Universal Soldier: The Lee Salem Interview
Heintjes: During your tenure at Universal, have you observed a trend in submissions in the type of material or the subject matter?
Salem: I guess the easiest response to that is that too many cartoonists are influenced by what is already successful. The classic is the strip I saw where the cartoonist had come up with an idea about a little girl and her pet teddy bear.
Heintjes: Sounds like a winning formula.
Salem: That’s not the business we’re in. We want something that goes beyond that. It’s a bit frustrating that there are so many cartoonists who say, “Because you syndicated The Far Side, you’ll like this.” No one needs a weak Far Side.
But I think that what is exciting, what is innovative and what is different have gradually changed, and times have changed. There’s still that small core of people out there who can put themselves on a piece of paper in a way that no one else can and in a way that’s marketable. That’s what makes this business exciting and rewarding.
Heintjes: What is the most common flaw in submissions you see?
Salem: The vast majority of things we see are just very amateurish. They are not at the level of even being considered, even though an individual has spent a lot of sweat and effort on it. It’s not anything that would ever appear in print. And I think there’s a sense that, “If Cartoonist X can get on a comics page, so can I.” Or, “If Writer Y can get on the op-ed page, so can I.” It’s not that easy. Those of us who are gatekeepers at Universal, United, King or wherever bring a certain set of ideas to any submission. We may disagree on some points, and we may be criticized for that process of gatekeeping, but I think overall the syndicates would say that too many people out there think they’re talented when they’re not.
Heintjes: That has probably been the case ever since you entered the industry.
Salem: That really hasn’t changed, and that’s one of the givens you have to deal with in any creative field. I’m assuming there are music publishers who are getting poorly done rewrites of whatever is popular. That’s just part of the creative field’s process.
Heintjes: We hear the numbers of submissions that syndicates get—anywhere from 3,000–5,000. Has that number held steady over the years?
Salem: I think it’s been the same. We get about 60–70 a week, and you multiply that by 52 and that’s roughly what you get. They’re not all comic strips—they’re columns and other types of work, anything from columns on stamp collecting and home repair to op-ed and advice columns to comics and panels.
Heintjes: Who sifts through your submissions?
Salem: Various people have done it at various times. Now, it’s predominantly me, but tomorrow that might change, depending on other duties. I enjoy it, so I try to do as much of it as possible. A lot of the stuff is too amateurish, but every once in a while there’s that real nugget that’s worth talking through and thinking about and maybe getting the ball rolling.
Heintjes: Comic-strip fans sometimes forget that a big part of Universal’s business is syndicating editorial features. Do you evaluate those as well?
Salem: Yes. Universal might launch 10–12 features a year. Of those, two or three might be traditional comic strips or panels. One might be an editorial cartoonist, and the others would be some type of column or service that would run on an editorial page or in a features section.
Heintjes: Of those products, which kind would be potentially the most lucrative?
Salem: There seems to be a real interest these days in features that are packaged to meet a specific interest group. An example would be a full-page broadsheet on NASCAR that we launched. We sold the heck out of it—it sold to more than 500 newspapers in two years. That’s a full page in a time when we think a 600-word column is pushing the boundaries. But it provides an opportunity for a newspaper to reach a specific demographic need that might bring advertisers in to help support it, and it’s a legitimate, sound editorial product.
Heintjes: I guess it goes without saying that you’ll be applying that approach to other products.
Salem: We just did one on golf and we have others in the works.
Heintjes: That sort of innovation seems necessary in our era of fewer newspapers.
Salem: No question about it. There was a time when we wouldn’t have thought of anything that could conceivably be ad-sponsored, because we were strictly an editorial entity. But given space in newspapers and the limitations there, a sports editor doesn’t have space for a once-a-week golf column. But if you provide a page that they can sell advertising to, that’s a whole different ball game.
Heintjes: Speaking of new ways of doing business, how has the Internet changed the way you do business? Everyone is on the Internet, but everyone is also trying to figure out how to make money off it.
Salem: That’s the question we’re trying to answer here, too [laughter]. In terms of the creative aspects, I think it’s a wonderful opportunity. There might be cartoonists who are not interested in traditional print media who can use that as a creative outlet and do some interesting things with it and get reader response. As a way to generate income…last year, 25 percent of our new revenues came from the Internet.
