ou are on the threshold of fame and fortune! You have decided to self-syndicate your column on the topic of (fill in blank) and will soon be read in households across the nation. All that stands between you and your dream is this business of self-syndication, or in other words: a whole lot of hard work. Self-syndication certainly is that, but it can be a satisfying and successful way to take your writing career to the next level.
Before getting to the nitty gritty, I have a confession. I didn’t know anything about self-syndication before diving into it a couple of years ago. I did my best to figure things out and find the best way to accomplish my goals. Sometimes my methods worked; other times, not so much. But I learned just as much from my mistakes as my successes. My methods are by no means the only way to do things. They are one way—my way, but maybe they’ll work for you, too.
Confession number two: I am still learning, because my journey is far from over.
Don’t press the “send” button just yet!
An obvious and important step in getting your column printed in newspapers is finding and contacting those papers. But before you so much as e-mail one editor, you want to make sure you’ve got a few prerequisites in place. (I’m going to focus on newspapers in this article because that is the most common and obvious syndication choice for most columns.)
Before you self-syndicate, you’ll need:
- A really good, established column (Write, write, and then write some more.)
- Insight regarding why you want to syndicate your column: is it for fame? Fortune? To build your platform? Establish yourself as an expert on a certain topic? To help build a secondary business? Always liked the name Erma?
- To know how much you hope to be paid and goals for accomplishing this: there will be papers that are unable to pay you. Decide in advance how you will respond to them.
- A list of the benefits you will provide to newspapers.
Finding and compiling information
I surveyed the papers that use my column, “Slices of Life,” regarding what they are looking for and preferences regarding things like communication. All of the newspapers I surveyed said that their preferred method of communication is through e-mail. I use e-mail for initial and ongoing contact.
There are a number of ways you can find newspaper e-mail addresses. I found online services that provide e-mail and snail mail addresses for a fee. Mondo Times is one. Although they charge a fee for e-mail addresses, just about everything else—including web addresses, circulation, and names of editors—is free. I didn’t want to pay a fee, so I took the do-it-yourself thing to a whole new level and found the addresses myself. The best way to do this varies state by state. (I never said this was going to be easy.)
I tackled a state at a time. I began with my home state of Minnesota and worked outward from there. I started with a Google search for a state’s newspaper association—in this case, Minnesota Newspaper Association.
Each state seems to have a similar site. If you find one that doesn’t, you can go to a site like Mondo and work outward from there. Sleuth. Detective. Yeah, that’s you. Within this newspaper association site, you can often access a listing of newspapers, including contact names, circulation, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses.
We now enter the cut and paste portion of the show. You will become one with your e-mail address book during this part of the syndication process. When I am contacting newspapers, I cut and paste names, e-mail addresses and circulation information into my address book. This avoids typos; keyboard accuracy is not my forte. Type in the name of the state in the memo section as well. As your distribution grows and you need to find a particular address or newspaper, having the state information included helps you know where a particular address is located. Include the circulation information in the memo section of your addresses so that later, when the newspaper contacts you about running your column, you will know how happy your happy dance should be.
Sometimes, e-mail addresses listed at the newspaper association site are generic and not addressed to a specific person. For instance, an address of: firstname.lastname@example.org might be listed, but the personal address of the editor, Joe Smith, is: Jsmith@newspaper.com. I think using the personal address is preferred; so if you can find it, use it.
Often, that means clicking on a newspaper’s website and doing a little detective work. I’ve gotten good at this. When you are on a homepage, look for buttons labeled with words like “Contact Us,” “Our Staff,” “Directory” or “E-mail Us.” They are often around the periphery of the page. Newspapers vary greatly in regard to how easy they make it for you to e-mail their editors or publishers. If I’ve spent more than a few minutes on one newspaper, I relent and use the generic address.
I try to “process” a newspaper—that is, enter its information into my address book—within a minute or two. If all the information is at the newspaper association site and I don’t have to click on a newspaper’s website, I can do this in a couple minutes. In the best circumstances, I can enter sixty plus newspapers into my address book in an hour. For a state with two hundred newspapers, we’re looking at a time commitment of about three hours.
If you are like me, this phase provides you with a dilemma. Whose name do you file in your address book—publisher or editor? I haven’t figured this one out yet. If the paper is really huge, I figure the publisher isn’t hands-on for daily decisions and use the address for the editor. Sometimes I base it on name. If a name sounds good to me, I choose that address. (This is a highly scientific and fact-based method. It is only recommended for people who got a C+ or better in chemistry in high school. Use at your own risk.)
“Your address book is going to be brimming with names and newspapers—thousands of them. Managing that many addresses requires a system.”
