Magazines are me. I subscribe to a dozen, and there are three I would start. (If you must know: NASCAR for New Yorkers, Photography for Those Not Rich Yet but Someday... , and an as-yet inchoate idea for a literary magazine that wouldn't bore.) It all began way back when—my mother explaining New Yorker covers to me as she papered the bathroom with the torn-off sheets; five years later, when I was 13, my dad presenting me a framed map of Antarctica that I found in an old National Geographic when the school library was deaccessioning its collection of periodicals. This is in me.
Therefore, obviously: the Front-of-Book. This, I feel, is something I can do. With my thinking cap donned, computer buzzing its heated-up heart out, I could sculpt 250 words on new men's fragrances, fold-out coffee table books, disinterested femmes of the B-list silver screen, what. The FOB: my natural home—with items best swallowed whole. Someday, perhaps, I reach the upscale shit that makes one a name and living, but for now it should be FOB. It would feel right, and it would create in-roads and clips, the two things I lack on this "journalism" quest of mine. The FOB is usually punchy and tight, and it's where the quirky and obscure gets aired and analyzed. I am punchy and tight and quirky and, alas, obscure.
Anyway, besides, this is just something my demographic does. Maybe it's New York, maybe it's this whole blogging thing, but everyone I know seems to have a byline and word rate they dangle at parties like so many medals of honor. My height, weight, education lead me to this; it's in my makeup, like a willingness to get tattooed or a disposition toward solving problems with Zoloft. How can I be the only one not? It's almost a birthright, something that was loaded into my backpack long ago, on the first day of elementary school, along with those dreams to come of Reason and The American Scholar.
So I started with Folio:. It seemed like a good fit: Respected but not shooting too high, covering material my book-production job actually means I know something about. I got a name there from a friend. That's how you get things, after all. Using a connection is demoralizing, surely not the most up-by-his-own-bootstraps way to go about this, but I was determined to do this. Sure, hindsightedly, I probably shot too high up the masthead, and, yeah, my idea was a little goofy (an exposé: the magazine stalls along Sixth Avenue in Manhattan: Where do all those magazines come from? Where do they go?), but it was a good idea, a good idea to me at least, something I would read and think about and try to get to the bottom of (were I writing about it or not). I didn't care if it were all illegal activity by hardened perps who would kneecap me at the first sign of a tape recorder, I just wanted to write for Folio:. I wanted that in, that byline. But I climbed to the top of the mast, shouted my pitch, and was rewarded with silence. I deserved it. My bravado had gotten the best of me. I should have known.
I slept poorly for a few days. Embarrassed and humbled. Regrouping, rethinking. A few weeks passed and I mulled it all over while walking to and from the subway, morning and night, writing a better pitch in my head until I could recite it like it was all I had learned.
I was also thinking, of course: C'mon, this is insane. I devour magazines and deserve this. On alternating Saturdays, I gather recyclables to lug down to the curb: shredded bills, newspapers, junk mail. But the magazines, they don't get wantonly tossed. I tear out pages and off covers, to sort and file for repeat readings and referencing. Sadly, as much as I treasure these, I'm left with a scrapbook of others' ideas and executions. Meanwhile, rejection emails collect in my inbox.
Next I pitched Black Book. A friend gave me the name again. And it was an idea that was good; it was solid. It had legs:
I saw your name on the masthead [ed: white lie], and I wanted to pitch you an idea. My proposal is a piece on the artist/author XXXXXX, whose drawings contain the chaos of Ralph Steadman and the innocence of a talented back-of-the-envelope doodler. XXXXXX has covered the XXXXXX for the XXXXXX literary site, designed t-shirts for XXXXXX, and has published two books, XXXXXX and XXXXXX.
Amazingly prolific (his work can be seen on www.xxxxxxx.com), he is hooked in with a prescient, smart bunch of characters. I propose a short, front-of-book story introducing him and his forthcoming book, XXXXXX: XXXXXX, which will be published in XXXXXX, and is about the important things we learned XXXXXX. As a fan of XXXXXX's work, I've emailed with him over the last few weeks, and I know he would fit in with your editorial direction.
