By: Rob Tornoe
It’s a widely held assumption that if you’re a columnist or a cartoonist, and you want to make a living selling your work, you’d better team up with a syndicate. Despite tremendous hurdles, there are several creators who have bucked the trend and managed to create a career self-syndicating their work to newspapers across the country and, in some cases, the world.
One can’t speak of self-syndication without mentioning “Tundra,” the little comic strip that could, created by Alaskan cartoonist Chad Carpenter. He took his desire to draw cartoons, which he viewed at the time as a way to avoid real work, and grew it into a worldwide phenomenon. “Tundra” just reached a benchmark set by only the most successful comic strips: It now appears in more than 500 newspapers. On any given day, readers see “Tundra” in large newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and The Denver Post, small papers such as The (Longview, Wash.) Daily News, and even worldwide in publications such as German paper Giessener Allgemeine.
“I never imagined ‘Tundra’ would have spread this far,” Carpenter recounted from his Alaska studio. “I remember thinking when I break the 100 barrier I’d be satisfied — then 200, 250, 300, and so on. I’ve come to realize newspapers are like potato chips; it’s hard to stop once you start.”
Carpenter credits the strip’s success to its focus on hunting, fishing, and the great outdoors. “It’s got something for everyone’s inner-child, inner-woodsman, inner-redneck, inner-greenie, you name it. No political statements, just plain silliness.”
Carpenter was in seven newspapers, mostly in Alaska, back in 2003 when he partnered with Bill Kellogg, a longtime friend who worked for an Alaskan computer company that wanted to make “Tundra” mousepads. A $10,000 investment later, Kellogg was traveling around the continental U.S. pitching the strip to newspapers and finding a good amount of success. By 2006, “Tundra” was featured in more than 75 newspapers, well on its way to becoming one of self-syndication’s greatest success stories.
“As a sales guy, you always use what you can to make the sale,” Kellogg said. “But when comic polls come up and ‘Tundra’ rises to the top of nearly every one, it means a whole lot more to editors than anything I can sell.”
Another successful cartoonist who self-syndicates his work avoids the funny pages entirely and aims for the opinion page. Joe Heller, staff cartoonist for the Green Bay Press- Gazette, has been self-syndicating his unique brand of political humor for 30 years from his comfy home in Wisconsin.
“Right now, it’s immensely easier than before the Internet. I used to have to go to the printer and stuff envelopes, which was very time consuming,” Heller said. “Now it’s all digital, websites, and my cartoons can get in the newspapers almost instantly.”
Heller started his self-syndication business by selling his work to local Wisconsin papers. Later, he branched out to other states, slowly growing along the way as newspaper editors began to recognize his work, which is handy when it comes to sales.
“What I do is I find a newspaper that runs me; let’s say the Denver Post. Then I go out to the papers nearby and carpet bomb around,” Heller said. “Editors love being in contact with the cartoonist, and the connection to the editor is key.”
In addition to drawing political cartoons about national subjects, Heller includes cartoons about local Wisconsin news items. During some events, such as recent issues between labor unions and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Heller can offer a unique insight not found in other syndicated cartoons.
“I draw a lot of Green Bay Packers cartoons that editors seem to enjoy,” Heller said. “The folks on Kodiak Island (Alaska) love the Packers cartoons. Must really be nothing to do on that island.”
If trying to self-syndicate cartoons to newspapers is tough, imagine how difficult it would be to compete with all the various columns and features traditional syndicates are able to offer.
For Jim Miller, his self-syndication success came in creating “The Savvy Senior,” a question-and-answer consumer column geared toward readers in their early-to-mid-60s.
Miller is an accidental columnist. Twelve years ago, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. One night, his father came home from visiting her and suffered a massive heart attack. Unfortunately, the cancer spread and eventually took his mom’s life, and after losing both parents, Miller was so grief stricken he took a job at a local retirement community.
While there, he started a little column for The Norman (Okla.) Transcript, offering tools and helpful advice to seniors, and got a big response. So big, in fact, it gave him the idea to self-syndicate, and 400 newspapers later, Miller is still at it, writing, reading, responding, and selling.
“I get between 50 and 150 questions a week, mostly by email,” Miller said of the column’s following. “It’s user friendly, and I usually hit topics that are very relevant to readers.”
Miller enjoys success with a good mix of large papers, such as the Las Vegas Review-Journal and The Oklahoman, purchasing his column. But the bulk of his customers are small, weekly newspapers that don’t want the hassle of dealing with a major syndicate.
“The key is to keep prices low; don’t overcharge,” Miller said. “At $3 to $12 per week, depending on the paper size, everyone can afford it.”
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor & Publisher. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.