The webcomics blog about webcomics

Interesting Times

Did you catch this? David Morgan-Mar ((PhD, LEGO®©™etc), educator of scientific notions and webcomicker of note, got stopped and mildly searched on his holidays in London on suspicions of terrorism for photographing one of the most-photographed landmarks in England. What’s that? You wanted proof? Here y’go, Sparky. Of course, it’s possible that officer in question wasn’t really so officious as to detain Morgan-Mar on such idiotic grounds — it’s possible that he was a time-traveller, and well aware of the hideous pun that was about to be foisted on the world, and rightly decided it was weapons-grade. For shame, fear-based society, and for shame, Dr Morgan-Mar.

Now that’s out of the way, let’s look at another kind of interesting times: I recently had the opportunity to talk with Holly Post, VP of Special Projects at TopatoCo (“the world’s largest webcomics merchandise company, and probably at least in the top 20 of the hemisphere’s best internet e-stores in general”) about the company’s recent growth, plans for the future, and whether or not they can stay weird and still deal with more serious businesses.

Fleen: Let’s start with the basics: how large is TopatoCo at the moment?

Post: Counting Jeffrey [Rowland, webcartoonist and TopatoCo supreme leader] and myself, we have four full-time employees, three part-time, and another hire on the way [at TopatoCo headquarters in Easthampton, Massachusetts]. Also, [David] Malki ! is our Director of Marketing [in Los Angeles]. By Christmas season (which starts in October for us), we’ll probably have to add somebody just to handle the print-on-demand tasks.

Fleen: Given the pretty basic nature of the work — I’m guessing folding a lot of t-shirts — what’s the appeal of TopatoCo. Why shouldn’t I just go work at McDonald’s instead?

Post: For starters, we pay better than McDonald’s. It’s a relaxed atmosphere, folding shirts and listening to podcasts. You’ll start out on general tasks and as we’ve seen what people are good at, and as the need for delegation comes up as we grow in new directions, we add new responsibilities. We’re in the planning stages of offering benefits and insurance — we’ve been shifting from a sole proprietorship to becoming a corporation, now we have to start looking at grownup things.

Fleen: TopatoCo’s pretty identified with Jeff [Rowland]‘s public persona, as seen in his comics, tweets, and such. He presents himself as somewhat — let’s say haphazard. Do you have any concerns that potential business partners or associates in the future might not be able to distinguish between Internet Jeff and Real Jeff? I mean, might you have to deal with, say, Barnes & Noble in the future, and they do a Google search and say, “Uhhh, no.”?

Post: We don’t see dealing in the near future with anybody that wouldn’t be able to distinguish the internet persona from who he actually is. You can either roll with it, or accept the fact that we’re a company that does things differently but gets things done.

It’s not too different from small design shops or advertising companies who can present a really out-there image but still be perceived as effective, if weird. We deal in webcomics, it’s a really weird business, and you can get away with being weird in this business.

[Editor's note: By way of evidence supporting this last statement, I have a press release that ends with the phrase, TopatoCo president and founder Jeffrey Rowland expressed delight at the new developments before collapsing into a pool of liquid exhaustion secreted by his own pores.]

Fleen: A recent press release listed Dave Kellett and Kris Straub as your 43rd and 44th clients, respectively. How big are you planning on growing TopatoCo? Or maybe the question should be, how big can it grow and still be TopatoCo?

Post: We’re on kind of a moratorium right now, because we’ve grown so quickly over the past year and we don’t want to fail to serve our existing clients they way we should. But we’re not dumb, so if we get an email from somebody that makes us go “Wow, I can’t believe ____ emailed us!”, we’re finding a way to work them in. We’re looking to partner with the right clients, which might not necessarily be individual creators. With the right employees, we could grow to maybe 75? 100 clients? Beyond that, it wouldn’t feel like us anymore, and there’d be so much on our website that it’d be tough to find anything.

Fleen: Do you have a lot of creators wanting to work with you?

