In 2014, Ten Speed Press, best known for titles focused on lifestyle categories such as food and drink, published The Comic Book Story of Beer by Jonathan Hennessey and Mike Smith, with art by Aaron McConnell—the press’s first book-length comics work. “It came to us because the food and drink category is important to our list,” explained TSP publisher Aaron Wehner. “It was our entry into the graphic category and we really fell for it.”
Wehner noted that the book “did really well,” adding, “It sold out its first printing immediately. It has about 40,000 copies in print and its still selling. We enjoyed doing the format and we learned a lot about the workflow and production needed to produce a graphic novel.” And yes, he acknowledged, “we had noticed that graphic novel sales were growing.”
To meet the growing demand for the format, TSP, which is an imprint of Penguin Random House’s Crown Publishing Group, will up its graphic novel output. TSP published six graphic titles in 2019, and Wehner expects the list to grow to eight to 10 titles per year. “All of the titles in 2019 have done well, and they have given us critical mass in the category,” he said.
The imprint just finalized an agreement with the estate of Richard Adams to produce a graphic novel adaptation of Watership Down, a classic children’s novel about the struggles of a group of wild rabbits on a perilous journey in search of freedom. First published in 1972, the book has sold millions of copies and been translated into 20 languages. The graphic version will be adapted by James Sturm, an Eisner Award–winning comics artist (for 2019’s Off Season, published by Drawn & Quarterly) and cofounder of the Center for Cartoon Studies, with art by Joe Sutphin, illustrator of the bestselling children’s book World of Mouse. The book was co-acquired by Wehner and TSP editor in chief Lorena Jones and it will be edited by TSP associate editorial director Kaitlin Ketchum. It’s due out in 2022.
In addition, TSP is working on a graphic adaptation of a prose title based on the New York Times’ 1619 Project, an ongoing series investigating the history of slavery in the U.S. The adaptation is a collaboration with PRH’s One World imprint, which is developing the prose title under publisher Chris Jackson.
The TSP comics and graphic novel backlist has grown to about 12 eclectic titles, including graphic adaptations of classics (Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, adapted by Kristina Gehrmann in 2019) and narrative nonfiction. TSP used The Comic Book Story of Beer to launch the Comic Book Story Of series of info-driven graphic titles, which includes books on video games, baseball, and pro wrestling, and a title on basketball that’s due out in September.
Though kids’ graphic novels are currently driving the category, TSP has managed to publish successful graphic titles for adults. Turning to cooking, an important category at the house, in 2016 TSP published Cook Korean! A Comic Book with Recipes by Robin Ha, an unusual combination of cookbook and graphic novel that offers an introduction to Korean home cooking. The house followed up that title with 2019’s Let’s Eat Ramen! A Comic Book Cookbook by Hugh Amano and Sarah Becan. Wehner said Cook Korean! has sold more than 40,000 copies and hit the New York Times’ bestseller list, thanks in part to a boost from a segment on NPR’s All Things Considered.
TSP, Wehner said, has also done well with graphic biography, successfully publishing titles like Alexander Hamilton: The Graphic History of an American Founding Father by Hennessey and Justin Greenwood in 2017 and The Life of Frederick Douglass by David Walker and Damon Smyth in 2019. Due out this summer is Tom Scioli’s highly anticipated Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics, on the celebrated superhero comics creator.
Wehner said his children (a 13-year-old and a nine-year-old) helped educate him about the category. “My kids are big Raina Telgemeier fans and tore through all her books,” he said. “I’ve been to appearances and watched 400 kids hanging on her every world.”
TSP is based in San Francisco (with an office at PRH in New York City) and Wehner lives near the Comix Experience, a well-known San Francisco comics shop; he cited its owner, Brian Hibbs, for his “continuing education in comics,” adding, “I love the store and buy comics and books there.”
TSP has a 12-person editorial team, which makes the bulk of the acquisitions for the imprint. The imprint develops some titles in-house, Wehner noted, and has begun getting submissions after reaching out to agents.
Looking to ramp up its pop culture marketing, TSP has teamed with Del Rey Books, the fantasy and sci-fi imprint of PRH’s Ballantine Books, and exhibits and markets its graphic titles at the big pop culture conventions. TSP is also looking at publishing titles aimed at gaming communities, among them Dungeon & Dragons players.
Other units of Crown have published graphic novels, but Wehner said TSP will now develop and acquire graphic titles for the entire Crown group. “We’re actively looking across the group to identify books that would be suitable for graphic adaptations,” he noted, adding that the imprint will also continue to acquire works from agents.
“We’re a visual publisher, and 80% of our list is visual books of some kind, so we were primed to get into the category,” Wehner said. “We considered starting a dedicated graphic novel imprint, but we decided to just focus on the books and build a list book by book.”
Correction: The acquiring editors of Watership Down were incorrectly noted in an earlier version of this story; and overall acquisitions at TSP are made by the whole editorial team.