Dear Aliya: They accepted my story. Why won’t they publish it?


From my In Box:

Dear Aliya:

Your site is a great resource for new freelancers. Thanks for offering your advice and experiences. I have a query. I’m still a student, but starting my career as a young journalist based in New York. I have a regular gig with a prominent website, but recently I had my first foray with print. I wrote up my pitch and sent it in (to a national weekly). Call it beginners luck but they bought it soon afterwards. I know things can move slowly with a magazine and that editors can sit on stories for as long as they want. They can even enact the dreaded kill fee. I recently filed the story and to be honest, I don’t know anything about its current status. Is there anyway to know if a story is being sat on? or whether its death is being contemplated?

Thanks much, I hope to hear your advice,



What I love about my blog is that when I hear from new freelancers, they are going through the same things I’m going through, even with ten years in the game.

My response to Alex:

Dear Alex:

First of all, it’s not beginner’s luck. It’s called you pitched a story and did a good job and a national magazine accepted it! Pat yourself on the back. No matter the outcome of the story, this is a huge accomplishment.

Now. A sad but harsh truth. Unless an editor called you at 3Am cause Rihanna just recanted her entire story about the Chris Brown beatdown or Tupac is really in Cuba and is ready to talk, you can be assured that your story is ALWAYS being sat on. And it’s death is contemplated until the moment it hits the newsstands.

Let me tell you about something I’m going through right now.

Editor A called me up two years ago. He said, let’s do a story on [Explosive Topic]. I said, hot damn! I’m on it! For eight months, I traveled, researched, drove out to something called Starrett City to interview an old time gangster. I spent hours burning my eyes at the microfiche station at the New York Library.

I got the story.

And it was insane.

I read it to my husband.

He said. “Shit. That’s good!’

I turned it in.

Editor A said: I love it. You did your thing. We’re about to break something big.

Smiles all around.

And then, the smackdown came. The higher-ups at Editor A’s magazine thought it went a little too hard on the subject, who was also a major advertiser for the magazine.

Story killed. Got a kill fee.

I pitched the completed story to Editor B. (With Editor A’s permission of course) Editor B read it. He loved it.

“I’m running this, immediately,” said Editor B.


But then, there was a transition at the magazine. Folks were getting fired right and left. And Editor B now had a different job within the same company. He keep telling me he would find a way to publish the story. And I waited. And waited. And waited some more.


I checked in via email and he wouldn’t email me back. Three months later, I sent him an email. (My stomach churning before I could press send because I’m so freaking non-confrontational)

I have to go elsewhere with my [Explosive Topic] story. I really need to see that published sooner rather than later. And I gave you a first look so I gotta resubmit to another magazine.
But when you get a chance, (I know you are crazy busy), let’s talk…

I didn’t hear back from him. I had to assume he got my message and move on.

I sent the story to Editor C. He read it. Loved it.

“Let’s publish this,” said Editor C.  You’ll hear from my second in command.”

Now keep in mind, this story is DONE now. It was even copy-edited and fact-checked with Editor A. So nothing left to do but freshen up and run it.

I hear back from Editor C and his second in command often. First, the were trying to find the right issue. Then, it got bumped for a major news story. Then, another month goes by and they don’t have pages for a long investigative piece.

To their credit, they kept me informed. So I was hopeful.

And then, I stopped hearing from Editor C. No emails. And he wasn’t taking my calls.

It was time to move on. I put on my big girl panties and started typing an email to Editor C’s second in command.

Hello sir!

Just wanted you to know that I gotta move on with the [Explosive Topic] story. I’m reallllly proud of it and I really want it to see the light of day. [Editor C] did hit me up last month and told me would talk about it. I reached out a few times and didn’t hear anything back. I hit him up this morning to let him know I’m moving on with it.

Just wanted to give you a heads-up.

Editor C’s second in command was totally cool about it. He said he was disappointed but that he understood and wished me luck getting it placed.

I’d exhausted all my outlets.

But the story really is good. And it’s special. It’s breaking news. Stuff people don’t know. I even hired an editorial assistant from Howard who lives in Harlem to help me do some reporting out there.

I sank my teeth into this story. And almost three years later, it still has no home. Two of my sources have died. I have them on tape. But still.

I checked out the newsstand and decided to pitch it to [Well Regarded Magazine That I Don’t Think I Could Ever Get Published In]. It’s not that this mag is the end-all be-all. It’s just hard as hell to get a clip in there, especially a feature. Some of the biggest writers I know, (in the urban community), write little tiny blurbs for this mag. And it’s a big deal in our circles.

“Did you see? [Big Name Urban Editor] wrote a piece in [Well Regarded Magazine That I Don’t Think I Could Ever Get Published In]”

I knew it was a long shot. A 30 footer at the buzzer. But I had nothing to lose.

I spent a few days tracking down the right editor at the magazine for this story. (Which was unbelievably difficult). I called that operator so many times I started changing my voice each time. Like she really noticed I called a lot. Whatever.

I found the editor. I didn’t just send him the pitch. I asked if I could send it. He said yes.

He read my story over that weekend.

And the following Monday he assigned me the story!

*throws confetti. kicks heels in the air. dances a jig. goes to TH and says have you ever written for [Well Regarded Magazine That I Don’t Think I Could Ever Get Published In]? I didn’t think so. Yeeeeeeeah Boyeeee. I did my end-zone victory dance in the living room chanting: I’m bad. I’m bad. I’m bad.*

That was May 21, 2009.

My story still hasn’t run.

