[IDW publisher Ted Adams is one of the most personable executives in the industry, and one of the most forward looking when it comes to expanding to new markets. As IDW celebrates its 15th anniversary, we chatted with Adams about the structure of the company, his background and how IDW has explored new outlets and products including digital, mass market and merchandising. One of IDW’s biggest recent success stories in their “Micro Fun Packs”—little goodie bags sold at mass market checkout areas which include a mini comics, stickers, foldout posters, and POG-like collectibles—an unusual move into merchandising for a comics publisher but one he thinks will drive readers back to comics shops. IDW’s successes also includes creator owned books like 30 Days of Night and Locke and Key and one of the industry’s best archival programs with the Library of American Comics and Yoe Books. Given his background in the maw of the “indie comics era” working at Eclispe, Dark Horse and Image, Adams has been able to put what he calls his entrepreneurial spirit to work on taking advantage of the expanding audience for comics. And he’s not done yet. Many thank to IDW’s Rosalind Morehead for setting up this interview.]
THE BEAT: Since we’re doing a 15-anniversary look back, I wanted to ask you if you if you could lay out kind of the structure of IDW. I know that you started it with some partners and then IDT came in as investor — can you just talk about who’s still involved and what their roles are?
ADAMS: Yeah absolutely. I started IDW with three other guys in 1999 and when we organized the business we each owned essentially 25% of the business. So there were four of us who owned 25% and that continued on for quite some time. In the early days of the business actually we weren’t a comic book publisher, we were just a creative service company that was doing art and design for a variety of entertainment companies. And so for the first probably 3 or 4 years of IDW it was just the four of us and a handful of employees. We really started with an art book by Ash Wood and that led us to doing 30 Days of Night and CSI comic books. That was around 2001-02 was when we were first starting to publish comic books. But it wasn’t really until probably 2004, 2005 when our publishing business started taking off, around the time we picked up the Transformers license, and really started to expand our publishing business. (Editor-in-chief) Chris Ryall came in and really helped us build that business. IDW was transitioning from a creative service company to a publishing company probably around 2004 -06 Two of the partners, Alex Garner and Kris Oprisko I think frankly weren’t all that interested in being involved in the publishing business; the business was growing quite a bit and they had other things that they wanted to do. So we decided to figure out a way for them to sell what they owned in the business so they could move on to other things. We met the folks at IDT [a telecommunications company that owns such hings as tghe ringtones portal Zedge] and at that time we sold them half of the business. Over time they brought out Kris Oprisko completely. So IDT owned 75%, and Robbie Roberts and I owned 25%.
THE BEAT: Right, but IDT seems to be very much a silent partner at this point?
ADAMS: Very much silent, yes. They’re very happy with the success that we’ve had and certainly we’ve had tremendous growth, sort of unbelievable growth since they bought out the other partners. Certainly they’re there if we need advice or we’re looking for their opinion on something, they’re certainly there to give us a hand. But they don’t know the comic book business or the publishing business and they allow us to be the experts that we are.
THE BEAT: Well, that’s a pretty good deal.
ADAMS: Yeah, it’s been really nice.
THE BEAT: I was going to ask you, in 1999, I know you started as a packaging company, but that was really the darkest days of the comics industry, in the post newsstand era.
ADAMS: Well yeah. To be perfectly honest, I was really burnt out on comics. I started at Eclipse and I worked for Dark Horse, I worked for WildStorm and then when we were starting IDW I was working for Todd McFarlane running his comics line and I was unbelievably burnt out on comics. So when I put together the business plan for IDW it actually, specifically called out that we wouldn’t publish comics. [Laugher] The industry was kind of in a low spot, I was really burnt out on doing it and so it’s funny that here we are today. But the reason that we didn’t want to become one wasn’t necessarily because the market was in a lull, it was more just my personal passion was at a low peak at that point.
