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How Does the Cartoon Bank Work? A Q&A With Founder Robert Mankoff

After two years of submitting cartoons and getting nothing but rejection, Robert Mankoff finally succeeded in selling his first cartoon to The New Yorker in the 1970’s. He went on to become one of the magazine’s premiere cartoonists and ultimately its cartoon editor. He also had the clever idea of founding The Cartoon Bank, a company meant to syndicate and archive thousands of cartoons; it was bought by The New Yorker in 1997, and Mankoff still serves as its president.

If you are the kind of person who gives or receives funny greeting cards, or buys calendars with funny cartoons, or reads books that reprint similar cartoons, it is impossible not to run across that little Cartoon Bank copyright in small print. I had always been curious about the origin and workings of the Cartoon Bank, and I was happy when Mankoff agreed to answer some questions:

Q: Tell us about how the idea first came about for Cartoon Bank. Was it yours exclusively?

A: I’ve been a cartoonist for the New Yorker magazine since 1977. For most of those years I would submit between 10 and 15 cartoons each week and might get one accepted for publication. That’s the case for most of the other cartoonists at the magazine. In 1990, during a week when I had sold no cartoons to the magazine (despite having drawn 15, some of which I thought were pretty good), it dawned on me that perhaps there was a market for the cartoons that the New Yorker rejected. I convinced friends of mine, who, not coincidentally, were also New Yorker cartoonists, and who, not coincidentally, I was buying drinks for, that they had nothing to lose by having me scan their rejects and try to market them.

So, the original Cartoon Bank was made up not of New Yorker cartoons, but of the rejects. The New Yorker got the cream of the crop, and the Cartoon Bank got the rest. Commercially, second-best proved good enough, and these rejected cartoons went into many textbooks, newsletters, CD’s, intranets, and onto the fledgling Internet, creating a profitable business.

In 1997, the New Yorker bought the Cartoon Bank, and I continued on as president. Later that year I became the magazine’s cartoon editor. The basic idea was to do for the cartoons that had appeared in the New Yorker what had been done for the rejects, with the hope that both the New Yorker brand, and the great depth of the New Yorker cartoon archive (more than 70,000 published cartoons) would provide the opportunity for greater revenues and profits — an opportunity that has been realized.

Q: Did the New Yorker ever express objections to the project? Were there concerns over copyrighting?

A: Not objections, as such, but reasonable concerns about the possibility of the material being pirated from the Internet. It turns out that the Internet’s search capabilities make it relatively easy to find pirated material. When that happens, we let loose the hounds – actually our lawyers.

Q: Did the strategy, scope and focus of the business change after TCB became a New Yorker holding?

A: The primary change, at the start, was to focus on the brand of the New Yorker cartoon, and what that brand means. To me, it means using sophisticated cartoon humor to communicate ideas about the culture. Ideas communicated in this iconic form have a great resonance, which enables them to find a comfortable fit in a variety of applications and products. And, the fact that a cartoon has appeared in the New Yorker gives it a certain cachet. To some extent, cachet = ka-ching!

Furthermore, the strategy of an evolving business like The Cartoon Bank is always, well, evolving, to meet the needs and opportunities of the marketplace. I think, in fact, our basic strategy is to evolve with an evolving marketplace, making small adaptations, evaluating them, and then feeding them back into our business model to make it better. I’m much more in favor of guided trial and error than grand strategies. Look where grand strategy got us in Iraq.

Q: What products/cartoons have been your biggest earners over the past year, or few years? Which cartoonists are the biggest earners?

A: The Cartoon Bank is a rather complicated operation with many revenue streams. It’s basically a “long tail” model in which we sell less of more. We have more than 90,000 cartoons and more than 4,000 New Yorker covers. Since most of our sales are on demand, any sale is profitable. If a cartoon sells once as a print, note card, t-shirt, PowerPoint presentation, etc., that’s great; if it sells a thousand times, then that’s (if my math is correct), a lot greater. As is always the case, some cartoonists do better than others, but all are a lot better off for having their work available.

Q: Tell us a little about any surprising revenue streams from the business. Were there any in particular that you hadn’t foreseen?

A: I’m not a great forsee-er. Most days I have trouble foreseeing lunch. And, I foresaw very few of the revenue streams that developed. I knew there was some market for reprinting the cartoons in textbooks and newsletters, because pre-Cartoon Bank I had some of mine reprinted in this manner. I thought that aggressive marketing and the New Yorker brand would multiply this market many fold. That happened.

But the entire B to C revenue stream [from the Internet to framed prints] was a surprise for me. I figured people would just keep clipping cartoons out of the magazine and putting them on their refrigerators. But once we put them online, it turned out there was a nice market for high-end, matted and framed prints of the cartoons, and later the covers. Hmmm — maybe there’s even a market for refrigerators already pre-cartooned.

Another surprise was the custom book market. We do about 70 custom books a year. The New Yorker custom book is a highly customizable book filled with New Yorker cartoons chosen by the client. It combines an organization’s branding with the intelligence and wit of the New Yorker cartoons. As I well know, being a cartoon editor is fun. For these books, it’s a lot of fun for the clients as well.

Perhaps the most unexpected source of revenue has been the emergence of an advertising model that uses animated versions of New Yorker cartoons. By the end of this year, we expect to have upwards of 500 of these animations. Disney, watch out!

Q: How has the market for cartoons (and humor in general) changed since 9/11? Have you seen trends in the demand for certain types of cartoons that mirror current events?

A: The basics of humor don’t change. It’s the ability to enter a “play frame,” where we can enjoy incongruity, absurdity, ambiguity, and even many things that would normally cause us great anxiety, like illness and death. Like these:

It’s a type of play with ideas and images. But this type of play with what would normally disturb us only works when we don’t actually feel threatened. [9/11] was a traumatic event that was a real threat, and you don’t feel very playful when threatened. But one of the functions of humor is to help us cope, and realize when a threat, or at least our paralyzing anxiety over that threat, has passed. This was the first cartoon the New Yorker ran after 9/11:

And this one two months later:

Since 9/11, I’ve seen more of this type of humor, which helps us realize that, although we live in anxious times, we don’t always have to be anxious about it. 9/11 and the world it ushered in aside, we are always in the market for intelligent cartoons that comment on all aspects of the culture. Although they touch on topical issues, these cartoons are rarely editorial.

Q: Do you have a profile of the average Cartoon Bank customer?

A: We like to think that our average customer is way above average. Our research seem to bear that out, indicating that they’re primarily young professionals (average age 35; income $75-100k).

Q: Given the current debate over the staying power of traditional media in the face of Internet expansion, do you think that publishing print cartoons will remain profitable?

A: There’s no doubt that more and more of the functions of traditional media will not be carried out on paper. But I think there will always be a desire, by many, for the real over the virtual. And, I think you’ll be able to do well in both areas for the foreseeable future, which might be all of six years.

Q: Are there cartoonists whose work is far more popular in The Cartoon Bank than in the pages of the New Yorker?

A: I wouldn’t go that far. Our Internet audience skews somewhat younger than that of the magazines, so that favors the cartoons of younger artists. But even ancient ones such as myself still sell a few online.

Q: Any plans to expand the business beyond New Yorker cartoons? Are you in talks with any other publications?

A: Yes. Don’t tell anyone.