I’ve checked in with the editor a few times and he’s enthusiastic. But his boss has some reservations and wants to make sure the timing is right for the story. They want it to have the perfect peg.

The last time I heard from the editor was September 16 of this year. He was going to ask his editor if we could publish the story without having to peg it to a project the artist was promoting.

I just took a break from writing this post to write an email to the editor.

Hi [EDITOR!] Hope all is well!

I’m checking in on the [EXPLOSIVE TOPIC] story. [Subject’s’ Management] says his project will be released early next year. But still doesn’t seem to be firm.

I really want to find another peg so that we can run this story. One of my sources just passed away. Of course I have him on tape. But still, I really feel like this is a stand alone story–with no peg at all!
It takes place in [MAJOR CITY]. It’s got sex, drugs and the criminal underworld. And it involves one of [DESCRIPTION OF THE STORY THAT I CAN’T REPEAT HERE]

Can we come up with other pegs that your editor might want to use?

[Here I posted three alternate events that we could peg the story to.]

In my honest opinion, I think this story can work with no peg. It’s breaking news. Exclusive information about this elusive [Explosive Topic]. And it’s just plain juicy.

Just like [Name Redacted’s] awesome piece on a little known man named [Name Redacted], I think a piece on a [Explosive Topic] could stand on its own.

If it won’t work without a peg. Or you’re just no longer interested, I completely understand. Just let me know and I’ll be moving on.

Thanks so much [Editor] Hope to hear from you soon!

I literally just pressed send on that joint thirty seconds ago.

The point, dear Alex, is that this is how the game goes. I know people who wrote dozens of stories at the New York Times that were never published. (Seriously. Dozens.) No kill fee. No reason. Just assigned a story, reported and wrote it. And nothing happened.

Is it fair? No. Is it the life of a freelancer? Yes.

When you get a story accepted, you can celebrate very briefly. But then the real work begins. Yes, you should check in with the editor every other week for an update. (Via email.)

Then, if there’s no response. You have to call. Possibly more than once. (I hate doing this. But sometimes I must.)

If you have a contract, there’s nothing you can do. You’re locked in. They can hold it forever. Should be a clause that you can take it elsewhere if they don’t publish within a certain time period. But all contracts don’t have that.

If you do not have a contract, it’s time to bail. You have to write an email explaining that you’re moving forward with the story and hope to pitch something else soon.

And move on.

Freelancing is about juggling. You have to have ten balls in the air at all time. Story ideas, outlines, finished stories, half-finished stories, pitches out to editors…

You can’t get bogged down in the status of one story. You have to keep hustling for the next one.

So be a mini-stalker for a bit. And then move on.

But the fact that you got the story accepted is BIG. You need to be pitching your ass off to that magazine. Good luck.

Dear readers:

Did i give Alex good advice? If you’re an editor, can you tell me why a story would be held and not published? And give us your honest opinion on why it might not run. And also tell us how long we should wait before we bail. Do editors hate us when we take back stories that have been sitting around forever and run them elsewhere? Or do they understand that we’re trying to eat too?

Writers, have you been in this situation? How did you handle it?

I’d love to hear from you all…

9 Responses to “Dear Aliya: They accepted my story. Why won’t they publish it?”

  1. makkada Says:

    Wow Aliya, thanks for sharing. I’ve emailed you about this scenario before too so, thanks for telling it like it is. It’s interesting your appeal to editors (I hope a few post) —you’ve been an editor before too, so do you think things have gotten worse for freelancers with all these mags shutting down?

  2. Dionne Says:

    I totally agree. I wrote a short piece for a reputable magazine, TWO years later it finally ran, but online. It’s the way of the publishing world, sometimes they have so much content that they just sit on it.

  3. schukumba Says:

    Wow. You really went in! Haven’t had the experience, but I can only imagine the frustration. If it never gets published, how much of it would/could/should make it into another one of your novels? I’d imagine that if it’s got sufficiently tasty tidbits, it might be the kind of thing you’d publish in your [yet-to-be-released] book.

  4. Michael Says:

    You always give great advice, Aliya. This time is no different.

    Actually after I read this post I just sent in yet another follow-up email to an editor. They’ve been dragging their feet and then finally I was asked if I still wanted to tackle the topic bout a week ago. Because it would be the biggest clip of my career, of course I’d want to. I hit them back instantly. I’ve yet to get a response, though.

    Hopefully I get one soon. Netting a clip from this outlet was one of my goals for the year. Best of luck to you with that story.

  5. @KngtRdr Says:

    While a story may be difficult to finally get in print — you got paid the kill fee if it doesn’t run (the original time) correct? I mean, heartbreak is heartbreak – but paying the mortgage comes first… right?

  6. Jermaine Hall Says:

    Intimately involved with this story, I can assure you that it will make noise. I’ve read it several times (before and after I lost it). Whenever Well Regarded Editor C runs it Aliya—and he will—all that moving around would have been well worth it. For the record, I’ve stopped calling it MY story. Ha! Great post.

  7. incilin Says:

    Great stories. Great advice. Great post. But ahh….I think the powers that be are preventing your story from getting published. No not the editors, I meant the gangsters…

  8. Eunice Says:

    I can’t speak for anyone else but, for me, the worse thing would be to not get paid at all. However, the second worse would be if you put a lot of work into a story and you’re really feeling it like that and it never gets printed. A part of you still wants to see it in print even if you did get paid for it (all or kill).

  9. arlicenichole Says:

    This is crazy, ugh! But thanks for the advice on having several things going at once. Sigh.

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