Gauging "Lost Girls" Reaction with Chris Staros

Fri, September 15th, 2006 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Jonah Weiland, Executive Producer/Publisher

When the press push began for "Lost Girls," the reaction to it was loud and quite mixed. The controversial nature of Alan Moore's story - a piece of erotic literature in graphic novel form - and the depiction of that story by artist Melinda Gebbie was responded to loudly from various segments of the industry. There were those quick to label the work another genius effort on the part of Moore, while others were skeptical and had concerns about the content. And there were also those who labeled it filth and voiced concerns that "Lost Girls" would foster a Wertham-esque type response from the public, a reference to the 1954 book by Fredrick Wertham "Seduction of the Innocent" which charged comics were a serious cause of juvenile delinquency and helped fuel a U.S. Congressional inquiry into the comic book industry.

While many were prepared to defend "Lost Girls" from the predicted onslaught of negative criticsm, in the two weeks since the book launched in the United States no defense has been needed. "Lost Girls" is the buzz-book graphic novel of the summer, to be certain, selling out its first two printings rapidly despite the content and high price point of $75. The reviews have been overwhelmingly positive and the publication has gone quite smoothly thus far.

With that in mind, CBR News spoke with Top Shelf Productions publisher Chris Staros at length about the production of this book, the controversial nature of its subject matter, when readers in the United Kingdom and Europe will finally get a chance to see it and what this property means to the company.

For more with the author's of "Lost Girls," click on the following links for our three-part interview with Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie - Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Alan Moore & Chris Staros
Photo by Jos Villarrubia
Hey Chris, thanks for talking with me today. With "Lost Girls" having hit shops just a couple of weeks back now, I figured it would be a good time to catch up, talk about the book a bit, the reaction to it and how the entire process of publishing this book went for you. First, let's talk about printing. It's my understanding that your first printing sold out the day it shipped, August 31st.

That's Right. The first printing of 10,000 copies sold out on that Wednesday. Poof. Gone. Then by Friday, the 1st of September, since the backorders in the Diamond system were already greater than the second printing of 10,000 we had ordered in anticipation of higher demand, we had to go ahead and order a third printing of 20,000 copies. So in a period of four days, we went through the first, second, and part of the third printing. The second printing will hit the first week of October, and the third printing is going to arrive sometime in December. So anyway, the book is off to a good start.

You were selling them on the convention circuit. I bought my copy at Comic-Con. How many shows did you get to actually sell it at before the release date?

Yes, we debuted "Lost Girls" at San Diego. We FedExed two pallets of books to San Diego from Hong Kong - at enormous expense - due to the fact that we knew the press value of having a book this important debut at San Diego. I knew it might upset a handful of retailers to jump the gun on them, but what the retailers sometimes miss is the national press value of having a buzz book at San Diego. Ultimately, "Lost Girls" ended up being the buzz book of San Diego, and when the book hit stores on Wednesday the 31st, they vanished, much in part due to the buzz on the book permeating throughout the entire comics community.

In addition, we really worked the press hard on this book, for several reasons. One, it's such an expensive book to produce, it had to launch big or it would have killed us financially. Secondly, it was very important for a book this controversial to be sort of pre-approved by the public at large as a work of art, rather than come out cold and start getting detractors from the beginning. But once you have publications like USA Today, Publisher's Weekly, The Village Voice, Wired, and so forth all on your side, saying the book is a groundbreaking monumental achievement, it silences a lot of detractors.

You brought up a couple things that we need to cover. Let's start with you shipping the book directly to San Diego at enormous cost. Did you end up making any money off of your sales at San Diego?

A little bit. San Diego generated a lot of revenue, for sure, but it was also enormously expensive this year, with the extra FedEx and drayage charges on top of all the normal expenses out there. Ultimately it turned a modest profit, but this year it was mainly a marketing event for us. That's okay. Sometimes the purpose of these shows is to be a marketing event.

How many of those copies did you sell at San Diego?

500. And it was a very good indicator that the book was going to do well. That's exactly how many copies we brought and we sold the last one on 4:00 PM on Sunday, so it was the exact right amount of copies to bring there.

You might want to say you had that kind of forethought, but I'm guessing you just really lucked out! [laughs]

We lucked out! Every publisher's basement is overflowing with optimism, if you know what I mean. Sometimes you don't predict things correctly, but that one we nailed pretty well.

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I also read your printing bill for the first printing was reportedly around $300,000 dollars, is that correct?

The first and second printings of 10,000 copies each, along with pre-press costs, the drum scanning, the design work, the lettering, the advances for the cartoonists and all the rest, turned out to be around $350,000 dollars for those first 20 thousand copies.

So that figure wasn't just the bill for the printing, that covers all of your production and marketing costs?

Yes.

Was this something that Top Shelf could float on its own or did you have to bring in partners to cover the cost of this project?

