Yesterday, the comics industry awoke to some surprising news when IDW Publishing announced that it had acquired longstanding independent and alternative comics publisher Top Shelf as a new imprint.
Among other things, the move will see current Top Shelf Co-Publisher Chris Staros taking the title of Editor-in-Chief as he remains in Georgia (and his staff remains in their home towns) to continue their work as the company’s other co-founder Brett Warnock retires from comics. Top Shelf has been a stalwart of the alternative comics scene for almost two decades, and it’s creative roster includes the likes of Alan Moore, Jeff Lemire, Matt Kindt, Craig Thompson and James Kochalka, among many others.
While the immediate plans for Top Shelf’s 2015 releases — including Congressman Jon Lewis’ “March Book Two” and Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s next “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” spinoff — remain in place, there are many questions as to how the IDW acquisition will impact both companies over the coming months and years. In the wake of the acquisition announcement, CBR News reached out to Staros and IDW CEO and Publisher Ted Adams for an inside look at the deal and its implications. The pair discussed with us how the sale came together, what their collective priorities are for new projects, new creators, conventions and beyond, and how Top Shelf will maintain its identity, even as it takes on new market might from its parent company.
CBR News: Gentlemen, let me start by saying congratulations — both on the deal and the fact that I think this is one of the rare real news stories in comics that seems to have an overwhelmingly positive response from people right out the gate.
Ted Adams: Thanks. Obviously, that’s the reaction we were looking for. Though Chris and I were kind of holding our breaths [the past few weeks], waiting to see if this would leak before we announced it. There were certain people outside our walls who had to know about this when it happened, and I think we were all kind of hoping the news wouldn’t get out before we were ready to announce it.
Chris Staros: Yeah, we’re really excited that we’re all able to talk about it now. Like you said, the barrage of phone calls and e-mails that have come in today really amplified what Ted and I have felt all along — that this is really exciting and good news. I think it’s very good for comics in general, the things we’ll be able to do together.
Let’s talk about the road that lead to this deal. Chris, many people have noted that Top Shelf’s publishing strategy has become a lot more focused over the past few years with you guys usually focusing on no more than one major release in any given month. Was that shift something you did with an eye towards something like the sale to IDW?
Staros: Well, I think part of it was a purely financial decision, in some ways. After the economic turndown of 2007, ’08, ’09, ’10, ’11 and such, the books that we were putting out were earning out slower than they used to. Putting out too many products meant that we’d never be able to recoup. Also, from a marketing point of view we noticed that with the small staff we had, if we put out too much stuff, not all of it would get the attention it deserved from our office. So we started to pull back a little bit and focus on doing ten or 12 books really well in a year rather than 20 or 25 books really mediocrely in a year. And the strategy worked, because we ended up grossing the same amount of money from a smaller group of titles, meaning all the titles were selling better and getting better penetration and audiences. Editorially, it forced us to make better decisions about making the things we publish have a higher level of quality. I think it was an economic-driven decision at first that turned us into a better publisher by necessity.
So Ted, where did you come at this deal from? I know that you’ve frequently partnered with outside Editorial voices over the years, like Craig Yoe, without ever buying someone outright like you’ve done with Top Shelf.
Adams: I think that what you reference is exactly right. We have experience working with outside editors who have created their own publishing lines, but with guys like Dean Mullaney and the Library of American Comics or Craig with Yoe Books and some other things we do, they weren’t pre-existing publishing companies. They were homegrown imprints underneath the IDW banner. Those were different. We wanted to go out and see if there was actually an existing publishing company that made sense for us to acquire, and through a mutual friend that Chris and I had — Bill Schanes, who, of course, was at Diamond forever — we were able to start that conversation and make things happen. For us, Top Shelf was #1 on our list. So to have that be the acquisition that worked out was really perfect for us.
What can you say about the process of figuring this out? What were you each looking for in terms of making this deal work?
Staros: I think first of all, like I said in the press release, the interesting thing is that the idea for IDW to look at Top Shelf and Top Shelf to look at IDW hit us both at exactly the same time. I had just finished watching IDW’s [President] Greg Goldstein and [VP of Marketing] Dirk [Wood] doing their presentation of the entire IDW line, and I’ve always marveled at IDW’s ability to make really smart decision after smart decision. Top Shelf and IDW started around the same time, and I’ve watched them do so many smart things with their comics. So as I was watching this presentation, it occurred to me that the kind of things that Top Shelf does really well are the kind of things I could see IDW wanting to do, but they really hadn’t assigned a main line editor to take over that responsibility. I thought, “We’d probably make a good team if we paired up in that sense.” I had made a note on my desk to call Ted and Greg that next Monday morning, and it just so happened that Schanes called me on behalf of IDW that same weekend and said what I was going to say to them. “I’ve got this crazy idea I want to pitch to you.” I said, “You stole my line!” [Laughs] So there was obviously some synergy there.
