When I’m pitching stories that include interviews or research sources, should I confirm that those sources are available to be interviewed before I pitch? I hate the idea of not having enough sources if a publication accepts my idea, but I also don’t like asking people and then the story not getting picked up.
—A Source In The Hand Is Worth Two In The Pitch
The key to your question is all about distinguishing between interviews and sources.
If you want to interview Ryan Gosling about his first days of fatherhood, you should lock him down. If you want to write an article about the first days of fatherhood and use Gosling as a hook in your lede, then you’re probably safe finding people to interview after an editor accepts the story.
There will always be sources. The world is full of sources. You have to trust you’ll find people who want to talk about the story you’re researching, regardless of whether it’s for The New Yorker or an industry blog with 2,000 readers per day.
Here, by the way, is my secret method for finding sources: Go to Amazon and look for authors who have published books that focus on the topic you’re researching. Authors love to talk about their books, especially if you pick authors who, like you, are in the process of building careers. If you need a source on Teddy Roosevelt, you may not have success picking Doris Kearns Goodwin. But, since there are 1,233 Amazon search results for “Teddy Roosevelt book,” you can still scroll down and find someone who will be excited to get your email.
Now, let’s look at interviews, which is a trickier issue to solve.
Sometimes, I talk to the person I want to interview before I pitch the idea, but if the pitch doesn’t get accepted, you risk disappointing your source and developing a reputation for not following through.
Sometimes, I pitch the idea first, and once it’s accepted, let the person I want to interview know the wheels are in motion. But if that plan fails, you risk losing credibility with your editors, and usually, you can’t salvage the story.
It’s a bit of a risk-reward situation, but here’s my advice: There’s a lot of value in going to a publication with a really interesting story (and interview subject) in hand, especially if there’s nobody else telling that particular story. There’s also value in pitching an idea to a big publication, getting it accepted, and contacting an interview source with, “I’m writing a piece for Big Publication, and I’d like to talk to you.”
Whichever you choose, be upfront with everyone throughout. Tell the people you want to interview you have to pitch the piece first, or tell an editor you have to secure the interview first. As long as you are honest and don’t promise anything you can’t deliver, you’ll maintain your credibility—even if it turns out you can’t get the interview and have to kill the piece.
Here’s one more tip: When I send out pitches without securing the source, I’ll specify, for example, the story will only work if I can get Ryan Gosling—more of a tentative query. Other times, I’ll explain I’m going to interview new fathers, maybe someone like Ryan Gosling. That gives me the opportunity to search for other sources if Mr. Gosling is too busy changing diapers to take my call.
Here are a few personal examples of how this has played out:
1. When I pitched “Should More Authors Take Advantage of Kindle Unlimited,” I said I would interview authors but did not specify which ones. I knew I’d find authors who were eager to talk about Kindle Unlimited.
2. When I pitched “What’s the Best Time for Freelance Writers to Sleep?” I specified in the pitch I wanted to interview a particular sleep expert. I could not secure an interview with that person, so I found another sleep expert instead, and the piece turned out just fine.
3. When I pitched “Working Not Working Provides Great Opportunities to Freelancers Who Can Dunk From the Foul Line and Enjoy BBQ,” it was implied I had to get someone from Working Not Working as a source. If it hadn’t worked out, we would have had to kill the piece.
4. I recently pitched The Freelancer an interview piece about a subject I had already secured. The person in question is launching a really interesting project, and I wanted to make sure he was available to talk about his project before I pitched. In this case, I told the subject I would have to get the pitch accepted before moving forward.
Ultimately, trust that there will always be people excited to agree to an interview, especially when you’re asking them to talk about themselves or their work.
Nicole Dieker loves talking about herself and her work. Send your Ask A Freelancer questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.