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February 18, 2010

Beyond the Pages with Top Shelf Cofounder Chris Staros

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Since 1997, the year that Chris Staros and Brett Warnock joined together to form the company, Top Shelf has been producing a diverse and interesting lineup of graphic novels for a constantly evolving industry. As a company that successfully predicted—and in many ways helped bring about—the changing format and structure of the modern comics scene, Top Shelf has been an industry leader, while still remaining true to its indie roots. It’s an eclectic mix, and we wanted to ask Staros what made it work, what trends and changes he saw developing in the industry (and how they were affecting his company), and what he and his colleagues were working on next. So that’s just what we did.

When you and Brett started Top Shelf, what did you set out to differently as a comics company? What made you see a need for what Top Shelf was going to do?
When I was a kid, all I ever wanted to be was a rock ‘n’ roll star. So I played a guitar and played in bands my whole life, played night clubs for about 13 years straight. I never read comics as a kid. At some point, I had to hang up the guitar because my hearing was going to hell. I realized I didn’t have any artistic outlet anymore. I was just having a day job, and I wasn’t too happy with that situation. And one day I stumbled into a comic book shop and picked up a copy of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, trying to find something that adults would read and not just the regular superhero fare that tended to skew a lot younger than me at that point. Plus, I was into French literature and a whole bunch of other things that I liked to read, things that were a little more sophisticated. And it blew me away. It hit me as hard as my first Black Sabbath album hit me when I was 13, which was—I could do this. I really didn’t have any idea before then as to the potential of the comic book medium. It had been so uniformly the same for so long, just superheroes, I as well as the rest of the general population sort of had the feeling that that’s what comics were. You know, that’s all they could be. And when I read Alan Moore’s book, I realized it was as powerful as film or literature as a full-bodied medium. It could do anything. And it wasn’t being used to do anything. It was being used to do one thing. I thought, I want to get involved and do this sort of thing. So first of all, I spent a year or two just educating myself on the industry, buying tons of comics and getting to know the industry well and finding out there were other publishers out there, like Fantagraphics and others, that were doing very literary books like Love and Rockets and Eightball and other things that were just phenomenal. And I realized there were people doing this kind of thing, but there probably needed to be more and more of a focus on trying to redeem comics as a literary art form. So I started doing a little fanzine called Staros Report, which was my take on what the best comics in the industry were and where you could find them. As I got on the circuit with my fanzine, I ended up meeting Brett Warnock, my business partner, who was also just joining the industry at the time. He was an artist doing little mini comics and also he had put together an anthology called Top Shelf. The name of the company back then was called Primal Groove Press, actually. And I started doing zines and also being sort of an agent for guys like Eddie Campbell and some others and representing their lines in America, since they were overseas. Also, I was sort of doing distribution for a couple guys. When we met, we realized we both had very similar takes on the comic industry, but we brought very different things to it. He was much more of a hep cat and had an amazing design sense. I was not that much of a designer type. I was more of an editorial type and business type. I realized that together we’d probably work well. We also had the same philosophy about comics, which is that we like good comics. We’re not elitist about where the story’s coming from, what kind of genre it is or if it’s nongenre. If it’s really good, it’s really good. And we really liked books that had a unique art style, had a lot of subtext, and had a lot of heart. Those are the kinds of things that Top Shelf really focuses on. So we hooked up and decided to become partners, and about that time, we changed the name of the company to Top Shelf, incorporated it, and decided to move forward. And since the mid-’90s, we’ve been part of a wave, not just ourselves but part of an industry wave to redeem comics as a literary art form.
 
