Thursday, May 1, 2014

[replay] Back Matter Interview #8: Chris Staros

When I first started writing about comics, around 2006-07, I wrote for a now-defunct website called "Independent Propaganda."  The name of my column was BACK MATTER, and a fuller explanation can be found here.  This interview, which was the first one I did over the phone and, thus, was forced to transcribe it afterward (not. fun.), ran not only on the Independent Propaganda site, but it was also included in our print anthology, Warrior27.  I hope you enjoy:

Chris Staros is an extremely busy man.  Not only is he the publisher and editor of TopShelf Productions, but Staros is also the president of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a non-profit organization founded in 1986 in order to protect the First Amendment rights of the comic community.  TopShelf is one of the leading publishers that has helped revitalize comics as a literary artform here in the United States.  Since its inception in 1997, TopShelf has published a variety of books including From Hell, Tricked, Blankets, and Owly from creators as diverse as Alan Moore, Scott Morse, Craig Thompson, Ed Brubaker, and Dean Haspiel, to name but a few.  Garnering critical acclaim from periodicals such as Time Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Publishers Weekly, and The New York Times Book Review, TopShelf has earned a reputation as a publisher of smart, sophisticated graphic novels.  Despite working hard to finalize the production of Lost Girls, what he calls the “most important book TopShelf has ever published,” Staros was kind enough to take the time and answer some questions by phone for Independent Propaganda.  I want to thank him for his generosity and hope you enjoy what follows.

Could you tell me how the creation of TopShelf came about?

In the early nineties Brett Warnock, my business partner, and myself were both doing different things in the comic industry.  He was publishing his own mini-comics as he is a cartoonist himself even though most people don’t know that anymore, and he was also publishing an anthology called TopShelf Productions, which was published under a company named Primal Groove Press.  At the same time, I was doing a fanzine called The Staros Report, which was my take on the most intelligent and innovative comics out there that people should be reading.  I had found that you really couldn’t find the good stuff in most of the stores; it wasn’t really being carried.  Most stores carried Marvel and DC, and the literary stuff was being ignored.  So I started a fanzine to tell people how to mail order the stuff.  This was all pre-internet.  There wasn’t an email address to be found in my publication.
So Brett introduced himself to me when he read my fanzine because he really dug it and he sent me some of his comics so I could maybe talk them up in the zine, and we just hit it off right away.  We had the exact same taste in comics, the same opinions about everything, we loved the literary stuff but we weren’t judgmental.  We weren’t elitist snobs about comics; we dug everything.  If it was good it was good and that was it.  So we formed a friendship and got to know each other on the convention circuit, and in 1997 I pitched the idea to him that we join forces and actually form a corporation.  At that point he had changed the name of the company to TopShelf Productions because he liked the name of the anthology so much.  I jumped on board and we ended up forming TopShelf into an actual legitimate corporation and we started publishing together.  This September will mark nine years publishing.  Next year will be our tenth anniversary and we’ve published about 150, 160 books so far – graphic novels and comics – and we’ve had a good time.

You mainly publish graphic novels and collections and at the time you started out it tended to go against the conventional wisdom.  Did you feel at the time it was a gamble or just a natural progression of the medium at that point?

We felt in 1997 that was going to be the future of comics, the big future trend.  We just made a conscious decision to say we’re just going to do graphic novels.  We’re going to do things with a long shelf life.  We’re going to do things and design them in such a way that they would look just as good on a shelf at Barnes & Noble or Borders as they would in a comic book store and just try to do our small part to help introduce the rest of the world to literary graphic novels.  In that sense, we were one of the publishers that was sort of on the crest of that wave and we rode that wave.  While that trend of everything going to graphic novels surely wasn’t a result of TopShelf’s efforts, I do believe that we have some small part in that by introducing graphic novels like From Hell and Blankets to the book trade and helping prove to them that these are viable books that are as good as anything out there and deserve attention.

You said something interesting to me once at a convention, that every book TopShelf publishes loses money with its initial print run.

