Tuesday, November 19, 2013

How to Get Your Own Syndicated Comic Strip

One common trait among syndicated cartoonists would certainly be "grit"...not just ordinary grit, but True Grit. You have to have that rare kind of grit to stick it out until you break into that small, select group that syndicates refer to as "creators". We're the ones who create the content for syndicated features: comic panels, comic strips, political cartoons and newspaper columns.

I knew going in that I would stand a better chance of becoming an NFL quarterback (and I'm not very athletic) than to join the ranks of comic strip cartoonists. But that was my childhood dream. And I knew that if I didn't try...and keep trying...I could be assured that my dream would never come true. My dream was also the dream of thousands of other young hopefuls around the world. I knew the odds were long when a syndicate employee told me once that they receive up to 7000 submissions for comic strips per year...and they sign only one or two. And of those one or two, neither one may survive. Many newly syndicated features are promptly cancelled when the sales team discovers that they can't sell the new strip.

So how do you break into the syndicated comic strip business? Unfortunately, there's no easy answer to that question, but I think the best answer is that you must have the iron will to stick with it and never give up. That's how I did it. It took me decades of submitting features, only to have them rejected. One editor told me that my proposed feature, called Obrien's Beat, was the worst proposal that he'd ever seen. Yet every now and then I would get an encouraging personal note from an editor. One prominent editor at one of the big syndicates told me that my proposed panel was "the strongest panel that I've seen in six months, but I don't think we can sell it."

That encouraging personal comment gave me the courage to dust myself off and start again. Starting again means that the syndicates want to see three weeks of solid panels or strips. They want to see if you can sustain your feature over the long haul.

For my next attempt, I decided to go around the syndicates and self-syndicate a feature. Since I've studied health and nutrition for many years, I decided to make it a health-related panel. So I created a batch of sample panels, and began faxing them to newspaper editors. My goal was to contact an editor each day, and play the numbers. It worked. I slowly began to gather a small group of newspapers who carried my weekly feature, some of which are with me to this day.

I found my target market to be small-town weeklies. I started in my own state of Washington, contacting every editor of every newspaper in my state by phone, then following up with a fax sample of my feature.

After building up a small following of newspapers over a period of a year and a half, I felt like I would have nothing to lose if I sent some fax samples of my fledgling panel off to the syndicates. One of those syndicates was United Features. The editor was Amy Lago. That same day I got a fax from Amy. Her words are forever burned onto the back wall of my memory. She said: "Your timing is dang good. Could you send 12 more samples?"

I fired off 12 more samples to her, and three weeks later I was signing a contract with United Features Syndicate. It was one of the greatest days of my career, the dream of a lifetime. I couldn't believe it had happened to me.

The above image is the panel that I faxed to Amy Lago that day in 2002. My self-syndicated weekly feature was called To Your Health. My daily feature with United Features Syndicate, Health Capsules, was originally drawn by Jud Hurd, and written by Dr. Michael Petti. Because I had a background in health and nutrition, the syndicate allowed me to write and draw the feature.

Since the day that I signed on with United Features, now Universal UClick Syndicate, I have written and drawn 3582 daily Health Capsules. I get mail from around the world, from readers across India, who read my feature in The Times of India, to Lima Peru, to the tiny far-flung island of Mauritius, in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

What amazes me most, after writing and drawing Health Capsules for so many years, is that I never tire of the routine. I always look forward to creating my batch of six panels every week. I try to write it on Friday, and draw it on Saturday. I'm required to stay at least six weeks ahead. At this writing I am just moving into 2014. My next batch will appear during the week of  New Years, 2014.

In conclusion, my advice is: In order to get syndicated, you'll have to have a good idea that a syndicate can sell, and above all, you'll have to have the grit to cling to your dream, to take the repeated rejections and refuse to give up, until that day when the odds finally fall in your favor. And when you get that big break, like I did, it will be worth all the blood and sweat. It happened to me...it can happen to you.

Health Capsules is syndicated by Universal UClick syndicate in newspapers around the world as well as in GoComics: 

Health Capsules can also be found on Facebook: www.facebook.com/HealthCapsules

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