Was the marketplace a lot different back then?
We and a lot of the publishers out there were really trying to produce things that looked more like books, that smelled more like books, that felt more like books. And then when you opened them up, you were surprised they were graphic novels. You read them, you loved them, you realized that they were literary and—kaboom. And we did, over the course of a few years, help change that whole reputation of comics. You used to have to explain what a graphic novel was. You don’t anymore. You used to have to explain that it’s not superheroes; you don’t anymore. People understand that comics are a very rich and varied medium now. And even after the success of doing that for a little while, as an industry, I think we all realized, you know what, we’ve forgotten the kids. Because I think we all spent so much time trying to grow up that we didn’t have good entry points for children anymore. So Top Shelf, in addition to doing our more sophisticated books like Blankets and From Hell and Swallow Me Whole and Box Office Poison and some of these other books, we’ve started a line of kids books. We’re doing Owly and Johnny Boo and Korgi now. And we just signed four other projects that are going to be coming out shortly. So now we feel that the stuff that we do, we could hand the books to kids and they would absolutely love it, and it would influence them greatly about their opinions about comics. Then there is stuff that would appeal to young adults and full-blown adults. Throughout the whole process, keep them in love with the medium so it becomes more like the thing to do, like baseball, rather than something you just abandon at 16 when you get your car, or something you never discover because you never could find out about it as a kid. That’s been our approach to what we’ve been doing as a publisher over the past 10–15 years.
 
Are there certain qualities you look for or that have to be there in what you publish? Or conversely, things you’re not interested in?
We definitely aren’t really looking to do superhero stuff. And not so much that we don’t love them. We’re very good friends with the people at Marvel and DC. We really respect what they’re doing. And of course as American icons, I love them—Batman and Superman and some of these other guys. I don’t necessarily set out to read them all the time, but definitely to me they’re great iconic American symbols. I love them. But we’re not going to go head to head with people who already own that niche. We need to find our own niche, our own voice, in this industry. And we prefer literary things. We prefer things that have a lot of subtext or have a lot of heart and are unique. But also things that have a good sense of plot, meaning you still want to turn the page and see what happens next. So those are the things that we’ve looked for. And also we’re one of the few independent companies who actually spend a lot of time editorially working with creators to help them get their stories to be the best they can be. In the independent world, a lot of the philosophy is Don’t touch the work; the artists can do whatever they want; and we agree with that, obviously. We protect First Amendment rights; we have always been a member of the CBLDF, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and defended rights for the whole industry. But it’s more about, as an editor, you need to be the silent voice, that true friend to the creator that says, “You know what, the story’s weak here” or “The characters wouldn’t do that here; you’re going to lose the audience if you go in that direction, because that doesn’t make any sense.” And maybe they can explain what they were trying to do and it will make sense, or the artist will go, “You know, I was worried about that; I wasn’t sure if that was going to ring true or not, so I will go think about that.” Then maybe we’ll come up with some ideas together, maybe we’ll come up with a second draft, or maybe it’s perfect. We try to make these stories as best they can be. And that I think has helped Top Shelf a lot, in that when we do put out stories—and again, not all of them end up with this editorial process; some books come in perfectly formed and others need work—the result is I think we’ve been able to pull even better things out of our creators, and more of our books have had that resonance where they stuck with people. “Wow, that really impacted me emotionally!” And they talk about it and they recommend it to their friends and buy them as presents for other people and things like that. We’ve tried to put out books that—you know that feeling when you leave the movie theater, the sword is still in your hand, so to speak? Where you’re still glowing with whatever you just saw? We want our books to have that impact.
 

What’s your publishing schedule like in the average year, and is 2010 average?
We actually haven’t even really officially announced our 2010 line, but our website is always our most updated version of whatever we do. In fact, the crew at Top Shelf goes to the website before they even call me because they know that I tend to update the website with all the latest pages in our schedule. Our 2010 schedule is at www.topshelfcomix.com/2010releases. You just go to the website and look under Schedule and you’ll see all the books are there. We tend to publish around 20 to 25 new graphic novels a year and then reprint probably 10 to 15 of our books, because a lot of them just keep on going. And then we do about 20 to 22 conventions a year as well.
 
