence in federal prison, and a number of other members of Serb’s group in Boise. Are you always looking for a section describing access? I need to know that the characters are willing participants and are going to be available in the way they need to be. Austin was transferred in the middle, and we had to start all over with the permission process of getting into a prison. There’s some stuff you can’t control.
Please let me know if you would like to talk further about this story idea. Were you familiar with the writer, or was this a cold pitch? He had written for Pacific Standard before, so he was a known entity.
I am a freelance writer and journalism professor who regularly publishes in publications including National Geographic, The Atlantic, Pacific Standard and the Washington Post. I worked as a health care investigative reporter at the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, where my work was regularly published in collaboration with national print, radio and television outlets. This writer’s credentials were pretty impressive. Would you assign this story to a less experienced writer? A newer writer would have to go further to show me their narrative style. That is half of what I’m looking for: a good storyteller. Anyone can write a story about something you’ve never heard of before, but if they’re not writing it in an interesting way, you’re not reading it. For a writer that doesn’t have clips, I really need to be convinced they’re up to the standards of a longform piece. What did you think of the length of the pitch? I don’t really have set ideas about how long a pitch should be. If you only pitch me a paragraph, I’m probably going to ask for more. What’s more important to me is that I get a strong sense that you’re in command of the story you want to tell, you’ve done your due diligence and you’ve got enough components for me to trust that the story is going to be good. If it takes you 10 paragraphs to talk about access, a reporting plan, who the characters are, where scenes are most likely and how the story is going to contribute to a public conversation, that’s all useful information.