Why syndication is a waste of time for freelance writers and journalists today.
Last week, I posted about Conde Nast’s decision to start making movies from previously published articles and how this would affect writers. I started chatting with a friend about syndication, and how it’s now a dead end for most freelance writers. We talked about rights and reprints, and the money that’s left on the table when reselling stories ceases to be an option.
If you’ve been in business for more than a few years, you’ve likely heard the advice to retain rights to your work and sell reprints. In fact, many writers attribute large chunks of their income to selling reprints to various regional and niche magazines. Successful writers like Michael Sedge have made an entire living out of keeping rights to pieces and then selling worldwide rights one country at a time, much in the way agents do with books.
In my opinion, however, this business model no longer works. This is especially true if you’re working as a journalist and writing news stories. And if, like me, you enjoy working on new pieces, you may not be as consistent with marketing them as you need to be. I used to sell reprints a few times a year without even trying, but this has changed.
I believe syndication (or selling reprints) is a waste of time for writers now and unless you already have star power or name recognition, it won’t be a big money-maker for you. Here’s why.
1. Publishers are increasingly asking for more rights
Worse, they’re not keen on negotiating those rights. This means that your only options are to accept or turn down the contract. It’s easy to turn down contracts when only a few publications are asking for all rights. But when the entire industry exists on that model, it will be increasingly hard to make a living if you’re turning down 90% of what’s coming your way.
2. Google likes original content
There’s another reason for this, too. If you’ve published the same article on ten different websites, Google will penalize those websites for not having original content and lower their search engine rankings. Why does Google do this? Well, it started off as a fantastic measure by Google to penalize those websites whose owners do nothing more than copy-paste other people’s content into their blogs. But it then affects people who’re putting up previously published material as well.
3. There’s no longer money in reprints
Heck, the pay rates across the board have been slashed. How many reprints at $50 a pop will you have to sell to make a good chunk of cash?
4. There’s little value in reprints for international stories
For international writers, I’ve found that there’s even less value in syndication. What you sell to a publication in India, unless it’s a general-interest piece with no sources, it won’t resell to a publication in the UAE or the USA. Even with general interest or, say, health features, you’ll need to quote experts from each individual country, which will turn it into a different article entirely.
Why take less money for it selling it as a reprint when you could just take that initial seed of an idea and sell it as an original feature instead?
For instance, I’ve written two stories on Body Dysmorphic Disorder, one for an Indian women’s magazine and one for an American website. In both stories, I ended up quoting very different experts, and so the stories themselves ended up being almost entirely unique. I still reaped the benefits because the research was the same, so it took me half the time to do the actual reporting and querying.
Syndication is a tricky topic because, much like anything else in this business, there are ebbs and flows. What’s working today may change tomorrow, and what was working yesterday may make a comeback again after a few years. Old-school newspaper syndication no longer exists, but syndicating your own content across your own social media platforms and audience seems to be something that’s coming up, and something I’m very excited about exploring for my business in the coming year.
Natasha Khullar Relph
Founder and Editor, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more. She is the founder of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators. Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
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