Finding a Syndication Agency

An excerpt from Chapter Two of Sussessful Syndication, A Guide For Writers And Cartoonists

Reprinted with permission of the author and Allworth Press, © 2000 Michael H. Sedge.
May not be downloaded, photocopied, distributed or excerpted without permission of the author and/or publisher

By Michael Sedge


Finding the right syndicate "partner" for your work can often be a lengthy process. I highlight the word "partner" because that is exactly what syndicates are. You provide the concept, the talent, and the product, while syndication agencies bring in the marketing skills and staff needed in getting your work in front of the editors and into newspapers, magazines, and electronic media throughout the country and the world. If successful, it can be a happy and profitable venture for all. On the other hand, if you team up with the wrong outfit, it could be an utter failure, leaving you bitter towards the entire industry.

It is therefore very important that you investigate syndicates before arbitrarily submitting any work. As a young writer, I failed to do so prior to sending several samples of my work to a company in California. I was thrilled when they accepted me as a client. As weeks turned to months, however, no contract arrived. My inquiries also went unanswered. In the meantime, I received calls from friends and relatives saying they’d read my features in various newspapers across the country.

To make a long story short, I received neither contract nor payment from the syndicate. Upon investigating further—something I should have done previously—I learned that several artists had fallen into the same "trap" as I, and were taking legal action against the company. The syndicate ultimately filed for bankruptcy, leaving us with no money, but a well learned lesson.

Where to Begin

Nearly every successful syndicated artist I’ve spoken with agrees that you should find your niche before seeking a syndicate. But what exactly does this mean—find your niche?

Let’s imagine that you have a passion for flowers. Your friends continuously admire your "green thumb" ability. Whenever time allows, you are cultivating orchids, bluebells, roses, and the likes. In this case, an advice column on flower growing could be your niche.

Or let’s say you are a cartoonist working full-time in a fast-food restaurant. You know the burger business as well as what goes on behind the scenes. Your niche could easily be a comic strip—perhaps titled Bay Burgers—in which you make fun of America’s fast-food culture or create comical situations with the personalities working in this environment.

An excellent example of "finding one’s niche" is the syndicated radio program, Car Talk, and newspaper column spin-off, by Tom and Ray Magliozzi. Commonly called "Click and Clack, The Tappet Brothers," and, thus, their column titled Click and Clack Talk Cars, Tom and Ray were mere mechanics in Boston in the mid-70s. By dumb luck, and a keen ability to pinpoint and fix the problems of customer’s automobiles, they stumbled into a local radio program that was ultimately picked up by National Public Broadcasting. Today it is heard on more than 450 NPB stations nationwide. Over a decade ago, the Magliozzis decided that if their radio show filled a need, or niche, then so should a syndicated column based on the same format.

"In 1989 we launched a twice-weekly newspaper column called Click and Clack Talk Cars," explain the brothers in their biography. "Today, we’re single handedly lowering the standards of more than 300 newspapers around the country. The column is a lot like the radio show, meaning we take questions and espouse all kinds of solutions—a small fraction of which may actually be correct."

From grease-monkeys to syndication gurus, the Magliozzi brothers found a niche based on their knack for humor and mechanical skills, and turned it into money-making syndication venture.

If each newspaper pays only $5 for the Magliozzi’s column, that’s $40 per month. Multiply that by 300 newspapers, and their efforts are bringing in $12,000 a month, or $144,000 a year. Even if split 50/50 with the syndicate—in this case King Features—the authors take in $72,000 a year from this venture.

While it would be nice to follow in the footsteps of "Click and Clack"—no matter how greasing the path may be—your chances of landing a radio talk show that is picked up by National Public Broadcasting, and turning it into a syndicated column or cartoon, is probably somewhere just below winning next week’s $75 million lottery. So how do you go about finding your own syndication niche? Something that both syndicates and a wide audience will take interest in? The editors at Tribune Media Services suggest the following:

Read a variety of newspapers, large and small, from all regions of the country. While doing so, ask yourself: what kind of syndicated comics or news copy are they using? Then ask what kind of unique information you can provide. Do you have an expertise? Do you have a hobby that would interest a broad audience? After you’ve identified an opportunity, review Editor & Publisher magazine (Appendix D). This weekly trade journal has a regular report on syndication and creators. If you subscribe, you’ll also get the annual E&P Syndicate Directory published each summer. While you review these publications, note if your idea is already in syndication. If so, you may want to reconsider or re-focus the concept, making it new or different in some way. Cartoonists would be wise to check out Cartoonist Profiles, published quarterly (Appendix D). This magazine offers features on creators of comic strips and box cartoons, how-to guides and trend stories about syndicates, cartooning and education. You can also review, one of the finest Internet sites available on the state of syndicated cartooning.

In addition to knowing what columns and comics are currently being produce and which syndicates are distributing them, you should research what traditional cartoonists or columnists are on the downswing—i.e., losing relevance and clients. This might indicate an opening at a syndicate, as they often line-up new talent as the work of old clients tends to fade. Look, also, for a trend, or change in society that creates a new demand for your information. You might read, for example, that pet owners spend over $14 billion a year. This would indicate a potential market for a column on exotic animals or, perhaps, a cartoon strip based on veterinarian services.

Timing is often a key factor in placing your work with a syndicate. In the mid-70s, many editors turned down ideas dealing with computer technology. Why? Because the home-computing boom had not yet begun. The 1980s, however, saw a change in media habits, creating a computer craze that not only continues to this day, but has also expanded to include the overwhelming, global interest in Internet. Because of this trend, syndicates, over the past decade, devoured columns dealing with computers, technology, and Internet. The market, as I write this, is now saturated and these topics are on the "Most Unwanted" lists of many agencies.

So, in addition to finding a topic that is right for you, you must also keep the audience and trends in mind.

Excerpted from SUCCESSFUL SYNDICATION, a book by Michael Sedge, published by Allworth Press

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