We floated it -- yes -- "floating" is the correct word. We're a small company and don't have half a million dollars sitting around to do stuff like this with. We had to work with our printer and our distributor to make this thing happen. Fortunately, because we've been in the business for 10 years, because our printer and distributor believed in us and believed in this project, I could demonstrate to them some of the early numbers coming in, they were willing to take on the project with us.

Let's talk about the actual physical printing. It's a very impressive package to say the least and it's not something that could have been put together easily. Probably not every printer in the world could actually put this thing together. How did you come to put this thing together?

The printer we used was Regent in Hong Kong, whose printer rep in NYC is Robert Conte. Robert's a very nice guy and has been doing business in the comics community for a long time. They do amazing work as well. They've done a few really nice jobs for us in the past, and since they're also big fans of Alan Moore, they really wanted to do this job, so it was an easy decision to choose them.

The design process for this book was quite complicated. This book took about 18 months to design. We spent a long time getting this thing absolutely perfect and working with the printer, designers and letterer to make sure it was absolutely perfect. And we were ecstatic when Melinda showed up and fell in love with the production. Alan chimed in the next day as well, once we FedExed him a copy from the show floor, saying it was the most beautiful project he had ever been associated with. That was a very nice cell phone call, let me tell ya'. It couldn't have come out any more beautiful. And for the artist, Melinda, to take a look at it and be impressed means a lot because she had been dreaming about the final product for sixteen years, and for it to come out the way she had imagined it was a dream come true for all of us.

It sounds like, in every respect, San Diego was a real high mark for Top Shelf.

It was. It was a very high mark. We've been lucky over the past few years to have some big days at San Diego. When "From Hell," "Blankets," "Owly," and "Lost Girls" debuted, these were big PR events for us and big PR events have helped those books become perennials for retailers around the country.

You've had some big successes in the past with books you've mentioned like "From Hell," "Blankets" and others. How does this book compare in terms of sell-through, in terms of excitement? You're the guy behind the scenes, tell me, how does this book compare to other publications?

I think if the numbers continue to hold true, it's possible that "Lost Girls" could end up being our biggest release. One of the tell-tale signs out there is the Amazon.com ranking, as it actually hit the Top 20 on the Amazon book list, which is quite amazing. "From Hell" got in the Top 1000 at its peak, and "Blankets" even hit #250 when it got in "Time Magazine" and other places, but nothing has ever been in the Top 20 before. And it shows that the press on this book has really gone wide and far, and there are still some other big things coming. "Rolling Stone" is doing a big feature in early Oct on the book. They flew over to Alan's house with a photographer and interviewer, and did a big thing. The book's probably going to continue to get press, both good and critical as well.

And honestly, even though hindsight is often "20/20", we didn't really know how well "Lost Girls" would launch, as this was a very risky book to publish in a lot of ways. Even though we knew it was an absolutely amazing and groundbreaking work of art, it was enormously expensive, and we weren't quite sure if the fans, shops, and chains would want to pick it up. But it seems to be getting embraced by a lot of people, and a lot of the journalists as well, who really understand that the book takes a very important stand with regard to sexual freedom and free speech.

You talk about how publishing this book was a big risk for you. Was there ever a point where you or Brett Warnock said, we just can't take a gamble like this?

No. Brett and I have been in publishing for ten years now, and pretty much every single month is a frickin' giant gamble for us. We stare into the abyss, we jump in, and see if we can survive. We're a tenacious bunch. We know that if people out there don't sell it the way we think it should be sold, we'll sell it ourselves. We'll make sure the books we do get into the hands of the people. And we generally don't cry wolf that often, so when people in the press see us coming and we say we've really got a book you should pay attention to, they listen. We've only done that a few times, like with "From Hell" and "Blankets" and "Owly" and "Box Office Poison," and they know we're telling the truth when we come to them. And of course, Alan Moore is not a necessarily difficult sell in that regard. With all of his past successes, and "V For Vendetta" recently being released, his popularity is at an all-time high outside of the comics industry, and that was good timing for us in a lot of ways in being able to work the press on a book like this.

Let's talk about the detractors. Actually, more than that, let's talk about the people who talked about the potential problems you guys could be facing, our own Rich Johnston being one who illustrated that well in his column. A lot of people anticipated there would be some very negative and aggressive press surrounding this book, but thus far I really haven't seen that anywhere. What are you seeing on your side?

