Do's and Don'ts for Beginning Writers
A magazine article by Gordon Greb in THE WRITER, January 1974.
You can make money writing as a free lancer for weekly and daily newspapers. I have written and sold more than 110,000 words this past year. It’s an experience has taught me to understand why so many successful writers are ex-newspaper reporters (with the emphasis on “ex”).
They learned early they could earn more elsewhere – more quickly and with less work. That’s the reason Ernest Hemingway became a novelist, Eugene O’Neill a playwright, James Thurber a magazine writer, and David Brinkley a broadcaster. The list is long and perhaps endless. But still, I am a syndicated columnist, struggling to be sure, but succeeding and growing.
This I tell you at the outset because far too many articles in books and magazines have glamorized the successful syndicated columnist who earns upwards of $100,000 a year.
Often these how-to-do-it pieces describe success stories which are true and inspiring. But for every great star of a major syndicate, there are dozens of lesser-knowns who are struggling to build a list of newspapers to publish their offerings, working round the clock, selling at cut-rate prices, all in the hope of making a profit from multiple sales through syndication. These are the writers who try to peddle talent by the process known as self-syndication.
Three years ago I decided to resume freelance writing. I had worked years ago as a newspaper reporter and editor. Later I switched to broadcasting, where I was well paid by the major networks (ABC, NBC and CBS). So it seemed logical that the newspaper field could be made into a lucrative source of income, if I could establish a “network” of printed media to buy my work regularly. I went to the library, began reading up on the syndicate business, and was struck by the ease with which these writers earned their fortunes. Why hadn’t somebody told me about this before?
Mentally I began figuring out potential earning power. If one were to sell a weekly column to one newspaper for $2.00, then ten papers would produce $20.00, a list of 100 papers $200.00, etc. A daily column would multiply that seven times. Surely it was going to be only a matter of time before one could write his columns on a yacht, turn over his earnings to a Wall Street investment broker, and in his spare time even contemplate writing a book or two. Look at Art Buchwald!
With the innocence of a lamb, I romped and played with the idea––and then jumped in. Starting out required planning. I had to find a subject which would interest readers and editors; I would have to produce a continuing supply of material; and I would have to present it so it would attract and hold readers day after day. That’s how my “Birthday Quiz” came into being as a daily and weekly column. It is based on the fact that every day is somebody’s birthday.
Generally one only thinks of Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays, and perhaps a few other U.S. Presidents. But I was thinking of entertainers like Frank Sinatra and Doris Day; champions like Hank Aaron and Jack Nicklaus; and national figures like Ralph Nader and Henry Kissinger. Why not feature celebrity birthdays every day?
With three months of library research, I turned up enough famous birthdays to fill 365 days of the year many times over. Adding new names since then has given me 10,000 birthdays, more than enough to continue the column indefinitely. Furthermore, I built a clipping file on famous people, carefully indexed; and a reference shelf of published source materials obtained from old bookstores.
Was this idea saleable? I knew that New York advertising agencies always ran small, guarded “test” programs before launching full-scale campaigns. So I did the same. I approached three daily newspapers in my region and got their editors to critique one week’s worth of sample columns, answering the question, “Would you buy it?” Not only was each editor helpful, but also each said the idea was good, and one bought it to run right away. Thus I was in the column-writing business before I knew it.
Over the past two years, I’ve learned a lot. Readership of my column has climbed from 40,000 daily to more than one million. Mail from readers has run as high as 200 letters daily. Editors using my feature have endorsed it with such praise as “It’s a winner” and “It’s the cornerstone of our new feature page.” So for anyone interested in newspaper syndication, I can warn you that it’s hard work, but at the same time give you this advice:
1. Write what interests you. Since you will be doing your feature for a long, long time, your subject must excite you if it is to grab and hold readers. See the annual Editor & Publisher Syndicate Directory (published each July) for the variety of features now being used. They range all the way from astrology, automotive, and aviation to teen-age, travel and women’s columns.
2. Sell to your local or regional editors first! Call on them in person with samples of what you can do (prepare a minimum of at least three columns). Accept any reasonable offer or advice they make to get you started. Your goal at the beginning is to get published. Once in print, use “tear sheets” from each newspaper, or reproductions of your published column, to show other editors, either in person or by mail.
3. Make your rates competitive. Major syndicates tell me they must charge a minimum of $4 to $5 for each feature they handle (which amount they split with the writer). Your asking price depends on the circulation of each newspaper. My rates run from $2.00 per column for a small, weekly newspaper to $25 for a large, metropolitan daily. Remember, the profit in syndication comes from being published in many newspapers––so don’t be greedy! Those pennies will grow to dollars once your feature proves itself. Sell low to grow!
