Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Moira Allen
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Many writers dream of national syndication, but this is considerably harder to achieve, at least in the beginning. It's usually easiest to start by marketing your column to an ever-expanding list of newspapers until you've built enough of a following to justify a larger distribution.
"Self-syndication" simply means offering a column on a nonexclusive basis to several different publications that are not in direct competition with one another. The best place to start is with local and regional newspapers. Because the distribution of such newspapers is generally limited to a specific town, city, county or region, such a paper will not be concerned with the fact that your column also appears in the next county or even the next city.
Choose a Topic
You'll want to choose a subject that crosses regional boundaries or that can be sold to a variety of publications within a certain geographical area.
Some topics, such as health tips or parenting, are universal (or at least tend to work well within the bounds of your own country; other countries may have different health systems or different ideas about parenting). Other topics, however, tend to be more localized. If you're writing a gardening column, for example, you'll need to tailor it to the region you're familiar with, addressing the issues of climate, soil conditions, plant types, etc. that apply to that region. It would be difficult to sell a column on Northwest gardening tips to a newspaper in Arizona. The subject of your column, therefore, will often be the first consideration in determining where to market it.
The farther afield you choose to market your column, the less "commonplace" it should be. While you may be the only person writing about parenting for your home-town paper, thousands of other writers are covering this topic for other publications throughout the country. To break into a wider market, therefore, you'll need to develop a column that contributes something unique within the field -- something that will enable it to compete with other columns that address similar topics.
The same applies to "review" columns. Reviews of books, movies and music may cross regional boundaries (if you can create a compelling reason for an editor to buy your reviews rather than those of a local or nationally known reviewer). Reviews of restaurants and events, however, tend to be much more localized (though you might be able to pitch such a column to a travel page as a "destination" piece).
In short, don't waste too much time trying to export a column that has only a limited local value. Focus, instead, on ways that you can give your column a broader appeal -- or, consider launching an entirely new column that you can market to multiple publications from the start.
Select Your Markets
You might be amazed to discover how many local newspapers exist in your state or region. You can locate such newspapers through any of the dozens of electronic "newsstands" on the Web. You can get even more detailed information about many papers through the Gales Directory of Media Publications, which can be found in the reference section of your local library. While researching newspapers online is easier, Gales has the advantage of providing important information about circulation, frequency, and editorial staff. If you have decided, for example, that you only want to target newspapers that are distributed daily and have a circulation of over 20,000, you may wish to turn to Gales.
The Annual Editor & Publisher International Year Book, available in most libraries, lists addresses and editors of U.S. and Canadian daily newspapers, as well as alternative newspapers and specialty newspapers covering topics such as parenting, seniors, ethnic groups and real estate. The E&P Year Book also gives you valuable information on how often the newspaper is published (daily, weekly, bimonthly), its circulation figures, whether the paper has a Sunday magazine, and a list of the paper's weekly sections and special editions. Pre-screening newspapers by content and circulation is a wise precaution. You don't want to waste time or money submitting columns to weekly "shoppers," or papers that are clearly too small to have any budget for freelance (or at least non-local freelance) submissions. In addition, if a city or region is served by more than one newspaper, you won't want to submit to both simultaneously.
Some regions are served both by local papers and a larger state or big-city paper. Since you don't want your column to appear in both (or more accurately, your editors won't appreciate it if your column appears in both), you'll need to decide which to target first. This may not be as easy a decision as it sounds. While a big-city paper may pay more (and will reach a larger audience), it is also likely to demand more rights (or even all rights) -- and is also more likely to want to post your material on its Web site, which can further limit your ability to distribute that column elsewhere. Smaller papers, though often offering lower pay, may be less demanding of rights.
Define Your Terms
Your basic syndication submission package should include a simple description of the terms you are offering, including:
Rights are a key issue in self-syndicating a column. Indeed, you should start thinking about "rights" long before you consider self-syndication; you should think about this issue when you sell your very first column to your very first paper.
Markets of all types are placing increasing demands on writers for their rights. More and more publications (including small-town newspapers) want writers to sign over all rights to their columns, or even produce them as "work for hire" (which means that the newspaper owns the copyright to the material from the beginning). You may find that publications that pay as little as $10 to $50 per column still expect you to fork over all rights to that piece.
If you have any intention of selling your work elsewhere, you must ensure that you retain the rights to do so. Typically, you will want to offer a newspaper "one-time nonexclusive rights" to your column, perhaps with the guarantee that the column will not appear in a competing publication. An alternative is to offer "exclusive regional rights," and define exactly what is meant by "region." The region should be limited to the area of the newspaper's general readership; if the paper is read only in Yakima, Washington, for example, don't let it restrict you from selling the same column to another paper in Seattle or Tacoma.
