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INTERVIEW: IDW CEO on What Made 2016 the ‘Best Year’ in Company History

by  in CBR Exclusives, Comic News Comment
INTERVIEW: IDW CEO on What Made 2016 the ‘Best Year’ in Company History

Comic book fans are well-acquainted with IDW Publishing, the company known for licensed comics including “Transformers” and “Star Trek,” original stories like “Locke & Key” and “30 Days of Night” and high-end collected editions like the “Artist’s Edition” series of oversized hardcovers reprinting classic comic book runs scanned from the original art. But IDW is a multi-faceted entity called IDW Media Holdings, also encompassing IDW Entertainment (movies and TV shows), IDW Games and the CTM Media Group, which distributes brochures in display stands.

As CEO of IDW Media Holdings, company co-founder and publisher Ted Adams is at the head of all of that. And he had a big 2016, ranging from two IDW Entertainment TV series having their first season on air — “Wynonna Earp” and “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency,” both of which are coming back for second seasons — and “March: Book Three,” by Rep. John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell, winning the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

RELATED: IDW CEO Makes Creator-Owned Debut with New Horror Anthology

CBR spoke in-depth with Adams, who in 2017 will add to his slate by releasing his first creator-owned comic titled “Diablo House,” about the big year IDW had, ranging from the success of “March” and some overlooked gems from its EuroComics line, to the new shared universe of its licensed characters brought about by “Revolution” and the challenge of introducing creator-owned comics in the current environment of the direct market.

CBR: Ted, at the start of this conversation you remarked that 2016 was the “best year” IDW has ever had, so that seems like a good place to start. From your perspective, why was that the case?

Ted Adams: We’ve been a public company for quite some time, but this was the first year where I decided to start attending investor conferences, and put some energy into that side of the business. Our market valuation is $280 million, so we’ve had pretty phenomenal success there. The stock is up a huge amount this year, there’s definitely a lot of interest in what we’re doing. That’s directly the result of the success we’ve had in those different divisions.

If you look at the divisions, specifically with publishing, this has really been a breakout year for us. We won the National Book Award, which is the first time a graphic novel publisher has ever accomplished that. Our lines across the board really seem to be working for us. That side of the business has really done well. Our games business is also up this year, pretty significantly. We had a couple of big things — we had a “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” miniatures game that we started via Kickstarter, and also had great success with retail. That single product is the biggest single revenue-generating project in the 18-year history of IDW, which is pretty phenomenal, at least from our preorder standpoint. So that’s pretty exciting.

The big driver for our growth this year is our entertainment division. We had two shows on this year — “Wynonna Earp” for 13 episodes on SyFy, then “Dirk Gently” with eight episodes on BBC America — both those shows have been renewed for second seasons; in fact, “Wynonna Earp” [has started] shooting in Calgary.

What the public markets are responding to is, these are not option deals. We’re not going to studios and saying, “Do you want to option our content and pay us a small amount of money, and give us some kind of nebulous back-end?” These are shows where we’re either fully financing or co-financing the creative development and the production of those shows, and in exchange we get the worldwide distribution rights for those shows. So it’s a completely different approach to TV than what any of our peers are doing,

Given IDW’s many divisions, how is your time divided these days? Do you get to spend much time on publishing?

These are my jobs: I’m CEO of the public company, which requires a lot of attention; investor conferences, shareholders, quarterly reports, annual reports, all those kinds of things. I’m also the operational CEO of our three divisions — publishing, games and entertainment. Very much a hands-on CEO with those businesses. I’m a producer on our TV shows as well. If you had to split that up, it’s probably, at this point, 25 percent CEO of the public company, 50 percent operational businesses, and 25 percent producer. I literally just don’t have enough hours in the TV to accomplish everything I need to do. I’m extremely fortunate I’m surrounded by an extraordinary group of people in all of our divisions. Pretty much everybody I work with is an A-plus performer.

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Let’s talk about the newly announced imprint Woodworks, which will be headed by IDW’s VP of Marketing Dirk Wood and based in Portland. IDW Publishing is a pretty diverse operation as it is — what’s it looking to do with Woodworks, and what IDW can accomplish in Portland that it can’t in San Diego?