It took a few months to work out all the details, because there were a lot of questions that both of us wanted answered, and a lot of details for them to really understand the nuts and bolts of Top Shelf’s operations. All that just took some time, even though both parties were very interested and moving forward the whole time. It worked out really well.
Adams: I think that literary approach to graphic novels that Chris has is really one of a kind in our industry. I’ve been an admirer of Top Shelf for a long time in one form or another. This last holiday season, I picked up “March, Book 1” like many of us did, and as I read that, I was just blown away from multiple standpoints. The way the Editorial worked on it and the design was great, but also the smart approach they had to the marketing of that book and how they were able to get the world to pay attention to a graphic novel impressed me. Chris referenced this before, but it was really the way they take the time to make their books and then to market and promote their books. That’s something that we were looking for Chris to do as he continues to do Top Shelf at IDW.
We want to remove some of the distractions of the day-to-day of running the publishing business — having to worry about royalties, writing checks, paying bills and all those sorts of things. This should really free Chris and his team up to focus on the things that they’re great at — making these amazing graphic novels and doing a terrific job of marketing them and promoting them.
Staros: I think that combination is going to be great. I’ve been friends with and have really respected a lot of the people that have worked with IDW over the years. And over the process of these past few months, Ted, Greg and I have gotten to know each other a lot better. As we’ve been working together, I’ve said that I already know that there are going to be huge benefits from this transition. Next week, I’m going out to San Diego for a week, and we’ll be ironing out the little I’s and T’s on these issues. But already things are moving along very well.
Honestly, we’ve got a lot of exciting things already lined up that we didn’t have the finances to consider until now. Now we have the ability to make a lot of fun things happen, like hardcover editions and other things that were outside the range of possibility before. And knowing how good IDW is at marketing the products that they do, I think between the two of us we’ll be able to hit some balls a lot further, a lot deeper for Top Shelf than we’ve been able to do on our own — even though we are a good little guerrilla marketing team. In general, IDW’s marketing capabilities are going to be a huge help.
Top Shelf already has a really strong lineup of books set for the first half of 2015, starting with the second volume of “March” and continuing on to some highly anticipated projects. Will we see any impact on those releases, or are the changes mostly things that will impact summer and beyond?
Staros: Those first few titles that we have planned — “March Book Two” and the new “Nemo” book and such — were ones that we had talked about together that would be fun books to launch, so we went ahead and scheduled those. When we meet next week, we’ll be planning out the rest of the 2015 schedule, because I have some books I definitely want to do this year, and we’re going to figure out the best material to release. We have some reprints I’d love to do to help get our whole back catalogue back out in print for people. I hope there are some key special editions and hardcovers of things like “Essex County” and “Underwater Welder” — the Jeff Lemire books people keep screaming at me for new editions of — and that kind of thing. We just have to figure out the best timing for all that based on how we both like to do scheduling.
There are some exciting things coming out this year, like our Free Comic Book Day book which has been planned for quite some time. It features a story from this book “Motorcycle Samurai” by Chris Sheridan, which is going to be a big release from us this summer. That’s a book that perfectly suits the Top Shelf/IDW crossover. We’ll probably talk about how to do a big summer push on that. There are also some other big literary gems we have in the works, like “Renee” — the follow up to “Lucille” [by Ludovic Debeurme] — and also this book “The Fun Family” by an up-and-comer named Benjamin Frisch, which is absolutely brilliant. That will also be a summer release of sorts. So we’ll have the big meeting next week before we can announce the whole lineup for this year, but we have a very, very good line set for the year and some keystones for 2016 as well, like “March Book 3” and some other titles.
Adams: And when Chris is out here — Chris I don’t know if I’ve even told you this — but I have some IDW graphic novels that very much fit into the Top Shelf brand that I think Chris could be a real asset to bring some editorial guidance on.