Would you like to see that number increase? Do you ever see the company doing 50 books a year?
No, actually. Absolutely not. I think that the mistake that a lot of publishers make is they just want to grow, grow, grow in quantity, but I think at some point, quality starts to suffer. Sometimes you’ll see publishers doing 50, 60, 70 books a month and I’m just like, really? Are there that many amazing things coming through that channel a month? Can people absorb it all? The main problem with graphic novels, even with our output of doing an average of two books a month throughout the year, is even that is sometimes difficult for the industry to absorb. And I often think sometimes we get a little bit ambitious ourselves just doing 20 to 25 books a year. But it seems to be the pace we’ve been operating at for a while and we want to stay there. We’re a small company, and sometimes people think we’re a lot bigger than we are, but we’re basically four people: Brett and me as the owners; we have two awesome guys who work with us, Robert Venditti out here in Atlanta and Leigh Walton in Portland, Oregon, and the four of us handle everything, from the publicity, marketing, editing, proofreading, number-crunching, distribution and conventions and everything. We stay very busy. But to survive in this business, you’ve got to be small, stay small, and think big. We’ve been doing it and even still, every year a miracle has to happen to keep everything going, because it’s a very expensive business and it’s always changing. And that’s one of the really dangerous things about anything in this world these days. Things just change so fast now that it’s really hard to figure it out and rest on your laurels for a couple years. Coasting doesn’t really work.
 
Especially, it would seem, with this industry and the readers it tends to attract. They’re constantly changing. Are there ways publishers could be doing better to reach new readers?
It’s a real guessing game. You can have the same complete massive rollout for something that you did for something else, and one book dies and one just takes off. And so what’s going to hit and what’s not going to hit, you may have an idea of and obviously, after a while you get to have a certain kind of eye for those kinds of things, where you get a hunch this one’s going to do really well and then you start to be right more often than you’re wrong, hopefully. But even still, how well something does, how deep it goes, that’s hard to say, because I can say publishers warehouses are overflowing with optimism. Sometimes you’ll have a lot of overstock on something because you had planned on it going a lot deeper than it did. And then other books, you’re just constantly reprinting because you’re underestimating the demand for them and they’re just always in demand. When you’re a small company, it is very difficult to do a lot of advertising everywhere. You can’t be like Coca Cola and buy 30-second spots on the Super Bowl or buy a lot of print ads or radio spots. So what you’re really relying on is the third-party endorsement and reviews and interviews and convention appearances, getting out there. You’ve really got to take that sort of 1950s Loretta Lynn approach, which is you get in your car with your record, you drive to the radio stations and say, Hey, mister, play my record! And they go, Who are you, you country bumpkin? And you go, I’m a country bumpkin with something to offer. Play my record, you’ll like it! And they play it and go, My god! It is a good record!

You have to have that attitude, so we’ve always been sort of road hogs with that. You have to meet fans one at a time and build that personal connection and fan base in a really true sense, where these people not only like the stuff you do but like you and your crew and the cartoonists you’re working with, so you need both. You need the quality products and you need the personality to develop relationships with your whole fan base to survive in this world. And then once in a while something you do will go big; it will go national. It will latch on to national press in either quality, like with Blankets, or quality and controversy, like with Lost Girls, Alan Moore’s erotic masterpiece. And then you end up firing on all cylinders. Barnes & Noble and Borders take the book in deep, the libraries take it in deep, on Amazon.com it ends up in the top 20, and all of a sudden you’ve got something really moving on your hands. And then things will quiet down again and you wait for the next big success, the next movie adaptation or something like that.
 
