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Syndication: Is It for You?

Pub Date: Nov 1, 2000 | Columnist: Michael Sedge

Syndication: Is It for You?

An excerpt from Sussessful Syndication, A Guide For Writers And Cartoonists
Reprinted with permission of the author and Allworth Press, © 2000 Michael H. Sedge.

By Michael Sedge

Sooner or later nearly every writer contemplates syndication. And why not? You could be the next Ann Landers, Dave Berry, or Dr. Ruth. Your innovative column could launch your career into unforeseen heights. You could become internationally famous. Your work could be transformed into a film or televised series. Licensing and merchandising of books, videos, computer games, audiotapes, toys, and more, could have your bank account reeling into the six figures in no time.

Then again, it could all be a pipe dream. But how do you know?

That's the funny thing about many of the best things in life: you never achieve them unless you try. Certainly you've heard people say, I've got this great book I want to write. It will probably be a best-seller." Well maybe it would, and maybe it wouldn't. One thing is certain, though, if these people never sit their butts in a chair and actually produce that book, we'll never know if they could have been the next Hemingway or Mitchell.

At some point-perhaps even at the onset-you may decide, as many others have, that the best route for you is self-syndication. Writer James Dulley made such a decision several years ago when he was producing the Sensible Home column for a local newspaper. Through marketing savvy and dedication, Dulley's work, today, appears in 400 newspapers and 30 magazines. The syndication fees bring him nearly $1 million a year. Spin-off sales-books and pamphlets-bring him another $1 million.

While individual newspapers and magazines pay very little for syndicated material, there is big money in numbers. Imagine, for example, that Ann Landers' column appears in 1,200 newspapers with a daily readership of more than 90,000,000 people. The average 300-word column might sell for $4. Multiply this by seven days a week and you have $28. Not much, right? But the folks at Creators Syndicate, distributor for Landers' column, realize that with 1,200 clients, it will bring in nearly $1.75 million a year.

There is also a celebrity-like power, or status, that comes with being syndicated. You develop a following or, if you prefer, fans. For many artists this reward is as valuable as the money they earn. When readers begin to send letters to the editors praising them for publishing your work, or criticizing them for not having your column in their pages, you know that you have truly reached the zenith of syndication. As Dawn Simpson, editor of the Van Horn Advocate, wrote to Laid-Back West Syndicate, "Our readers love A View from the Porch, (by columnist Linda Mussehl). We couldn't stop running it or we would have unhappy subscribers."

Before spreading your arms and flying off to the adventurous world of Syndi-Syndi Land, you must be certain that it's the right direction for your career. While Peter Pan never wanted to grow-up, there were others, Wendy for example, that preferred to experience a more traditional lifestyle. The same is true about syndication-it is not for everyone.

Several years ago I sat in a restaurant in Heidelberg, Germany, with editor, writer, and former syndicated artist Charles Kaufman. Over the schnitzel and Bavarian wine, I asked, "Why did you give up syndication?"

"It began to take over my life," he replied. "I couldn't handle the stress of daily syndication." Kaufman's words echo the nightmare of many former syndicated writers. For them, the seemingly endless task of creating a column, day, after day, after day, become a labor of horror, rather than one of love.

Working as a syndicated writer, in general, is hard, long, and demanding. It can take over your life, as Kaufman put it, leaving you with little time or energy for family, friends, or outside interests. If you succeed, it becomes a business, complete with multi-level contracts, lawyers, and meetings. If you fail, it could discourage you in such a way that you'd change career fields forever.

Because daily or weekly syndication requires such dedication, your first consideration should be your topic. When Johnny Hart sat down, in 1958 and began to doodle cavemen, little did he realize that he would be sleeping with B.C. characters for the rest of his life. But Hart, like most of today' s successful syndicated artists-writers and illustrators-was in love with his craft, and his subject. He had no choice in what he was doing. Cartoons were what he was all about.

"As far back as I can remember, I drew funny pictures which got me in or out of trouble depending on the circumstances," Hart says. "The comic strip field is an exciting one. It principally is made up of people who have refused to grow up and who offer marvelous fantasies to those who wish they hadn't."

This is the attitude you must have towards your topic, to be successful. It must keep you up at night, thinking, while others are soundly sleeping. While driving, you must find yourself pulling to the shoulder of the road to jot down notes for your next column. There must be a burning passion that, in many respects, matches that of a love affair. Only with such a foundation can syndication become a driving force in your life.

Let's imagine that you've developed a passion for a certain topic or situation. The idea is new-i.e., very little or no direct competition-and it has wide-audience appeal. You feel this subject could be the key that opens the door to syndication success. But, once again, you must ask yourself, is syndication for me? And, herein, lies the problem: If you have never written a syndicated column how will you know whether or not you can cope with the lifestyle required for such a job?

Perhaps the best way is to begin locally. Working with a single newspaper provides excellent training ground for potential syndication. The work that goes into a nationally distributed column is the same required for a daily piece in a local paper. It therefore goes without saying that if you can handle the workload, and maintain your enthusiasm on a small scale, you'll have no problem expanding your efforts to national or international levels.

If you find that daily output is just too much-and there is no embarrassment in this realization, as many of the top syndicated writers cannot keep the pace of 24-hour production-try obtaining weekly or monthly commitments from editors in your area. Several years ago, I was thrilled when a regional newspaper offered me one page to fill each day. This was my big break, so I thought. One year later, in fact, I knew it had been my big break-break in social life, break in friendships, and nearly a break in my marriage. Daily production was just too much for me.

Using the work I'd done for the newspaper, I found a home for my column in a regional magazine. Having to create only one piece every 30 days, I suddenly found myself with more freedom than needed, or desired. I therefore offered the publication a second column, written under a pen name. Eventually, I was producing three columns a month for the editor, and maintaining a normal lifestyle.

Through trial and error I had discovered what was and was not right for me. Your goal, on the road to syndication success, is to find what works for you.

Michael Sedge (pp10013@cybernet.it) is author of more than 2600 published articles and several books. This piece was excerpted, with permission of the author, from his latest work, SUCCESSFUL SYNDICATION, available from Allworth Press (http://www.allworth.com/Catalog/WR157.htm). This article may not be downloaded, photocopied, distributed or excerpted without permission of the author and/or publisher.