In some cases, a newspaper will want "first" rights. This may work if your first column sale is to your local paper: it gives you the ability to resell that column a week later to all your other markets. Since only one publication can ever be "first," however, think carefully before granting this option.
Don't be tempted to accept more money for "all rights." The goal of self-syndication is not to earn a huge amount from any single publication, but to gain the widest possible distribution for your piece. Payment for columns is always fairly limited; you're not likely to get an offer above $500 from even the largest paper. If you can sell the same piece to 20 newspapers that offer $50 apiece, you've already doubled that figure-and quite possibly doubled your readership as well. (If you have hopes of moving on to national syndication, readership figures will be vital to your success. It is better to be read not just by a large number of people, but by a large number of people distributed across a wide range of markets.)
Finally, you'll want to determine a minimum rate you're willing to accept. Some small newspapers still offer as little as $10 per column-but that amount can add up quickly if you can sell your column to several papers. Debbie Farmer, who syndicated her column "Family Daze," sets her fee by a standard formula: 50¢ per 1000 subscribers.
Prepare Your Package
Self-syndication has one downside: Expense. Many newspapers still prefer to receive column proposals by surface mail than by e-mail. Often, a column proposal needs to be reviewed by more than one editor, and it's easier to have a printed proposal and set of samples in hand than to pass around an e-mail (or to have to print one out). This means that to pitch your idea to multiple markets, you'll have to invest in postage, printing, and envelopes. Your submission package should include:
Many editors prefer a postcard to a SASE, as it enables them to quickly check off the appropriate response, rather than having to prepare a formal letter of acceptance or rejection. Your postcard might read something like this:
Date: __________________ Dear (Your Name): Thank you for submitting your proposal for a column titled "Natural Health Tips for Seniors." ____ We would like to use this column on a weekly basis. We will pay you a fee of $__________ for one-time, nonexclusive rights (with a guarantee that the column will not appear in a directly competing publication). ____ We regret that we cannot use your column. (Signed) _________________________ Editor's Name: __________________________
If you plan to submit your column to a large number of newspapers, you'll probably want to have these materials printed in bulk. Have your cover letter printed on a good-quality paper stock; your clips and column samples can be printed on plain 20-lb. bond. Most print shops will also be able to print your return postcard. To save costs (and weight), print your clips double-sided.
Follow Up and Move On
If you don't hear anything from your top prospects within a month of your mailing, don't hesitate to follow up. Often, material gets lost on a busy editor's desk, and a polite phone call may be all you need to close a sale. (A follow-up letter or card also stands a high risk of being lost in a shuffle of papers.) An e-mail message may also be appropriate.
Don't be surprised if an editor wants to modify the terms of your agreement. Some may wish to suggest a lower price, or a different word count. It's up to you to decide whether to accept such modifications. If you will be distributing your column to a large number of publications, attempting to tailor the material to each one individually may not be worth the effort. On the other hand, if you've received little response to your mailing, this can be a good way to build a solid relationship with one or two newspapers, which can lead to better rates and additional assignments later.
If you still don't hear anything after following up on your initial mailing, don't be surprised. Many newspaper editors simply do not respond to material they don't plan to accept, so you may never receive any word from many of your markets. Don't be insulted; simply move on to the next prospect.
Self-syndication is a wonderful way to build your portfolio. Be sure to ask for copies of the issues in which your column appears, or at least for a tearsheet of your column. Once you have a regular column with a local paper (even if it's not local to you), you can list yourself as a "contributor" or "stringer" to that publication. This may be just the stepping-stone you need to propel your column into the big leagues -- such as national syndication.
[Author's Note: Readers have asked whether, in today's electronic era, I still recommend sending a "paper" package to editors. First, I'll state freely that I have not spoken to a great many writers who have self-syndicated lately, so I don't have recent data on what works and what doesn't. However, unsolicited e-mails are still likely to be deleted, ignored or overlooked at a busy newspaper office - and I've also noticed that many newspapers make it very difficult to locate the e-mail of an actual editor (as opposed to "editorial" in general, for letters and comments, or customer service). Since submitting a solid column proposal includes a variety of "pieces," such as sample columns, it's impossible to submit such a proposal by e-mail without including a number of attachments, which could cause a message to be screened out and automatically deleted as spam. So - until I hear otherwise, yes, I do still recommend a paper package - with, possibly, a preliminary e-mail to an editor to determine the editor's preference!]
Excerpted from The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals.
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.