Heintjes: What would have generated that revenue?
Salem: Providing material to newspaper websites, reformatting that material for non-newspaper websites, for example. It is a growing area and I don’t doubt that it will continue to grow. I think newspapers have been amassing capital for the way they view the role of their websites. A lot of newspapers have strong websites, and for us that’s another opportunity to sell content.
Heintjes: I wanted to ask you about the process that takes place when an editor calls to complain about the material you supply. “This character is gay,” “Trudeau is offending our readers again”…how do you respond to that?
Salem: [laughter] We do our best to avoid supplying replacement material.
Heintjes: How do you avoid the issue?
Salem: We just say we don’t supply substitutes, and very rarely do we. The problem is that the readership expects certain things from certain comic strips. Readers would not expect Ziggy to delve very heavily into Monica Lewinsky. If Tom [Wilson] were to do that, we would exercise our editorial judgment and say, “This does not make sense for Ziggy.” It would be too alien to readers. However, readers expect Trudeau to deal with Monica Lewinsky or the Clinton White House or whatever. To pull two or three days of that because a few readers object to that really, I think, violates the relationship between that cartoonist and his readers. If the bulk of Doonesbury readers expect and enjoy that sort of subject, why should we go to the extent of protecting the non-Doonesbury reader? That’s our position.
Heintjes: What is an example of an instance where you supplied substitutes?
Salem: Given technology, it’s much easier for a newspaper to just substitute an older, safer release for a controversial one. Some cartoonists don’t mind if we offer substitutes. But on a feature such as Doonesbury, if a client wants to install a safety valve, we can’t provide it.
You mentioned the gay character. Lynn had explored some touchy subjects before, like shoplifting and abuse, so the introduction of Lawrence into that comic strip was not that foreign nor that contradictory to the strip’s sensibilities. I do think that sometimes the press overreacts and blows a situation out of proportion, because even if 50 or 60 papers decided not to run a sequence of For Better or For Worse, the story was that at that point there were 1,800 that were running it.
At the same time, we fully understand and respect and support the right of the editor of a local newspaper to edit that newspaper. They have a better sense of what their readership is about than we do. If they decide that something goes beyond the line for them in terms of taste or potential legal problems or whatever, they have every right not to publish it. That’s what editors do.
Heintjes: What has been the most unexpected firestorm of that sort?
Salem: I was surprised by the extent of the anger focused on Lynn about Lawrence. Although we had talked about it and I had warned her about it, it was a bigger firestorm than I thought it would be. For Better or For Worse reaches readers in a way that is different from the way Doonesbury reaches readers. They bring different experiences to it. And I think some newspaper readers felt that she violated their trust in introducing this character. I don’t happen to think that, but I’m trying to read between the lines of some complaints we got. Also, it was fueled by a real panic over topics such as what it means to be gay, questions about whether the gay society is trying to swamp the rest of society, issues like that. Some of the negative reaction was fueled by groups who didn’t have the interests of the comic strip or of Lynn Johnston in mind, but only their political viewpoint.
Heintjes: I also think some of the hubbub had something to do with the difficulty that most people have in believing that a comic strip can do anything other than entertain on a very superficial basis.
Salem: You’re right. We receive letter after letter that says, “Whatever happened to the ‘funny’ pages?” You want to say, “Go back and read Little Orphan Annie from the ’30s and then tell me about it.” Or they say, “I thought the funny pages were for families,” and you point out there are some misconceptions about what comic strips should do and could do. I think every comic strip trying to appeal to every member of every family would be the death of the art form.
Heintjes: We’ve mentioned Garry Trudeau, who obviously works hard at being topical. To do that, he must function with a different set of deadlines from most other cartoonists. How different is his schedule?
Salem: He has a twofold approach. In terms of his running storylines and how different characters are going about their lives, some of that is projected well into the future, because he has Sundays that are sometimes in sync with the dailies. At the same time he has that stream of writing going, he has a separate—and sometimes contradictory—stream of current events. We normally get his dailies in late on a Friday for release 10 days later. That’s been his pattern for a long time.
Heintjes: Not much wiggle room there.
