Sunday, May 10, 2009

How to Get Hired -- and Fired -- from the New Yorker

"You don't find the New Yorker; the New Yorker finds you."

How well I remember those biting words. They came from the mouth of Dana Goodyear, a New Yorker writer and editor. She delivered them in 2006 during a conference for freelance writers at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism.

The words stung because they suggested that to write for the New Yorker, you must be such a monumental talent that your glorious prose, captured in some lesser place like Harper's or the Ladies Home Journal, or on a website, was so spectacular that it attracted the attention of a New Yorker editor who just happened to be looking at that site.

The irony of those words is that Goodyear only started writing for the New Yorker because she served as editorial assistant to David Remnick, the magazine's editor, for three years. Her close proximity to the top helped her get noticed.

Well, the sacred walls of the esteemed weekly are being peeled back this week. In a series of tweets, former New Yorker author Dan Baum is revealing how he got hired to write for the magazine (he had been a freelancer for 17 years and had sent in numerous queries) and how he got fired in 2007.

A few of his revelations:

The New Yorker never sends rejections. It just ignores your queries. (This was not my experience. The first time I pitched an article to the New Yorker, way back in 1987, its editor Robert Gottlieb sent me a hand-written rejection. Unfortunately the note burned up when my house burned down in 1991.)

The term "staff writer" is misleading. All the writers on the magazine are contract employees. They don't get health benefits or contributions made to their 401Ks. And every September, their contracts come up for a review.

Baum got a little more than $1 a word for his first piece. At the time, Rolling Stone was paying him about $3.45 a word.

Baum was offered a staff writer position moments after Rolling Stone magazine offered to pay him $90,000 for a lengthy article on missile defense systems.

Baum, who went on to write the well-regarded book about New Orleans and Katrina called Nine Lives, also has a website where he displays the queries he sent to various magazines and the resulting articles or rejection letters.

Another interesting note: Baum lives in Watsonville, CA, hardly one of the country's hot spots. But it does show a good writer can prosper from anywhere.

You can follow Dan's tale on Twitter.

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