The caretakers of a nation's culture are its storytellers. What is a culture, after all, but the collection of stories people tell about themselves through their music, art, dance and literature? Through the stories they tell, people remember their history and envision their future. They entertain and enlighten themselves. Since ancient times, the role of the bard has been to preserve and perpetuate a culture by telling its stories. For more than a quarter of a century, Andrews McMeel Universal and its divisions, Universal Press Syndicate, Andrews McMeel Publishing and uclick, have helped define American popular culture by giving a voice to storytellers of our age. Through comic strips, newspaper columns, books, calendars, greeting cards, gift items and Web sites, this quiet Kansas City company has discovered, nurtured and promoted many of the bards of our time.
Andrews McMeel Universal is a diversified publishing and media company that includes under its umbrella one of the nation's largest syndicators of newspaper comics and features, a leading humor book publishing company, and a gift, card, and calendar division. The company's Universal Press Syndicate division handles the work of over 125 writers and cartoonists, including Garry Trudeau, creator of the 'Doonesbury' comic; Jim Davis, of 'Garfield'; the advice columnist Abigail Van Buren; political cartoonist Oliphant; and columnists such as Garry Wills, William F. Buckley, and Erma Bombeck. Universal was the leading light of comics syndicates in the 1980s, when it also included on its roster Gary Larson's 'The Far Side' and Bill Watterson's 'Calvin & Hobbes.' Andrews McMeel Publishing puts out a number of humor books, especially collections of comics by its syndicated artists, as well as general trade books, gift books, and children's books. The publishing division markets around 300 titles annually. It also sells over 11.5 million calendars each year. Andrews McMeel Universal also runs an electronic media division, Universal New Media, for electronic distribution of its properties. The company also markets gift items such as mugs and tee shirts, usually with a humor tie-in. The company is privately owned by founder John McMeel and Kathleen Andrews, widow of cofounder Jim Andrews.
Winning with 'Doonesbury' in the 1970s
The company that became Andrews McMeel Universal started as a moonlighting alternative career of two firm friends, John P. McMeel and James F. Andrews. McMeel was a native of South Bend, Indiana, who majored in business at Notre Dame University. In 1960 James Andrews rented a room in the home of McMeel's mother, and the two young men became friends. They shared similar interests in humor, and soon they began a small business together, syndicating material for Catholic newspapers. McMeel eventually went to work for the Hall Syndicate, which distributed 'Dennis the Menace' and 'Pogo.' Andrews found a job with Sheed & Ward, a religious publishing house that printed serious theological works. They continued to run their syndicate, called A/M Publication Services, as a sideline. Then sometime in the late 1960s, their wives jointly convinced them to take the risk of making the syndicate a serious, full-time venture. In 1970, McMeel and Andrews quit their other jobs and incorporated Universal Press Syndicate, choosing the name because it sounded large and impressive. Actually the company was far from impressive at the time. McMeel rented an office in Manhattan, but it was a fifth floor walk-up over a bar. Andrews worked out of his home in Kansas City. The young company's first coup was getting the serial rights to investigative reporter Seymour Hersh's My Lai Massacre. Universal paid $20,000 for the rights from Random House, and then sold excerpts of the book to about 50 newspapers. Universal gambled on the quality of Hersh's groundbreaking book, signing a deal with some papers to double its fee if Hersh won the Pulitzer Prize. He did indeed win the prize. Yet that was not enough to get the syndicate out of red ink. Its next move was to promote an obscure college cartoonist whose work had already been turned down by 40 papers. 'Bull Tales,' by Garry Trudeau, was running in the Yale Daily News when McMeel first spotted it in 1968. Despite its success with Hersh's book, Universal was close to bankruptcy before its first year was out. Consequently, McMeel contacted Trudeau about doing a more general interest strip than 'Bull Tales.' This became 'Doonesbury.' The controversial strip, which satirized current political figures, was turned down by many papers, but it slowly caught on. By the end of 1970, McMeel had peddled the strip to 28 newspapers, and 'Doonesbury' took off from there. By 1973, Universal Press Syndicate managed to turn a profit, and in 1975, Trudeau won the Pulitzer Prize.
Another early Universal success was 'Ziggy,' by Tom Wilson. Kathleen Andrews, wife of Jim Andrews, saw a 'Ziggy' cartoon in a book in an airport, and had the company call the artist to negotiate syndication. Wilson had been rejected by other syndicates, and apparently had little hope left, as he had stuck his 'Ziggy' drawings away in his garage. 'Ziggy,' through Universal, became a ubiquitous 1970s comic. Another comic hit was 'Herman,' by Jim Unger. This was an obliquely humorous one-panel strip, unusual for comics at the time. But Universal was becoming known by picking up offbeat artists that other, larger syndicates would not touch. In 1976 Universal was the first syndicate to pick up 'Cathy' by Cathy Guisewite, a comic about a single working woman. Nothing like it existed at the time, and the strip went on to great success, one of the first hits by a woman cartoonist. In 1979 Universal picked up another woman cartoonist, the Canadian Lynn Johnston. Her 'For Better or For Worse' daily comic strip became another Universal best-seller.
