Getting Feature Stories Published in Trade Journals — COMMUNICATIONS EFFECTIVENESS — In Search of Ink
By Amy Sprecher Bly and Robert W. Bly

Getting a company’s message into print isn’t
as hard as it seems—as long as you do your homework
and follow the publicity business’s recognized procedures.

    Just one article in a trade journal can bring a company hundreds of leads and thousands of dollars in sales. And with more than 6,000 magazines from which to choose, it’s a safe bet there’s at least one that could accommodate a story from your company.
    Yet while nearly all business people know the value of placing trade journal stories, they don’t always know how to approach an editor. What’s the best way to pitch an idea? Should you present more than one idea at a time? Is it wise to present the same story to more than one editor? Should you call or write first?
    Following are some tips that answer those questions, and more. They can give you an edge in placing an article in the right journal for your company and reaping the rewards of increased recognition.
    Chances are that you already know which journals you’d like to approach. The magazines that cross your desk every week are strong candidates, because they’re likely to deal with you and your competition. But if you have an idea for an article that is outside your industry, or if you’re just not sure which magazine would be most appropriate, here are two excellent resource: Bacon’s Publicity Checker, from Bacon’s Publishing Co., Chicago; and Writer’s Market, from Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati.
    Bacon’s is the bible of the public relations industry. It lists thousands of magazines and newsletters according to business or industry category, and also provides an alphabetical index. Besides giving the basics of magazine titles, addresses, phone numbers, and editor’s names, Bacon’s notes circulation and the types of articles published by each journal.
    Writer’s Market, by comparison, lists fewer publications, but describes their editorial requirements in far greater detail. Since Writer’s Market is published primarily to help free-lance writers find suitable markets for their work, it is more helpful than Bacon’s when it comes to finding a home for a full-length feature story.
    If you are not familiar with a magazine that sounds as if it may be appropriate for your article, be sure to read a few issues before contacting an editor there.
    Many trade journals will send a sample issue and set of editorial guidelines to prospective authors upon request. These can provide valuable clues as to style, format, and appropriate topics. They often tell how to contact the magazine, give hints on writing an article, describe the manuscript review process and discuss any payment/reprint arrangements.

    The quickest way to turn off an editor is to offer an idea that has nothing to do with his or her magazine. “My pet peeve with people calling or writing to pitch an idea is that they often haven’t studied the magazine,” says Rick Dunn, editor of Plant Engineering. “If they haven’t read several issues and gotten a handle on who we are and who our audience is, they won’t be able to pitch an idea effectively.”
    There’s no substitute for knowing the audience and the various departments within a magazine,” adds Jim Russo, editor of Packaging. “I’m more impressed by someone who has an idea for a particular section than by someone who obviously doesn’t know anything about our format.”
    Every magazine is different in some way from its competitors and from other magazine in general. Tone, style, content, and the quality of a journal’s writing and illustrations should all be studied to increase your chances of making a “sale.”
    Offer an editor the type of article that the magazine seems to prefer—frequency and length are good indicators of preferred subjects—and the odds are more in your favor.
    Companies can easily increase their chances for coverage by requesting a magazine’s editorial calendar and scanning it for planned articles that might mesh with their products or activities.
    “If people respond to our editorial calendar with ideas for specific issues, great!” says Mr. Dunn. “Or if they can provide background for a story we want to do, they’ll have an edge in getting into the magazine.”
    You may even want to suggest feature story ideas for next year’s calendar. The trick is to do that tactfully. “Don’t come across as pushy or demanding,” warns Mr. Dunn. “Stay away from saying things like, ‘This is important to your readers’ or, ‘You should run this story.’ If someone knows our business better than we do, we’ll hire him or we’ll go back to school.”
    However, if you spot a new trend in say, packaging food in plastic containers vs. glass jars, and you can provide statistics and information to back up your claim, go ahead and contact the appropriate editor. He or she will probably appreciate your interest and effort.

