This is a numbers game. Typically on cold submissions most cartoonists will sell only one or two percent of the cartoons they submit. If one market rejects you, send it on to others. Or, if markets are not asking for first publication rights or all rights you can often submit to several markets at the same time. Generally keep your submissions down to about 10 cartoons at a time maximum.
Markets change frequently. New publications start up and old publications may fold. I strongly recommend cartoonists subscribe to Gag Recap. Not only will you pick up new markets from this newsletter, but you can also see what type of ideas are currently selling to different publications.
North Light Books also publishes an annual marketing book, Artists' & Graphic Designers' Market. You can find a copy in most large book stores or you can order it from Amazon.
Some publishers accept email submissions, others prefer regular mail. Publishers will tell you what not to submit. For example, a trade journal on Glass Manufacturing does not want cartoons about broken glass. Keep your audience in mind. Most medical publications go to doctors. To the layman the high prices charged by doctors may be a topic for humor, but doctors don't consider that funny. Don't depict lawyers as shysters if you are submitting to a publication read by lawyers, and don't picture farmers as hayseeds or hicks when submitting to a publication read by farmers. This may seem like common sense but it's surprising how often cartoonists break these rules.
A lot of cartoonists like to stick to general topics for their cartoons because it is easier. General markets, though, are not many, and competition at these markets is fierce. If a publication needs a particular slant, especially if it is a difficult slant, they don't get as many submissions so the cartoonist submitting here has a much better chance of making a sale. You may need to spend a little time researching the topic and you want to make sure you picture props and settings accurately. It's harder to do slanted cartoons. To sell one cartoon to a general publication you may have to submit hundreds of cartoons, whereas if you submit slanted cartoons you might sell as many as 25 percent of all you draw. I have actually been able to sell 100 percent of the cartoons I drew for some slanted publications.
The pay per cartoon is generally less for a slanted trade journal, but because of the higher chances of making a sale, they can be more lucrative. Consider for example, if you sell one fourth of the cartoons you submit to a $25 trade journal, or you sell one out of 200 cartoons you send to a $150 general magazine, which earns you more money?
There is an old belief that a good gag will sell a poorly-drawn cartoon, but a well-drawn cartoon won't help much with a poor gag. The truth is with today's competition you need both. You need to be able to stand out from the crowd.
If your gags are not selling and the drawings are good, consider teaming up with a gag writer. Most gag writers will work for 25 percent of the sale. Some may require a little more. You should give the gag writer credit if you can. A lot of cartoonists don't, but I think it's only fair. Here is how I show gag writer credits on my cartoons:
Whether we like it or not, technology has changed the cartooning profession. If you expect to compete you need to be computer literate or team up with someone who is.
As with any other business you need to keep records. You should number your cartoons and keep track of which ones were sent to which markets. You need to report your income on your taxes, and there are deductions you can take for your business expenses. If you are not familiar with these you should consult your tax professional. Cartooning may seem like a fun job, but it is hard work. The harder you work at it, the more chance you have of succeeding.