Creating Photo/Text Packages – Reprinted with permission
ANATOMY OF A STORY
by Bob Grytten
Even if writing isn’t part of your plan, thinking stories will help your photography. Eventually the photos will have to support someone’s story. They may even become a photo essay (a story that has more pictures than words) or a photo/text package you can sell to publications.
An effective story has the same elements as a good photo–focus! Focus means eliminating distractions while spotlighting the central and primary issue. Then comes the meat–enough supportive material to provide sizzle, to make your subject interesting.
For example, we were in North Carolina to conduct a workshop but soon learned of the
wild waterfalls of Transylvania County–over two hundred, more than in any other county in the entire United States. I thought that was pretty unique. We weren’t really looking for a story, but this seemed interesting. When we were first thinking about this waterfall story, it was just an idea. Then we found out the names of some of the falls–Slippery Witch, Bear Wallow, and Maidenhair. The names conjured up all kinds of illusions. That’s sizzle!
Once you’ve established that your story has sizzle, you need to decide if it will be marketable. Bill Thomas, noted nature photojournalist, says he approaches a project in terms of how many times it can be sold. He wants to think he has at least a half dozen potential story buyers for his idea before he decides to spend time on it. He figures that the first fee he receives for a story should cover the cost of the time and film needed to produce the package. Additional fees he receives the second and third time his project is published provide his profits. Your basic story should have enough meat so the slant can be modified for other markets–spin-off markets. You’ll want to be able to explore variations of your basic theme and modify them to meet different interests.
My waterfall story was purchased by a magazine that had used my work before. I had a feeling it would fit their needs. That’s what you watch for, those feelings. Even when you don’t have a specific publication to target, if you find yourself getting hooked on a subject, go for it. Had Family Motor Coaching Magazine not purchased this project, I had other publications in mind.
Explore second rights
Another market is also available. Some publications buy second rights. They usually pay less for second rights than for the first publication, but the manuscript can be sent out in its original form.
Let’s consider our waterfall example. What kinds of markets exist for that idea?
1. Travel – Does the story have destination interest? Does the location featured have places for travel readers to stay, such as recreational vehicle parks, camping, bed-and-breakfasts, hotels, or motels? Are there enough activities available nearby to keep visitors entertained once they’re there? Yes, to all of these questions.
2. Outdoor Adventure – Is there enough natural history interest in the area to capture armchair readers? Is the subject fresh or has it been overdone? Is the activity something that an adventurer would seek out? Yes, to all of these questions.
Other possible markets for the waterfall story include regional, sports, general non-fiction, marine, nature and environment, photography, and recreation magazines–to name just a few.
Determining the markets that might exist for possible stories prior to traveling can be time well spent. Photographers Market and Writers Market (Writer’s Digest books, available at most book stores) are good sources which list various target publications by subject–including their particular needs, circulation, etc. Stay within areas that interest you to take advantage of opportunities that will present themselves where you’ll be spending your time, places you’ll choose for vacations, etc.
Learn about your subject
When we arrived in Transylvania County, we headed for the local Chamber of Commerce where we picked up brochures about the area. We also talked to the director about our interest in doing a story about the waterfalls. She pulled out a map and showed us where certain falls were, which ones were the most accessible, the most spectacular, most popular, favorite local haunts, best kept secrets, etc. She also told us about a local folk hero Jim Bob Tinsley, and showed us his book on the area waterfalls, available at the local bookstore. We wondered what other material on the subject might be waiting in the bookstore and went to find out. We found Jim Bob’s book, which was fascinating and descriptive. I was getting excited! (I think it helps to be excited. It may even be absolutely necessary. If your juices aren’t flowing, watch out. The story might not be right for you.) We changed plans, driving like crazy to get to a nearby falls to take photos before the sun went down.
Get the photos
We photographed one waterfall that evening and two the next day, took pictures of restaurants with people in them, points of interest, even interior shots of our room–a bed-and-breakfast which was especially nice. Getting photos of the surrounding area is important. I even took some shots of a stuffed white squirrel (a variety for which the town was famous) in case we didn’t come across a live one–another possible story! When you encounter historic and descriptive signs, take a picture. Shoot anything you think will remind you of things you might want to describe later. Remember, you may end up writing multiple articles and still be inventing stories composed with a different emphasis a year from now.