As for me, I have an MA from the University of XXXXXX and contribute regularly to XXXXXX and mediabistro.com, where I've interviewed Chuck Klosterman, senior writer at XXXXXX, the writer Neal Pollack, and a number of others. I have also written essays about working in the publishing world.
I look forward to hearing from you soon.
He was an illustrator who had a couple of books out and one forthcoming. He drew for some websites, had some bits and pieces in The New York Times, and published some beautiful books of his work. Black Book cut me off at the hips, but nicely, because its editorial calendar and my idea didn't line up. I spun it some but no-go. Understandable. I'd let this one lie. These things happen (at least to me). Besides, I should have found out their calendar first. What was I thinking? But it wasn't online, and I got lazy. For shame.
And next Print. Over lunch I skimmed the masthead. Aha! There was an ad sales guy (ABC: always be communicating) with an email address listed, and I parsed the managing editor's from that one. Minor sleuthing is a good skill, and I am good at it. Trolling websites and overhearing conversations are lowdown devices, and effective. There are depths not to sink to, but figuring out that email@example.com is the key to unlock the door is hardly a punishable offense. (I bcc'd firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, and firstname.lastname@example.org just to make sure passage was allowed.)
It made me drool, the idea. Print. So perfect it glittered like sun-dappled windows in summer. It sparkled like mica of the sand reflecting the moon. It did terrible things to my mind. Another idea with legs. Strong, chorded legs that could run for hours without strain: a small-time, creative publisher with vision and an art-house project involving viewer participation and complicated printing in Iceland. And there was a reply from Print, a banter of conversation between them and me, about who we knew, and how the idea was interesting though it too didn't line up square-ish with the calendar.
Ah, but more emails were exchanged between us (at the bottom of which I alluded to other interesting items to serve as additional soft pitches, just in case; they were ignored.). Sometimes three a day. This lasted about a week. A week I spent fretting and stewing to my live-in about how much I should push it, what I could get away with.
Me: "Should I mention the other thing I was thinking about? The waterproof erotica collection?"
Her: "Why not. He's at least not telling you to stop bothering him. Yet."
Me: "Ah, but he will. I get myself into this. I push them until they snap, and I admit I find it oddly amusing. I should stop. I need help."
Her: "I don't think he thinks you're doing that. Just be normal, though. Run everything by me before you send it."
I didn't do that; Print and I left it cordial: "Keep checking them out and see if something happens that can make your idea more suitable to our timeline." I will, I do. C'mon! I know Colophon was one of the 12 Ionion cities and I could smell a matte finish on a 50# Finch Opaque Smooth if I were simmering onions in a poppy field. These people will love me. Just, I remind myself, find the tone, the feel, and the idea, and focus my klieg lights on it for them. That's all they need, I tell myself. For me to guide them to letting me write the super-now piece on the next Deanne Cheuk.
So, to sum: it was one, two, three, and I was down. Despite some kind words and some Vollmanesque digging through arcanum and my rumpled mind, it felt like a schoolyard bully of a beating from Folio:, Black Book, and Print. Folio: got in the first good, solid punch, Black Book slapped me around for a time, and finally Print pulled my hair but at least had the heart to help me to my feet afterward. I'm so close now. Pretty soon I'll be in their good graces and the cafeteria at lunchtime won't look so scary.
With heart, I scan the streets and websites and magazines and bits of conversation I overhear looking, waiting for that item that would be, could be, ought must to be pitched with perfection. Did you know cartographers insert mistakes into their maps (e.g., misspellings, fake streets) to protect their copyright, so no one else steals their maps? This is good, no? Here it comes.
Chris Gage, a production editor at John Wiley & Sons, is a frequent contributor to mediabistro.com and a very infrequent contributor, apparently, to anywhere else.