Salem: No, there isn’t. Our dealings with Garry from way back when, from when he first took a sabbatical, really raised our consciousness in terms of creative pressure and the need for time off. That was one of the key things that led to our institution of the vacation policy.
Heintjes: Putting Universal’s cartoonists aside for a moment, whose work do you enjoy?
Salem: I don’t read comic strips in the newspaper. Once in a while I’ll see a sales kit from another strip that one of our salesmen has picked up and I’ll go through it. I read the trade press. But in terms of being a devoted comics reader, I am not, and for mostly peculiar reasons that relate to me being influenced by what other people are doing. I try to bring certain ideas, goals and principles to bear on any strip we select and edit, and I want to keep those pristine.
Heintjes: What are the costs of launching a new strip?
Salem: It’s considerable. Keep in mind that, contractually, production costs come off the top, so we share them with the cartoonist. A sales kit can run $10,000–$12,000, but that’s not the real expense. The real expense is more difficult to itemize, because we’re talking about six salespeople on the road knocking on editors’ doors for 42 weeks a year. If our accounting department has done this calculation I’m not aware of it, but I don’t know what it costs to put a salesman into all those markets selling a feature. That is a considerable expense. The real hidden factor is: Because we chose Feature X over Feature Y, does that mean we lost out on the potential of Y? That’s the sort of question you can’t ever really get an answer to. But if you look at the total investment of time, work and personnel in a feature, then it’s substantial. There’s editorial time; there’s lots of sales time and all the backup time. So I don’t have an exact answer, but I’m guessing it’s somewhere in the low six figures.
Heintjes: How would that compare to the cost of doing the same thing 25 years ago?
Salem: Given the higher cost of traveling, it’s a lot higher. I guess you could correlate to the general increase in the consumer price index, but we have more salespeople now than we did then.
Heintjes: Why is that, since fewer markets exist now?
Salem: There may be fewer markets, but the opportunities and revenues are greater. We’re selling more features to more areas of the newspaper. We’re calling on ad people and web people. We’re setting up book programs. It’s no longer a case of calling on one editor, then moving on to the next town.
Heintjes: Do the increased costs of launching a strip cause you to be more conservative now than you used to be, or do you feel you have the same latitude in launching a strip?
Salem: I think we have the same latitude. John McMeel and Kathy Andrews, the owners of the company, have been very supportive of the things we have tried to do on the syndicate side. If anything, they challenge me to do better, and that’s fine; we all need those challenges. But when we sign up a feature we have to ask those questions. The market is not as open as it used to be. There was a time when we launched three strips a year, and now we probably launch, roughly, four strips every two years, so we don’t offer as many as we used to offer—partly it’s because we’re competing against ourselves. We have established strips that are trying to get better established, and other syndicates have good strips. And as you mentioned, the number of outlets is fewer than it was 15 or 20 years ago.
Heintjes: When something unusual happens in the industry—for example, Bill Watterson walks and all of a sudden 2,000 slots open up—it becomes a matter of preserving market share. How does Universal go about preserving as much market share as possible?
Salem: Well, given that we’ve had both Gary Larson and Bill Watterson decide to retire their strips, we’ve probably got more experience there than anyone. It’s one thing to have a cartoonist change syndicates, as Lynn did. The market share for that feature will remain relatively stable. But in the cases of Larson and Watterson, we knew in advance it was going to happen, and the question was when we were going to go public with it in order to capture as much of the market as we could. We did have the advantage of knowing ahead of time and getting people ready to make the battery of calls, but once you make that first call, it’s public, so the advantage is slight. I happen to think that a combination of good selling and quality always prevails. Heaven forbid that this happens to us again, but if it does, the feature that picks up the most market—whether it’s by us or somebody else—will be the feature with the combination of selling and quality. You can’t sell something that’s not good. And if you don’t have good salespeople, a good feature won’t get a fair hearing.
Heintjes: Do salespeople have any input on what properties Universal picks up?
Salem: I almost always seek their input.
Heintjes: During your time at Universal, have you always sought their input?