    Should you call or should you write? Most editors won’t object to either method of pitching an idea, but they usually have a preference for one or the other. It’s simply a matter of personal choice and time constraints. If you don’t know how a particular editor feels on the subject, call and ask. An appropriate opening might be: “This is Joe Jones from XYZ Corp. and I have a story idea you might be interested in. Do you have a few minutes right now, or should we set up a time to discuss it later in the week?”
    An editor who prefers a letter or written outline will no doubt take this opportunity to tell you so. Editors who prefer a quick description over the phone will appreciate your respect for their time, whether they take the call or ask you to phone back later.
    Some editors, such as Mr. Russo, favor a phone call to zero in on an idea. “If I know someone and have confidence in their work, I’ll often say go ahead and submit an article. Otherwise, I like to see an outline first,” he says.
    Mark Rosenzweig, editor at Chemical Engineering, agrees. “With a phone call, I can tell someone right away he’s on the right track. But a letter summarizing the idea is OK, too. In any case, if I like an idea, I’ll then request a detailed outline describing the proposed article.”
    A written query with a detailed outline appeals to Mr. Dunn because, he says, “A phone call is all right, but I can’t make an editorial decision until I see a query letter.”
    At Modern Materials Handling, Assistant Editor Barbara Spencer suggests writers send in a letter of introduction, followed by a phone call a week or two later. “We look for someone who knows his field and products, and the letter helps us gauge that expertise,” she explains. “But call the magazine first and find out which editor handles the type of article you have in mind.”
    That’s good advice for dealing with any journal. A two-minute phone call to find the right editor, get the correct spelling of his or her name and check the address where the query letter should be sent can save time and aggravation later.
    All letters should be addressed to a specific editor. A letter that begins “Dear Editor” not only could end up in the wrong hands, but it’s also unlikely to impress the editor with the writer’s research abilities.
    Follow-up calls are almost always a good idea, too. The editor’s reaction to your call will determine whether you should call again later. If an editor flat out rejects an idea, accept the verdict gracefully and try another publication.
    If you’re told an idea has “merit” but needs further explanation or a different approach, you may be able to get a go-ahead by answering the editor’s questions or suggesting a new single over the phone.


    On the other hand, you may need to supply more information in writing and call again a couple of weeks later. Of course, if the editor gives you a go ahead, great. You’ve cleared the major hurdle to getting an article in print.
    What if you have more than one great story idea you want to pitch? Most editors are willing to listen to two or even three at once, but don’t overdo it. Each idea should be fully developed ahead of time, not “pulled out of a hat” in desperation if an original idea is turned down. A good tack is to ask editors what kind of stories or applications they’re looking for. Perhaps you’ll find out they’re interested in new ways to use one of your company’s products, or how a new government regulation is affecting your industry’s production operations. They may well have an interest in something that ties in with your company and which you are qualified to write about.
    Mentioning certain elements in your initial query—whether over the phone or in writing—can sway an editor toward accepting your proposal. For instance, many magazines seek practical information that shows their readers how to save money, time, labor, or improve on-the-job performances. Statistics, benefits, examples, and how-to tips can strengthen your case substantially.
    Specifics are what sell a story: You’re much more likely to grab an editor’s attention if you say, “Our newly developed Dry Scrubber pollution control device saved the Smithson Paper Plant $4,400 a day in fuel costs” than if you say, “Our new product can save paper plants a lot of money.” Then go on to explain just how the company has saved money. And be prepared to back up your claim with documented facts.
    “If someone tells us something is more efficient than something else, we want to know how much more efficient, says Mr. Russo. “Superlatives should be backed up with percentages and explanations.”
    The more help your idea promises readers, the more likely it is to interest an editor. “We’re interested in articles that help our readers solve specific problems,” says Mr. Dunn. “We want technical, engineering-oriented but down-to-earth articles that address common problems. A good question to ask before coming to us is, ‘Will this provide readers with information they can apply to their jobs?”
    Put yourself in the readers’ shoes, analyze their problems, and you will have a better perception of what kind of articles an editor wants. If you happen to read the magazine regularly, you may well have a head start in coming up with useful ideas. Also, any knowledge and technical expertise you have will help you “sell yourself” to an editor as an authoritative source.
    “We prefer bylines by technical experts or plant engineers, since that is our audience,” Mr. Dunn says. “If they’ve got a good subject, we’ll go as far as necessary to accommodate them.”
    Adds Ms. Spencer: “We value technical ability above writing ability. Know your field and its products; if you are ‘visible’ in your field for giving speeches or being active in a professional organization, so much the better.”
    But don’t despair if you are not a technical whiz or industry “name”: Plenty of trade journal authors, including legions of public relations executives, aren’t either. They are published because they take the time to study a subject they want to write about. That doesn’t mean they acquire nearly the amount of knowledge a technical expert would have; they are simply able to delve into a subject enough to write clearly, concisely, and logically about it. For many trade journals, that’s all that’s required.
    Take Packaging. Says Mr. Russo, “We have both outstanding journalists and excellent technical people on staff, so we can consider articles that are short on either end.” What counts for him and scores of the editors is the newsworthiness of an article.
    “I’m particularly interested in new ways of doing things, whether someone has found a better way to package products, or new and significant developments that are practical.”
    Mr. Rosenzweig looks for “heavy duty nuts and bolts articles, not puff or promotional pieces. Title or position isn’t that important to use—it’s whether there’s any
‘meat’ in an idea,” he says.