THE BEAT: But, I think you were feeling what a lot of people were feeling at that point. I think sales had fallen it was either ’98 or ’99 when the best selling comic was 75,000 copies. I think a lot of people were just like, wow, we built this direct market and this is the best it can do?
ADAMS: You’re right, I mean it was just such a—from the peak to the valley was such an extreme. You know, when I was working at WildStorm—and I wasn’t at WildStorm in the earliest days—but even when I was there comics were still selling 400,000, 500,000 copies and certainly anything under 100,000 was seen just as an abject failure. And to go from that to having the best comic be 75,000 was you know, the extreme was unbelievable.
THE BEAT: Working for Eclipse, Dark Horse, WildStorm, among all comic publishers you have this background where you must have seen a lot of things that worked and a lot of things that didn’t work in those times.
ADAMS: Yeah, and I think I’ve always been entrepreneurially focused and I always knew I was going to own my own business. And so my education, both my undergraduate degree and my graduate degree, are both in business and so I knew I was going to eventually own my own business. I didn’t necessarily know I was going to own a comic book business. But, when I was working for all those various publishers they were all really entrepreneurially driven as well. If you look at Eclipse and what Cat [Yronwode] and Dean [Mullaney] were doing, those were really revolutionary publishers and their entrepreneurial approach to comics I really learned a lot from them. Mike Richardson, in the same way. I’ve never met anybody who has a bigger vision than Richardson. I mean he’s always is shooting for the stars and often accomplishes it. And Jim Lee and John Nee at WildStorm, those guys were a duo that I don’t know I’ll ever see again. Jim, you still see it with DC, his ability to recognize what the market wants and the way to get the market excited. I don’t think there’s anybody else who has that clear sense of what works in the direct market the way that Jim Lee does. And John was able to execute his ideas perfectly. And certainly Todd knows exactly what he’s going to do and nobody’s going to get in his way and, God bless him, he’s had great success. I tried to learn from those guys and figure out what I thought worked and didn’t work and sort of apply that to IDW. Particularly as we’ve grown, I’ve tried to recognize the things that I thought had worked at the various companies where I’ve been and apply those, and the things that didn’t work, I’ve tried not to do.
THE BEAT: That must have been a great education.
ADAMS: It is yeah. I had my sort of traditional college education but then my work education and I am created to be a comic book publisher, there’s no question.
THE BEAT: Well, that said, with your own personal interest in the comics business at a lower ebb one day you turned around and suddenly you’re like, you know what? I think publishing comics was actually a good idea. [laughter] What was that moment?
ADAMS: Honestly, publishing is exciting. I’ve loved books my entire life. Not just comics, but all books. And so I’m just a reader. I read all the time, that’s what I do for entertainment and again not just comics, but I read everything, lots of fiction, lots of nonfiction, I read comics. The thing I like most in life is reading. Being a publisher and being able to hold the book that you brought into the world, that feeling is hard to describe to somebody who is not that passionate about reading. And so for me when we did our very first book, which was Uno Fanta with Ashley Wood, I was crazy proud to have published that book! I can’t even tell you. I’d had my name on, at that point, thousands of comics and books through my various jobs, but having brought a book to the world that didn’t exist before was the sort of high that I hadn’t experienced before. There was almost no money to be made with that book, certainly in the early days of IDW, but that ability to bring a book to market was just something that—it was truly like a drug to me. And I still feel that way! Our printer brings us advanced copies every Thursday and no matter what I’m doing I drop it and go and get the pack that we just published and I sit there and I go through them all. I see things that I like and things that I don’t like about them. But, that high from being able to look at those books and say if I didn’t exist these books likely would not be here, that’s a really good feeling.
THE BEAT: When you got back into the game with IDW, as I said it was at a low ebb but now I think we’re at what nearly everybody agrees is a golden age. Whether it’s the new material or the archival material. You guys are doing some absolutely ground breaking dream projects, between the archive editions and Library of American Comics. What do you think got us from the dark period to the golden age? Are there any key factors that you can identify?