Are there trends you’re seeing in the industry right now that are important to be aware of?
Kind of a couple things. Obviously, graphic novels have become more popular. We’ve seen that. They’ve expanded beyond the direct market to the book trade. They are being carried by and loved by libraries. They’re being reviewed by major journals and magazines like Entertainment Weekly and all the review magazines and newspapers. Barnes and Noble, Borders, Amazon, Ingram, Baker & Taylor, the big avenues that move prose books are now moving big numbers for graphic novels as well. Definitely graphic novels have been a growth industry for a while. But also there has been that decline in reading material in general in the country over the last few decades, and so publishing books is a challenge in the sense that if you opened up a cell phone business in, say, 1985, I don’t care how bad a businessman you were and how awful a personality you had—probably you sold more cell phones every single year since then because there’s no stopping that industry in their upward momentum. More and more cell phones were being bought every year. And so you might have had a little bit easier ride. Books have been a little bit more of a challenge in that reading books is a little bit on the wane and a lot of the big chains have struggled a little bit. At the same time, graphic novels are a really good bridge medium because they’re very visual and they have a quicker sense about them. And yet it’s as profound and engaging as anything else. It’s much more similar to the immediacy of film and music than it is to prose books, which is why I think it’s been gaining in popularity to some extent. And now I think what we’re all experiencing—as music has experienced and film too—is the digital revolution and what effects the iPhone and iPad, ebooks, and Kindles and those kinds of things are going to have on the content we provide. And that’s a big unknown right now, but it’s something that we’re embracing and we’re moving forward. We’re hoping that it’s going to propel things forward. And even the whole thing about the electronic downloads—everybody who’s in the industry who creates product would prefer people buy them, because otherwise it cuts out the whole business model that makes things survive. But we have noticed that things tend to correlate: Things that get an awful lot of free downloads also get an awful lot of sales. And things that get no downloads are also not selling elsewhere. So in some cases now, we’re all sort of embracing this digital technology. We’re starting to get some books on the iPhone and this year we will have applications out that will be a Top Shelf app, and within it all, our books will eventually be available in sample form. If you like them, you can click on them and buy them through iTunes; you can get the whole book digitally on the iPhone and they’ll be readable as a whole page. If you turn it sideways, they’ll be panel by panel. And then we’ll be doing that for the iPad too eventually, where the entire books will be on the iPad as well. And even though the price that people are paying for digital is a lot less than print, we’re also hoping the print objects will become more and more like art objects. Nicer design, nicer to hold, not so much like pulp novels but like the things that we do, like From Hell and Lost Girls and some of these other books, where they’re really beautifully packaged, where the digital revolution will mean not only that we are selling more digital copies of these books but also people will like the books so much they will actually have to own the art objects as well, so they’ll buy the books. We think we can maintain a good sales base for our printed products and keep that as the core of our business and expand into these digital areas as well and provide the content the way other people want to read it.
 
Will this have a big impact on your business model, in terms of managing all that digital content and staying on top of it in addition to your print model?
It’s hard to say. I don’t know. Anytime you’re running some big entrepreneurial endeavor that has gotten kind of large, when you’re looking four weeks out, it is just the abyss. And you just start to learn to live with that. You just get up every day; you work 12 to 14 hours as hard and fast as you can; you try to react to everything that comes your way; and also you do strategic things every day to move the ship forward. But lo and behold, four weeks later, the abyss is still four weeks ahead of you. But you have kept it at bay. The force field is keeping it at a safe distance. And you just run with that. And then four or five years down the road, you turn around and look behind you and go, oh, my God, some distance has been covered. We’ve actually gotten somewhere. I can’t always say that I know strategically where I want to be in the future. I know some things have changed a lot, and even when I go back and look at the way the whole industry was designing books in the mid-’90s, they were so different back then, and without looking at them, I couldn’t intuitively have thought that they were the same, but the whole industry has really evolved a lot in how we produce graphic novels and what we look for.
 