Top Shelf has not been trying to encourage a scandal with this book. That is not the kind of press we're trying to generate. But at the same time, we knew with the controversial nature of this book, we'd have to work the press very hard to try and diffuse some of that up front. In one sense, the potential controversy of the book helped the book get press because a lot of journalists understood the free speech, sexual freedom, anti-war implications of this book. They also understood the kinds of things that detractors might latch on to -- playing with famous children's stories, etc. So, all of the press that's been generated so far has been very much in defense of this book. There may be, as the book gets more and more into people's hands, some negative press coming, but we're braced for that. And with publications like "USA Today" and "Publishers Weekly" behind the book, as well as all the internet media like Comic Book Resources, etc., the book has already been in large part legitimized in the public forum. So if somebody gets attacked in a local municipality for carrying this book, they're going to find out very quickly that the book has enormous national support and they're going to end up possibly embarrassing themselves. It doesn't mean that these things aren't going to happen, and it doesn't mean I'm not worried about these kinds of things, but I do know the phone number of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund if I need to call it. And Top Shelf has also retained copyright and obscenity attorneys, who are all pre-briefed, just in case they're needed. So we're prepared. In any event, I'm not looking for those kind of fights. I'm just hoping that our country will live up to being the "land of the free" and respecting the First Amendment and people's right to write and say what they want to, and to understand that this is a work of fiction and that it has a right to exist.

You mentioned that "USA Today" is behind it - you can't get much more mainstream than "USA Today," which certainly helps your cause. "Rolling Stone," sure it's a very popular magazine that will help you sell books, but it's also a magazine that attracts a hip audience that's necessarily going to be more open to a book like "Lost Girls." "USA Today" is read by the masses, so that's pretty telling right there.

Do you think that there's any other creator out there, whether in the literary world or comic book world, that could have pulled off this kind of story?

Probably not, as this book is really rather unique. And I don't just mean because of the subject matter, but because of the brilliant way that Alan handled it. There's a whole bunch of issues that people might have been concerned about with the book -- issues that Rich Johnston has already pointed out at CBR. Alan understood all of this at the conceptual stage, and has addressed all of those criticisms within the story of the book itself. So, when you read the book - you know, most of the detractors of the book are people who haven't read it yet -you realize that it's is a work of art, and that all these critical issues are dealt with within the book itself. It sort of answers all the questions within it. And Melinda's artwork is so delicate and beautiful, that even things that might be considered inflammatory just seem to be soft and elegant on the page. Alan & Melinda walked a fine line between pornography and intellectualism here, stimulating both parts of your body equally throughout the whole book, and that's a very difficult thing to do. And that's exactly what he set out to do in the beginning, to redeem pornography as something literary, beautiful, thoughtful and human. I think he achieved that.

I'm going to have to backtrack a little bit because something just occurred to me. You printed this book in Hong Kong and having visited China recently and Hong Kong specifically, I understand that Hong Kong really is like a country unto its own within China. Still, it's within China and the Chinese and its government has a very different view on projects of this nature and erotica than we do here in the States. Was that ever a concern, that you get this thing printed in Hong Kong and suddenly Chinese authorities would get involved in some manner? Was that ever discussed?

Yes, it was discussed, but fortunately the book has been so legitimized by the press, that I think that if we ran into any of those criticisms now, we would be able to help diffuse them. Plus, as we discussed before, I'm not looking for those kinds of battles. In any event, at this point, if someone were actually to try and seize the book and say it wasn't legitimate, it would have the exact opposite effect than intended. Instead of killing the book, it would make it a national phenomenon. Because the book has such high-profile defenders in the media, I think they would help defend its right to exist if it was attacked. Again, I'm not looking for that kind of battle, because I can't afford the cash flow hit of a whole shipment being seized somewhere down the line. That's why I've made sure the book is legitimized as a work of art. That's why we've packaged it the way we have, so there's no confusion that it's a work of art. So, there's no confusion that it has literary merit, which in this country means it's not obscene.

Where have you found the biggest resistance to this book?

I've found some people being cautionary about it, worrying about stocking it or retailing it and those kinds of things, and I think those concerns are all prudent. And, of course, being a big believer in free speech and a defender of that as the President of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, I respect everybody's right to buy the book if they want to, not buy the book if they want to, stock it if they want to, not stock it if they want to. That's everybody's individual decision. So there haven't been a lot detractors yet, but there have been people who are concerned about it. But since the book is getting such good press, and being distributed uniformly in the comic book shops, as well as Borders, Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com, etc., I think people will be a lot less nervous about carrying the book or buying the book because it has been normalized by all the normal channels. And that makes it accepted by the public at large and makes it a legitimate item.

As I understand it, "Lost Girls" isn't being distributed in the United Kingdon yet due to concerns about the Peter Pan trademark, is that right?