ADAMS: I think the key factor is that the quality of the material got better. I think when we were at our lull the industry was also at a creative lull and I think that the industry has really raised its game from a creative standpoint. We’ve done that as well. When we were first starting to publish comics books, they frankly weren’t as good as the books that we’re doing today.
If you look at the licensed books that we did when we first got into the game versus the licensed books that we do today, they just weren’t as good. And there’s that stigma that’s associated with a licensed book that I’ve never really understood. I think it’s starting to go away. Our Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles book is regularly on weekly Best Of lists. It was on a bunch of end of the year Best Of lists. The Godzilla book that we did with James Stokoe was critically acclaimed; the Transformers book that James Roberts writes for us is well received not just by people who like Transformers, but people who like well written comic books. And certainly if you look to our creator owned things like Locke and Key and the books that we’ve done with Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith and Ash Wood—those are all really good comics. We got past that stage where the one thing that was driving the sales was gimmicks and it got to a stage where people were buying books because they were actually reading these books and enjoying the books.
THE BEAT: I guess in a way it’s kind of like everybody had to go through that crucible. People who stuck with comics, certainly it wasn’t easy money at all, it was a struggle. I think it was just the love of it that people stuck with and I think that kind of reignited the passion and the quality that you’re talking about.
ADAMS: Yeah, I think also the expansion of the direct market—I’ve been out there saying this for a long time but I really believe it to be true—what happened with the Ebook versions of comic books was unique in that it actually expanded the audience for those books in a way where people were seeking out the physical books. That certainly wasn’t the case for your local newspaper or for magazines or even for traditional print books, but comic books I think what happened there is that they’ve introduced comic books to people who didn’t know they existed and so some of them people then searched out the physical books in the direct market. I think it also reengaged people who had lapsed from the hobby. So you know if you look at, as you’re saying, ’99 where we were kind of in a lull, lots of people three years before in ’95, ’96 when there were lots of people reading comics, they all went away. Ebooks reengaged a lot of those people and brought them back into the market.
One of the things that I’ve been talking about, that I’m really passionate about is trying to figure out ways to introduce comic books to new readers and then redirect those readers into the direct market. Most of us figured out comic books, we got it at our 7/11 or our newsstand and eventually fell in love with the medium and we became direct market customers. And I think at IDW we’re very unique sin being able to expand the market in that way. We’ve been doing things like the Micro Fun Packs which are miniature comic books. We had really broad distribution of the Fun Packs so they were at every mass retailer—WalMart, Target, Toys R Us—and our sell-through was crazy. On the first Fun Packs our sell-through averaged about 60% at mass which is unheard of for any product. It’s an extraordinary sell-through. And that Fun Pack has marketing collateral to back, it drives people to the direct market. So if you’re a mom and you picked up these Fun Packs to put in your kids stocking for Christmas and the kid likes it, they’re not going to go back and get more fun packs, the only place really to get that content is through the direct market and our marketing collateral in there is very clear about that.
We also have comic books in the Transformers toys and it’s the same thing there. If you like that comic book, you got the Transformers toy as a gift for Christmas, you didn’t expect to get the comic book, it’s just a freebie in there. You read it, you liked it, the back of that comic book completely drives you to the direct market. If we’ve done our job right it very clearly explains to you, should you like this comic book, here’s the next thing to buy and here’s the place to buy it. We’re really focused on trying to expand the direct market in that way. I read the thing that Eric Stephenson said at ComicsPRO today and obviously, for whatever reason, he decided to take pot shots at us, but Eric seems to think that you can only expand the market by publishing books that Image publishes and that’s a really narrow minded way to look at it.
THE BEAT: Well that’s his method, to be fair.