The whole Woodworks imprint is very much a work in process, and came out of many conversations with Dirk. IDW is based in San Diego, and Dirk has been commuting here from Portland, because his family’s up in Portland, for six or seven years. [Laughs] How he’s done that for that long I don’t know. This was a good opportunity for him to stop that crazy commute, and also put together what I think is going to be a pretty interesting line of books.

I don’t want to give too much away, because we want to figure out how we’re going to roll out the announcement, but it came from a conversation where he and I were both — I think like much of the world — pretty discouraged by this political year. Whether you’re happy with the presidential results or not, it was a pretty ugly process to get there. The world feels like it’s full of fear and anger.

He and I both have a long-lasting love of print, of physical products. What we want to do is curate a magazine for people who are interested in entertainment, but do it in a way — I don’t want to say “intellectual approach,” because that would turn people off — but in a deeper way than you would get from web news or on Facebook or whatever. It’s very much a work in process, but it’ll be a combination of original comic content, interviews with interesting people, in-depth looks at pop culture and things that interest us.

We’re not doing a promotional tool for IDW. This is not the equivalent of what Image is doing what their magazine [“Image+”]. This doesn’t have anything to do with IDW’s content. This is going to be a standalone magazine that we hope will be of interest to people who want to take a deeper dive into what entertainment is all about. If there were an example I could point to, it would be what The Comics Journal was back in the heyday, when they were doing those big substantive interviews with comics creators, really in-depth reviews. That’s a bit of a model for us, but the magazine’s not going to focus just on comics, it’s going to be broader than that. This is an opportunity for us to do something that you can spend an afternoon with, and hopefully enjoy and have that nice, physical product.

For the past few years, IDW has a consistent place in direct market charts — the No. 4 spot, behind Marvel, DC Comics and Image Comics.

I think we’re going on five years now pretty consistently in that spot. Our friends in Portland [Dark Horse Comics] often try to convince people that there’s some reason that we’re not, but if you go back, we’ve been in that spot for at least five years. Before “The Walking Dead” took off like crazy, we were actually pretty often swapping back and forth between the third spot with Image, but they’ve taken that as a dominant position.

As publisher, is it an active goal to move that spot up further? Or given that IDW does so many different things, is the direct market not as much of a priority to you as it may seem to comics fans? What’s your philosophy on that position?

My philosophy is this: The direct market is without any question important to us. Those charts everybody obsesses on are just purely direct market numbers. It’s very much just a portion of where we sell product. I think this year, and this is just purely an estimate, our total revenue from direct market for IDW Media Holdings is probably going to be in the 15 to 20 percent range. Super-important, no question, but it’s only 15 to 20 percent of our revenue.

My thinking has always been, I want to be an extremely diverse publisher, and I want to sell my products in as many marketplaces as I possibly can. We’ve very much accomplished that.

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Of course, shared universes” are very popular in the direct market, and IDW has one now, as a result of last year’s “Revolution” crossover between Hasbro properties like “Transformers” and “G.I. Joe.”

The Hasbro “Revolution” event was really a longtime in the works. We’ve been working with Hasbro for 11 years, so we have a really long-term relationship with them. Our editorial team came up with this idea — as you’d expect, these things are complex to execute creatively, and making sure that our goals are aligned with Hasbro’s goals. A lot of work goes into these kinds of projects. I was really proud of the editorial execution, also really proud of the marketing and promotion that our marketing teams put together, specifically for the direct market. I really couldn’t be happier with the way it turned out.

What our hope is, we can have that shared universe where now those characters — while we don’t want it to be forced — it wouldn’t be out of the question that other Hasbro characters could pop up in an issue of “Transformers,” or vice versa with any of the other brands. We’ve set the ball rolling with “Revolution,” then you’re going to see that really continue on as we continue our publishing program with Hasbro in ’17.

Given the sheer amount of licensed properties IDW currently publishes as is, how aggressively does IDW pursue new licenses on an ongoing basis?

