How do you become a syndicated columnist or cartoonist?

It's a question that as feature editor I am frequently asked. A lot of people out there, it seems, have dreams of being the next Abigail Van Buren, the next Miss Manners or the next Berke Breathed.So when Scott Davenport, a regional sales rep from Universal Press Syndicate, was in the office last week showing off his company's latest offerings I asked him how the process works.

Getting syndicated is not easy, he said. But it is also not impossible - if you have the right stuff.

There are two ways the syndicates pick up new talent. As regional managers travel around the country they look at material appearing in local papers, looking for anything that might have national appeal.

The second source is from unsolicited material that comes across the editor's desk.

"We get maybe 75 to 100 pieces a week," said Lee Salem, the editor at Universal who gets to sort through it all. "We go through everything very carefully, because you never know when you'll find something with appeal."

But of those thousands of submissions, maybe 10 to 15 will be chosen for syndication each year.

"We look for uniqueness - something that's not like anything else. We like to establish our own trends, not just rip off others," he said. He also looks for quality. "That's really the bottom line. It has to be well done."

Once the editors see something they think has potential, the next step is to meet with the creator to work up a contract. Terms of the contract vary, but generally the financial split is about 50/50, said Davenport. When a newspaper purchases a syndicated feature, half of what the paper pays goes to the syndicate and half to the creator.

Newspapers pay anywhere from $5 to $15 or so a week for features. The more papers a feature appears in, the more the creator makes. Even so, very few can make a full-time living at it; most have other jobs as backstops, he said.

The contract will usually also have a provision that says if the creator is not making a certain amount he can withdraw from the arrangements.

But it is a business where there are few guarantees. "If we can sell it in the top 20 to 25 markets, we know it's going to work," Davenport said.

Generally, building up a newspaper list for any one feature is a fairly slow process. But occasionally, success stories happen by.

Take Calvin and Hobbes, for example. "The strip will be 3 years old in November, and already he's got 600 newspapers and a couple of best-selling books. That kind of success is phenomenal," Davenport said.

In fact, the whole Calvin and Hobbes story is unusual. "That wasn't the first strip he tried. He had four or five others. Calvin and Hobbes were originally secondary characters. One of the strips just had Space Man Spiff. But nothing seemed to work quite right. Over several years, the concept changed to where Calvin and Hobbes were the focus. And it has taken off with rocket growth."

But not all of the stories happen that way. "There's so much competition, and newspaper space is getting tighter all the time."

Universal currently handles about 75 syndicated features and is one of the leading syndicates in the country. There are actually hundreds of different syndicates, counting all the mom-and-pop organizations that handle only one or two features. But the lion's share of the market is handled by maybe five: United, King, Universal, Tribune Media and Creators.

They each have their own philosophies and may tend to specialize in a particular kind of material.

"Universal is known for taking a chance on new people," Davenport told me.

If I write that, I told him, you may be flooded with submissions from Salt Lake.

No problem, he said. Because while it is a tough business to make a go in, they don't want to discourage anyone from making a try.

"On the negative side, there is a lot of competition and it can be discouraging," said Salem. "But on the positive side, it is one of the last industries where true Cinderella stories still happen."