How Top Shelf almost went out of business but were saved by the Internet’s comics community
This article originally appeared in Strangehaven issue #14, June 2002.
Those of you who are connected to the Internet and regularly visit the big comic news websites like Newsarama will have already read about the extraordinary events surrounding Top Shelf Productions and the filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy by their bookstore distributor The LPC Group (who are the guys who distribute independent books for around 85 publishers to stores like Barnes & Noble, including the Strangehaven books Arcadia and Brotherhood for example). According to www.counterpunch.org, LPC’s bank, Bank One recalled a loan (with approximately $2.7 million outstanding) on 1st April after deciding LPC was a bad credit risk – even though the bank acknowledges that LPC was not behind in loan payments. They seized a deposit of $1.2 million payment LPC had received from an independent warehouse for sales of publishers’ books.
The first sign of trouble for Top Shelf was when a substantial cheque from LPC to Top Shelf bounced – leaving Top Shelf partners Chris Staros and Brett Warnock without enough in the bank to cover cheques already written and sent out to printers and other suppliers. LPC announced Chapter 11 bankruptcy (which allows the company to continue trading for a limited period while they attempt to sort out their finances) the following day, and with characteristic openness and honesty, Chris hastily sent out a plea to the comic’s community via e-mail:
Dear Comics Fans,
We have just been informed this week that our book trade distributor has filed for bankruptcy (Chapter 11). They will continue to operate and hopefully recover – and we will support this all we can (as our industry needs them, and they are good people) – but unfortunately, this has happened at a time when they owed us an enormous sum of money (over $80,000.00 minus returns). And to make matters worse, the most recent check they cut us, for almost $20,000.00, bounced this week, in turn causing the last 30 checks we wrote to printers, conventions, cartoonists – practically every aspect of the business – to bounce (or be held) in turn.
To put it bluntly, even with all the hard work we’ve put in over the years, if we don’t raise $20,000 this month, it could realistically force us to suspend publishing operations for the foreseeable future. It’s hard to believe but a big domino has fallen right on top of us at the worst time possible. So, that leaves us no choice but to be honest and ask for your help.
If 400-500 of you can find it in your hearts to each spend around fifty bucks on our core list of books below, this would literally pull us through – We mean that. We’ve got such a strong future schedule, and so many cool things to announce soon (including two more Alan Moore projects and two film & TV projects), that I’d hate to think that we’d have to pull the plug right before we just were about to arrive.
In any event, if you can find it in your hearts to help us out, we will be eternally grateful. We’ll be manning the phones personally on this “drive,” and we’ll also be sure to keep you informed – hopefully letting all of you know in three-to-four weeks that everything’s okay (with your help, that is.).
On behalf of Brett Warnock and myself.
Truly, your friend thru comics,
Chris Staros and his partner Brett Warnock are two of the most well-liked and respected personalities in the business and on the convention circuit – Top Shelf are attending seventeen shows this year alone – and it was no surprise that Chris’ appeal received a tremendous response. News websites carried Chris’ message in full as their main story (recently I even came across it as a news item on the French-language www.labd.com website) and his e-mail was forwarded on throughout comics’ substantial Internet community worldwide.
The response was even greater than expected, and in less than 36 hours Chris had to send out a second message:
TOP SHELF SAVED BY COMICS COMMUNITY IN RECORD 12 HOURS
Dear Comics Fans,
What a difference a day makes. On Tuesday morning at 8:00AM, April 3rd, Top Shelf was effectively put out of business, and on Tuesday evening by 8:00PM, April 3rd, Top Shelf was remarkably back in business. There are not words suitable to express how honoured and thankful we are that within 12 hours this amazing comics community took it upon itself to bring us back to life. And in this case, it might also be said that the power of the Internet was fully realized.
On Tuesday, after we made the announcement of our book trade distributor filing for Chapter 11 (and the subsequent fatal impact that this had on our own operation), we received over 200 phone orders and 850 on-line and email orders to boot. This staggering 1000 orders has not only made us operational again (and put several thousand copies of our graphic novels into circulation), but has also reaffirmed to us that the comics industry is back, revitalized, and ready to take on the world. We’re even estimating that over 100,000 people received the news or were personally involved in the discussion of this on-line event on that day.
With this overwhelming support, combined with the (now contradictory) fact that Top Shelf has always prided itself that every order would ship out the very next day, we ask for your patience in letting us get all of these graphic novels, comics, and CDs to you. We hope to have everything shipped out within the next few weeks. In the meantime, if all this activity has made you curious about our books, we would encourage you to ask for them at your local retailer, so that everyone along the chain, retailers and distributors alike, can also benefit from this spur of interest. And while this interest in diversity is at the forefront of everyone’s mind, we encourage you to continue in the exploration and discussion of comics from all the publishers doing quality work these days: DC Comics, Marvel, Dark Horse, Image, CrossGen, Viz, Fantagraphics, Slave Labor, Oni Press, NBM, Drawn & Quarterly, Cartoon Books, Alternative Comics, Highwater Books, the publishers we represent (like Eddie Campbell Comics, etc.), and all the rest (that we apologize for not having the space to mention by name today).
If we’ve learned anything over these last seven years – and witnessed it absolutely this week – we’re all in this together. And the growth and development of this amazing medium is in the most capable hands possible: the fans of this industry.
