Syndicates: Tom Thornton Will Leave Stamp on Amp

Article excerpt

When newspaper features spawn books, most readers think of three not-so-little words: Andrews McMeel Publishing. And when AMP President/CEO Tom Thornton retires at the end of 2005, he'll think of three decades of not-so-little growth for the company he headed.

Thornton began working for AMP soon after joining its sister company, Universal Press Syndicate, as assistant to the editor in 1972. Over the next few years, the 1973-launched AMP was lucky if it did $1-2 million in annual sales. But today, the company pulls in more than $100 million in annual sales and publishes as many as 300 new titles each year.

Among the reasons for this growth: AMP expanded to offer calendars as well as books, and formed two separate sales units -- one to place its products in bookstores and the other to sell to gift shops, Wal-Mart, Target, and other retail outlets. AMP also began publishing books and calendars based on comics from various syndicates (not just Universal). And much of its business ended up coming from properties with little or no newspaper pedigree -- including Harry Potter calendars and Mary Engelbreit books and calendars.

Syndication-spawned products "are a solid part of our sales, but not the majority," said Thornton, 54, who became AMP's president in 1987.

Yet the company is perhaps best known for publishing "The Far Side" books and calendars by Gary Larson that turbo-charged AMP's growth in the 1980s and '90s. More than 40 million "Far Side" comic collections have been sold since the first came out in 1982 with a modest initial printing of 7,500 copies.

"He's a great cartoonist, a wonderful man, and a good friend," Thornton said of Larson.

"The Far Side" creator returned the compliment: "Tom is just plain smart, calm in a crisis, and up to his eyeballs in integrity," he told E&P. "That, to me, as someone on the creative end of things, is the Holy Grail in a publisher."

Why is Thornton leaving at a relatively young age? "The company is in great shape," he said. "Otherwise, I would not be retiring." And Thornton -- who'll continue as an advisor/consultant for AMP and board member for AMP's Andrews McMeel Universal (AMU) parent -- wants to spend two or three months a year in New Zealand (where he and his wife have family), do more volunteer work in the Kansas City area (where he and AMU are based), and spend more time with his children and grandchildren.

Also fueling AMP's growth were Bill Watterson's "Calvin & Hobbes" books, which have sold more than 30 million copies since the first collection was published in 1986.

Watterson and Larson both retired from creating their Universal comics in the mid-1990s, but their books still sell. …