74th Reubens – 50 Years of Andrews McMeel

The 2020 Reuben Awards Weekend and Dinner is being held in Kansas City, Missouri.

The choice of Kansas City has to do with it being the home of Andrews McMeel, and has been since the company started 50 years ago. So it is A Golden Anniversary for the syndicate.

Origins from ReferenceForBusiness.com:

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.

From that inspired beginning Andrews McMeel has grown to what Publishers Weekly earlier this year called the “Big House on the Prairie”:

Andrews McMeel Universal has evolved over the course of a half-century into a multifaceted publishing/media/entertainment empire with a worldwide reach.

Andrews McMeel Publishing is AMU’s largest division and has 125 of AMU’s 196 employees. It was established in 1975 to capitalize on subsidiary rights to the company’s syndicated properties and publishes books in genres unrelated to those properties. With 150 frontlist releases each year (plus 200 calendars), AMP has 3,000 titles in print. Simon & Schuster has handled sales and distribution to the trade for the past decade.

above: Jim Andrews with John McMeel, and John McMeel with Hugh Andrews


Last month, with the support of the publisher, Shelf Awareness celebrated the 50th anniversary of Andrews McMeel Universal.

In 1968, Andrews McMeel co-founder Jim Andrews discovered Trudeau’s strip Bull Tales in the Yale Daily News and, after working with him to develop the strip, Doonesbury premiered in 28 newspapers across the country in 1970. The widely read strip continues on Sundays and has resulted in a series of bestselling books over the years.

In its early years, the publishing division of Andrews McMeel Universal went on to publish many beloved comics authors, most famously Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes, and Gary Larson, creator of The Far Side®. Both strips were wildly popular during their runs and continue to inspire and entertain readers in bestselling collections. A more recent comic addition to publishing is Lincoln Peirce, creator of the Big Nate series. Big Nate had been in syndication for over 20 years before finding success in the children’s category.

The Shelf Awareness item also lists Andrews McMeels best selling books.

Yeah, more than comics, but this June it is AMS (and others’) cartoonists we’ll be celebrating.


Full disclosure: The Daily Cartoonist is a small part of the Andrews McMeel empire.