Yes, we have received some official correspondence from the Great Ormonds Street hospital, which is the copyright holder of Peter Pan in the United Kingdom. We've had some dialogue with them and it's been very cordial and we're glad to have this discussion with them. It's not an adversarial thing at all. And since we're still having discussions with them, we've postponed the release of the book in England and Europe for the time being. Even though we don't feel that this book is a trademark or copyright infringement - it's more a literary allusion to a story - we have an enormous amount of respect for the Children's Hospital and the Peter Pan trademark, and we really don't want to get in a battle over that. We'd rather a Children's Hospital spend its money on kidney dialysis and other things for children, and we don't want them to spend their money fighting us and we don't want to spend our money fighting them. It looks like we're coming very close to a peaceful agreement here and we'll go from there. Unfortunately it's not quite finalized yet so I can't make an official announcement, but I think it's going well and we should have a resolution soon.

[Editor's Note: We contacted Top Shelf prior to the publication of this article to see if there was any additional news regarding European distribution. Discussions are ongoing and as soon as the matter is resolved the publisher will make a formal announcement, but it may result in the book being delayed until January 1st, 2008 for European and UK distribution. Top Shelf said if that ended up being the case, the publisher would likely release a special UK edition (1st printing) at that time.]

Considering that you haven't distributed in Europe yet and you're already sold out of your first two printings, clearly the book being held back in that market hasn't had any major impact on your company. Maybe a short term hit, but not likely long term. I'm guessing that had you known you were selling this in Europe, your third printing would be even bigger. Do you think this has hurt you all that dramatically or will you make up for it later on?

I think that later on we'll just happen to have another, you know, debut down the road. My only disappointment is that all the British fans of Alan Moore are going to have to wait a little while. But you know, be as it may, we need to do what we need to do. It should be resolved and pretty soon everybody will get their copies down the road.

What does this book mean to Top Shelf? How has it affected or changed the company?

In my opinion this is the most important thing To Shelf has ever published. First of all, working with Alan Moore is always a great honor. Come on, he's the greatest writer comics has ever seen. He's the reason I got into comics in the first place, as it was the trade paperback of "V For Vendetta" that inspired me to get involved. The fact that now we're working with him, and on such big projects like "From Hell" and "Lost Girls," it's a tremendous honor for us. But because this book is so controversial, because it stands for so much, for so many sexual freedom issues, first amendment issues, anti-war issues, the things Top Shelf believes in so much, it is a huge honor to be publishing something as courageous as this and to stand behind it. Whether it squashes us or not, whatever, it doesn't matter. Once a book exists, it exists. You cannot take that away. You cannot ban books. They are what they are, and they are out there. It's a proud moment for Top Shelf, whether it's a financial success or financial disaster, it's still the most important moment in the history of our company.

It sounds like a pretty big financial success at this point.

Alan Moore & Melinda Gebbie
Well it looks like it can turn into one. But, you know, when you go ahead and gamble money on the third printing or the fourth printing or whatever and some issue comes up later which may put a road block in the system, you never know what can happen. Again, I'm hoping these things don't happen, but we're bracing ourselves for any eventuality.

What does the success of "Lost Girls" mean for your first "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" book, which I don't even believe you have scheduled yet?

We don't have it quite scheduled yet, but I did talk to Alan last week about it and he's started writing the script and he's very happy with the way the story is coming along. We're probably looking at a 2008 release on that, more than likely. Obviously "League 3" is going to be a really big release for us and another big release for Alan and Kevin O'Neill as well. We're gonna just get behind that one in a big way.

DC recently announced they'll be pushing their final volume "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier" back to 2007, when it was originally scheduled for release at the end of this year. Does that delay affect your publishing plans at all?

Not at all. Our production will be independent of that. Right now Alan is writing the script, and once that's done it'll be passed on to Kevin O'Neill to illustrate.

Has the success of the "Lost Girls" format got you thinking of different formatting or anything like that for your first "League?"

What Alan wants to do is release League Vol. 3 as three, 72-page prestige format comics and then collect it as a trade paperback afterwards. So we're going to release "League" in somewhat of a traditional format to be consistent with the other "Leagues" in the past.

Finally, what have you learned through this process - putting together "Lost Girls," putting it out there, talking with fans at comic conventions, the whole thing - what have you learned as a publisher about comics and publishing?

One of the things I've learned and it's taken ten years of experience in this business, building this company up slowly to the level where we actually could have handled a "Lost Girls." It's taken every ounce of energy Brett and I have had for the last few years to put this book out and to handle it properly and to give it the kind of treatment that it deserves. It took a decade of connections with the press, with the fans, with the retailers, within the industry, and with Alan and Melinda to pull this one off. I guess what I've learned is that projects of this magnitude just can't be done cold. They need some reputation and some connections and some experience and lessons learned in the past to handle them. We took a lot of risks and there were a lot of sleepless nights over this book, but we used that ten years of experience to try and make the best decisions that we could. I guess our only mistake so far was underprinting it, but the financial investment - the $350K for the first two printings - seemed enormously high for us.

Thanks, Chris. Congratulations and continued success to you on "Lost Girls."

 
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