Ask TON: Repitching killed stories

Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. (Click here to see previous installments.)

Today’s question: I recently had a feature story killed just before publication. I retain the rights to it. However, I’m not sure of the etiquette and ethics of selling a killed story to a new editor. What’s the most effective approach?

Pacific Standard senior features editor Vince Beiser:

This is tricky, because I believe that most editors do look a bit askance at something they know was killed by another publication — after all, there must be a reason it was killed, right? So in most cases, I’d avoid saying so from the outset. Pitch it like you would any other story, but add something about how you’ve already done a lot of the research and could turn it around very quickly. That’s a plus that’ll help you sell it. (Obviously, though, if they ask about the story’s provenance, tell them the truth.)
There are times, however, when you might want to be up front. If the piece involved a lot of expensive travel, extensive research, or other serious investment that’s already been paid for (since you should have been repaid your expenses along with your kill fee by the first publication), then you’re offering a great deal to the editor of the second pub. Now your pitch can be: “I’ve got this great story ready to go — it was assigned by publication A, but they killed it because of (some reason that has nothing to do with the quality of your work). The travel has already been  paid for and the reporting is all done — the piece just needs a home.”

Good luck!

Nature features editor Mitchell Waldrop:

There’s nothing wrong with offering the story to another publication, as long as you’re completely honest — from the beginning — about what happened and why. If the story is accepted, however, be prepared for an extensive rewrite; no two publications (or editors) have the same tastes, priorities or audience.

Popular Science associate editor Susannah Locke:

Just be honest about it. A bond of trust is the basis of a good editor/reporter relationship, so be open about tricky situations. Any decent editor should understand that a great story can get killed. Tell him that you have a story that you initially wrote for X publication, and ask him if he’d like to talk about what you could do with it for his outlet. Together, the two of you can look over the story, evaluate what changes the story might need, and negotiate the pay you’d require to sign on for the job.

Freelance writer Elizabeth Svoboda:

Since you retain the rights to the story, I think you can go full steam ahead in marketing it to a new editor — as long as you’re up-front about the situation. Say something like, “Unfortunately, another publication had to cut this story at the last minute. But I still think this is a story that deserves to be told.” Then explain specifically why you think the story might work well for the new publication. You’ll probably have to do some rewriting and re-slanting to meet the editor’s needs, but the result can be win-win: you get paid (possibly twice, if the first editor supplied a kill fee), and the new publication ends up with a polished, thoroughly-edited piece.

 

Photo at top by Daniel*1977 via Flickr.

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One Response to “Ask TON: Repitching killed stories”

  1. I applaud the honesty advocated by Mitch, Susannah, and Elizabeth, and it’s the approach I take, too, when I’m trying to re-sell a killed story. But I’ve learned through bitter experience (and, by the way, the inability to re-sell a SINGLE ONE of those killed stories) that maybe honesty is not always the best policy. I think Vince’s approach is probably wiser — think of it as truth-telling on a need-to-know basis. Don’t lie, but don’t volunteer the full explanation unless asked.

    There’s another difficulty that arises, too, in trying to re-sell a story an editor has killed. If you’ve done your job right, you’ve written a piece that’s perfectly well suited for the original assigning Publication A. If you send the whole shebang over to Publication B, it won’t read like one of their stories, it will read like a story from Publication A. So you need to consider not only how truthful to be in making the pitch to B, but also in how much to massage the killed story so it reads a bit more B-like. I’m usually so sick of a story by the time it’s killed that all I want to do is get it off my desk and on to someone else’s. So I don’t dress it up in its most appropriate finery. But that’s not such a smart strategy. Spending an additional day or so with the story and revising it before hurtling it off to Publication B is probably a better idea.

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