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The Art of Remixing Your Material and Selling 9 Stories

By Sharon McDonnell June 6th, 2014

On a visit to Spain, a member of my tour group bragged she was a descendant of the brother of Washington Irving, author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Tales from the Alhambra, and said she once met someone on a bus who wanted to make a documentary about him, if she ever landed funding. Somehow, this got lost in translation. Our Spanish guide began introducing the woman to everyone as “the illustrious descendant of Washington Irving who is making a documentary and writing a book about him.” Then, the guide grabbed me by the shoulders to force me from my seat so the “distinguished” non-descendant, who so enjoyed undeserved treatment, could sit next to our host.

First, I got mad. Then, I got even.

I came home and sold a national magazine story inspired by the incident for $1,050. Later, I sold additional articles about similar topics to a newspaper, regional magazine, and travel publication. One chance encounter—four sales.

How? This seemingly random incident pointed out a larger truth: Irving, little-known in the U.S., is so famous in southern Spain, where a tourist route is named after him, that if you tell someone you’re related to him, you’ll be treated like a VIP. A catchy lede began dancing in my head—“In the U.S., signs often brag, ‘Washington Slept Here.’ But in southern Spain, signs brag, ‘Washington Irving Slept Here.’” Vaguely recalling he had a home near New York City, I found more compelling details in my research—Irving was the first American author to become internationally famous, is called “the father of the short story,” was the first to dub New York City “Gotham,” and served as U.S. Ambassador to Spain.

I knew I had a winner. My first story described Spain’s tourist trail and focused largely on his house, which is open to public tours, so I sold it to a magazine that deals with American history and historic profiles. I sold a shorter version to a small newspaper, plus an even shorter article under 300 words about his house, with interesting quotes and tidbits not included in previous stories, to a regional magazine that covered New York. A travel publication also bought a story that was more about Spain, less about his house.

To slice and dice your material, think of it as a ball of clay, malleable enough to be massaged into many different shapes.

And make sure to read your contract if you have one. Publishers often buy North American serial rights to be the first to run a story on the continent, but after publication, all rights revert back to the writer, who is free to resell. Some contracts say work-for-hire, which means the publication buys all rights to the story forever. Some publications give no contract, meaning they buy one-time rights to publish, leaving the writer free to resell any time. Some pay a certain rate for an original story and a lower rate for reprints. And depending on the contract, the writer may have to wait 90 or 180 days after the publication date to find another home for a piece.

Generally, a writer can sell the same story to non-competing markets, but not to competitors like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, which are national newspapers. But smaller newspapers and regional magazines tend to buy rights for only their circulation markets. Some contracts spell out exactly who their competitors are, forbidding resales to certain publications.

However, only the finished product is copyrightable, not ideas or topics. Thus, it’s a good idea to keep some facts or anecdotes in reserve when writing your first piece to make it easier to write different stories for other outlets. In my experience, travel writing lends itself to resales, but rarely for an identical story. Different publications have such different requirements for word count, format, information, and tone. Some welcome first-person narratives and a light, humorous tone; others prefer objective third-person, no humor, please. Others want a sidebar with details about getting there, recommended hotels, restaurants, and activities.

For example, my one visit to Dominica, one of the lesser-known Caribbean islands, resulted in nine story sales to national and regional magazines and newspapers. Since I noticed the country lacked big or chain hotels, my first story, for National Geographic Traveler, focused on its small nature-oriented inns. One inn owner was an American Jew, so I sold a profile on her and her inn to a Jewish newspaper. My story for the Dallas Morning News profiled her, but was filled with quotes, extra details, a very different lede, a long sidebar about lodgings and activities, and no details about Judaism. USA Today published my story about chocolate-centric hotels, including a small Dominica inn nestled amid cacao trees that made chocolates. A cruise magazine bought my story about what to do and where to eat in one day on the island. A magazine covering the Caribbean bought two short pieces on two Dominica lodgings. Finally, a small U.S. newspaper bought a bigger lodgings roundup.

The more publications you’re familiar with, the more you’Il be able to resell. Don’t tie yourself to just one or two publications—familiarize yourself with the editorial requirements of many, and your reselling potential increases significantly. And the more research you do when you travel, the more clay you’ll have to work with.

Image via White Raver Rafting

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