That is true.  I think every one of my books has lost money, except for one or two, right off the bat.  There are several reasons for that.  One is that the comic book market is still a small market in the world of publishing.  It’s a niche market with a small group of dedicated fans.  And when you publish literary graphic novels you’re limiting yourself to an even smaller market within that market.  So, in some cases the demand for the product is a little bit lower than you’d like it to be because you’re selling it to a small community.  In addition to that, because the resupply system for comics works so well – in other words, we have a great distributor in Diamond and they keep our books in stock and always can fill orders very quickly when they need them – that a retailer doesn’t necessarily need to take a big inventory position on a book.  When a book comes out they can buy one or two copies, put them in the store, and if they sell they’ll restock them, rather than buying twenty up front and seeing how they sell.  What that generally means is that you might get a thin layer of your books out and distributed in an initial solicitation.  But if you believe in a title like we do when we publish something, we tend to print pretty heavy on them.  We like to print between four and five thousand – and even up to ten thousand copies – of our books.  That means we are investing a lot of money in the titles that we publish up front so they can stay in print for a while.  And on books that we know are going to have a lot of demand we might edge up higher to that ten thousand mark.  Initial orders might be kind of low on a book, but we know traditionally that certain types of authors or certain types of projects have a lot of reorder activity and a lot of convention activity and can make their money back – break even – and even make money in the long term.  The interesting thing is that in this kind of a marketplace where the money is – well, that’s kind of a misnomer, I’m not sure there is any money – but where the money is made is on the back end with your back catalog.  So, if we have 150 graphic novels in print and we printed pretty deep on them to begin with, then every month we’re short on the new title that we just printed, or the three new titles we just printed that month, that back catalog with all those titles like Owly, From Hell, Blankets, the Jeffrey Brown line, the Kochalka line, and the Alan Moore stuff, that’s selling every month in reorders to all these stores that are restocking all these good books they’re selling.  That, in theory, will cover any shortfalls on your initial runs and help cover your operating costs and royalty expenses and all those other expenses and fill those holes in every month.  In a perfect world you’d make money on the front end and the back end with publishing, but comics is such a small marketplace right now that you tend to lose money up front on everything and then try and make it up over time and hopefully your back catalog will fill in the holes around that.

Other than that point, what are some of the bumps in the road you’ve needed to maneuver around in order to keep TopShelf going these nine years?

Most of it has been financial in nature, just dealing with the cash flow aspects of the company, getting in some tight pinches.  I know everybody probably remembers in 2002 we had our first book trade distributor go under right at the height of the From Hell movie and stiff us for a lot of money and kind of put us out of business in a sense.  We put out that internet plea and so many orders came in that we were back in business that same day.  We’ve had some distributor failures, just some general cash flow problems with sales that is always something that slows us down from time to time.  And recently with the book trade getting so popular and a lot of mainstream publishers jumping into the game like Pantheon and First Second we’re also having a competitive issue right now being able to keep our cartoonists in the house so to speak because some of them are starting to take lucrative advances with other big companies to publish graphic novels.  I can’t blame them for chasing the dollar but it is a bump in the road for us to try and keep everything rolling.

I knew Craig Thompson’s new work would be coming through Pantheon but I was surprised to see a new edition of Goodbye, Chunky Rice from them as well.  Does that mean Pantheon will have his entire catalog or will you still be publishing some of his work?

Craig and Brett and I reached an agreement that Goodbye, Chunky Rice would move to Pantheon, his new book Habibi would move to Pantheon, but that Blankets and Carnet de Voyage would stay with TopShelf.  Also, a new book by Craig called Kissypoo Garden will come out next summer from TopShelf.  So he’s going to have two publishers working for him full throttle to keep his catalog alive.  We’re happy with that.  I can’t blame Craig at all for chasing the dollar on that one.  Pantheon offered him a very substantial advance to sign with them on his new book and while we were disappointed to have Habibi go to another publisher I can understand it.  As a super gigantic Elvis Presley fan I like to think TopShelf has been like a mini Sun Records, breaking new talent and helping them get started and then at some point they have to make the decision like Elvis.  Maybe we’re too small to support them or a big label comes in and offers too much money and RCA picks them up.  That’s sort of what happened in Craig’s case and while we were disappointed to see him go we’re really happy to continue to be the publishers of Blankets and Carnet and the new Kissypoo Garden that’s coming out soon.

Regarding submissions or projects that you’re going to publish, what are some of the factors that go into your decision making process on which to publish and which to pass on?

