Editor & Publisher Magazine - November 21, 1993
Syndicates - by David Astor
He receives over 250,000 letters a year"A very busy James Dulley has found that readers are responding strongly to his self-syndicated column.
Among advice columnists, those receiving the most reader mail include Ann Landers, Abigail Van Buren, and James Dulley.
James Dulley? Not exactly a household name like the other two. But he does talk about households - or, rather, how the people in them can save money on heating, cooling, and more. And these residents send Dulley over 250,000 (now 500,000) letters a year.
The self-syndicated "Cut Your Utility Bills" (now changed to "$ensible Home") columnist tries to answer at least 100 of these letters himself each week, but he has had to hire a staff of five to help him with the rest. Still, Dulley has a grueling workweek that often stretches past 100 hours.
Not that Dulley is complaining. He appreciates having over 200 (now 400) newspaper and magazine clients an unusually high total for self-syndication and is proud of the way he built the column from scratch in 1982.
The weekly "Cut Your Utility Bills" made its debut in the Cincinnati Post that year, and entered self-syndication when the Indianapolis Star signed on in 1984. Dulley then struggled for a period before subscribers began pouring in. About 100 newspapers have joined up in the past year alone.
Dulley uses several tactics to convince sometimes-skeptical editors to buy his unglamorously titled feature. One persuasive approach is offering not to charge if his question-and-answer column doesn't pull more reader mail than any other syndicated feature in the paper. So far, he said "Cut Your Utility Bills" has attracted too much mail for any paper to take advantage of this get-it-free guarantee.
Dulley has also stirred editor interest by sending potential subscribers copies of glowing letters from present clients. Some examples of these testimonials: "The response to your column is the greatest we have ever had," wrote the Bangor (Maine) Daily News. "We are very impressed with the volume of mail," said the Chicago Sun-Times, one of Dulley's many major metro clients. "Thousands of letters have come in," reported the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "The reader response is unlike any I'm aware of in the past," commented the Columbia (S.C.) State.
Also: "Your utility column has caught on like wildfire," declared the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger. "I believe we are getting more response to your column than any other feature that we carry in our paper," wrote the Mesa (Ariz.) Tribune. "The reader response has been overwhelming," stated the Sacramento Bee. "You were correct in saying the column would draw more letters than any other feature in the newspaper," said the Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal. "I have never seen any column . . . pull letters the way yours does," wrote the Trenton (N.J.) Times.
And an editor at the Salt Lake City (Utah) Deseret News observed: "I must admit it makes me very nervous to think about explaining to angry readers if you [Dulley] went out and got hit by a car or something."
As the above-named publications illustrate, the "Cut Your Utility Bills" column is of interest to papers based in cold, warm, and in-between climates. This is partly because Dulley customizes the columns for various regions of the country (if requested he even does special topics features for individual papers such as the Detroit News) and partly because Dulley addresses a variety of topics.
Among the subjects discussed, in the 500-plus-word column - which features one long answer and one short one - are air conditioning units, furnaces (including the new high-efficiency models), fireplaces, energy-efficient light bulbs, solar window heaters, water conservation, geodesic dome homes, and refrigerators.
"A small auxiliary door will save quite a lot of electricity over the life of your refrigerator," Dulley wrote in one column. "It saves energy because you only need to open the small door to get out frequently eaten foods. Therefore, less cold air is lost than if you opened the regular large door.
"Based on a typical 16-cubic-foot refrigerator, opened an average 27 times a day, about 1,000 Btu of energy are wasted each day. The small auxiliary door would cut this loss and save several cents per day. That could add up to more than $100 saved over the life of the refrigerator."
The above excerpt exemplifies two reasons why Dulley feels his column has caught on. One is the facts that Dulley tries to offer detailed information in a language average readers can understand. "I try to write as I talk," he stated. "Sometimes I even talk into a tape recorder and use that for my answer."
And the other and prime reason for the column's success is that readers following its advice can save several hundred dollars a year.
Some (but by no means all) of this advice is of a do-it-yourself nature, with Dulley first building and testing things himself before they go into the illustrated column.
Readers can also get cost-cutting information by sending away for any of Dulley's 340 or so "Update Bulletins" packets offered through the column. Dulley gets the information for these packets and his column answers by doing extensive research (calling experts and reading various materials) and drawing on his own experience.
The 38-year old writer based at Starcott Media Services, 6906 Royalgreen Drive, Cincinnati, Ohio 45244 has a BS in mechanical engineering and an MBA in marketing/management from the University of Cincinnati, and was doctoral candidate in management/energy at Harvard University.
Dulley whose hometown "Cut Your Utility Bills" client is now the Cincinnati Enquirer has worked as director of marketing and engineering for a manufacturer of sheet metal products, sold real estate, designed toys, taught energy seminars for the University of Cincinnati and the Army, conducted residential and business energy audits, served on energy committees, and written magazine articles.
And, in the early 1970s, Dulley drove a van to virtually every part of the U.S. Some people back then told him he was "a bum," recalled Dulley with a laugh, but the trip would eventually help him in his efforts to customize "Cut Your Utility Bills" for various regions of the country. In addition to traveling, Dulley also enjoys biking, playing tennis, and reading in the little spare time he has.
As for the future, Dulley said he would like to teach, write a book on cutting utility costs and continue his weekly column as long as possible. But he's not sure if he'll self-syndicate indefinitely. At least a couple of major syndicates have expressed interest in picking up "Cut Your Utility Bills," and Dulley observed that signing with a major feature distributor would ease his crushing workload somewhat."