We’d also like to take a moment to give a special thank you to a few extraordinary people and organizations:
— Warren Ellis and the Warren Ellis Forum. We’ve always known that the Warren Ellis Forum was a formidable entity, dedicated to the discussion and support of quality comics all over the industry, but their mobilization in this instance was unprecedented. We can’t absolutely determine what percentage of all the orders were from this distinguished group, but our estimation is that it was significant. We cannot thank Warren or the supporters of his forum enough (http://www.warrenellis.com & http://forums.delphiforums.com/ellis & http://www.artbomb.net).
— CrossGen Comics. Mark Alessi and the CrossGen staff collectively bought $5,000.00 worth of graphic novels and will donate them to the public library system. This completely novel and generous gesture not only helped to keep us going (in a big way), but also promises to expose hundreds of people and libraries to what comics can bring to the world of art and literature. This stunned us, and is a testament to CrossGen’s contribution to our industry (http://www.crossgen.com).
— Rick Veitch and Matt Brady of comicon.com’s Spash and Newsarama pages. Their amazing coverage, on-line discussions, and links for this event spurred on an uncountable array of support from the industry (http://www.comiccon.com).
— Neil Gaiman. Neil took it upon himself to discuss our situation within his daily on-line journal, which just happens to be the most visited daily journal on the web. And since he’s been known to have a fan or two (including us), we’ve been getting a nice bit of support from there as well (http://www.neilgaiman.com/journal/journal.asp). — And no less amazing than that of the above, the collective efforts of the crews at http://www.artbomb.net, http://www.sequentialtart.com, http://www.comicbookresources.com, http://www.comicbookgalaxy.com, http://www.icv2.com, http://www.grayhavenmagazine.com, http://www.popimage.com, http://www.shotgunreviews.com, etc., whom all rallied their subscribers, who in turn proudly stated that they had come from one of these very active sites.
— And lastly, but never least, the comics retailing and distributing community. They are the front line of our industry, and behind the scenes they have always been the ones that have kept the independent publisher alive. The show of support from this community has not only been amazing on this particular day, but has ALWAYS been there from the first moment we entered the business. They have been the group that has supported us the most.
Again, we want to thank everyone from the bottom of our hearts — we could not have done it without you. Top Shelf will continue to try and put out the best books possible, and we look forward to not only thanking each an every one of you personally at the Cons this summer, but also being able to now make some rather cool announcements in the coming weeks that should be fun and beneficial for the entire industry as well.
On behalf of Brett Warnock and myself.
Truly, your friend thru comics,
Since then, Chris has been packing boxes furiously and has even had to take on staff to help – Top Shelf’s first paid employee. While this has saved Top Shelf from possible closure by avoiding a short-term cash crisis, the long-term future is still not clear-cut as LPC account for around a third of Top Shelf’s overall sales. On Newsarama Chris was quoted as saying, “If the courts will allow LPC to start using funds to pay publishers, we can keep sending them books and try to get the treadmill running.”
“If the courts decide that all that money has to go to pay off LPC’s debt to the banks and we don’t see any of it, that’s really going to kill them in the long run, because they’re not supporting the people who make them money. They’re good people at LPC, and hopefully they’ll recover, and hopefully everything will be fine.”
Unfortunately, as I go to press, it’s being reported that Bank One, who precipitated this crisis, is threatening to seize LPC’s May deposit cheque, due on the first of the month. This would be a further massive blow to not only Top Shelf, but also many of the other independent publishers who are dependent on LPC for survival. It could quite likely mean that LPC will go under and seriously damage the delicate fledgling foundation of the graphic novel bookstore trade. Let’s hope that some satisfactory solution is found for all concerned.
By the time this issue of Strangehaven is published, Chris and Brett will have cleared their original backlog of orders, but as it looks likely that another crisis is looming, I’d like encourage you all to take a look at their website or request a catalogue and catch up on some of comics’ finest recent trade paperbacks.
Below is a just a small selection of Top Shelf’s great books. You can order any of them from comic stores or from Top Shelf themselves: www.topshelfcomix.com
[IMAGES TO COME]
The surreal and whimsical Dear Julia written and illustrated in gorgeous watercolour by Brian Biggs 112 pages/$12.95
Abe – Wrong for All the Right Reasons collecting all the Abe strips by Glenn Dakin in one convenient volume 176pages/$14.95
The Soap Lady by Renee French is a book for children of all ages, about a lady made of soap. Sumptuously illustrated Hardcover 112 pages/$19.95
Monkey vs. Robot by James Kochalka. Lots of pages full of monkeys fighting robots and vice versa 160 pages/$14.95
A Complete Lowlife collects the excellent autobiographical strips by Ed Brubaker 112 pages/$12.95
In Bughouse, Steve Laffler mixes jazz-playing insects with drink and drugs. Funny, sad and superb. An underrated, overlooked masterpiece 192 pages/$14.95
A classic of the modern age of graphic novels Goodbye Chunky Rice by the sensational Craig Thompson 128pages/$14.95
Box Office Poison by Alex Robinson collecting together the entire series in one massive volume 608 pages/$29.95
Speechless is a huge, extraordinarily, gorgeous full-colour retrospective of Peter Kuper’s career in comics and illustration. Hardcover 112 pages/$19.95
See what James Kochalka got up to everyday for a year in comic strip form. The Sketchbook Diaries 96 pages/$7.95
Big Clay Pot a sensitive, original graphic novel set in ancient Japan by Scott Mills 144 pages/$12.95