Post: We have a constant solicitation from creators that want to work with us. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s one or two a day, and we have to decide what the right relationship with them might be. Right now there’s a backlog of 150 or 200 people waiting to hear from us, ranging from Well, I’m thinking about starting a webcomic to people we know really well.

It’s a matter of finding creators that will be a good fit and finding out what works for them — do they want to keep their own store for some classes of merchandise, and have us handle other things? Do they want to sell artists editions of their books, and we handle the rest? Do they want to turn it all over to us? We want to work in the best interests of the artists.

Fleen: So you started your own publishing imprint, with the just-released third Dr McNinja collection featuring a bar-coded ISBN and Topato Potato on the back and spine of the book. A recent press statement included the following: TopatoCo plans to publish several more collections of comics in the coming months which will be sold online and at conventions, and distributed only to select retailers.

Is this publishing venture going to be an in-house service for your client base, or will you be developing it to the point of being more stand-alone? Could anybody that needs or wants to put a book together and doesn’t know how to deal with the logistics come to you like any other publisher?

Post: Right now, we’re looking to offer TopatoCo Books as an in-house service for clients, and not to take on clients specifically for publishing. We would like to see it open up in the future, but we have to concentrate now on taking care of our own people. And it’s not just the printing and distribution — if a creator wants to do a book but doesn’t want to design it and lay it out, they can just give us the image files and we can add those services. If they like doing those jobs, they can give us press-ready files instead; it’s a matter of how involved they want to be.

Fleen: TopatoCo started as a way for Jeff to ship his t-shirts to customers. Then he started doing fulfillment for other creators, then became a t-shirt publisher (fronting costs and handling the logistics, with creators only having to do the design), then offered print-on-demand, now book publishing … what’s next on the menu?

Post: We always went with the things that made the most sense, in terms of what products we wanted to offer, and what was possible to do (or learn to do, then do). And we’re still trying to do them really well, so we’ll probably spend the next couple of years focusing on these areas we’re already in, but if something comes up that makes sense, we are always open to new ideas.

Fleen: One of the questions that came up at the Zuda panel in San Diego had to do with how readers find webcomics to read. The answer dealt with word of mouth, recommendations from creators you already read, and association with trusted soruces — if you read anything at Transmission X, for example, there’s a very good chance it’s incredibly good. Is TopatoCo aiming to be one of those trusted sources for quality?

Post: I hope we are. We really try to pick and choose who we take on, based on what we think is good work. There’s a lot of popular comics out there we have no interest in working with because it wouldn’t fit our style.

Fleen: TopatoCo is taking over the Dayfree Press booth at San Diego, and is planning on a lot of shows in 2010. What’s the plan?

Post: Counting NEWW [which will take place in the same building as TopatoCo headquarters], we plan on doing 10 shows in 12 months. We did sort of a dry run at Emerald City this year. We’ll work with our creators, find out who’s planning on tabling on their own, and for those that aren’t (or maybe just have an Artist’s Alley table and aren’t really selling on their own), we’ll bring their merchandise and sell it like a regular publisher.

We’re going arrange it more for the clients that can’t make it to the show — we want everybody to have merchandise available, but if somebody’s got their own booth full of books and shirts the next aisle over, it doesn’t make sense to duplicate it in our space. For those artists that are at the show and not tabling elsewhere, we’ll have announced signing times, so that they don’t have to be at the booth for the entire day — they’ll be able to get up and walk around and see the parts of the show they never get to see.

Fleen: Almost one show a month, mostly far away. Sounds crazy.

Post: I actually like working the booth, making sure everything gets down and everybody’s where they should be.

Fleen: You sound like the Mom of TopatoCo.

Post: Sometimes, I feel like the Mom of the internet. But I’ll live.

Fleen thanks Ms Post for her time, and hopes that a year of conventions doesn’t leave her any insaner than wrangling t-shirts all day does anyway. Want to have TopatoCo handle your merch? I’d hold off until they’re a little more staffed up.

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