What’s different about the design of them?
Well, when Top Shelf started in the ’90s, because we were the new guys on the block, we were able to come in without any traditional notions of anything. And Brett’s and my first decision, which was one of our best decisions, is we will only do graphic novels. We do very, very few comic books. Occasionally we do, but they’re just oddities for us really. We will always do graphic novels and we will always design them to look like books so that they will be able to fit on a shelf in a book store as easily as they would in a comic store, to try to bridge that gap and move into that world and attract readers outside our traditional marketplace as well. Because we don’t have to prove to comic book fans that we’re doing comic books. They know what a comic book is. But we want to prove to people outside of comics that what we are doing is worth reading. So we did that from the word go. And a book like Blankets, which was one of our first mega hits and still is a megahit for us, as well as a brilliant book, was a 600-page, $30 graphic novel. We worked with Craig Thompson and decided to not serialize that book, which would have been the traditional way to do it—serialize it as a bunch of 32-page comics and then at the end of that whole run, collect it. We said, you know, if you can survive just doing this book for the next three or four years on your own, let’s put it out as one massive graphic novel never to be heard from before except for the years of PR and marketing I did for years before its release to make sure people realized this big event was coming. Because I knew we had something with Blankets. I knew it was going to affect a lot of lives, because it was such a profound book. And then when it came out, there was this two-and-a-half-inch thick, 600-page, $30 comic book, which really, at that time, there were no $30 graphic novels out there, I don’t think. That was the real challenge: Who’s going to buy a $30 graphic novel? Now when you look at it, $30 graphic novels in some cases can be very affordable, because there are $99 graphic novels—you know, the super-deluxe hardcover collections of the Sandman, for example, or the giant coffee-table deluxe omnibus books, and so forth. And $25 to $30 to $40 graphic novels are much more common now because these things are much higher art objects and a lot of them are very big. A lot of those kinds of books have been our big sellers, too, like From Hell, Box Office Poison, and Lost Girls. All of these books are hundreds of pages long and very meaty reads. So part of that is the ability to have these trends that a couple of things have set, and again, not that we’re totally responsible for those kinds of movements, but it’s everybody pitching in together and making those changes that helped make that happen in the industry.
 
Coming up this year, Top Shelf has a big promotion called the Swedish invasion. What is it and how did it come about?
Interesting enough, I get phone calls all the time from international conventions and American conventions to say, “We would love to have Jeffrey Brown as a guest for our con,” or Craig Thompson or Alan Moore or Andy Runton or Robert Venditti. And then the conventions will arrange to fly them in and feature their books and their creative talents at these shows. But no one ever calls to say, “Hey, Mr. Publisher, we’d love to have you as the guest of our convention.” Publishers are never invited to anything! Except for universities, where we’re often invited to speak about the business of comics and about editorial stuff and doing portfolio reviews. Universities take full advantage of us and put us to work on that kind of thing, and libraries do as well. But conventions normally do not. But three years ago, the Swedish Small Press Expo called me and said, “We would like to invite you as our guest of honor for our show.” And I’m like, “Okay, which one of our guys are you talking about? Who do you want?” And they said, “No, no, no, you. We want you to come.” So I was very shocked and very honored and very flattered that they would want me to come, and I took that invitation very seriously in that I wanted to be an emissary from America to Sweden to bridge that gap between us. So when I went over there, I did do some talks. I went to all the parties. I made an effort to meet everybody. I went to every single booth at the convention and I actually picked something up from everybody and really tried to look at the industry as a whole over there and what it was and what they were doing. In that first year when I went over there, it really felt like the whole Swedish marketplace had coalesced into something really fantastic, and it was really what I thought was a summer of love over there. All the different factions over there were really pulling together to try to become something as a whole. It hadn’t split, hadn’t gotten angry with each other yet, had factionalized yet. They were really a cohesive unit. All the different publishers there were really working together to create something cool. And I got to be friends with a lot of people. I got to understand who was doing what. For some of the key books, I asked if they could translate maybe the first 30 or 40 pages of them so I could read them and see which ones were really worth pulling into America. So we ended up pulling in this year seven books: Mats Jonsson’s Hey Princess; Simon Gardenfors’ The 120 Days of Simon; Kolbeinn Karlsson’s The Troll King; Niklas Asker’s Second Thoughts; and From the Shadow of the Northern Lights, an anthology that is in two volumes edited by Johannes Klenell, who is also the publisher of Galago and the Swedish publisher of these other guys we’re talking about here. And then Swedish Comics History, which was published by the Swedish Comic Book Association.
 
