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Banking on KC – Kirsty Melville of Andrews McMeel Publishing

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Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host, Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. Dilbert, The Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes, all iconic global brands. And they all have one thing in common, Kansas City. With us on this episode to talk about that Kansas City connection is Kirsty Melville, the president and publisher at Andrews McMeel Publishing. Welcome Kirsty.

Kirsty Melville:

Hello. Great to be here.

Kelly Scanlon:

I mentioned a few well-recognized and really beloved brands as I introduced you. Andrews McMeel is behind many others as well. So give us an overview of Andrews McMeel and what it does.

Kirsty Melville:

Well, perhaps I should start with how Andrews McMeel actually began. It's a well kept secret of Kansas City. It's been around for 50 years. We celebrated our 50th anniversary last year.

Kelly Scanlon:

Congratulations.

Kirsty Melville:

Thank you. We had a fantastic party last February, which in hindsight, who knew that we wouldn't be having such parties after that?

Kelly Scanlon:

Really.

Kirsty Melville:

Party actually was John McMeel and Kathy Andrews. Now Kathy Andrew's husband, Jim Andrews, founded the business with John McMeel in 1970. They had been college roommates at Notre Dame and Jim Andrews moved to Kansas City. He had been an editor at the Catholic newspaper at Notre Dame, and then took a job with the National Catholic Reporter in Kansas City. And he was a very smart editorial person who was beloved early on by many of the authors and creators we worked with. And John McMeel set up his office in New York and he was a sales and marketing guy and he would pitch, they decided that they would form Universal Press Syndicate, which was syndicating cartoonists to the newspapers.

Kirsty Melville:

And the very first cartoonist they signed was Garry Trudeau. And he was a student at Yale doing a comic strip for the Yale newspaper, school newspaper. And a Jim Andrews said, "What about you starting a column, a strip for us called Doonesbury?" So Garry Trudeau is still syndicated by us. And last year we published Doonesbury 50, which was celebrating 50 years of publishing and working with Garry. He sort of represents the type of relationships that we've built over time and I think the company has its foundation on that amazing relationship with our creative community and working to bring their work to the world. And that of course has evolved from syndicating newspaper comic strips to publishing of books and calendars and greeting cards and developing digital products. We have a digital site, GoComics, which evolved from the syndicating comic strips and we're developing other products as well. So we're now a multi-faceted, well-rounded multimedia company that distributes content in many different genres to the world.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah, and across many different platforms. 50 years, and especially a 50 year relationship with a client like that. That is a really amazing story, a very strong relationship. And as you said, it does speak volumes about the philosophies and about the approach the founders not only possess themselves, but they were able to impart to associates at Andrews McMeel over the last five decades, that has not been lost. Why, when you talk about the idea that they had, a lot of people, a lot of founders in this space would have said, "Middle America? No way. They won't survive there. We're going to go to the coast. So what if we're from here or we've already been doing business here in some other aspect. But we're going to go to the coast." Why did they choose to stay in Kansas City and build Andrews McMeel right here?

Kirsty Melville:

I think if they deliberately did not want to be in New York. I think obviously, that's where the market was. But actually, newspapers were all over the country. So being in the Midwest was not such a bad thing. We had sales reps traveling all over the country. But I think it was more about the place. Kansas City is a bit of a well-kept secret for the rest of the country, I think, in terms of its sophistication, yet family-friendly, easy living. And I think the combination of starting a small business with a young family, which is what Jim Andrews had with his two sons, Hugh and Jim, and Hugh now is the chairman of the company, and Jim also involved. And John McMeel, I think was raising his family too and his daughters were here. So it was a good place to raise families and run a business.

Kirsty Melville:

Did it matter that we were not in New York? No. We were still doing business with the coasts. Also, at that time in the early seventies, I think it was there were a number of small companies in different parts of the country that was evolving. And I think that the environment lent itself to being a creative and entrepreneurial place. John McMeel used to say, and I agree, "We could be like a sailboat. While there's these big tankers everywhere, we could be nimble." And I think being out of the fray has definitely been one of our secrets to success as well.

Kelly Scanlon:

Oh, I love that. Be a sailboat, be nimble. Now you have your own interesting story about how you landed in Kansas City after growing up in Australia. What brought you here?

