Launched by two families—Jim and Kathleen Andrews in the Kansas City suburbs, John and Susan McMeel in New York City—who began in fall 1970 by distributing the Doonesbury comic strip of Yale undergraduate Garry Trudeau, Andrews McMeel Universal has evolved into a multifaceted media company still run by the same families. Today, 200 employees work for AMU, and the company is as well known as much for the books it publishes as for the comic strips it syndicates. John McMeel remains at the helm, alongside Hugh Andrews, the son of its cofounders and CEO of the company's book publishing operations. AMU is headquartered in a historic building in downtown Kansas City, Mo., with book publishing offices in Denver (Accord Publishing, the children's books, calendar, and greeting card imprint); Bristol, U.K. (AMP/UK); and Sydney, Australia (AMP AU/NZ).
While AMU continues to deliver print content to newspapers, it delivers digital content to wireless and online media as well through its Universal UClick division. AMUSE develops AMU print properties for television and film. And with approximately 100 employees, its largest division, Andrews McMeel Publishing, publishes 200 books and 250 calendars each year.
According to John McMeel, the company's success lies in its principals always having considered opportunities that “may not have fit into what's expected in publishing on either coast,” including anticipating consumer trends in both receiving information and being entertained. The company's all-time bestselling book, for example, is Bradley Trevor Grieve's Blue Day Book: A Lesson in Cheering Yourself Up, which has sold more than 20 million copies since it was first published 10 years ago; a second edition is shipping at the end of March. AMP has also had recent success with its Posh Puzzle series, which features sudoku and more traditional games like crossword puzzles and hangman. There are 94 books in the series, which has sold one million copies since it was introduced last year. For a long period, Calvin and Hobbes and the Far Side were staples for the company, and two collections of those strips—The Complete Calvin and Hobbes and The Complete Far Side, each priced at $150—have sold more than 200,000 copies each since their release five and seven years ago, respectively.
“Sometimes, we just didn't know any better, but we aren't afraid to try new things,” McMeel wrote in response to PW's e-mail queries to AMU's top executives. “We pride ourselves not only on being innovative but also on being resilient when faced with adversity.”
AMP's history bears out McMeel's philosophy. AMU launched the company's book publishing arm 35 years ago specifically to capitalize on the subsidiary rights to its syndicated properties. While AMP has published books in a wide variety of genres beyond AMU's syndicate-related properties, it's recently streamlined in response to the economic downturn, which has resulted in significant changes in both the newspaper and book publishing industries. On the book side, AMP had at one point earlier in the decade done about 300 titles annually, but now focuses on five core categories considered somewhat recession-resistant: comic/humor, cookbooks, gift books, puzzle and games, and children's.
According to AMP publisher Kirsty Melville, sales in the company's core categories remained stable throughout 2008 and 2009. “In an up or down economy, people want to be informed and entertained. Some of our strongest areas are great antidotes and provide a respite in unpleasant economic times.” In 2009, four AMP titles—all but one of them falling within AMP's five core categories—sold more than 100,000 copies each: Cake Wrecks: When Professional Cakes Go Hilariously Wrong (humor); Stupid American History (humor); President Obama Election 2008: A Collection of Newspaper Front Pages selected by the Poynter Institute (nonfiction); and Bee & Me, Accord Publishing's first release in its innovative “Ani-motion” line of animated illustrated children's picture books, which has sold 250,000 copies to date.
Andrews stresses, though, that AMP is not just reacting to the changes in the book publishing industry brought about by the economy, but continues to strategize on using its strengths to capitalize on emerging trends. AMU is using the expertise gained by the online aggregation and distribution of comics through its UClick GoComics platform to help develop AMP's digital book publishing program. The company has begun releasing select titles simultaneously in digital formats and expects the number of releases in multiple formats to rise in the future.
“E-books are certainly an area of growth for us,” Andrews said. “And as that business matures and new platforms continue to evolve, we envision increased opportunities for interactive, illustrated books.”
AMU is not planning any major events to mark its 40th year, although it will release a new title tied to its launch: 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective will be released this fall with a 100,000-copy first print run.