One thing that’s interesting about Sweden is everyone over there speaks English better than we do, and they speak American English, which is very interesting. In fact, it’s very hard to hear Swedish in Sweden because they’re so polite to foreign visitors that if you walk up to a crowd of them and say hello, they know you’re American right away, and the entire conversation switches to English immediately. So it’s like trying to catch a leprechaun to hear Swedish. And because they’re just so nice. So they were all able to help in the translation of getting the books turned into English, and we worked with them to just tighten up the spelling and the grammar and the colloquialisms and how expressions are done in English. At MOCCA this year, the New York comic convention in April, and then the week after that at the C2E2 convention in Chicago, the Swedes are flying over for both those shows and we’re going to throw a party. In New York, it’s at Rocket Ship Comics on the Friday night before the con, and we’re throwing a party at the Double Door in Chicago during C2E2—Swedish Invasion parties. The guys are going to be there signing books, hanging out. We just really want to welcome them into our community because what the Swedes are doing in Sweden is very akin to what we’re doing here in our kind of press. They’re very personal stories. They’re very emotional stories. Some of them are very autobiographical stories. And it’s the kind of stuff I think people will really dig over here as well. And because most Swedish books are published in the Swedish language, which makes perfect sense, we just don’t have access to them over here because Americans really only read and speak one language; we can only hold one in our heads. I don’t know why the rest of the world can hold more. It doesn’t make sense to us as Americans. But so we’re translating them and in the month of April, we’re releasing five of them. Two of them have already been released, but we’re going to be rereleasing them, so we’re going to be having seven books come out in that one month, and we’re going to try to really have a focus on getting people to check out some of these books by these great Swedish cartoonists.
 
What else would you like people to know about Top Shelf?
We’re located in Marietta, Georgia, and we’re also located in Portland, Oregon. We’ve been around for about 15 years. I would say—and this may sound a little self-serving—it isn’t easy to do what we do. Any of these small artistic outlets you like, you really should support by picking up some of the stuff they do every once in a while. All of the indie rock magazines you like, the small publishers you like, the small record labels you like, they live and die by the sale of a handful of books. And you really don’t realize how important a $10 or $20 sale is here and there because they really add up, and at the end of the year, the bottom line is we’re either here for another year to do the things we do or we’re not. And I realized a long time ago: What is the value of a small publisher versus a large publisher? Why can’t the world just be large publishers? What do you really need a mall guy for? The small guy is out there doing some things that the big buys won’t necessarily do, which is taking a big risk on some complete unknowns. And really trying to make something of them. And in some cases, those guys turn into big stars and jump to the big people later. And sometimes they stay loyal to the small guys. We really do find diamonds in the rough and turn them into diamonds. And also sometimes books come along like Alan Moore’s Lost Girls, which was so controversial and so heated that no big publishers would ever have gotten within 100 feet of that book, because it was way too much of a powder keg and they would have been worried way too much about the liability and negative impact of something like that. We were able to take that book on, basically risk everything to do it, put it out there, and it became a real watershed book for us as far as talking about sexual freedom and the right to think what you want to think and to really be able to in essence in a visual form redeem pornography as a literary art form, which is something that really has not been done before in an artistic form like that. That was a really groundbreaking book, and you start to realize there is a value to the small houses out there and what we do. Because we’re able to take more risks, we’re able to put everything on the line for certain things we really believe in. But it does really require the support of readers to go, You know, some of those things look really cool. I ought to pick them up and support these guys, because otherwise they won’t be around forever.