Kirsty Melville:

Well, I have to admit, I had never been here before I came for the job interview. I was raised in Australia. I came to the States when I was 16 as an exchange student, an AFS student, and fell in love with the country. So I started my career in publishing in Australia, but always had this longing to come back. So when the opportunity presented to move to the West Coast to work for a publisher called Ten Speed Press, based in Berkeley, California, I leapt at it. My husband and I were newly married and we thought, "Should we move to the States or should we have kids? Let's go to the States." So we moved to Berkeley in 1994 and loved it. And then of course you have children and life grows upon itself. And we loved living in the Bay Area. But then I was approached by Andrews McMeel after almost 11 years in the Bay Area working at Ten Speed and predominantly for that time to move to Kansas City.

Kirsty Melville:

And I had noticed that Tom Thornton had retired and he had run the business for a long time. And I thought that's an interesting company, but I'm never moving to Kansas City. So they invited me to come and I spent a day interviewing with people and not thinking really I would take the job. And I got back on the plane and I thought, "Oh no, I really like these people." And I would tell you that it's the people that really made a difference. I was questioned at the time, "Why? Why are you leaving the Bay Area for Kansas City?" And I said, "Well, I'm not sure." But in fact, it was the people.

Kirsty Melville:

And I had a young family at the time as well and I wanted a career and this was a wonderful job. And I could see that I could manage to be at home for dinner and still run a business and build on my career. And so Kansas City offered that opportunity. And so my husband, who travels, didn't need necessarily to be in the Bay Area. It was fine for him as well to come to Kansas City. So with a big leap of faith, we moved 15 years ago. It was a great decision personally and professionally. So again, I think Kansas City is a well-kept secret because of that. It's hard to articulate why Kansas City is such a great place to live.

Kelly Scanlon:

You essentially moved here, decided to move here for the same reasons that Jim Andrews and John McMeel decided that they were going to launch the company here. So you were aligned with their values and in their style of living too. It was in alignment.

Kirsty Melville:

Yes, it's a combination. And also their philosophy with authors and creators. I've always had a passion for supporting creative people and authors. And in fact, I met my husband, who was my author. So I was his editor and that's how we met. So I've always really enjoyed being in a position where I could help support the creative process if you offer people. Andrews McMeel has always had what they call, and we call today, a creative first approach, which is that we are nothing without a creator because we of course support them and try to help build their businesses and build a relationship with them. But the creative talent, the inspiration, the ideas, they're our creators and our artists, our cartoonists. That's who we support and grow and build. And that's why we do what we do.

Kelly Scanlon:

The media landscape has shifted significantly since Andrews McMeel founded in 1970, and people's interests have changed too. And also, the choices about how they can spend their leisure time. So how has Andrews McMeel remained relevant despite all of those shifts? A lot of industries have a hard time weathering one kind of shift, but that's three. How have you stayed relevant during this time?

Kirsty Melville:

It's always a little bit of a panic what's going to happen now with whatever the new thing is. And for years, people have said that the book industry was going to die, that it would be replaced by digital technology. I'm working backwards here. But curiously, during the pandemic, book sales for us increased. And what I think we discovered was that books are sort of a universal form of communication that stands the test of time. There are other new digital streaming obviously, or other forms of entertainment, but books are still entertainment and they are a symbol of education and knowledge. And so what's happened over time for us is that we've adapted our publishing. For example, the comic collections. We always syndicated comic strips and as newspapers have reduced in number, the marketing platform for comic strip collections also. The discoverability, the ability to find them in bookstores or in newspapers also disappeared.

Kirsty Melville:

But what we discovered was that children still love comic strips, and that if we shifted from publishing them for adults, although we still do publish comic collections for adults, and started publishing for children, there's one comic strip called Big Nate, syndicated for 20 years. And he wrote an illustrated novel. And then we decided to publish his strips in collections aimed at middle-grade children, essentially seven to 12-year-olds. And they took off. And suddenly, what we discovered was that kids couldn't find comic strips in newspapers. That's not where they would finding them, but they found them in books. And as culture has changed and visual literacies become more important, different styles of learning have become more important, adding that to reading, cartoons and comics have been an entry point if you will, for learning. And so what we've discovered is that our children's business, particularly comic strip collections and comics and graphic novels, has really grown over the last 10 years.

Kirsty Melville:

So we've sort of pivoted. And I think as humor became everywhere on the internet, humor is covered very well in every form you can think of, we found ourselves publishing books related to webcomics and changing the style of publishing so that our publishing complimented of what was out in the ether. And so, because people still love books and parents still see books as something they want their kids to read. It's the way to knowledge and learning and education. So we have always had a slant of fun and entertainment and relatability, and that content has evolved. That's a theme all the way through what we publish. But several years ago, just before Instagram was a thing, artists and poets were writing on Tumblr. And we discovered a young poet called Lang Leav, who was out of Australia actually. And she had a massive following on Tumblr and she had self-published a book.