    Impartiality is another “must” with many editors. Remember, they’re not there to praise your company’s products—although being published can be as good as if they were; they’re there to give readers an objective overview of goings-on in their industry. This can be a particular sticking point in dealing with public relations personnel, although most editors recognize the “one-hand-feeds-the other” usefulness of such contacts.
    “We’re certainly not prejudiced against articles from PR firms,” says Mr. Rosenzweig. “We just generally have to make more revisions to eliminate their tendency toward one-sidedness. We want all the disadvantages spelled out, as well as the advantages.”
    Adds Mr. Dunn: “If an article is about storage methods, we want to see all 15 methods discussed, not just the ones used by the writer’s company or client.”
    Still, the fact that public relations people are generally eager to give editors information and can be trusted to produce articles on target and on time helps endear them to many editors. “We don’t have to chase after them,” explains Mr. Dunn. “They understand our role a little better than most people, they know how we operate, and they tend to give us good service.”
    So, follow the public relations agencies’ example and make yourself available to editors when they call, follow their guidelines, and deliver written copy as promised. You’ll put yourself in good stead with people who are in a position to exert considerable influence on your company’s fortunes.
    Some magazines will kill a feature story simply for lack of photos or illustrations. Many others weigh heavily the availability of appropriate graphics. Those visual “extras” can be a deciding factor in choosing one story idea over another. Even though the larger journals may have illustrators on staff to produce high-quality finished drawings, they often work from original sketches supplied by an author.
    You can get a good idea of how important visuals are to a particular magazine, before you make your pitch, by scanning a couple of issues. Note whether photos or drawings are used. If photos, are they black-and-white or color? Is a least one illustration used with every story of one page or more? If so, you should be prepared to provide the same. Otherwise, your article may move to the reject pile, regardless of its other merits.
    Professional photographs, while nice, are not necessary for most trade journals. Straightforward, good-quality 35mm color slides satisfy most trade editors. Some magazines will also take black-and-white glossies or color-prints—an editor will be happy to tell you what’s acceptable.