Staros: Exactly! There are a lot of great chances for us to work together. In fact, Ted met a young cartoonist in Australia not too long ago named Campbell Whyte and showed me some of his pages from a project called “Home Time.” Even before this deal was set, Ted was calling me saying, “You’ve got to see this guy.” So I checked him out, and then he sent me even more pages, and as we started going over this material, I thought it was brilliant stuff. So I told Ted that we signed Campbell and were going to do this book “Home Time” — and now we’re doing it together! [Adams Laughs] So we’ll be finding some projects for each other, and I think there will be times when we ask ourselves as an IDW/Top Shelf family whether a project is good under the Top Shelf banner or the IDW one.
A few specific areas I wanted to ask about include digital. IDW has been on the forefront of that segment of the market, and Top Shelf also has experience with digital first releases, like the Top Shelf 2.0 initiative. Have you talked about ways in which this partnership might bolster some releases new or in the backlist?
Staros: Actually, our digital efforts have been tremendous through Chris Ross who runs our digital, and he, Leigh Walton and Zac Boone will all come over to IDW. [Co-Publisher] Brett [Warnock] has decided to retire and move on to other things. But for the indie publishers, I think Top Shelf has had the best success in digital. Now our digital guy and Jeff [Webber] who runs digital for IDW — because they’ve done an absolutely brilliant job with digital over the past few years — have already been working closely together to integrate our two programs. I think we’ll learn some stuff from each other in the process.
Have you guys talked about conventions much yet? I’ll admit, I’m very used to going to any number of shows big or small and seeing Chris working that Top Shelf booth.
Adams: Yeah, Chris has been way more aggressive with conventions than we are. We’ve only ever done a handful of shows, and Chris has had a tremendous amount of success selling there, so we’re certainly not looking to change that. If you look at San Diego Comic-Con as an example, the Top Shelf booth will remain there. They’re not going to be integrated into the IDW booth. We know how successful they’ve been there, and we know it’s a destination for a lot of people at Comic-Con to go to them and pick things up. We’re not going to mess with that.
Staros: One of the things we’ve also started talking about is some integration, because I think there are certain shows where it would be great for Top Shelf to have a little corner of the IDW booth and let us work together. Those are conventions where we don’t have a presence already. Then there are some key indie shows like SPX and TCAF and others where Top Shelf will still have its own setup at shows because that’s where we need to be for our core audience.
For Comic-Con, while we will maintain that separate booth because that is the location where the indie reader comes and it’s where we branded ourselves for 20 years, we’ll also be doing some big signings at the IDW booth to cross-pollinate some.
Adams: I think there’s a conversation that makes sense to have Dean Mullaney and the Library of American Comics at the Top Shelf booth at Comic-Con. Those are complimentary products, and that allows Dean and Chris to promote their books to people who may not know about each of them. But if you look at trade shows like ALA or Book Expo, those are shows that Top Shelf has not typically taken space at, but we do. So now at Book Expo, it makes sense for Top Shelf to have representation at our booth. They’ll be able to be at shows they weren’t at before. It makes a lot of sense because they’re at small press shows we don’t go to, and we’re at trade shows they don’t go to. It’s one of the ways that we really mesh well together. You put those puzzle pieces together, and it fits nicely.
Now that all the papers are signed and the plan is in place, what is most important for each of you to focus on? Is there a critical first step either of you see in adding Top Shelf to IDW?
Adams: The heavy lifting is done in terms of the contract and figuring out the purchase and all those things. There are certainly still some logistics that need to be worked out in terms of integrating Chris and his team into what we do and with our partners at Diamond and all the people we work with. But that’s all fine.
The thing that’s really exciting for the two of us and for our company is that we love publishing books. What we’re going to do is free Chris up to publish as many great books as he wants to publish. For me, where I’ve had success with IDW is when I’ve allowed great people to go out and put books together and bring them to market. That’s where all of IDW’s success has happened over the last 15 years. That’s what’s exciting about this. When Chris and I wanted to do this deal, obviously there were all the discussions about the money, but the reason we wanted to do this was because we both loved books. That’s the endgame here — to allow Chris and his team to make even more great book.
Staros: What’s really special about comics in general — even with distributors like Diamond and publishers like IDW and Top Shelf — is that everyone that works for these companies loves what we do. We love the products that we produce. It’s not about money. It’s about quality books. It’s about content. It’s about unique stories and unique art styles and things that leave an impact on people. It’s about books that have a profound impact on people and resonates with them and makes them want to talk about them to other people. At the end of the day, what Ted and I want is to put those kinds of books out on the table. So we’ll be working together to find those projects and keep doing them. We’ve got a lot of cool things lined up already, and it’s going to be impressive when we find some more.
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