I kind of look at it this way: We have “Transformers”, we have “Star Trek,” we have “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” Those are arguably three of the top four brands, the only other one that really comes to mind as potentially bigger is “Star Wars.” If we already have the A-properties, we don’t need to be in the C-property business, if you will. With that said, we’re opportunistic, and always looking for new licenses, and new interesting things. I can assure you at any given time, we probably have as many as 10 deals swirling, things that we think are going to be good.

But really, with with “Transformers,” “Star Trek” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” and honestly, with “My Little Pony,” which is going to be big in ’17 — the movie’s going to be out — we’re really fortunate that we already control what I consider the premier brands.

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Speaking of brands, in recent years IDW has had several crossovers with DC, including two between “Batman” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” Intercompany crossovers were once commonplace, but now not a lot of people are doing it, and it feels more novel. How important have these been to IDW?

Certainly those are important to us. We have a very long relationship with DC. One of my first jobs in comics was working for [DC Co-Publisher] Jim Lee at WildStorm, I consider him a good friend, and everybody here has relationships with folks at DC and vice versa. While, yes, we compete for direct market dollars, we are as friendly as competitors can be. Certainly there’s no question that the fan response to those crossovers has just been phenomenal. The Batman/Turtles book [by James Tynion IV and Freddie Williams II] that DC published [last] year, and the one that we’re now in the midst of publishing [by Matthew K. Manning and Jon Sommariva], people just absolutely love what we’re doing.

I think that goes back to creative execution. We’re not just smooshing these properties together and throwing them out there. There’s a lot of thought going into the creative; making sure that the stories make sense, that we have the best writers we possibly can, the best artists, and really try to make great comics. I think we’re definitely seeing the results of that, from fandom.

IDW is in an interesting position, because more than any other single publisher, IDW works with other publishers. DC, as noted, but also publishing Artist’s Editions of both Marvel and DC works, collaborating with Archie on some collected editions — it feels like that all makes IDW a bit of a different entity than other comics publishers.

It goes back to my desire for us to be a diverse publisher. Clearly our Artist’s Edition line is as far away as you can get from our Micro Comic Fun Packs, as you can imagine. One is mass market and cheap; one is a much bigger, more expensive line for the hardcore collector. I think because we’ve proven our ability to execute against those products at a very high level that our peers are very comfortable with allowing us to do that. In the Artist’s Edition line, we’ve done lots of both Marvel and DC books. Also, through our Library of American Comics line, we’ve also done both Marvel and DC; Spider-Man comic strips, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman. Through our Micro Comic Fun Packs, we haven’t done DC, but we’ve done a number of Marvel properties.

It all starts with relationships, like all business does, and also the trust that we’re going to do a good job for them. We also represent Archie’s foreign language releases, so in our international division we represent their catalogue; we also represent Oni Press’ catalogue.

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Original concepts have always been a part of IDW, but creator-owned comics are a harder market to crack — both because it’s new properties by nature, and because Image has such a corner on the market. Still, 2016 saw IDW publish titles like the William Gibson-written “Archangel” — how important is creator-owned comics to the overall IDW picture?

It’s in our roots. It goes all the way back to “30 Days of Night,” which was first comic we published. We’ve published creator-owned comics for 17 years, and always will. But as you referenced, it’s a lot easier for us to get a lot of attention for a Hasbro crossover than for something new. The William Gibson “Archangel” book, direct market retailers were a little more comfortable with a project like that, because Gibson’s attached to it, so it’s less of a risk for them. but I do think it’s a challenge, and not just for IDW. If you look at creator-owned books, outside of a very small handful, it’s a tough sell to the direct market.

There’s a very obvious reason for that, and that’s because the system is set up so retailers are taking the risk. If they order wrong, in almost all cases, they’re the ones stuck with the inventory. Retailers have to be risk-averse, and go with the sure thing. It’s just the way the system is set up. We have some interesting creator-owned books that are coming out in ’17, and we’re trying to think about the best ways to sell those products to direct market retailers, and the best way to market and promote those books, but there’s no question it is always a challenge. Part of what we want to do with creator-owned books will also tie-in to what we’re doing with Dirk and Woodworks as well.

A big source of original material for IDW has been via Top Shelf Productions. We’re at the two-year anniversary of IDW’s acquisition of Top Shelf? What has that meant to the company? Obviously it’s meant a National Book Award, for one.

