The last two years have been turbulent at IDW Publishing. The independent graphic novel publisher has gone through a series of executive leadership changes since Ted Adams stepped down as CEO in 2018. After a new round of appointments and departures this summer, in September IDW named Nachie Marsham, an executive editor at Disney Publishing Worldwide, as its new publisher, and hired Blake Kobashigawa, former DC manager of mass, book sales, and trade marketing, as its new v-p of sales.
The appointment of Marsham and Kobashigawa took place amid a Covid-19 pandemic lockdown that has severely disrupted retail distribution in the book trade as well as direct market comic shops. PW talked to Marsham and Kobashigawa about how IDW plans to adapt to a comics and graphic novel marketplace that has been reshaped by the pandemic.
What did IDW learn from dealing with the pandemic and lockdown and what will need to change going forward?
Nachie Marsham: It’s requiring us to be in even better communication with our retail and distribution partners, and it’s making us need to be in even better touch with our talent. When it comes to talent, I think there’s a misrepresentation in the comics industry that 'they all already worked from home, so things aren’t really different,' and that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Blake Kobashigawa: We have definitely rediscovered our appreciation for our backlist catalog. The pandemic has highlighted the breadth and depth of our massive library of classic titles with long-ranging appeal. Titles such as John Lewis’s March Trilogy, Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriquez’s Locke & Key Vol. 1, Brian Ruckley and Angel Hernandez’s Transformers Vol. 1, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s TMNT: The Ultimate Collection, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell amongst scores of others have helped buoy our business even when it wasn’t possible to release frontlist material. While our new products will always be important to us in a bevy of ways, we completely recognize the importance of sustaining our backlist.
There’s a lot going on right now: The wildfires, the election, the BLM protests. How are these factors changing the way you do business?
Kobashigawa: IDW is unique in that we have a long history of publishing political-leaning books, from Life in the Stupidverse by Tom Tomorrow, Enemy of the People by Rob Rogers and the recently released The Mueller Report: Graphic Novel. Regarding the Black Lives Matter protests, they have certainly resonated with our staff and our company as a whole. IDW (along with our Top Shelf Productions imprint) has long been a company that has welcomed voices from across different races, religions, sexual orientations, economic standings and life experiences. Look no further than some of our bestsellers like March, George Takei’s They Called Us Enemy, to some of our newer titles like the anthology Be Gay, Do Comics, and you’ll see we’ve long strived to reflect the world we live in, not just a small portion of it.
What opportunities have opened up?
Kobashigawa: As a whole, our book market sales have almost doubled from this time last year, with ecommerce revenue leading the way. It’s not abnormal for us to see retailers like Amazon towards the top of our monthly reports, but the demand has been somewhat unprecedented this year. Our demand for digital has gone up significantly as well, with requests from digital retailers as well as librarians and educators absolutely exploding. We’re used to course adoption and library sales for IDW and Top Shelf Productions titles, but with virtual learning being used across the world, we’ve seen tremendous growth the past six months that we suspect will continue well into 2021 and beyond.
Despite the pandemic, we’ve still seen extraordinary sales from brick and mortar stores in both the book market and direct market. In fact, our comic shop sales have come back to pre-pandemic levels, amazingly. It’s a testament to the incredibly strong communities that comic shops (like indie bookstores) create, with patrons that have continued to purchase despite limited open hours, curbside pick-up and mailed over pull list orders.
With conventions out of the picture for the near future, how are you reaching out to your readers?
Kobashigawa: Our marketing department, led by marketing director Anna Morrow, has been absolutely fantastic in pivoting to a heavily digital and virtual-leaning strategy in order to reach fans since the pandemic began. We’ve taken the marketing dollars generally allocated to in-person conventions and conferences and realigned them with digital advertising, virtual programming and events, and email marketing. We’ve participated in virtual fan events like San Diego Comic-Con and New York Comic Con with creator panels and exclusives. We’re still creating and selling “convention exclusive” comics and books, but instead of at our booth at San Diego Comic-Con or New York Comic Con, we’re doing so on our online store.
We’ve also launched new video series on IDW’s YouTube channel like Editor-in-Chief John Barber’s weekly Barber Shop videos to tell fans about our latest releases, and our Creator Spotlight series that highlights our amazing artists and writers. We of course look forward to seeing fans at in-person conventions again as soon as it’s safe to do so. In addition to fan events, we’ve also participated in virtual trade events, like ALA Annual, BookCon, and graphic novel webinars, to connect with librarians, booksellers, and teachers. Through the end of this year and into early 2021, we plan on participating in the National Council for the Social Studies, ALA Midwinter, and Texas Library Association virtual events, among others.
IDW has most recently added a new young readers initiative and began publishing books in Spanish. To what extent were these driven by recent events?
Marsham: The plans around strengthening our position with younger readers and with more Spanish-language titles have been in the works for a while now from the editorial teams across both IDW and Top Shelf. If anything, the events of 2020 have slowed us down a bit, but they haven’t changed our overall focus.
Kobashigawa: We initially embarked on our Spanish language publishing initiative to meet the marketplace demands of an increasingly diverse makeup of American readers, as well as expanding the accessibility of graphic novel storytelling to Spanish speaking communities throughout the United States, Mexico and Canada. We’re not only publishing for the readership that we have today, but also preparing for the readership of the next decade and beyond.
Where do you see IDW a year from now?
Kobashigawa: It’s no secret that with new hires like myself, Nachie, and senior editor Erika Turner, IDW wants to expand our presence in the book and mass markets going forward with content that serves those customers. IDW has had such a dedicated and strong foothold in the direct market [aka the comics shop market] for nearly it’s entire history—a position that we do not intend to give up anytime soon. That being said, it’s vital to our future that we engage and lean into audience segments that we see as tremendous growth opportunities. That means more YA and middle grade content to sell to the book and mass markets, or action/adventure books with easy jumping on points (like our forthcoming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Last Ronin limited series), or our recently announced publishing program with The Smithsonian Institution with titles that will be able to expand our presence in the library and education markets.
Marsham: I do think that a year from now we will be in a far more stable place across the board. Whether it’s having more support structure for our sales, marketing, and publicity teams; better leveraging the infrastructure of our website and warehouse; acquiring more amazing new stories across our imprints; or working with our key licensors to develop more original storytelling against their worlds, the forced improvisation of this year is going to make our ability to plan in any circumstance stronger and faster next year, and beyond.