The publishing decisions at TopShelf are always made by myself and Brett together.  Everything we publish is basically the inner section of Brett’s and my tastes in comics, the stuff that we really like.  If you look at the TopShelf line, most of the things we publish are unique, cartoony, and they have a lot of heart.  Those are the kind of things we look for.  In general, we do not do books unless Brett and I both agree on them.  We both have given each other an inarguable veto over the other so that if there’s a project one of us doesn’t want to do we can just veto it and we move on.  The only rule is that the guy who pulls the veto makes the phone call.  Basically, Brett and I have always had the philosophy of looking for things that are artistic, that have a lot of heart and originality to them, and that have a lot of warmth.  In other words, especially early on with TopShelf, we never really worried about the commerce of things.  We just always believed that if we produced things that we felt were artistic and incredible, eventually people would find us and find the book and trust in the brand and that the commerce would follow.  As the company grew and Brett and I both ended up quitting our day jobs because the company got so busy – not because it was really making so much money, but because it got so busy – we needed to work it full time.  And then the company started selling a lot of books, so now there is no day job that could cover our nut if the books didn’t sell.  So, we live or die by the sale of books and what we generally have to do is mix up our schedule with established talent, people like Alan Moore and Craig Thompson, whose books we know will sell well in reorder and provide a steady cash flow to run the operation, with other catalog guys like Jeffrey Brown and James Kochalka who we know are also very good sellers.  With that, we mix in, over the course of the year, the five or six or ten projects from new talent we’re trying to break.  So we might not release five books in a row by new people.  We might mix it up with some others to try and sort of balance the cash flow throughout the year between books we know are going to sell well and books we are not so sure about but we hope will do well.

For aspiring creators out there.  When you look over submissions, what cardinal sin do you most often see from aspiring writers and/or aspiring artists?

In general, the biggest misconception that an amateur cartoonist has is that you can sit at home, draw something, and put it in the mail and somebody’s going to discover you and sign you and you’re good to go on your first project.  Generally, getting published in comics, or getting anywhere in the arts is really, honestly, about a ten year process that you’ve really got to work at for a while.  So we get a lot of blind submissions to our P.O. Box every year.  As small a company as TopShelf is, because of our critical reputation and the kind of things that we do, we get about a thousand submissions a year.  And from those blind submissions, people we don’t necessarily know but are sending us work, we may pick up one of those.  Most of the projects that we actually publish tend to be from people that are at home doing their work and creating comics, but are also producing mini-comics, visiting conventions, setting up at conventions, hanging out after conventions, getting to know people.  So, not only over a year or two do I see their mini-comics get better and better, but I also get to know them, and know if I like them, and know if I could work with them.  I get to see how they market their own products.  Can they sell a hundred copies of their minis or self-published things at shows?  Are they good marketers?  Because in a company that’s as small as TopShelf –Brett, and I, and our full time guy Rob – that’s six arms and six legs.  If the guy or girl that’s producing these comics can’t sell them, and is very bad behind a table and can’t market their book, then we’re still six arms and six legs.  But if they are really good salespeople and they like to work shows a lot, then we’ve got eight arms and eight legs for their books.  And that’s a big strategic advantage when it comes to marketing them.  For example, guys like Jeffrey brown, who does Unlikely and Andy Runton, who does Owly, those guys are road warriors.  They work really hard and they’ve got great personalities and people really like them and identify their personalities with their work.  As a result, they’ve created large fan bases for themselves and allowed us to do a lot of press on top of that to really get their catalogs moving.  So, I guess in the small press the misconception for young cartoonists is that it’s just about putting something in the mail and getting signed when really it’s a lot more of a grass roots effort to help yourself help a publisher get your works out there and get known.

The announcement that TopShelf would be publishing Lost Girls came a few years back.  The social climate seems to be moving more toward it being better for publication of a book like this.  Was this a factor at all in the delay or was it other factors?

We signed Lost Girls in April of 2000.  At that time they [Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie] were about 2/3 of the way through this project that they had been working on for ten years at that point.  It took about four or five more years for Melinda to meticulously render all of those pages that Alan had conceptualized, and honestly about a year to two years to actually design it because it’s a mammoth project.  It’s a brilliant project and it needed to be treated right.  And seeing as how the project had already been in development for fourteen or fifteen years it didn’t seem necessary to try and rush it.  So it’s coming out this summer.  It’s going to be beautiful.  It’s going to be controversial.  But it will never be challenged as a work of art, because it’s sheer genius.

You are marketing Lost Girls not only as an important piece of literature, but also as a fine art object.  Will there eventually be a softcover edition or will it remain in hardcover like Dave McKean’s Cages?

Right now there’s no plan for a softcover edition.  It’s important to us that the book not be confused as a regular old book that’s got naked people in it.  This is a work of art and as such needs to be packaged as a work of art.  And that’s why it’s sort of packaged like the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Watchmen absolute editions, except we actually went the extra mile using nicer paper, clothbound covers, and gold embossing.  It’s a much slicker package than even those two, even though I loved both of those packages.  We didn’t scrimp on any corners on this one, that way when you pull the volumes out and you see how much love and care went into these and you see the beautiful cream heavy stock paper that the images are printed on and it has a sort of tinge of yesteryear, which the book is set pre-World War I, you’ll understand that it is an object of art and won’t confuse it as anything else.  So that’s why we’re sticking with the hardcover format.

