How Condé Nast Put the Squeeze on New Yorker Cartoonists

In late June, cartoonists for The New Yorker received an email from Condé Nast, the magazine’s parent company. “We wanted to take an opportunity to reacquaint you with the ecosystem of services that Condé Nast and The New Yorker offer to cartoonists,” reads the email, signed by Courtney Ercolino, Director of Image Licensing. Attached is a one-page document outlining this ecosystem: business-to-consumer sales through The New Yorker’s section of the Condé Nast store, where you can buy merchandise like wall art and mugs; business-to-business sales through the Cartoon Bank, where you can license cartoons for use in corporate newsletters, Powerpoint presentations, television broadcasts and the like; and the sales of original art, which encompass cartoons as well as commissioned pieces for Condé Nast customers.

“Condé Nast,” the attachment reads, “has a long history of supporting cartoonists with revenue-generating opportunities through both editorial and licensing.” The line carried a tinge of irony for many New Yorker cartoonists. Almost a decade ago, these artists—freelancers who face stiff competition for 15 slots each week in the print magazine—could count on licensing deals for substantial passive income. Some received monthly checks as high as $8,000; others regularly saw one or two thousand dollars. Today, even those who saw the highest royalties receive only a few hundred dollars per month.

The market for content, especially humor, has evolved considerably in that decade, with creators of every stripe earning less than they might have in the past. But this decline, according to the accounts of current cartoonists and former longtime Cartoon Editor Bob Mankoff, appears strikingly connected to one factor in particular: Condé Nast’s acquisition and slow dismantling of their primary source of licensing revenue, the Cartoon Bank.

Mankoff, a cartoonist for the magazine since 1977, founded the Cartoon Bank in 1992. It was the early days of the internet, which he had a feeling might prove a game-changer for his fellow cartoonists. “As is the case today, 500, a thousand cartoons were submitted to The New Yorkerevery week,” Mankoff recalled. “I said, let’s make a business out of the all the cartoons that were rejected.” He secured a small business loan, hired employees and deployed technologies new and old to create a database of thousands of cartoons. “Mr. Mankoff started the company from a rented office in Yonkers, armed with an $1,800 Apple MacIntosh computer and a $745 scanner,” reports a 1994 New York Times article, one whose author takes care to clarify unfamiliar jargon: “A scanner uses technology similar to a facsimile machine, lifting an impression of the cartoon drawing and making a digital file of it.”

Under Mankoff’s leadership, the company sold first-time publication rights, reprint rights, online rights and original cartoons. An early version of the website boasts that its 20,000 images from 50 cartoonists were “Categorized, indexed, cross-referenced” and “ready to be retrieved at a moment’s notice.” The market was individual consumers as well as businesses; if you ran a dental association, for instance, you could easily find dental-themed cartoons for your monthly newsletter. Early customers included Bloomberg Financial Markets, which delivered a cartoon to 41,000 subscribers each morning, and textbook publisher Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. The Bank also teamed up with Simon & Schuster to print themed collections; the first two covered parenting and relationships. Fees, which ranged from $100 to over than $1,000 for a single cartoon, were split 50-50 with cartoonists. Mankoff reported $200,000 in revenue that year; by 1998 that number reached $1 million, and $2 million the following year. In 1999, the Times noted that the Cartoon Bank’s website received 100,000 hits a day, “with the average lasting ten minutes.”

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Chris Alexakispatronage, art