Use local help
While in the area, introduce yourself to a local photographer. He/she will probably be able to provide extra photos for you if you need them. It’s good insurance. Other sources of free photos are the local Chamber of Commerce, area attractions, newspapers, museums, libraries, and local camera clubs. You can also follow up leads you’ll discover on the spot. It doesn’t make much difference where you get material. You’re controlling the story and will get paid for your photography/story package no matter where the pictures come from.
Do your homework
When we returned home, the first step was to process the film into slides for magazines. We sorted out the five pounds of take-home material and wrote a log about our impressions (especially handy if you haven’t kept notes). This will serve as very important material for your article. While your energy is still high, write the story proposal–the query letter. We gather information from brochures to add sizzle for the query. If you’re still excited about your project, adding sizzle is easy. Things just flow.
Create a query letter
The query letter is a vehicle used to propose your idea to various publications. Here are a few suggestions for how to write one that works for you:
Start right into the meat. Here’s a sample first paragraph:
“More than 250 falls are nestled in the mountains near Brevard, North Carolina. The one before us, as high as a six story building, was more than I had imagined. My heart raced. The roar of crashing water over ancient boulders was almost deafening. Mist rose, floating high, then settled on the wild rhododendron leaves.”
1. Grab the editor’s attention. You’ll have only seven seconds to succeed.
2. Support the meat with some gravy, comments geared to that magazine.
3. Close with what you would like to do, what you’ll include in the article, how long the article will be, and finally, some kind of phrase which asks for a response.
Keep the query to one page. Enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE). Send out six to eight queries, one each to six to eight non-competing markets.
Your job is now done. All you have to do is to wait for a positive response. You won’t actually write your article until then.
Write the article
When people tell me they can’t write, I have to believe them if they’ve never written anything. However, when I suggest writing a letter to a sister or brother about an experience, they say, “No problem.” In fact, good writing reads like a letter you write home. To become more sophisticated about writing mechanics, become familiar with first and third person approaches, present and past tense, etc. A local writer’s group can help with that aspect of writing. Writer groups exist in almost every community. They’re a good place to learn the mechanics. Many books have been written on the subject and good how-to periodicals can also be found.
The article becomes an expansion of your query. A good story idea has focus. If you have the photos and include information about your experience with some background that you find in the library (or on the Internet), the magazine has editors polish the article. And editors love the ease of packages which include photos and stories. It’s a great way to go for both the publisher and the photographer/writer. Include some quotes from some experts in the field, give credit for sources, and read some of the magazine’s back issues. That will give you a key for putting your words together. Often, the editor suggests a certain emphasis and direction to take when s/he responds to your query. These guidelines make the project even more interesting.
Collect your payment
Sometimes–often, in fact, until you become a known quantity–publications will ask you to write the article on spec or speculation, meaning you won’t be paid until they’ve read and accepted the completed project. Don’t be put off by that. My first time, I received a vague letter asking, “Could I have it completed by….?” It didn’t say, “We would like you to do the article with photos.” I held on to the letter for a couple of weeks, thinking it was just another delay. Then I showed it to a writer’s group. I just about fell over when they told me it was a go-ahead, on speculation.
To not have your article accepted after the publication requested it on spec, you would have to be pretty far off the mark of what the publication wanted. I work for some magazines that still give me a go-ahead only on speculation, even though I’ve written many articles for them. It’s their policy.
Some magazines will send you a contract that will specify how much they’re willing to pay, deadline dates, payment of expenses, and even a KILL FEE clause – a percentage they will pay if they don’t accept the article, usually twenty-five percent. The idea is to have something in writing before you begin.
Recently, I was given the go-ahead to send some photos to an archaeological magazine. “Yes, we can use them,” they e-mailed me back. When I inquired about their fee range for photos, they said THEY DON’T PAY. “We have found that we don’t usually have to pay. Many photographers of subjects we like donate their photos.” I guess I can understand that, as many readers are scientists and aren’t even aware that they could get paid for their photos.
Ask questions. Get all agreements in writing. It’s the business way. About the archaeological magazine, I just moved on to another project, but thinking about the experience again, I may propose my story idea to another magazine or maybe six other magazines. That’s how I’ll market my Etruscan photos. I’ll generate a photo/text package. It’s a neat way to go.
(Reprinted in part from Get Published: the How-To Manual by Bob Grytten.)