4. Try self-syndication first! Once you get one editor to say, “Yes, I’ll buy it,” you’re in business. Make sure he understands that you intend to sell it to other papers. Then pick a name for your company (or use your own, such as Joe Doakes Features). Print up attractive stationery and envelopes. Start writing personal letters to editors, using the current Editor & Publisher Yearbook for names and addresses. Write each managing editor by name, enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope for reply. Keep your letter short. But include in your mailing everything that proves the success of your column, from repros to endorsement letters from editors and/or readers.
5. Conduct yourself in a businesslike way. Keep good records, not only of your correspondence, but also of your income and expenses. Many of your costs are tax deductible (paper, stamps, phone, travel, etc.), but your records must prove they were for business. Your editors will expect monthly billings; mail each statement in an envelope with your columns. Mail a week or month’s supply of columns at a time.
6. Learn to sell by mail! Mass mailings of an impersonal nature will only waste your time and money. Newspaper editors get stacks of printed material every day, much of it free publicity, and most of it unusable “junk.” Your mailing must be personalized to get attention. Select ten newspapers that you think could use your feature because they don’t have anything like it. Concentrate on them. Try to get some sales in this group before approaching another ten. Editors are busy. If you don’t get a reply, write again. Most will read and respond to short, personal inquiries. Ask direct, simple questions, such as: Would you be interested in publishing my feature? Would you consider buying it for ___$2.00; ___$3.00; ___$4.00; or ___$5.00? Would you like ____more samples? ___more time to consider?___other new features from me? Your sales by mail won’t come easily. Newspapers are not organized to buy by mail and won’t handle your mailings with the same tender care as magazines editors will. But if you feature sparkles and shines, and seems to fit their needs, you’ll make another sale. Then another. And another. Try to be seen as “a person” in that huge stack of mail. You do that by treating each editor as a person.
7. Learn to sell by advertising! Try placing classified advertising in trade publications which are seen regularly by newspaper editors. It may cost a few dollars each time you appear in these weeklies, semi-weeklies, or monthlies, but your advertising will pay in the long run. Just be sure you appear in those read by journalists, such as Editor & Publisher (850 Third Ave., New York, N.Y. 10022) or Publishers’ Auxiliary (491 National Press Bldg., Wash., D.C. 20004). Each has a classified section headed “Features Available” or “Newspaper Features.” You don’t need to run you ad continuously––just occasionally. Very the wording. See what gets results. By publishing a small ad, it’s been my luck to get continuous inquiries, eventual sales.
Wording must sparkle. When it does, it pays back your investment. A contract fora syndicated feature gives you continuous income––up to twelve monthly checks each year per newspaper. Also remember these sales may take time. I have had some editors send me orders six months after my first mailing of sample materials to them. If one in ten actually buys, you’re still building your list. Many will be small weeklies looking for a low-cost product. Some may be new papers just starting up. Others may be big city dailies, whose executives are looking for something fresh and original. Classified advertising helps you reach them!
8. Learn to sell in person. If you can travel, this is the ideal way to sell your features as a “self-syndicator.” I’ve sold seventy-five per cent of my list by talking to editors in their offices. This guarantees they will look at what you’re doing. It also means you can follow up by mail or phone calls. When an editor buys, ask him to confirm the details of your agreement by letter. That’s your contract. Establishing a one-to-one relationship with an editor can help to keep you column going in that newspaper for years. So plan to take each of your vacation trips into areas where you can meet new editors. It will pay off!
Marketing your material, therefore, is your major problem in trying to become a syndicated columnist. That is, after you once have proved your idea is publishable locally. Selling to editors nationally or internationally really requires a large organization. That’s why so many writers are willing to sign fifty-fifty contracts with the major syndicates. The majors have salesmen in the field. They continually solicit editors by promotional pieces. And they invest heavily in full-page advertisements in trade publications read by editors.
A small fish really has trouble trying to compete with whales like King Features, United Feature Syndicate, NEA, Publishers-Hall, Universal Press, McKnight, the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, and similar big operations.
Your ultimate goal, of course, is to sell yourself to one of the majors. So don’t hesitate to write to them and send samples, once you discover your columns are liked by editors and selling on its own. But you’ll have to prove you’re a champion before the majors will be interested.
It’s just like playing baseball. I started my windup and practice pitches on the sandlot of my local area. Today I am in the minor leagues nationally. Someday, I hope, a major league scout is going to like what I’m doing. Then Art Buchwald had been watch out. Because I’ll be sailing up the Potomac surrounded by pretty girls in bikinis, eating caviar.
Yes, I may be running a Walter Mitty Feature Syndicate right now. But I am not an ex-newspaperman yet.