ADAMS: Right, and what he did has expanded the market, no question, but Image Comics is not the only way to expand the market, clearly we’re out there doing our part as well. I’ve spoken to I can’t even tell you how many comic shops at this point and been in lots of comic shops all over the country and My Little Pony has brought lots of new readers into comic stores. And the stores that have embraced My Little Pony have found a nice new audience for themselves in the same way that I grew up when I was reading comic books. I started with Spider-Man and very traditional Marvel comics and then moved on to Eclipse and Dark Horse.That should be our goal. We want to get people reading comic books first of all and then of course they’re going to expand as they grow and age and their interests change, they’re going to try different things and sample different things. But it’s really narrow minded to say that the only way to expand the market is with Image Comics.
THE BEAT: Let me ask you about going into mass market, Target, WalMart, Kmart—some of them are barely even mass anymore actually—but you must have heard, as I have things like the key to saving comics might be this, like getting in to record stores or bookstores and getting into Target and WalMart. “Oh if we can only get in to mass!” But it isn’t that simple, is it? What have your experiences been?
ADAMS: What we’re doing with the Fun Packs is so unique because we’re not trying to sell that product where books are being sold. Because the truth is, the kids aren’t going into the bookstore section at Target. No 10-year-old is going and hanging out in the bookstore section at Target! But they are hanging out in the trading card and tchotchke section at the front of the store. It’s clearly aimed at kids. And so that’s why our contact product is so clearly defined to be able to reside in that space and be something that looks like it fits in that space, so that a kid who’s going to go and get a My Little Pony trading card pack might decide oh I’m going to try the comic fun pack instead. That’s our whole goal there. I agree with you completely that the dream of finding new readers by selling graphic novels in the book section at Target is a false hope—it just doesn’t work. But what we’re seeing with Fun Packs is working.
The other place that I think is a great feeder system for comics but doesn’t get talked about much is the Scholastic book fairs and book clubs. We’ve had tremendous success with them over the years, most recently in the current Scholastic catalogue there are three IDW products, My Little Pony, Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. One each of those books in the current catalogue. I just got the sell through on those and it’s also extraordinary, it’s through the roof. And it’s the same thing, if a kid gets a Transformers graphic novel through this Scholastic book club and likes it he’s not getting anymore through the book club. The only place for him to go is either to his Ebook device or the direct market. And I think that there’s no question that that has to be a good feeder system for comic shops.
THE BEAT: Can you give us any numbers on the sell through of these? Because I totally agree with you. Scholastic book fairs are kind of another holy grail actually, but they’re a holy grail that seems to work.
ADAMS: Oh it actually worked. We’ve been selling to them for years.
THE BEAT: That’s what I like about you Ted, you’ll give us an actual number!
ADAMS: They’re actually looking to be completely sold out by summer. So you’re talking about virtually 100% sell through in significant six figure quantities for all three of those books.
THE BEAT: There’s my headlines for this interview! I was just looking at the BookScan end of year came out and Brian Hibbs had his analysis of it. It’s amazing that even with all the difficulties of book publishing, that this market is still growing is incredible.
ADAMS: BookScan is weird because I’ve never been able to wrap my head around BookScan to be honest with you. Anytime we’ve done a BookScan on one of our books it just doesn’t reflect reality, not even close to reality. It’s so off that I’m just not sure, I don’t know where they’re sourcing information. So I stopped giving any credence to BookScan years and years and years ago. I know what our sell through is and then I can look at the BookScan and they just don’t match up at all.
THE BEAT: Interesting. I always say in places that report to BookScan this is what sold, but this is not what sold everywhere. But talking about the Scholastic numbers, I think it’s important for people to know that you could sell six figures of a graphic novel if it’s the right material and it’s in front of the audience that it’s aimed at, especially kids.
ADAMS: Even the Fun Packs are in the hundreds of thousands [of units.]
THE BEAT: Whoa.
ADAMS: Those are real big numbers. I would guess the month that we released the Fun Packs that we outsold whatever the best selling direct market comic books significantly—I wouldn’t be surprised if it was probably 2 to 1.
[In part two, more on digital and what’s coming up for IDW in 2014.]
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.