Kirsty Melville:

So we said, "Well, we'll pick it up and distribute it worldwide for you," and it became a best seller. So that led us to think, "Huh." Well me, I was thinking there must be other poets out there. And we then found Rupi Kaur, Who's the author of a book called Milk and Honey, which has been a New York Times bestseller on the list for many, many years. She just recently published her third book. What we discovered was that young people were following her on Instagram, but they wanted to read her poetry in book form. And it was independent bookstores like Rainy Day. They were not buying these books on Amazon, they were going into bookstores because they wanted the physical experience. They had just enough money to pay for a Milk and Honey.

Kirsty Melville:

I knew we had a bestseller on our hands when I actually was in Rainy Day and I asked one of the women there, I was checking out to see whether the book was there as a publisher does, "Have you got a copy of Milk and Honey?" And she turned to me and she showed me the back of her neck. And she had a tattoo of the bee from the cover of Milk and Honey on her neck. And I thought, "Okay, we've got something going here. This is amazing." So it speaks to Rupi's, the quality of her work and what she's writing about that it has a universal message that relates to women and young girls everywhere, and men too. Boys were going into the store and buying it as a gift for their girlfriends. It was just one of those phenomenon, but the point is it was a book and it was first discovered on the internet.

Kirsty Melville:

And so I just think that we are three-dimensional people. So we of course are talking and relating through eBooks and podcasts, as we are right now. But we're also reading physical books and we're listening to audiobooks and we're consuming our content in multiple ways. And our philosophy now is to publish wherever anyone is. So we publish audiobooks, we publish ebooks, we promote our books through podcasts and social media and regular media. When we could, we would do live events and people would come to book readings. Now we do virtual events. So we just have to learn to be flexible in how we publish.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah. And many of your brands tie generations together. You always hear about the generation gap, and your brands however, they're so iconic that many parents want to pass the fun they had with them, or still have with them, down to their children. And so they introduced them to their children. And then as you said, their children discover some of your new ones and introduce them to their parents. So you act as a catalyst in that regard, in strengthening those kinds of relationships too.

Kirsty Melville:

One of the fascinating things about the pandemic was that one of our best-selling properties was Calvin and Hobbes. And I think what happened during the pandemic is that people wanted to go back to what they knew. And so our backlist sales, our classics, really, really sold extremely well. And so people get to that point, the complete Calvin and Hobbes, which originally, it was an audacious piece of publishing, was published 15 years ago and sold for $175. It was the heaviest most expensive New York Times bestseller at the time. Now we publish it as a complete paperback collection. It sells regularly. And I think to your point, if parents want to share that with kids, the messages and the themes and the voice and the caring that's reflected in Calvin and Hobbes is timeless. And that is why I think it resonates continually.

Kirsty Melville:

The other interesting license or brand we've re-introduced, if you will, this past year in calendar form, was The Far Side. So both Gary Larson and Bill Watterson said, "We've had enough, we're retiring. We need a rest." And so we relaunched The Far Side website last year, and then we relaunched a calendar, day-to-day calendar. At the time, originally, it sold over three million copies a year, the day-to-day Far Side calendar. So we republished it for the first time in a number of years last year, and it was a bestseller. It was the number one calender in the US last year. So of course, we're publishing another one this year. But the point being that there's some content and some comic strips and some humor that is evergreen, and that speaks to the long-term relationships that the company nurtures and believes in.

Kelly Scanlon:

You've talked a lot about the relationship that you personally, and that Andrews McMeel, has with your creators. And your position there has certainly given you access to some of the most renowned creators in the world. Do you have any behind-the-scenes anecdotes or stories that you can share with us?

Kirsty Melville:

It's interesting. I think there's always the books that got away. But I think more than that, we're speaking specifically of Calvin and Hobbes and the relationship. You'll never find t-shirts, mugs, any sort of merch with Bill Watterson because we had the rights, the Universal Press Syndicate, had the right to sell those rights to Hollywood. And the phone call came one day, some students spiel about would we like to license Calvin and Hobbes as an animated feature? And we had the rights to do so but Bill Watterson did not want it to happen. So we didn't, and we've remained true to his artistic integrity. And it came time to do eBooks of Bill Watterson's books. There was a lot of work learning about what digital platforms would work and ultimately, he did not want his books represented in any way other than how he intended.

Kirsty Melville:

And so you won't find Kindle panel view versions of Bill Watterson's book. We've stuck with how he intended it. So we do have to adapt and work with what the artists or the creators that we work with want. And that's been a secret to success. Another one, just speaking of Garry Trudeau, we have adapted and published different formats of his works over the years. He was one of the first artists to be on slate.com. And he had a strip that was on the Washington Post for a long time on the website. And then he went off and made some movies. And then he came back and did some single-themed books. Around the time that I joined, we were publishing collections related, he had a series of strips that related to the Iraq war and the soldiers that came back.