Salem: We probably cooperate more with sales now than we did when I started. But it’s a larger company, and I think that’s part of the natural growth of the company. The decision is ultimately an editorial decision. There have been things that sales has said will do well that haven’t, and things that sales has said will not do well that have. And all combinations in between. Our salespeople are wonderful pros, and they’re out there talking to editors every day. They’ve got a good ear for what’s going on, and we would be foolish not to listen to that. We want to come up with things that will sell, but at the same time we bring some extra criteria to the decision. If I brought them a feature to sell that they had never even seen, I know they’d bring their professional best to it—they always have.
Heintjes: In talking to younger cartoonists—not just Universal ones, but from every syndicate—there’s a feeling that they receive a huge sales push at first and are then left to build their own momentum. What are your feelings on that? Is a strip supposed to sell itself after a while, or is sales pressure exerted continuously?
Salem: I think it would be non-human to think that every feature is going to get the same amount of attention all of the time. If one feature has 50 papers as a starting list, and another has 200 papers as a starting list, the latter one has built up a momentum of its own. That doesn’t mean the first feature is dropped or is allowed to languish. We frequently put bonuses on our backlist and we try to give it attention, but there comes a point where the market has spoken to us. Realistically, you can give as much attention as you want to a feature that’s been out there for a while, but after a number of newspapers have said “No” a number of times, that critical relationship between the salesperson and the editor will only deteriorate if you keep bringing the same subject back up. So we have to be realistic.
Just last December we passed 1,000 papers on FoxTrot. It took us 10 years to get there. I wish we could do that for every feature, but we can’t. In many cases it’s not for lack of effort, but sometimes the market says, “This is all we can absorb of this feature.” Unfortunately, it’s one of the sad realities of the business.
Heintjes: Is there a strip whose success you have found especially gratifying?
Salem: Actually, I have more stories about the other kind—things that I’m disappointed about [laughter]. The first strip I looked at and fell in love with was Cathy, and I’m still delighted with what happened with Cathy. That was one of those flukes—it happened to hit the top of my in-box, and I sent it to Jim the same day it came in. I fell in love with it and wrote a note on top about how I really liked it but maybe we needed to work on the art. It hit the top of Jim’s in-box, and at that time Jim was really making the decisions.
Heintjes: What were your feelings about the art?
Salem: This was 1976; it was a very different time. When the market was crowded with strips with art stronger than writing, Cathy reversed that. I just loved the writing, and Jim got back to me the same day and said, “Let’s get her a contract.” It happened that fast. I might add that it took us well over two years to hit 100 newspapers with that feature, and now it’s at 1,400.
Heintjes: Do you think the marketplace has a greater tolerance for cartoonists who don’t possess great technical facility as draftsmen than it has in decades past?
Salem: I think newspapers realize that reader habits have changed. The day of ornate art and labyrinthine storylines is over. Space in newspapers is a major factor, as is time on the part of readers. We can sell good writing and so-so art, but we have a difficult time persuading newspaper to take good art and so-so writing. Consequently, we’re all scrabbling for the cartoonists who can do both well.
Heintjes: Have your children ever acted as barometers of what would appeal to young readers?
Salem: I remember when I brought home Calvin and Hobbes. My son was 8 and my daughter was 10. I showed them the strip, and they both fell in love with it. My son came out with the line, “This is the Doonesbury for kids,” and I ended up using that in my presentation. My wife and kids have often been involved. We have some wonderful memories of cartoonists who have come to the house. My kids played volleyball with Gary Larson, and Bill Watterson and Cathy Guisewite and Lynn Johnston came to dinner. Those are memories they’ll always have.
Heintjes: Cathy was clearly the big fish that didn’t get away. What about the big fish that did get away?
Salem: We all can tell lots of stories about this. Our rejection letter for Dilbert is up there on Scott Adams’ website, along with rejections from other syndicates. So you have to give United a lot of credit for spotting him and having faith in his talent. That’s a story that I’m occasionally reminded of here [laughter]. But that happens.
Heintjes: What still excites you about the business?
Salem: There’s nothing like taking somebody who is unknown and working with that person until he or she is communicating with readers in a way that cartoonists want to. It’s very exciting and rewarding. The Boondocks had the biggest launch of any strip we’ve had. Two years ago, he was a student at the University of Maryland, and on April 19 he woke up and was in 35 of the top 40 newspaper markets. It’s very exciting, even after all this time.