Obviously the success of “March” has exceeded everybody’s expectations. It’s been very rewarding to see the response to that book. I was at the National Book Awards [ceremony], and Congressman Lewis, when he accepted the award, told a story about how when he was a young man, he loved to read, and he went to the public library, and was refused a library card because of the color of his skin. It’s a pretty powerful thing to hear. One of the reasons that I love that book beyond the financial success and the critical acclaim is that it tells that story in a way that’s very accessible for a large audience. I think that if we aren’t very careful, we will continue to repeat the mistakes from our past. My hope is that book will help people look into a moment in our own history which was not very long ago, and realize how sad it was, so we won’t make those mistakes going forward. That is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of book, as far as I’m concerned as a publisher.

Beyond that, being able to work with [Top Shelf Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief] Chris Staros and [Top Shelf Publicist & Marketing Director] Leigh Walton, two of the smartest folks in comics — great editorial taste, really unbelievable ability to market and promote books — I’m very proud to call them colleagues at IDW. A couple of books they did this year that I really liked — “Fun Family,” which just got nominated for the Angoulême award, is a really, really interesting book that’s worth everybody checking out. Then we have the sequel to “God Is Disappointed with You” called “Apocrypha Now,” which is also a lot of fun.

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It’s a notable acquisition, because two years into it, it seems from an observer perspective, to be run how it was before it was acquired.

Well, it is. They were good at what they were doing. What Chris himself would tell you that he didn’t like doing and maybe wasn’t great at was the back office stuff. Dealing with the contracts, doing the royalties, all those parts of publishing that get in the way of a small shop being able to focus on editorial and marketing. Those are the functions that we’ve taken over. I wouldn’t have bought Top Shelf if I wanted to go to Chris and say, “Now we’re going to completely change Top Shelf.”

We have a long history of working with outside editors. Chris isn’t an outside editor because he’s an employee of IDW, but if you look at our longtime relationship with Dean Mullaney or Craig Yoe, those guys both have published hundreds of books with IDW. What we don’t do is interfere with them editorially. What we do is handle all of that back office publishing stuff that they don’t want to do.

To wrap up, where do you want to see IDW go in 2017, and what releases are you looking forward to in the new year?

My mantra is always diverse products and diverse distribution of those products, so that’s not going to change in 2017.

I’d almost rather focus on some things in ’16 that I think got overlooked. We did a couple of books — Dean Mullaney has a line with us called EuroComics, it’s been known at this point because we’ve been republishing “Corto Maltese” in English. Those books are phenomenal. We did two books with Dean this year that I think were just amazing, and they’re a little more obscure, so I’m always looking for an opportunity to talk about them.

One is “Dieter Lumpen” [by Jorge Zentner and Rubén Pellejero], which is sort of an accidental mercenary adventure. The stories are great, but the art is just truly some of the best art I’ve ever seen. Anybody who loves fun stories with phenomenal art, “The Adventures of Dieter Lumpen” is absolutely worth your time.

paracuellos

Another book that we did through EuroComics was called “Paracuellos” [by Carlos Giménez]. This is the story of an orphanage after the Spanish Civil War. Kind of in the spirit of “March,” you see some of the things in the not-so-recent past that human beings do to each other — it’s pretty astonishing; these kids that went through these horrible experiences and were able to survive them. It’s a really powerful work that people would like.

We also published a couple of Disney hardcovers that we licensed from a French publisher, Glenat, with some extraordinary international creators, Lewis Trondheim being one of them. If you’re interested in really smart, well-drawn, fun Disney comics, those are really great books.

We of course had a lot of Artist’s Editions come out this year. I was really interested, personally, in some of the Kirby Artist’s Editions we did, particularly the “Thor” Artist’s Edition where it really gave this opportunity to see Kirby’s art in a way that you never had before, and you also get to see some of the editorial process. You see the notes that are hidden there, written on the margins of the pages. You start to see the communication that Stan [Lee] or somebody in the production office was having with Jack. You can actually see Jack’s hand-written notes of what he thought the dialogue should be. Beyond his amazing art, it’s a fascinating look at the editorial process in the early days of Marvel.

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