Kirsty Melville:

He's always been outspoken about presidents. So over the years, he's got into a bit of hot water. And then last year, we published 50 years, was his 40th anniversary, we published a complete set of a very big book. You can't put a complete 50 years into a book, it's too many years. So we ended up producing, with a lot of thought and design, a jump drive which contained all of the strips in a huge box with a companion book. And at the first thought, you think that's ridiculous. But this was a way for people to access and search for what they wanted rather than searching all over the internet. And so we created a completely different package for people to be able to experience Garry Trudeau.

Kelly Scanlon:

I'm sure there's at least one listener and probably more sitting out there who's thinking "I did not know that we had a publisher like this right in my hometown. How do I get published?" So any tips on that?

Kirsty Melville:

Well, first of all, I wish we published fiction, but we don't really. So if you have a novel, we're probably not the right place to send it. Having said that, many publishers say that authors need to work through agents. We do not believe that. I'm much more interested in working directly and at least having the ability to work directly. We have a whole submission process. If you have a proposal that you'd like to submit on our website, andrewsmcmeel.com. And so you can go there, there's a sort of process you can go through to help you think through is what you have the right type of book that we would publish? Because there's certain categories we're just not publishing. We'd be the wrong publisher for that type of book. But, if you go to submission page, it'll walk you through and you'll be able to see whether what you like to submit fits with what we publish.

Kelly Scanlon:

And what is that website again?

Kirsty Melville:

It's andrewsmcmeel.com.

Kelly Scanlon:

We've talked about how Andrews McMeel's founders chose Kansas City as the company's home, or they chose to stay here rather, rather than move to more prominent publishing cities. And throughout it's 40 plus years here, its 50 years, Andrews McMeel has a tradition of philanthropy in the Kansas City community. So talk to us about some examples of your local outreach and why it's so important to the company.

Kirsty Melville:

So John McMeel was passionate about the Kansas City community. And 35 years ago, he was one of the founders of Christmas in October. And so the company, since then, has participated every year helping build and work with communities in need with housing. And so associates from the company have spent weekends with nails and hammers and saws and paintbrushes, working with Christmas in October to help support the local community. And then I think as we started to publish into the children's area and we looked at how could we best work to support the local community, literacy obviously became a critical piece of everything that we do and represent. And so we decided to look at local organizations where we felt we could support and help their programs in literacy. So we've been working with Turn the Page KC, Lead to Read and the Little Free Library.

Kirsty Melville:

We donate books to schools. We try to partner with school sometimes to do research, focus groups with some of our kids' books. But ultimately, we so believe in the power of reading and literacy that that seemed a logical place for us to support the local community. We also try to publish local people where possible, to support the community in different ways. One of the most recent books that we're publishing is with Alvin Brooks, who's a Kansas City icon. Binding Us Together is his autobiography that we just released for Black History Month. It was an honor and a privilege to publish that book. We also worked with the Chiefs on a 50 year retrospective of when they won the Super Bowl in '69. And then we followed up with a celebratory book. But we've also worked with Colby Garrett's and Megan who run Rye, and we've talked to local chefs. We did a barbecue book at one point. So we're very interested in supporting, encouraging creative people in the local community and also supporting children and literacy and giving back. It's integral to who we are as a company.

Kelly Scanlon:

And it's really refreshing to see that right here in Kansas City, that there is still a publisher that exists, that adheres to that kind of a philosophy and those kinds of principles. Kirsty, thank you so much for sharing the story of Andrews McMeel today and for all that you do and continue to do, not just for creatives, but for our local community as well. We appreciate you being here today.

Kirsty Melville:

Thank you for having me.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, president of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Kirsty Melville for being our guest on this episode of Banking on KC. Kansas City is known globally for our mouthwatering barbecue and legendary jazz. But one of the best-kept secrets about Kansas City is that we have so many world-class best-kept secrets. Think the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, the Liberty Memorial and The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures. And another is publishing powerhouse, Andrews McMeel. We all recognize Calvin and Hobbes, Doonesbury and the dozens of other iconic brands they have helped their creators share with the masses over the last five decades. And it all happens from right here in Kansas City. Country Club Bank applauds the innovators and creators in our community, and we welcome the opportunity to help you bring your ideas to life. Let us be your partner, not a best-kept secret. Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City. Country Club Bank, member FDIC.