By Laura Snyder
Nationally Self-Syndicated Humor Columnist
Southern Pines, NC
Recently, I was reading the responses to Marshall Dean’s request for advice in the December newsletter. The responses that were given didn’t seem helpful to any new columnist except to reassure Marshall that the entire industry is in the same boat. It seems I have pretty much been living in a bubble, because I had no idea that it was so difficult to get your work into more than one paper. I didn’t realize it, because, well, I’ve been plugging away at my computer for the last three and a half years and I forgot to look up and see what everyone else was doing. I’ve never been employed by a single newspaper, so I did take two pieces of information from the responses in December’s newsletter: That I’ve been doing it all wrong and that, as Elizabeth Laden pointed out, I shouldn’t be putting two spaces between my sentences. You see, none of the 105 editors I now work with have ever told me that. Nearly every column I have ever written has been printed just the way I sent it. Well, as far as I know they have. I admit that I lose track sometimes. I didn’t even know for a long time that editors have the option of messing with it unless I spelled something wrong.
I have also come to realize that I am one of those columnists that longtime columnists probably don’t like very much. You see, I had been writing for my own pleasure for twenty years, but when I started submitting my humor column, Laura On Life, three and a half years ago, I had absolutely no clue how newspapers work. My degree in college was for accounting and my only experience was raising five children (three of which are still only half-done). I never took a journalism course and the one stodgy, old creative writing teacher I had nearly flunked me. So I didn’t know any of the rules – written or unwritten. I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to give away your work, but at the time I didn’t know if what I wrote was worth anything to other people. My thought was that the only way to find out if it was worth anything to an editor was to take from the equation what I thought was the only other argument they might have for not running my column: Compensation.
I have since learned that there are many other reasons why an editor might not want to run it. It was good to be so stupid, however, because while learning that smidgeon of knowledge and a few more, I had amassed a clientele of 105 newspapers nationwide that now print my column. The majority of them run my column weekly, but I have some irregulars, some monthlies, a couple of quarterly magazines and some that only puts me in their online edition.
I went to my first NSNC conference in Philadelphia in 2007. At the time, I had only about 30 newspapers, but I had an opportunity to talk with Suzette Martinez Standring while I was there and she informed me that what I did was called “self-syndicated.” Well, that sounded more professional than free-lance, so I put that on my website, www.LauraOnLife.com .
As my mother said, I was flying by the seat of my pants, whatever that means. I take that to mean that I was dumb as a stump and running on nothing but ideas. My plan was to get a newspaper to print my column and then, after I had built up a local readership with them, I could ask for compensation later. Well, it didn’t always work out that way and, in fact, I did lose one paper whose editor was appalled that I would be so greedy as to want to get paid after I’d given them free work for so long. However, I am now getting paid by many of my papers and I’ve built up a pretty decent monthly income. Since they all know they are paying diddly-squat for it, only one of those papers had the nerve to ask for exclusive rights to my work. But even that one capitulated after I told them I would not give up any rights. So you might say that my standing is pretty slippery being that I have no contracts, but I’ll take my chances. There is a great deal of safety in big numbers.
At one time, I thought about trying to get a syndication house to take me on, but I’m not sure that’s the way to go. It seems to be the goal of many columnists, but from what I can see, the benefits to getting syndicated have not outweighed the major drawback, for me, of giving up my rights to my own work. I’ve got “pet” newspapers that I would still want to receive my column but who could not afford syndicated material other than maybe a crossword puzzle. After working with enough newspaper editors, you kind of get a feel for which papers can’t afford it and which ones simply say they can’t afford it. I still might be wrong sometimes, but I don’t stay up at night worrying about it.
It would also bug me to have to ask permission of a syndication house to print any of my own work in a book or submit it in a contest. I have two books out that I self-published: Laura On Life: Wahoo For Dinner! and Laura On Life: Corn Dogs and Dust Bunnies. I don’t know anything about getting a book published either, so I simply did it myself, just like I did with my column. They are available on my website www.LauraOnLife.com and on nearly every online bookstore site. Two more books are in the works.
I think the bottom line is that if you’re in it for the money, you may never make the big bucks, but if you are clueless and the money is not that important, you’ve got a much better shot at it. It’s one of those pesky Catch 22′s of life.
The secret is to keep throwing the best mud you’ve got against the wall and don’t wait around to see what sticks.