By Robert Haught
Getting yourself syndicated is an achievable goal, but it doesn’t come easy. It takes a lot of hard work. That’s the primary advice offered by Jim Miller, a model of success in self-syndication. Miller, a member of the faculty for the 2007 Will Rogers Writers’ Workshop, syndicates his “Savvy Senior” column to 400 newspapers and magazines nationwide, reaching a potential audience of 12 million. He also has a weekly radio program, makes frequent appearances on NBC and other TV networks, and is author of two books. He recently began a free information service for older Americans, an online news feed called Senior Newswire.
To follow Miller’s roadmap to success, a writer would take these steps:
Start with a good idea – After his parents died within weeks of one another, Miller took a temporary job at a retirement center in Norman, Okla. “I thought being around people my parents’ age would make me feel better,” he said. He started a monthly Q&A column to promote the center, which ran in the local daily newspaper. “Over time, interest grew in the column, and I saw that there was a need for a different type of senior news.” Since an older person’s life can be depressing and complicated, he made his writing easy to understand and not too serious. “I covered many of the same topics but took a lighter approach.”
Research the market – Miller contacted some other nearby newspapers about carrying the column, and four responded affirmatively. After six months he left the retirement center and began thinking seriously about syndicating the column himself. “The senior demographic is the one that most often reads the newspaper, and I discovered that there were no nationally syndicated newspaper columns that offered seniors practical information in an understandable way,” he said. In addition to this research, Miller talked to editors and writers who had successfully syndicated their own work.
Develop a business plan – By January 2002, he had named the column – “‘Savvy Senior’ just popped into my head” – and decided to price it low and aim for high volume. “‘Savvy Senior’ is a service column,” he explained. He answers only one question in each 600-word column, but he responds directly, or by referrals to resources, to other inquiries from readers. “When I first decided to market it, I wanted to make it affordable by offering it for $3 a week to newspapers with a circulation of up to 25,000 and $5 a week to papers with a circulation of more than 25,000. Many newspapers, especially small-town, community newspapers, can’t afford to pay $10 or $25 a week for a column, which is what most syndication services would charge.” That’s why he declined an offer from one of the largest syndication companies to distribute his column.
Put the plan into action – Miller put together a promotional packet that included four sample columns, which he sent to 750 daily and weekly newspapers in a test market consisting of Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas. Within two months, the column was running in 75 papers. Miller described to Dave Astor of Editor & Publisher what he meant by the hard work necessary to become self-syndicated. He said he mailed packets to 6,500 potential clients. “Then I got on the phone and called and called and called” – not stopping until he got a yes or no. Using an unlimited long-distance telephone plan, he made 3,500 calls a month. “If I hadn’t done the follow-up calls, I would be in maybe 30 papers,” he told Astor.
Build on your success – Miller didn’t slack up. An article in the Sooner Magazine at the University of Oklahoma told how he expanded his efforts. “With 400 newspapers carrying the column by the end of 2002, Miller decided to cast an even wider net to reach more seniors,” wrote Debra Levy Martinelli. “He put together a national flier about the column and sent it to members of the national media. The New York Times was the first to bite, running a story in February 2003, which was followed by a Time magazine article in April. Then came calls from publishing companies and literary agents about the possibility of a book.” He subsequently made a deal with Hyperion Books for “The Savvy Senior: The Ultimate Guide to Health, Family & Finances for Senior Citizens” after signing on with literary agent Bill Adler. (He followed that 2004 book with “The Savvy Senior: Computers Made Simple & Easy”, published by Golden Communications.) Then the “Today” show called to see if Miller was interested in contributing to its “Forever Young” segment. The magazine article continues: “He came up with several proposals, one of which was a mini-series on gadgets for seniors. The first installment…was broadcast in July 2003. Two months later, Miller was spotlighted again in ‘Forever Young.’” This time he appeared over three consecutive days, describing such gadgets for vision-impaired seniors as a talking clock that tells the time, temperature and weather conditions. He continues to make regular appearances on the “Today” show. He also does a weekly radio broadcast aired in 1,000 senior centers around the country. Miller offers Senior Newswire, a free weekly e-mail newsletter targeted for baby boomers and seniors, which provides readers direct Web links to more than 50 sources of news and information.
Don’t give up your day job – Despite his numerous clients, Miller told Dave Astor that after expenses and taxes the “Savvy Senior” column produces only a modest income. “I’m not in this to make a lot of money,” he said. “I want to reach and help a lot of people.” Fortunately, he doesn’t have to earn a living as a columnist, because of his free-lance announcing career. His voice has become familiar to Sooner sports fans as the public address announcer for University of Oklahoma home football and men’s basketball games, as well as for national and international gymnastics competitions and a prestigious annual tennis tournament.