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 Yorker every 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.”
The business was successful enough that The New Yorker bought it from Mankoff in 1997, the same year he succeeded Lee Lorenz as Cartoon Editor. (He left that position earlier this year). He continued as its president until 2008, and in that time delivered significant returns to his cartoonists. “At the height of the Cartoon Bank,” he said, referring to the mid-2000s, “it had revenues of seven million dollars. The cartoonists were receiving over two million dollars.” The company had nine full-time employees, including one dedicated to sales of original cartoons and two dedicated to licensing. Another oversaw the creation and sale of custom books to trade associations and other enterprise customers. “We had a unified website that sold both prints and licensing, which was obviously advantageous rather than two separate websites,” as is the case today, he said. “That business, based on faxes of New Yorker rejects, generated more licensing revenue than they’re generating now.”
The Cartoon Bank was a windfall for cartoonists, who in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s witnessed the market for single-panel gag cartoons dwindle from a handful of publications to virtually only The New Yorker. “I remember one particular check early on, probably my second or third check from the Cartoon Bank, was close to $8,000,” said one longtime cartoonist who was involved in the Cartoon Bank’s earliest planning sessions, and who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “As time went on, the returns weren’t as great, but they were still good—they were still two or three thousand dollars a month.” Alex Gregory, a contributor since 1999, described similar numbers. “I would regularly get checks for one or two thousand dollars,” he said. Mankoff, who had a bird’s-eye view of the company’s financials, spoke of cartoonists receiving residual income to the tune of $30,000 to $40,000 annually. The 1998 Times report notes that one cartoonist, Peter Steiner, had by that point received more than $30,000 in royalties for a single cartoon.
In 2008, Mankoff handed off leadership of the Cartoon Bank to Condé Nast, who, it quickly became apparent, planned to operate the business with a lighter touch. “I consulted with them for many years after I left, urging them to support this business and commit to this business,” Mankoff said. “For their own reasons they decided that they’re not supporting it. There aren’t really any employees left. And those people who used to do those things”—licensing, custom books, original art sales—“have been let go. The people there are absolutely well-meaning, but they have no real idea of what this business is, who the cartoonists are, how you might leverage and maximize it.”
Over the following years, the well dried up. The cartoonist who described an $8,000 check he received early on said he now sees at most a few hundred a month. Gregory said the same, as did several other cartoonists who I spoke too.
Nobody I spoke to for this article, however, believes Condé Nast has willfully stripped away their residual income. What they see instead is a typical story of corporate mismanagement and neglect.
Perhaps the most obvious sign of the Cartoon Bank’s decline, as any cartoonist will tell you, is its website. When I began researching this story, there was no clear end-to-end way to license a cartoon online. After going through several steps to select a cartoon and format—in my case, a one-year Powerpoint license for $10—I would encounter a dialog telling me I could not check out via invoice because my cart was below $500. Instead I would have to submit a detailed request via email. When I tried again last week, a button had appeared allowing me to pay by credit card. This option was only available for a small number of license types, though; most still require submitting an email request. (Additionally, one cartoonist I spoke with said the credit card button did not appear in his browser.) And even when I clicked the button to pay by credit card, I encountered a popup informing me that I could not pay by invoice, instructing me instead to submit an email request. Had I not clicked through the popup, I would not have reached the payment screen.
Several cartoonists I spoke with described their years of bafflement at the website’s clumsy user experience. “It simply didn’t work,” said Gregory. “The screen would split, things would just not come up, you would get error messages. It wasn’t just that it did less; it didn’t even do what it was purported to do at all. You would do searches that just turn up nothing. Presumably they had to pay someone to render this shitty service. Why?”
Executive churn might be one answer to Gregory’s question. When Mankoff gave up the reigns, he was succeeded by a string of executives who generally did not last long in the role. None were cartoonists; one was a lawyer, and another used to run Condé Nast’s personnel operations. The current Senior Vice President of Licensing previously worked at the Trump Organization. Their unfamiliarity with the material appears to have combined with structural changes to create an overall absence of institutional knowledge. “When it was brought into corporate, the site was all-encompassing,” said a former Cartoon Bank staffer. “It had a lot more traffic. It was a proprietary site. We had web designers, we had a marketing team, we had five or six salespeople. There was in-house production. And then as it was brought into corporate, there were more partners, more vendors: The production team went away and we used a framer, or instead of using proprietary web hosting we went to a partner.” These changes directly affected the cartoonists’ cut. “Instead of splitting the whole sale, we’re now splitting percentages of the sale,” the former staffer said.
This effect was compounded by a diminished sales staff. “At one point there was one person just for executive gifts, one person just for textbooks, one person just for, I don’t know, newsletters—it was divided up,” said the former staffer. “For the most part, it’s [now] just incoming requests.” The Cartoon Bank isn’t actively working to make sales; it exists mostly to pick up the phone and keep the website running. “The cartoonists’ bread and butter will always be digital licensing,” said the former staffer, “and I would say right now there’s one person fully dedicated to that… The company would rather everyone go through the website.”
In response to a request for information about the Cartoon Bank’s staff, the spokesperson said: “The licensing team at Condé Nast is a growing team and now part of the Experiences group. We have two channels within Condé Nast Licensing focusing both on content and product licensing. Both channels are actively generating licensing revenue from New Yorker cartoons, payable as royalties to those cartoonists who opt in.” After I received this statement, I learned that Courtney Ercolino, the Director of Image Licensing, recently left the company.