    Never submit the same idea, or story, to more than one competing magazine at a time. Only if the idea is rejected should you approach another editor. This is one point nearly all editors agree on: They want exclusive material—especially for feature articles.
    If a story is particularly timely or newsworthy, and has run in a magazine not directly competing with the one you’re approaching, you may be able to get around the problem by working with the editor to expand or rewrite the piece. But be up-front about it or you will risk losing an editor’s confidence and goodwill.
    “I’d like everything to be exclusive,” says Mr. Russo. “That increases its value to us and can sway us toward acceptance if it’s a ‘borderline’ story.” Offering “world exclusives” can also make an article more appealing to an editor. That means you promise not to submit the article to any other magazine, even if it’s in a completely different field. Whether you are willing to do that depends on how much you want a story in a particular magazine. You may decide you’d rather try to get more mileage out of a story by submitting it to a number of unrelated magazines or newspapers.
    As Mr. Dunn points out: “Exclusivity is a quality consideration for a feature article. Editors don’t want their readers to pick up their magazine and see something that they’ve already read elsewhere.” Often the exceptions to this rule are column items or case histories—for example, a problem/solution/result story describing how a particular customer successfully used a company’s product. However, even those items should not be submitted to a magazine that competes with one that has already accepted them.
    Submitting unsolicited manuscripts is always a risky proposition—again, with the exception of case histories and short new pieces. Some editors never want to see an unsolicited manuscript; others are willing to review them and may even publish a few. Chemical Engineering falls into that category.
    “We get hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts every year, but we have the resources to do a heavy amount of rewriting for the ones we use,” says Mr. Rosenzweig.
    On the other hand, Ms. Spencer says she never uses unsolicited feature manuscripts, and Mr. Russo can’t remember the last time his magazine used an unsolicited piece as a major story.
    What it boils down to is this: Most editors prefer to be asked about story ideas before an author writes the article. It saves them the substantial amount of time required to read a lengthy manuscript to determine whether the subject is right for the magazine. And it saves the author the time and trouble of researching and writing an article that might never get accepted anywhere.
    Even if you have a manuscript already in hand, by submitting it “blind” you may lead an editor to suspect you’re submitting it to nine other magazines at the same time. That’s not what an editor wants to hear. It’s far better to query first, then send the story only if the editor expresses interest.

    Once you’ve got your idea accepted, which is always tentative until final review of the manuscript, you’ll need to know any length and deadline requirements. If the editor doesn’t volunteer this information, by all means ask. The answers may help avoid misunderstanding later.
    As a rule, be generous with length. Include everything you think is—or may be—relevant, and don’t skimp on examples. Editors would rather cut material than have to request more.
    A few magazines, such as Chemical Engineering, are very flexible on length. “We run articles anywhere from three paragraphs to 40 to 50 pages long, “says Mr. Rosenweig. Most other magazines give authors more specific limits. Check with your editor for the specific range.
    Deadlines, too, can vary considerably among journals. Some don’t like to impose any deadlines at all, especially if they work far enough ahead that they’re not pressed for material. But if the article is intended for publication in a special issue, the editors will probably want the finished manuscript in hand at least two months prior to publication. That allows time for final revisions, assembling photos or illustrations, and production.
Chemical Engineering, for example, has a one to 11/2 year lead time on many of the articles it assigns. In at least one case, the magazine waited for six years before receiving a promised manuscript. Not surprisingly, the editor had completely forgotten about the story.
    Some magazines may send a follow-up letter to remind delinquent authors about expected articles, but, as Mr. Dunn says: “We won’t chase after someone. If we don’t hear from a writer in about six months, we figure the article is never going to materialize.”
    Don’t put an editor’s patience to the test. You may gain a reputation as being undependable, which can hurt your future chances of getting ink.

By winning an editor’s friendship, or at least his or her respect, you may find yourself in the pleasant position of being asked for information about your company in the future. At the least, you’ll find a receptive audience for your story ideas.
    So how do you develop this kind of rapport? Stay tuned to editors
’ needs by keeping up with information in their field, as well as your own; staying up to date with any changes—in format or content—of their publications; heeding their suggestions; being considerate of their time; and, above all, delivering articles as promised. “The best way to cultivate an editor’s friendship is to produce results,” advises Mr. Dunn, “because the people who are sincerely interested in helping us out are the ones we go back to.”


Bob Bly is a freelance copywriter with 20 years experience in business-to-business and direct marketing. He has written direct mail packages for Phillips Publishing, Agora Publishing, KCI Communications, McGraw-Hill, Medical Economics, Reed Reference Publishing, A.F. Lewis, and numerous other publishers.

Bob Bly
Copywriter, Consultant and Seminar Leader
22 East Quackenbush Avenue, 3rd Floor, Dumont, NJ 07628
Phone (201) 385-1220, Fax (201) 385-1138