Ever wonder what those big-time New York City editors look for in a story pitch? Or how successful authors pulled off a great book deal?
Today, journalist and author Caitlin Kelly shares some of her secrets as a former senior editor for WorldBusiness in New York and a successful author of two books. Caitlin has been published in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. She recently published her second book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.” Briefly, here’s a snippet from her book’s opening:
My writing career had gone well from the day I graduated from college, whether I had a staff magazine or newspaper job or worked freelance. But by the fall of 2007 I was scared of the precipitous decline in my industry, journalism. I was also newly aware, after pneumonia landed me in a hospital bed from overwork, I needed a ready, steady source of cash, something solid. And so I decided to join a populous, if largely ignored, tribe – the fifteen million Americans working in retail.
On a personal note, I can relate to Caitlin’s situation. The year 2007 was also when I left my beloved journalism job. That seems to be the fateful year—of the housing market crash, the journalism crash, and the start of the Great Recession.
So, here’s my interview with Caitlin Kelly. Hope you find some valuable insights in these 10 questions, as I did!
CAITLIN: It’s not simple, quick or easy! Finding an agent means finding someone whose skill, experience, ambition, personality and stable of other writers matches your vision of what you hope to accomplish. My agent on Blown Away, William Clark, was then — in 2000 when we first met — fairly new to agenting and was eager to build his brand, so that helped me. He, like my current agent, Kathleen Anderson, was also extremely dedicated to the project — both books received 25 (!) rejections each before finally selling to major NYC publishers. You need someone who really cares deeply about the work, and gets what you are about: this is not a game for the easily deterred or fantasists. You must find someone who is utterly straightforward with you about every aspect of the process and demands excellence and professionalism from you. It helps if you like them personally as you must trust them with your work.Find an agent by: reading acknowledgments in books similar to yours (they always thank their agent); attending annual writers’ conferences like the ASJA where members can meet and pitch agents face to face; networking well and generously with accomplished writers who may share the name of their agent (or not) with you. The agent will find the publisher, not you.
CAITLIN: You want a feeling of authority, why this writer really knows the issue and can handle it well and stylishly. I want to see that they have a strong news sense and feel confident they will be able to both report accurately and deeply and write well, which is a rare combination. I would almost always choose a former or current newspaper writer over someone with no news background. There is too much PR puffery out there, and experienced journos know to ignore it and dig much more deeply when necessary. I’m interested in writers who think outside the margins, who may have lived a less conventional life, as they may ask different questions and see things from a less predictable perspective. I want someone who is culturally sophisticated and who understands the need for diversity when sourcing, for example.
CAITLIN: Work, identity, class struggle, corporate greed. What professional status means, and what happens when you don’t have it. The true underpinnings of easy catchphrases we never really question or challenge: “shareholder value”, “global supply chain”, “operations management.”These are the underlying/overarching larger themes of “Malled,” beyond its many anecdotes, interviews and statistics. I’m fascinated by how we work, and the trade-offs we make and why we choose to make or accept them.
CAITLIN: That every single person working in retail can add value, from the invisible stock room clerk to the associates on the floor — despite the fact that most corporate managers refuse to pay them accordingly. The most productive, yet unrewarded, people are often effective and high-selling associates working face to face with customers, whose skill and warmth can make or break a brand.
CAITLIN: There have been more than one. This is not a business for the faint of heart or easily bruised! I studied interior design in the 1990s and planned to leave journalism, but stayed in it. I’m addicted to finding and sharing compelling stories, so my enthusiasm for the content is undimmed, even as the mechanics of the field have changed substantially. I have multiple skills, from photography and interior design training to foreign languages, so I have enough ways to keep pulling in income that I don’t panic. I also maintain a low overhead and don’t have children, so living with lower costs allows me more creative freedom in my choices of when and how to work.I also think you have to be very clear with yourself in how you define “success”. I am thrilled knowing that readers in Hong Kong, New Zealand and Ireland, to name only three, read my books — but am not (yet!) earning the sort of income some might wish or expect.
SHARI: That’s a good question. I’ve recently started reading and enjoying Betsy Lerner’s blog and Kristen Lamb’s blog. I think once you’ve mastered your craft — through classes, practice, reading great writers’ work and analyzing it — it becomes a larger issue of finding and polishing ideas. I focus less on the mechanics of how to write and more on people whose thinking inspires me, so I read blogs that include Seth Godin and Design Milk, which is visual.Because I write only non-fiction, I try more to read great NF books and figure out why they’re so terrific: voice, language, tone, pacing, anecdote, etc.
Decide what you want to achieve and what is realistic, given your talent, time, energy and finances. It may not happen fast, or fast enough, but a life of ideas can’t be lived according to the clock or others’ dreams.
Follow Caitlin on her blog, “Broadside Blog,” on WordPress.