Founded in 1970 by Jim Andrews and John McMeel to distribute Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic, Andrews McMeel Universal has evolved over the course of a half-century into a multifaceted publishing/media/entertainment empire with a worldwide reach.
Originally named Universal Press Syndicate, AMU was rebranded in 1997 and remains privately held and family owned: Andrews’s son, Hugh Andrews, is now chairman, having succeeded McMeel, who is now chairman emeritus. The company’s 85,000-square-foot headquarters is located in Downtown Kansas City, Mo., and the Kansas Business Journal estimated its 2018 revenue was $115 million in 2018.
“We’re in the Midwest but we have the strength of every other publisher in the world,” said Kirsty Melville, publisher of Andrews McMeel Publishing. “We are a global publisher though we remain in Kansas City. We may not be in the main swirl of things, but we’re a special player. We’re very much an independent publisher. And people like working with us because we’re a friendly publisher—with a global reach and success.”
Today, AMU packages and delivers content in print and digital formats: Andrews McMeel Syndication provides content to newspapers and other media outlets, while AMU Interactive provides digital content directly to consumers. Andrews McMeel Entertainment develops properties for television and film. There is also a licensing division.
Andrews McMeel Publishing is AMU’s largest division and has 125 of AMU’s 196 employees. It was established in 1975 to capitalize on subsidiary rights to the company’s syndicated properties and publishes books in genres unrelated to those properties. With 150 frontlist releases each year (plus 200 calendars), AMP has 3,000 titles in print. Simon & Schuster has handled sales and distribution to the trade for the past decade.
Though AMU has evolved since 1970, the secret to its success has always been its ability to tap into the pop culture zeitgeist. Over the years, it has taken several risks with emerging entertainment trends that have paid off—for instance, AMP was one of the first publishers of adult coloring books.
“From the very beginning, both Jim Andrews and John McMeel operated out of a deep respect for creators,” Trudeau said. “They gave many of us copyrights, vacations, they had our backs during various public controversies. And they often placed the wishes and needs of artists ahead of their own financial interests.”
He noted, for example, that while AMU has the right to do merchandising deals for its properties, it “left a lot of money on the table” when honoring the wishes of its artists who were opposed to merchandising their work.
AMU is renowned for syndicating many iconic comics, in addition to Doonesbury, including Calvin and Hobbes, Cathy, Dilbert, the Far Side, For Better or for Worse, Nancy, and Peanuts. Though Calvin and Hobbesceased syndication in 1995, AMP said that The Complete Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson, which retails for $195 in hardcover and $125 in paper, remains one of its top selling titles, with 500,000 copies sold since it was published in 2005. “We have new generations coming to Calvin and Hobbes,” Melville added.
Humor, Melville said, remains at the core of AMP’s list, which is also heavy on gift books and inspirational titles, such as the bestseller Blue Day Book: A Lesson in Cheering Yourself Up by Bradley Trevor Grieve (2000), now in its second edition. How to Tell If Your Cat Is Plotting to Kill You by the Oatmeal and Matthew Inman (2012) is an evergreen top seller, with 1.5 million copies sold according to the publisher.
AMP’s moves into new areas in recent years have kept the book group growing, Melville said. While declining to disclose specific sales figures from AMP’s books and calendars, she noted that total annual sales at AMP are over $50 million and pointed to the press’s entry into the poetry market as an example of how it has moved in new directions to maintain “consistent growth.”
AMP began publishing poetry regularly in 2013 with Lang Leav’s Love and Misadventure, and within a few years it had become one of the leaders (if not the leader) in publishing popular poetry, which Melville described in a 2016 interview with PW as poetry that is “easily accessible and relatable.” She pointed out in that same interview that “the medium of poetry reflects our age, where short-form communication is something people find easier to digest or connect with.” As a publisher, she added, “you go where the audience is.”
The move into poetry continues to pay off. AMP now has 152 poetry titles in print and will publish 32 new poetry books in 2020. According to NPD BookScan, print sales of poetry books have increased by double digits between 2015 and 2019, with readers ages 18–35 accounting for much of that growth. In 2019, AMP accounted for 14 of BookScan’s top 25 bestselling poetry books in the U.S.
While Leav’s half-dozen poetry collections and two novels have sold well, another young female poet with a spoken-word background, Rupi Kaur, is AMP’s bestselling author. Kaur’s poetry collections—Milk and Honey (2015) and The Sun and Her Flowers (2017)—have sold a combined 7.5 million copies. And a third poet in AMP’s roster, R.H. Sin, Melville added, “is not well-known but has written a number of books, and he sells very, very well.”
AMP has also ramped up its output of children’s books. It has 300 children’s titles in print, with another 50 releases due in 2020. Sales in this category are up more than 30% in the past two years, and Lincoln Peirce’s Big Nate series of comics collections for middle grade readers has become one of the company’s hottest properties, with six million copies sold.
“While comics might not be read in newspapers anymore, they’re definitely being read in books, and in children’s books,” Melville said.
To take advantage of that trend, AMP launched Amp! Comics for Kids, its graphic novel/comics line for middle grade readers, in 2012. Its first list had five titles, including two Big Nate comics collections (HarperCollins publishes the Big Nate chapter books). Big Nate: Blow the Roof Off!, the series’ 22nd title, will be released under the Amp! Comics imprint in March.
As AMU moves into the future, executives continue to push forward while also respecting the company’s tradition. Hugh Andrews noted that he works closely with Andy Sareyan, who has been AMU’s CEO for the past six years, building upon long-standing relationships with AMU’s creators (including Trudeau) while exploring opportunities in the digital realm.
“Integral to our success is our unique ability to be nimble and entrepreneurial in the spirit of my father and John McMeel—to evolve, to identify trends before they’re trends,” Andrews said. “We’re going to continue to be that vibrant center of talent and maintain our position as a creative incubator for talent that has defined popular culture. I was very young at the time [AMU’s cofounders] launched this ambitious dream, so I don’t know that I was thinking much about the future. But today, I am humbled and grateful that we continue to celebrate their vision and the vision of our creators, and I hope we will continue to do so for decades to come.”