When I first started writing a local humor column about a year ago, I jumped to the conclusion that the next logical—and easy—step was to go national. Within my first month of writing, I’d gained the attention of a national talk show host, built a following online and received fan mail from all over the country—all from my little bi-monthly column in one of the country’s last surviving afternoon newspapers.
I discussed with my editor the option of national syndication through the newspaper but decided against it when I discovered that this would put any additional income in the newspaper’s wallet, not mine. I also researched self-syndication and sought advice from a local columnist who had found success through this venue. But I was intimidated by the amount of work and record-keeping required to find newspapers across the country willing to sign on to a local column.
Instead, I decided the best route was to go right to the top and query the major national syndicates. With only a handful of columns under my belt, I wrote query letters where I explained why I was the next best thing since Erma Bombeck, slipped a couple of my columns into envelopes and then waited for the acceptance letters to flood my mailbox. Little did I know that it was more likely that I’d become injured while taking a shower or board a plane with a drunken pilot than snag a coveted nationally syndicated column.
Letters did arrive within a few weeks, but it was clear they weren’t acceptances when the first words were “Dear Writer.” That’s equivalent to a “Dear John” in this business. I was crushed. My first foray into national syndication was a failure.
With a little more research, I realized I had made some of the most common mistakes found in queries sent to the major syndicators such as Universal Press Syndicate or United Media. I didn’t have enough of a track record nor had I done my homework.
Suma CM, managing editor of United Media, says, “Even if we like the stuff, we still want to make sure we can count on you to turn in material for a weekly syndication schedule.”
I did manage to avoid some other common mistakes that CM shared with me. “Writers will often tell us that their friends love what they write and say they should be syndicated. Our customers are newspaper editors. We have to know why newspaper editors will want to buy a specific column or comic strip.” She adds that submissions are often overwritten, sounding more like high school essays than newspaper columns.
Another pitfall is submitting material too similar to what’s already being offered by the syndicate. Writers need to prove that their material fills an unmet need within the portfolio of writers being represented by the syndicate. “You’re selling us something that we have to be able to sell to others,” CM says. “Look at the things we currently offer. Speak to a need that isn’t being addressed.”
One of the best resources is your local newspaper editor. “Talk to the people you’re asking us to sell it to. See what it is you’re doing that will be compelling to them,” CM says.
And while it’s certainly a benefit, it isn’t necessary to have a local column to catch the eye of a national syndicate. CM says that her staff looks increasingly to new media. “A lot of the new fresh voices are really making a statement online, so we look there, as well,” she says. “We also look at nontraditional venues like alternative weeklies.”
This trend is directly related to who is buying the material. “We’re a content distribution company,” CM says. “Increasingly our customers include online newspaper editors.”
With the right topic, the necessary research and a well-crafted query letter, an aspiring columnist can go a long way in setting her ideas apart from the pack.
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