The company made some other changes in the 1970s. In 1973, Universal Press Syndicate bought Sheed & Ward, the religious publisher Andrews had worked for. Universal wanted to get into book publishing, so it took over the small press. Eventually the publisher was renamed Andrews and McMeel, and it printed mostly humor books by Universal's syndicated cartoonists and columnists. Another move was to shut down McMeel's New York office in 1975. The rent and overhead were too much, and the company thought it gained by being out of the New York publishing loop. Hence, McMeel and his family moved to Kansas City and all the company's operations were consolidated there. Then in 1979, Universal bought the Washington Star Syndicate from Time, Inc. This brought Universal a stable of political writers, including William F. Buckley, Mary McGrory, and James J. Kilpatrick. Universal was instantly a presence on the editorial pages of papers across the country. When Universal negotiated the deal with Time, that company offered to take over the small syndicate. Universal's officers rejected the deal, but did allow Time to buy a 20 percent stake in the company. Universal eventually bought back its stake, however, valuing its independence.
Success with Comics in the 1980s
By 1980, Universal Press Syndicate seemed to warrant its impressive name. It had a growing list of prominent cartoonists and some of the best-known names in political commentary. Its reputation was such that it attracted one of the most recognizable names in the newspaper world, Abigail Van Buren, writer of the advice column 'Dear Abby.' Van Buren was under contract with Tribune Media Services, but she was unhappy and wanted to switch. She called Universal one day in 1980 and McMeel, who took the call, first suspected it was practical joke. But McMeel was soon convinced it was really Abigail Van Buren on the line, and agreed to meet. Within days, Universal signed up the advice columnist. Also in 1980, the company signed one of the leading political cartoonists of the day, Patrick Oliphant. Everything seemed to have come together for the company that had once been more of a hobby than a business for Jim Andrews and John McMeel. Unfortunately, Andrews died of a heart attack in 1980, at the age of 44. His loss was a shock to the company. Yet his widow, Kathleen Andrews, increased her role at the company, and became vice-president in 1987, and later CEO.
Universal Press Syndicate prospered in the 1980s, snapping up some of the most popular cartoonists in the United States. In 1985, the syndicate picked up two cartoonists, one a novice and one an already established star. Bill Watterson had tried to sell his strip 'Calvin and Hobbes' to Universal's rival syndicate United, but that company turned it down. Universal offered Watterson a contract, and within a few years 'Calvin and Hobbes' was 'the hottest comic in syndication' according to an Editor & Publisher article from March 17, 1990. Another hot comic artist was Gary Larson. His one-panel cartoon 'The Far Side' was distributed by Chronicle Features, but Larson published books through Universal's Andrews and McMeel Publishing division. The book division had done very well publishing collections of work by Universal's syndicated artists. In 1983 it sold off Sheed & Ward, the Catholic book publisher, and continued under the Andrews and McMeel name mainly as a humor publisher. It also produced books by Abigail Van Buren and film reviewer Roger Ebert. After completing a book for Andrews and McMeel, Ebert moved his column to Universal. Gary Larson did the same thing. He signed on with Universal in 1985 and became one of the syndicate's best-selling artists. His cartoon was carried in more than 800 newspapers by the late 1980s, and he sold 12 books of his collected comics through Andrews and McMeel. By 1989, the books had sold over 12 million copies. Universal also opened a division called Oz in the 1980s to handle gift items, greeting cards, and calendars. This was an obvious way to extend the marketing of Universal's cartoonists. By the end of the 1980s, Oz had a line of 99 Gary Larson greeting cards, 96 Larson post cards, 20 different coffee mugs, and a hugely successful line of 'Far Side' calendars. In 1988 Oz sold more than four million Larson calendars.
Universal was ranked the syndicate with the highest comic success rate in the 1980s, according to Cartoonist Profiles magazine. Not only did it have some of the biggest hits in American comics, but its strips had longevity. Over 40 percent of Universal's strips that debuted between 1980 and 1988 were still in syndication by the end of the decade, a higher rate than any other syndicate, including the larger King Features Syndicate and United Features Syndicate. Though the private company did not release financial details, industry estimates seemed to indicate Universal was doing well, with revenue of perhaps $55 million in 1987 rising to about $88 million in 1991.
