Love them or hate them, most people have read the funnies — and maybe even laughed. The cartoonists who draw comic strips don’t get paid as well as you might think, given their reach into thousands or even millions of households nationwide. A syndicated cartoonist’s salary varies depending on a number of factors, and although a lucky few earn the big bucks, most end up with a lot less.
What “Syndication” Means
Some comic strips appear in many different newspapers in a process called “syndication.” In syndication, a large distribution clearinghouse called a syndicate signs contracts with content creators, such as cartoonists, to supply the syndicate with content, such as comic strips or puzzles. The syndicate then sells that content to newspapers and other periodicals that want to publish the content in their pages. A small number of syndicates control most of the comics and puzzles that you see in the entertainment pages of most large newspapers.
Lots of cartoonists vie to get their work syndicated, and, given the competition to become syndicated as well as the constrained budgets of newspapers and other print publications in an era when more advertising money is moving to the Internet, very few cartoonists are able to win a contract. The few who do nearly always must conform their work to reflect what the syndicate wants, rather than doing what they might prefer artistically. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that, as of 2008, there are only about 250 syndicated cartoonists in the country.
A syndicated cartoonist’s salary varies widely. According to a 2008 career spotlight report by the BLS, the publishing industry estimates a syndicated cartoonist’s starting income to be about $30,000 a year. The BLS itself doesn’t compile income numbers for syndicated cartoonists specifically, but it estimates artists working in the newspaper industry to earn a median annual income of about $42,000, with the bottom 10 percent earning $27,000 or less and the top 10 percent earning $80,000 or more.
Syndicated cartoonists earn their money through a contract with their syndicate, and must periodically renew these contracts. If their work captures the nation’s interest, they can fetch a higher price during negotiations. The tiny handful of people who become successful nationwide, such as “Dilbert” creator Scott Adams or “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau, can earn a very comfortable living approaching seven figures. Most syndicated artists, however, must live frugal lifestyles or develop other sources of income.
The More the Merrier
Cartoonists and their syndicates earn more money when the comic strip appears in more publications because this means more readers are paying to see the same amount of work. Syndicates, therefore, strive to sell their content to as many publications as possible. The most profitable syndicated comic strips, like Garfield, appear all over the United States. Lesser-known cartoonists usually have a much more limited reach, appearing in only a few publications.
Bigger Publications Pay Better Bucks
Cartoonists and their syndicates also earn more when the comic strip appears in large publications as opposed to small ones. Syndicates charge more money to sell content to large publications with higher circulation numbers. A major metropolitan daily newspaper with a circulation of 200,000 has to pay a lot more to run the same cartoon than a small town daily with a tenth of the circulation. Smaller publications have little or no budget to buy syndicated content, which means less profit for the syndicate and, in turn, less pay for the cartoonist.
Other Factors Affecting a Syndicate's Cartoonist’s Salary
According to the BLS, a number of other factors also affect a syndicated cartoonist’s salary. For instance, a comic strip that runs only once a week will pay less than a comic strip that runs daily. Comic strips also fetch a higher price according to their popularity within a given market. Publications measure popularity not only by reader feedback but with page clicks as well now that many comics are appearing online as well as in print.
Josh Fredman is a freelance pen-for-hire and Web developer living in Seattle. He attended the University of Washington, studying engineering, and worked in logistics, health care and newspapers before deciding to go to work for himself.