Organizing your address book
You might start out being published in just one paper; but if you want to see that grow, your address book is going to be brimming with names and newspapers—thousands of them. Managing that many addresses requires a system. I organize my addresses by state.
When compiling my initial list, all addresses for one state go into one folder (for instance “Minnesota”). After contact begins, that one folder grows into three: the original folder; one for newspapers that can use the column, and one for the papers that have no known e-mail address, bad e-mail addresses, or that request to be taken off my mailing list. Because my address book organizes folders alphabetically, and because I want to keep my groups (the yeses, nos and original folders) together, I label the “yes” folders starting with “AA”—for instance “AA Slices MN.”
This puts them together at the top of my address book. The “no” folders are labeled starting with “ZZ”—“ZZ no email no thanks MN.” The original folders stay the same, without any double letter prefix such as “Minnesota,” placing them in the middle of my address list. Having each group together makes it much easier to send the column out. I don’t have to search for the “yes” group; they are all huddled together at the top of my address book.
Keeping the addresses in folders serves another purpose. It keeps your distribution list confidential. Newspapers receiving my column know that I am sending to Minnesota and Iowa, but they don’t know which newspapers I am sending to within those states. Keeping everyone’s e-mail addresses confidential is respectful and professional.
You’ve got your columns and your addresses. You are on the brink. Time to compile information to send your initial e-mail to newspapers. I include an e-mail letter and three sample columns. I cut and paste everything into the body of the e-mail. Attachments are often hostile entities in the e-mail world. Never send them unless requested to do so.
The letter. Ah, the letter. It is tempting to include a three-page bio about your successes in the writing world. Don’t. Keep your note short, sweet, and to the point. You may have the most impressive resume on the planet, but the only thing that an editor is really interested in (you hope) is your column.
Still, you need an intro letter, and it needs certain elements. Here’s what I do:
- First paragraph—who I am, what I do, and a brief bio/history of the column. Two sentences.
- Second paragraph—what I propose to do for them. Here is where you let editors know that your column is entertaining, appealing to the masses, and that your writing is tight and spot on.
- Third paragraph—money stuff. I keep this loose. I don’t want to lose an editor before he or she has had the chance to even read one of my columns.
- Fourth paragraph—offer a test drive. “I’ve cut and pasted three sample columns below. Please use them in your paper, free of charge, and see what your readers think.” I ask that they print a short bio at the end of the column and that they contact me if they are going to print them, just so I can keep track of my numbers. I offer to send a photo to use as a header and to accompany the headline for the column.
- Finally, I thank them for their time and consideration and sign off.
My letters vary a bit from state to state—I get bored with the same old, same old—but they average around three hundred words. I keep them short and sweet because I value the time of newspaper editors. Sending a brief letter shows this.
E-mailing – finally!
I want to set myself up as responsible and competent. I want newspapers to rely on me. This means e-mailing at a consistent time each week. My time is Monday mornings. It seemed like an obvious choice. I let papers know that if they haven’t heard from me by noon on Monday, they can feel free to e-mail me because something has gone wrong in cyberspace. (And this does happen.)
This consistent schedule begins with my initial e-mail. It always goes out on Monday morning. If I have a new group of addresses ready to go on Thursday, I still wait until the next Monday morning to begin contact.
When completing my first e-mail communication to papers, I send each note individually (no group e-mails), so I can include the name of the editor or publisher in the salutation. Is this overkill? Maybe. But maybe not, and you only get one chance to make a first impression. This extra step adds time into the initial mailing process, but I’m doing everything I can to do things right and get noticed by the good folks at the newspaper.
In this e-mail, I include my letter with three sample columns, cut and pasted below the letter. At the end of each sample column, I include my short (two-sentence) bio.
After cutting and pasting everything together, I read through it again to make sure I haven’t missed any typos and that my formatting hasn’t been messed up during the cutting and pasting process. If everything looks perfect, I copy it and then…press send. I copy the entire e-mail one last time at the end, because then I can use that final copy to paste into my next two hundred plus e-mails. I can complete a first mailing of approximately two hundred fifty addresses in about two hours. Your fingers might be even quicker than mine.
After you hit the send button, the replies will start rolling in. These first e-mails will not be offers to publish your column; so don’t be disappointed. Those offers take a little time—at least long enough for the editor to read your sample columns! The first e-mail responses will likely be error messages due to bad e-mail addresses or typos. In one mailing of two hundred sixty addresses, I received sixteen error e-mails (six percent). Of these failures, I was able to research (by going to each newspaper’s website) and to find the correct address for twelve of the sixteen.
