How Are Syndicates’ Non-Newspaper Oriented Sister Companies and Divisions Affected by Recession?

By: Dave Astor

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in E&P’s November print edition.

During the past few months, this section of E&P has focused on how the recession is affecting syndicates and the creators they represent. But what about the non-newspaper-oriented sister companies/divisions of syndicates? How is the recession affecting them? Entities such as United Media Licensing (UML) and Andrews McMeel Publishing (AMP) are operating in

the same faltering U.S. economy as syndicates are, but at least they don’t have to deal directly with a customer base of cost-cutting newspapers.

United Media Senior Vice President for Domestic Licensing Joshua Kislevitz says business is “very solid” at UML ? a sister division to United Feature Syndicate (UFS) and the Newspaper Enterprise Association syndicate.

Meanwhile, AMP Vice President of Sales Lynne McAdoo says business is “holding steady” for the huge book-and-calendar-publishing sibling of Universal Press Syndicate, despite the ailing economy.

Why is AMP doing OK? “In general, people see books as a cheap form of entertainment,” says McAdoo, meaning recession-wracked consumers aren’t cutting back much on their paperback purchases.

She adds that people are “looking to smile” during tough times, and many AMP offerings allow them to do that. About 30% of AMP’s 150-200 annual titles are comic collections, and they account for nearly 40% of the firm’s book sales. (AMP also has columnist-written titles ? such as Roger Ebert’s Movie Yearbook 2009 ? and books by non-newspaper authors.)

Among the AMP comic collections selling best are compilations of “Pearls Before Swine” (Stephan Pastis/UFS), “Get Fuzzy” (Darby Conley/UFS), “Dilbert” (Scott Adams/UFS), and “Zits” (Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman/King Features Syndicate).

McAdoo adds that “Doonesbury” books by Garry Trudeau of Universal have “an intensely loyal” following, and that collections of now-defunct Universal comics “The Far Side” (Gary Larson) and “Calvin and Hobbes” (Bill Watterson) still sell well.

Popular cartoonists have multiple comic collections published over the years, which helps AMP weather recessionary times. For instance, readers who bought nine previous “Dilbert” collections are likely to buy a 10th.

McAdoo adds that since AMP has a reputation for publishing books by top cartoonists, readers may figure that collections of lesser-known strips are worth buying if AMP felt they were worth publishing. She notes, by way of example, that the new “Cul de Sac” comic collection by Richard Thompson of Universal is selling well (it doesn’t hurt that the reclusive Watterson wrote the foreword).

One reason UML is faring OK is it its geographically diverse sales. “United Media does more than half of its business outside the U.S.,” Kislevitz says. “Market trends vary by region, so we may be strong in one market at one time but not in another.”

Another reason? “Most of our licensed products are sold through mass merchants such as Walgreens and Target,” reports the United executive. “These retailers continue to do well in a price-sensitive economy, so our products do nicely.”

Kislevitz, who declined to give revenue numbers for this story, does add that “we’re concerned about the economy like everyone else.” And McAdoo says AMP is always on the lookout for cost savings, such as finding less expensive printing deals for its books.

“Peanuts” remains UML’s biggest licensing property more than eight years after Charles M. Schulz’s death, and the second most popular is “Dilbert.” (Like AMP, UML also has a number of properties without a newspaper-syndication connection.)

Do the anti-corporate feelings of many Americans in today’s economy help the licensing of corporation-tweaking “Dilbert”?

“There’s a ripple-down effect from what’s going in the world,” replies Kislevitz, adding that the recent survey of economists commissioned by cartoonist Adams brought a lot of media “buzz” to the property.

Did last year’s Schulz and Peanuts biography, which many readers felt portrayed the late cartoonist too negatively, have any impact on “Peanuts” licensing?

“No impact,” responds Kislevitz. But he says this year’s “Peanuts Rocks the Vote” campaign ? with its online mock election and its encouraging of people to vote in the real election ? has had an impact on licensing via nonpartisan “Peanuts” T-shirts and the recently remastered DVD You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown.

Cartooning entrepreneur Daryl Cagle is involved in the syndication, reprint, and book businesses. Are the latter two doing better than the Cagle Cartoons syndicate? The answer is mixed.

Cagle says his syndication business has plateaued at about 850 clients the past three years, partly because some big chains have ordered their newspapers to cut feature budgets. Meanwhile, “reprint sales are growing a little bit,” he reports.

These editorial-cartoon reprints are purchased for use in books, in classrooms, at business meetings, and so on. Fees range from $175 a cartoon for big book publishers to a nominal $3 fee for teachers. (Cagle initially offered educators free cartoons, but his online infrastructure couldn’t handle the demand.)

Cagle.MSNBC.com visitors see cartoons they might want to reprint while viewing that site, which has a link to Cagle’s PoliticalCartoons.com online store. Computer users also discover that online store by typing “political cartoons” into search engines. Whether times are good or bad, Cagle says, “It’s easy for people to find us.” He adds that political cartoons lend themselves to “pay-per-use” sale for reasons such as not featuring continuing characters and storylines like many comics do.

Still, even a slightly growing reprint business “is not that big a revenue stream compared to syndication,” Cagle says.

One reason the Cagle Cartoons clientele has plateaued rather than decreased is that some of the 850 subscribers ? such as newsletters ? don’t come from the pool of struggling U.S. dailies. “These aren’t necessarily newsletters published by little churches on the corner,” Cagle tells E&P. “They might be union newsletters with hundreds of thousands of subscribers.”

The annual best-cartoon books and other collections Cagle edits with fellow cartoonist Brian Fairrington tend to sell modestly. But Cagle says these books give good exposure to individual cartoonists ? and the cartooning profession in general.

With newspapers and the U.S. economy struggling, cartoonists and cartooning need all the exposure they can get.

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