Kirsty Melville in the Publishers’ Chair
Kirsty Melville is president and publisher of Andrews McMeel Publishing, known for New York Times bestselling poetry and inspiration, cutting-edge comics and humor, engaging puzzles and activities, and entertaining children’s graphic novels. Andrews McMeel’s enduring success is founded in its ability to identify and amplify powerful voices that reflect and share the stories of our times.
In the early days of social media adoption, Kirsty published little-known Canadian poet Rupi Kaur, whose writing and art resonated deeply with an emerging readership yearning for connection, empathy, and representation. The combined global sales of Rupi’s first book, Milk and Honey, and sibling poetry collections The Sun and Her Flowers and Home Body exceed more than ten million copies, with foreign language editions in over forty countries. Under Kirsty’s leadership, Andrews McMeel has been at the forefront of changing the way poetry is perceived and marketed, helping to grow and expand the poetry category for readers worldwide.
Thank you so much for joining us today, Kirsty! What do you publish at Andrews McMeel and are your authors global?
Andrews McMeel has been around for just over fifty years and started out as a publisher of syndicated comics and text. We’re most known for comic collections such as Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side, but over the years we have evolved to include a broader range of short-form relatable content. We publish gift books, illustrated nonfiction, web comics, webtoons, and manga. More recently, we've become known for poetry—both profound and popular poetry—that has found success through social media.
We are based in Kansas City, United States, but we publish globally. We started out publishing cartoonists whose work is sold all over the world and have been international bestsellers. We partner with Simon & Schuster for all our global distribution, except for Hardie Grant in Australia. So in short, we think of ourselves as a global publisher, based in Kansas City, with international distribution and authors from all over the world.
There are already a number of genres on your list. Are there any other new genres or forms that you'd like to introduce or to grow?
We are continuing to evolve our children's publishing strand and graphic novels for middle-grade kids. The biggest seller there is Lincoln Peirce’s series Big Nate, which has just recently been made into a Nickelodeon series for kids. Phoebe and Her Unicorn is another bestseller and we've acquired rights internationally for those types of middle-grade comics. More recently, we’ve published graphic novels for kids, so that’s another area of growth.
How do you tend to market your books?
There are two or three different ways that we go about marketing our books. One is that we have great relationships with the book trade. For example, if we’re promoting a children’s book, we’re marketing to retailers, libraries, and independent bookstores that have a strong focus on education and relationships with schools. With poetry, often our authors have engaged followings themselves, but they will still partner with us to help provide distribution where they can’t. Overall, it’s a combination of social media marketing, digital marketing, and PR, so all the usual suspects.
What is your ethos as a publishing house?
We call ourselves a creative first company, and by that I mean everything we do begins and ends with our authors and creators, and we are nothing without them. We partner with our authors to help them spread their voices to the world by being collaborative, providing approvals, and involving them in every step of the process from development to design. Often our authors know their audience better than we do, so we heavily involve them in marketing plans and offer a solid partnership to work together.
Do you have any new titles or series coming out that we should look out for?
We have a very exciting project coming from Bill Watterson, the beloved cartoonist and creator of Calvin and Hobbes. He stopped his strip almost thirty years ago and hasn’t published since then, until now! We are publishing a fable for adults written by Watterson, coming out in October. I can’t tell you any more than that but we’re very excited!
I understand you're a great lover of poetry yourself. Where did this appreciation come from?
Poetry can be so simple but still provide an emotional perspective that helps people understand themselves and the world better. With the world being as complex as it is, people—especially young people—have turned to poetry for escape, reflection, support, and self-care. The poetry that we publish, especially with Rupi Kaur, has become a way for young people to express their fears, joys, loneliness, and trauma, and it’s a way for people to look inward. To see the books that we’ve published touch people’s lives, especially Rupi’s books, has been incredible to watch.
I know you’ve seen incredible success with many of your authors and poets, in particular Rupi Kaur. Where did you first see her work and were you prepared for her success?
As a publisher, of course, you always hope that the books you publish are going to sell millions of copies and become bestsellers, but you can never predict what will happen. Before we discovered Rupi, we published another book called Love & Misadventure by Lang Leav, a poet from Cambodia but based in Australia. We saw the success of Leav’s poetry, and so when we came across Rupi’s self-published collection Milk and Honey during some research, we approached her to see if she would like to work with a publisher. Rupi was excited because we had already published Leav, who she was an admirer of. We first printed around 15,000 copies of Milk and Honey; it’s now sold over four million.
I think one of the many reasons Rupi’s work is so successful is the timing. Her first collection came out at a time when there were pretty dark forces in the United States. A lot of women related to her written and spoken word. She first gained prominence online when she posted a photo of herself with menstrual blood. Instagram took it down and there was a massive protest, which influenced Instagram to put the image back up again. She is not afraid to speak to issues that women might not address so publicly, and when she speaks she gives a voice to young women. Word-of-mouth took hold and she started selling millions of copies of her book, and holding book tours and spoken word performances around the world. People were lining the streets to see her, and during the Women’s Marches in 2016, they were holding signs featuring Rupi’s poetry.
When Milk and Honey showed up on bestseller lists next to Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, I thought, “OK, something is happening here!” I’ve been at book signings with Rupi where women of all ages go up to her and say, “Your words have helped me so much. Thank you.” Her poetry can be so simple, but there is something about it that touches people and helps people process their feelings.