Within the next twenty-four hours, I heard from fourteen more papers (five percent). Half of those were “nos.” One paper didn’t have money in its budget. Six didn’t have room or only used local columnists. One was an out-of-office reply.
Now for the good news: two newspapers requested that I send my samples as an attachment. And for the really good news: three papers replied with a “yes!”
What to do with the nos
When a newspaper asks to be taken off your distribution list, do so graciously and immediately. Move the address into your “no thanks” folder for that state, but don’t delete it from your address book. You may want to send them a column once or twice a year, just to let them know what they are missing. When you do, you will want to personalize the e-mail, so they know they aren’t erroneously back on your list.
When I get a “no,” I may respond back—usually when an editor makes positive comments about my writing. I give a short, kind reply wishing the editor well. If I get a terse “REMOVE” request, I don’t reply. I figure the editor is very busy and probably won’t appreciate another interruption from me. Replying (or not) depends on each individual circumstance and is your call. I always try to do what would seem the most polite and considerate from the editor’s perspective.
“When you get a yes, respond faster than immediately. Show the newspaper that you are on the ball and at your computer, able to communicate at a moment’s notice.”
What to do with the yeses
Newspapers that indicate they will print your column get the kid glove treatment. They go into their own address book file, so you can personalize the e-mail each week to acknowledge your appreciation of working together with them. Double check the name of the person returning your e-mails. You may have the publisher, Joe Smith, in your files, but the general manager, Karen Johnson, is your e-mail contact. Address your e-mails to Karen. It is the respectful thing to do if you are corresponding with her.
When you get a yes, respond faster than immediately. Show the newspaper that you are on the ball and at your computer, able to communicate at a moment’s notice. Now is the time to firm up payment. Does the editor prefer that you send an invoice each month, or will he or she keep track of when columns run and send payment accordingly? Provide your payment address.
Some papers (the minority) prefer to receive columns as an attachment (vs. being cut and pasted into the body of the e-mail). Provide the option to your editor and send future columns accordingly.
E-mail a headshot that the editor can use with the column.
Have your answer ready for those papers that are not willing or able to pay you. Your answer is a personal one based on your unique situation. I had to decide for myself: do I let a paper publish my column without payment because increased readership will help my book be a best-seller someday? Or do I hold out for the cash because my daughter is starting college next year, and that tuition isn’t going to pay for itself? It’s a consideration and a personal one. But it’s one you should plan for ahead of time.
What to do with everyone else
All other papers go into a “potentials” file. Keep sending. Keep sending. Keep sending. Like a patient fisherperson, you are waiting for them to take the bait. Every Monday morning, like clockwork, hit that send button. It can take weeks or months for an editor to finally find the time to read your words. Or, it can take weeks or months for a newspaper to have the actual space for an extra column. When that space opens up, your consistent quality and delivery will put you at the top of an editor’s list. That’s right where you want to be.
So far, I’ve found that within six months of sending my column queries, I will hear back with favorable responses from about ten percent of newspapers. (Patience is a virtue, or so I keep telling myself.) If I send to two hundred fifty, I can expect to be published in twenty-five within six months. Your numbers may be very different, depending on your subject matter and quality of writing, to name just a couple of variables. My main point in giving you these stats is to let you know that you probably will not hear back from the majority of your sources. This is no reflection on the quality of your work. It’s the nature of the business.
Self-syndication is one of the best things I’ve done for myself in the last decade. It’s improved my writing. It’s proved my diligence, dedication, and commitment. And it’s increased my readership, stamina, and confidence. At first, I was afraid to open reply e-mails from newspapers because I feared rejection. Now I know that acceptance and praise outnumber the terse, unfriendly replies. For the most part, everyone wishes me well and appreciates my writing. Currently, over fifty papers in five states publish my column, and that number is growing weekly. I am on my way to paying for that college tuition, and who knows…maybe there’s a book deal in my future.
Jill Pertler is an award-winning freelance writer, photographer, and syndicated columnist, trying to stay warm in northern Minnesota. Her weekly column, “Slices of Life,” is printed in over fifty newspapers throughout the Midwest. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Chicken Soup for the Soul, Talking Stick Literary Anthology, Women’s World, Living North Magazine, and Funds for Writers. She recently collaborated with her business partner to complete the photography for a children’s board book, Niimiwin, written to teach very young children about Native American culture. When not writing, she is an award-winning mother, wife, and self-proclaimed queen—and she’s got the tiara to prove it!
For more syndication tips, check out Jill's book, The Do-It-Yourselfer's Guide to Self-Syndication: Using Secrets, Shortcuts, Strategies & Psychology to Get Your Column in Print.