Multimedia in the 1990s
By the end of the 1980s, Universal Press Syndicate was one of the three largest newspaper syndicates in the United States, and its publishing arm, Andrews and McMeel, was one of the largest humor publishers. Firmly grounded in these two areas, the company began to turn increasingly to other media segments. Universal bought three weekly papers and a daily in California in the late 1980s, and then entered a joint agreement with a television studio to develop programming based on Universal's syndicated properties. This was Universal Belo Productions, formed by Universal and A.H. Belo Corporation. Belo also owned the Dallas Morning News, and as part of its agreement with Universal, it asked the syndicate to drop its features from the rival Dallas Times Herald. This action resulted in a lawsuit by the Times Herald against Belo and Universal. Universal was later dropped from the suit, and the Herald eventually lost. Universal Belo went on to produce a show called Beakman's World, which was nominated for an Emmy award. Universal entered other marketing arrangements in the 1990s, leading it into new areas. The company signed up to distribute books for Turner Publishing, a venture owned by the media magnate Ted Turner. Universal's publishing division also entered the children's book market in the early 1990s, signing a contract with children's publisher Ariel Books in 1991 to distribute 32 Ariel titles. The children's book category was particularly hot in the early 1990s, and Andrews and McMeel also began producing its own children's books, which were packaged with toys or other products. Universal also started a 900-number, or pay-per-call telephone service designed to boost newspaper subscriptions.
Universal continued to be a big player in comics syndication in the 1990s. Though it lost some of its earlier stars, it gained one of the biggest names in syndication. Lynn Johnston, for example, moved her 'For Better or For Worse' comic to United Media in the mid-1990s. In addition, both Bill Watterson, creator of 'Calvin and Hobbes,' and Gary Larson, of 'The Far Side,' retired from cartooning. However, in 1994 Universal Press Syndicate announced that it would be handling the cartoon 'Garfield,' created by Jim Davis. United Media had previously syndicated Davis's comic, which appeared in over 2,400 newspapers worldwide at the time of the switch. Davis also had a slew of licensed products. He spent an estimated $15 million to $20 million to buy the rights to 'Garfield' back from United. He handled licensed products through his own company, called Paws, but he wanted Universal to take care of the newspaper syndication of his comic strip. Apparently Davis had been unhappy with United for some time, and he was charmed by what he knew of John McMeel. They had met at publishing conventions, and McMeel used to jokingly try to get the cartoonist to sign a contract. Like Abigail Van Buren, Davis himself ultimately approached Universal about switching. 'Garfield' was a huge coup for Universal. Though the strip was already a giant in the syndication world, Universal managed to add 'Garfield' to over 100 additional papers within a few years. The company also marketed a 'Garfield' calendar, though much 'Garfield' licensing was tied up in Davis's other arrangements.
Universal's Andrews and McMeel publishing division continued to grow in the 1990s. It had a strong presence in humor, selling as many as 25 million books each by Gary Larson and Bill Watterson. It also published nonfiction books by its columnists. Beginning in 1995, the company moved to expand its nonfiction list, acquiring trade titles such as a book on the O.J. Simpson trial, self-help books, and a book about Bill Clinton. Its typical trade list ran to 20 titles in the early 1990s. The company planned 60 books for 1996. By 2000, the company was publishing 300 titles a year.
Because the company had grown more diversified and complex, it changed its name in 1997 from Universal Press Syndicate to Andrews McMeel Universal. The new name reflected the strength of the publishing division, which was renamed Andrews McMeel Publishing. The publishing division employed roughly 170 people by the time of the name change, and was the major contributor to the firm's annual revenues. Estimates put revenue in the late 1990s at around $175 million annually. The company also launched a division called Universal New Media in 1997, to handle electronic distribution of its properties.
By the close of the 1990s, Andrews McMeel Universal handled more than 125 syndicated features, including leading comics such as 'Foxtrot,' 'Garfield,' 'Cathy,' and 'Doonesbury,' and columns by Erma Bombeck and Abigail Van Buren. Its book division reached out into new areas, forming for example a unit specifically to handle the works of popular columnist Mary Engelbreit, and arranging to take over distribution for trade publisher Longstreet Press in 1998. The company also laid off over 30 employees that year, in what was announced as a cost-cutting move. Andrews McMeel Publishing also entered an agreement with major publisher Simon & Schuster to develop and market calendars, an area in which Andrews McMeel had particular expertise. The company had considerable talent to draw on from its pool of syndicated writers and artists. With its three principal divisions working in sync, the firm seemed adept at finding multiple ways to market that talent, from books to calendars to coffee mugs to web sites.
Principal Divisions: Universal Press Syndicate; Andrews McMeel Publishing; uclick.
Principal Competitors: King Features Syndicate; United Features Syndicate, Inc.; The E.W. Scripps Company.
This web site and associated pages are not associated with, endorsed by, or sponsored by Andrews Mcmeel Universal and has no official or unofficial affiliation with Andrews Mcmeel Universal.