Many of Rupi’s poems are also accompanied by her line drawings, which are so beautiful and unique. It’s another way of her standing out and the drawings fit so beautifully with her words.
Have you accompanied Rupi on any of her tours?
Rupi has been touring a lot recently and I haven’t been on the most recent ones. She was performing spoken word in small venues such as universities and schools, but these quickly became too small. Rupi was invited to speak at a TEDx program in Kansas City, and this audience helped launch her more widely. We then did an Amazon Prime Video special, Rupi Kaur Live, which gave people a sense of her live performances and this went down brilliantly.
Rupi’s latest book, Healing Through Words, takes a slightly different format. Can you tell me about that?
One of Rupi’s amazing strengths is her desire to support and raise up other women, and encourage people to write. During Covid, she started doing “Instagram lives” to help people write about their feelings and experiences during such a strange time. Healing Through Words is a journey for self-discovery and a way for people to explore their own creativity. This year, we’re publishing four different card decks that are writing prompts to help people write. We have a very exciting new Milk and Honey agenda that we’re publishing in the fall. Rupi designed it and it’s absolutely gorgeous. It has poems from the collection, and ways of tracking your behavior and writing letters to yourself.
Rupi is eager to share with others the exploration of self that she’s been through herself, which is one of the reasons we are branching out into other forms. She did a live recording for Shopify of one of her poems, and for International Women’s Day this year she recorded a video of one of her poems in multiple languages. We have a special edition set of three of her books coming out, too, which is designed by Rupi, so lots going on!
Do you have a personal favorite poem or collection of Rupi’s?
The multilingual poem “timeless” [included below] that Rupi launched for International Women’s Day this year is one of my favorite poems. It’s about the process of aging and it’s a wonderful confidence builder for women.
timeless - rupi kaur
they convinced me
i only had a few good years left
before i was replaced by a girl younger than me
as though men yield power with age
but women grow into irrelevance
they can keep their lies
for i have just gotten started
i feel as though i just left the womb
my twenties are the warm-up
for what i’m really about to do
wait till you see me in my thirties
now that will be a proper introduction
to the nasty, wild, woman in me,
how can i leave before the party’s started
rehearsals begin at forty
i ripen with age
i do not come with an expiration date
for the main event
curtains up at fifty
let’s begin the show
Has Rupi affected the visibility or the profile of Andrews McMeel? Have you received work you may not have before?
We’ve been lucky to have had New York Times bestselling authors throughout our fifty-year history in all the categories that we publish. At the time we published Lang Leav and Rupi, we also published some other poets including Amanda Lovelace, Courtney Peppernell, r.h. Sin, and Yung Pueblo. These are all people who have a global audience and a voice that speaks to young people today. Pueblo is a meditative poet who has a title coming out with us this year, which I hope will be a bestseller. His first two books, Inward and Clarity & Connection, have really resonated with people, particularly in the U.K. Many of these poets emerged through Instagram, but they have now evolved in their writing and are doing things differently. Instagram is a really good medium for discovery, and now, of course, poets are being discovered on TikTok, too.
Before Andrews McMeel, were you in publishing? Can you tell me a little bit about your journey into publishing?
I’m Australian and I began my publishing career in Australia in legal publishing, where I learned how to make books. I worked at Doubleday briefly and then was founding publisher for Simon & Schuster Australia. I started selling books internationally and building relationships, and I was doing business with a company on the west coast of the U.S. called Ten Speed Press. They hired me to join them and so I moved over to California almost thirty years ago and was vice president publisher there. It was a small independent press predominantly known for nonfiction books such as What Color Is Your Parachute? and Moosewood Cookbook. I then moved to Andrews McMeel, which brought me to Kansas City, and I’ve been here for seventeen years.
What are some of the most useful skills you have learned through your various roles?
When I was at Simon & Schuster, I learned the process of publishing from editorial to production to marketing, sales, and rights. I had a complete overview of the business, which was incredibly useful. When I moved to Ten Speed Press, I learned how to read the market—how to see when a book is taking off and what to do with it. I once asked the founder, Phil Wood, “What is your philosophy?” and he said to always buy low because you want to publish the best and most unique books. I took that to heart and so I think we try to publish books that are unique, have a singular voice, and have something original to say.
One thing I know I can do is pick talent. I can identify authors who have a special voice, an audience, and something to say that’s unique. I love to bring their work to the world and find ways to market them. Although I’m based in the middle of the United States, I am, by nature, a globally curious person. I’ve worked in the U.K., I’m Australian, I’ve lived in the United States, and I’ve traveled a lot, so I love books that work internationally as well.
Can you give any advice to any authors or poets who might want to break into their career or to any budding publishers?
I talk about the four Ps of publishing! Publishing is hard and so you need to have passion; it’s not for the faint of heart. Having a point of view really matters: something that’s unique and singular. Having a platform and thinking about how you’re going to reach the audience is crucial; not every book is marketed and sold in the same way and every book needs its own approach. One needs perspective to take a long view about the relationship with your authors and your business through the ups and downs. This one isn’t a P, but relationships really matter. They are the foundation of everything in business.
Do you have a favorite book or a poem that you can recommend to our readers?
One of my favorite poets is Billy Collins and he has recently published a short-form poem called “Musical Tables.” I find it really inspiring. His ideas and his writing are exquisite. One of my many favorite books that I’ve loved recently is Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. The attention to detail in her writing combined with the emotion is so powerful; she’s a fantastic writer.