Even when the calls come in to the Cartoon Bank, however, it does not always end well for cartoonists. Gregory, who draws his cartoons digitally, told me that on more than one occasion potential customers have called the Cartoon Bank to purchase his original artwork and were told, by the salespeople, not to. “They would talk them out of it; they would say it’s just a digital image, just buy the print off the website,” he said. He explained to the salespeople that for each of his cartoons there is one copy he prints, signs and scans for publication; they could sell this as an original. “They wouldn’t do it,” he said. “They would actually tell people, ‘maybe he’ll redraw it for you.’ And I actually had one instance where rather than sell them the print, they somehow convinced the customer that I would trace it and then sign it and mail it back. And I was like, ‘Well, I’ll take the money, but you’re paying extra for a crappier version of the same cartoon.’”
New Yorker cartoonists are paid in two tiers. More established artists receive $1,450 for a cartoon, while the rest receive $700. The sales of original artwork bring cartoonists some of their largest one-time payments, often as high as $2,000 or more. Until January 2017, sales made through the Cartoon Bank were split 70-30 between cartoonists and Condé Nast. In December, cartoonists were sent a contract revising that split to 50-50. Condé Nast also recently stopped warehousing original artwork, leaving that responsibility to the cartoonists themselves. “They just, like, fired all their archivists,” said one cartoonist. “There was no place to put it. People who were trying to reclaim their archived cartoons were being told that they had been lost. So now we’re at a place where it’s just, ‘Make your own high-res scan at home, email in the high-res and that’s what we’re going to run in the magazine. You’re responsible for storing and archiving your own artwork. We will let you know if a collector wants to buy your cartoon.’”
“That’s fine,” this cartoonist said. “You’re streamlining your production pipeline or whatever. But then to be told, ‘By the way, the privilege of being told that a collector is interested in your work is 50% of the sale price, and you have to package your own artwork and mail it off yourself,’ was offensive.”
These factors, in tandem with the company’s diminished focus on marketing and sales, mean cartoonists today receive noticeably fewer of those large, and meaningful, paychecks. Through a spokesperson, Condé Nast described the revised revenue split as “reflective of industry standards.” Mankoff said this isn’t quite accurate: “That is the standard provided you actually have personnel selling original art, but they fired those people. In other words, it’s standard when you have an agent, who is knowledgeable in the field and actively contacting potential customers for the product.” This is no longer the case at the Cartoon Bank. “We had an original art salesperson,” said the former staffer, “but they were let go, and we just took incoming calls after that.”
But the dwindling revenues from original artwork pales in comparison to the near-disappearance of licensing fees. “Some of these guys were making $4,000 a month,” said the former staffer, “and now they’re making $600.” For cartoonists, there’s little recourse. Most are freelancers spread across the country without the financial security to walk away from the biggest, most prestigious paychecks in the market. Gregory at one point lobbied New Yorker editor David Remnick to put pressure on the Cartoon Bank’s management. Remnick responded that despite his concern for the cartoonists, he had little power over the situation. The Cartoon Bank is owned not by the magazine, after all, but by Condé Nast, an enormous corporation that likely wouldn’t flinch at the loss of $7 million in annual revenue. (Although when Mankoff offered to buy it back—and guarantee the company its current cut—they weren’t interested, he said). “They have an enormous portfolio of photographs and artwork from dozens of popular magazines that generate revenue, for which they own all the rights and don’t have to pay royalties,” said cartoonist Tom Toro, a contributor since 2010. “In contrast to New Yorker cartoons, where the cartoonists own the copyright and royalties do have to be paid. Obviously it’s attractive from a bottom-line standpoint to focus on the former. But for us, the cartoonists who have much more limited markets compared to photographers, those royalties can be the difference between making a mortgage payment and not.”
Through a spokesperson, Condé Nast emphasized that it is committed to growing the Cartoon Bank. “It’s a unique and important asset, and as the industry evolves, we are always exploring new avenues to ensure its ongoing growth and success,” the company said. “We also continue to look for new ways to publish cartoons and promote the form, with the goal of bringing this work to more and more readers and providing a healthy future for cartoons and cartoonists.” When I asked if the company could identify specific avenues, the spokesperson said: “The Condé Nast Store and product licensing deals. The Cartoon Bank isn’t intended to be the only mechanism by which we license all cartoons. We have established other efforts focusing on new licensing opportunities which are growing.” The company declined to offer any specific reason as to why the Cartoon Bank’s revenue has fallen so dramatically.
The cartoonists, meanwhile, are prepared to take matters into their own hands. “I’ve told Condé that I am certainly exploring alternatives for the cartoonists,” said Mankoff, who recently joined Esquire as that magazine’s first Cartoon and Humor Editor (he’s also developing a humor robot, Botnik, with Clickhole founding editor Jamie Brew). “Neither The New Yorker nor Condé own the material—the cartoonists own the copyright for the material,” he said, qualifying that he’s not trying to poach the site for Esquire’s parent company, Hearst.
“We’re still hammering out the details,” said Toro, who’s involved in the discussions, “but whatever it ends up being, this re-envisioned entity will aggressively market our work, simplify the customer experience, and compensate artists fairly.”
When asked about the possibility that the Cartoon Bank may form anew outside of Condé Nast, the company declined to comment.
Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.