I know Alan Moore has very definite thoughts with regards to his stories and what can be accomplished in the medium.  Does he have a similarly opinionated view in the presentation and format of his work and how much input did he have in the final presentation of Lost Girls?

Alan is the reason I actually got in the business in the first place.  I was a musician my whole life and discovered V for Vendetta when I was thirty years old and it just blew me away.  I couldn’t believe comics could be so powerful.  I thought I would get involved a little bit.  One thing led to another and here I am publishing Alan, ten, fifteen years later.  Obviously Alan, being who he is – the greatest comics writer I think this industry has ever known –of course has final approval over all of his projects as he well should.  But he and Melinda both gave us a lot of leeway to help package it in a way that would be pleasing to them.  So we ran a lot of ideas by them in the beginning and got their guidance on which way they wanted to go.  But in their heads this whole time, for this last fifteen years, they always envisioned it as three separate books, oversized hardcovers and a slipcase.  That’s the way they’ve envisioned the project from the very beginning and that’s the way the book was crafted as a story.  It is told in three giant sections that have different feels to them even though the story moves through all of them.

From Hell, Blankets, the announcement that Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill are bringing the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen under the TopShelf banner have been some noteworthy high points.  What might be some of the lesser publicized ones for you in TopShelf’s history?

One of the things that has become a runaway hit for us recently has been the Owly series of graphic novels.  It’s funny, when TopShelf started, the comics industry was worried about legitimizing itself with adults, to let people know that comics was a sophisticated medium on par with film and literature and it wasn’t just superheroes.  A lot of us publishers spent a lot of time helping to recreate comics’ image as something that could stand on its own with any medium.  And as a collective industry, DC comics included and all the other publishers included, we’ve collectively changed the public’s opinion of what comics are.  The term graphic novel now is something people are not unfamiliar with.  It’s still not quite the thing to do like baseball, but we’ve definitely come a long way in this last decade or so.  But there was a point a few years ago when the industry as a whole realized hey you know what, that’s all well and good that we’ve gotten people to realize that comics are intellectual but along the way we may have forgotten about the kids, like doing really good work for kids to get people into comics when they’re young so it becomes the thing to do like baseball.  Nobody picks up baseball at twenty-five, they pick it up at six and they go from there.  So comics really needs to be in that same mode.  A lot of publishers publish comics for kids, but we decided that we would participate in doing that new wave of doing literary comics while also trying to find some key books for kids.  And Andy Runton with Owly, which we’ve been publishing for a couple of years, has become one of those phenomena where a book just becomes hugely popular with kids and is becoming more popular all the time.  And it’s popular with adults as well because if you have the kid inside of you still, which I do, you can’t help but love Owly because it’s so charming and so soulful.  And with books like Aaron Renier’s Spiral Bound and Jef Czekaj’s Grampa and Julie and James Kochalka’s Pinky and Stinky and Monkey vs. Robot, we’ve started to develop a line of books that are respected as quality kids’ reads.  That’s one of the big ones.  Seeing the lines of Jeffrey Brown and James Kochalka, examples of two cartoonists who have a lot of integrity and quality about their work, becoming brands in and of themselves has been satisfying.  Being a part of developing Craig Thompson as a superstar in comics, we’re very proud of that.  And of course, our association with Alan Moore, as you mentioned, is huge for us not only as big fans of his work but to be the publishers of From Hell, Lost Girls, and League, and Voice of the Fire and Mirror of Love and Snakes and Ladders and The Birth Caul and his spoken word cds, is an honor.  I can’t tell you what an honor it is to be responsible for those types of books.

And finally, what does the future hold for you and for TopShelf?

That’s really hard to tell.  I never know where we’re going to be when I look ahead.  I just stare into a giant abyss and fear keeps me motivated to work fifteen hour days to make sure we’re moving forward.  And generally, it’s only in retrospect as I turn around and look behind me that I see that we’ve covered a lot of ground.  Ideally, things like Owly would take off into a national franchise, our science fiction books like The Surrogates would turn into films, Lost Girls would be a successful book that even though it’s controversial would be accepted as literature and not challenged in ways that would be destructive to TopShelf or to our retailers.  And these things I would view as being successful.  The truth is that just surviving and just being here is in some way the only kind of success that we can hope for.  The fact that we’ve survived a decade in comics is just a testament to just being able to survive.  Hopefully, there will be some easier times ahead where money isn’t so tight all the time, but I don’t know, it’s hard to imagine that being the case.  But in the event that if we can still be here in another decade doing a twenty year follow-up that would be all the success we would need.

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