Note: Please excuse the poor audio quality. Edward Meyer is the VP of Exhibits and Archives at Ripley Publishing. He’s been with Ripley’s for more than 30 years. He joins the show to explain what has helped make Ripley so sustainable, engaging and entertaining. He also shares some of the new marketing tactics he’s utilizing for his books and exhibits.
Meyer then shares some crazy stories in this year’s edition, such as:
– Oscar the Incredible Traveling Dog visiting over 30 countries in the past three years
– Creepy and crazy Halloween-theme stories
Please visit Ripley’s Publishing at www.Ripleys.com.
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Start of Interview with Edward Meyer
Jason Hartman: It’s my pleasure to welcome Edward Meyer to the show. He’s coming to us today from Orlando Florida and it happens to be Halloween as we’re recording this. So I thought it fitting to interview a company that has built a publishing empire and that is the Ripley’s publishing empire. And it’s just fantastic to have him here. Edward has been with the company for more than 35 years. He’s the VP of exhibits and archives at Ripley Publishing, and it’s great to have him join us today. Edward, how are you?
Edward Meyer: I’m great and thank you for having Ripley’s on the show this afternoon.
Jason Hartman: Well, the pleasure is ours, the pleasure is ours.
Edward Meyer: And happy Halloween.
Jason Hartman: Happy Halloween to you too. So you’re out with a new book I guess, right? And this book has an interesting iPhone application attached to it, right?
Edward Meyer: Well, we have been in the book publishing business since 1929. First couple books were written by Robert Ripley himself. Great newspaper cartoonist, founder of our company. But for the last ten years we have come out with what we call the Ripley Annual. We still do other books as well, but one big premiere annual book every September. It’s basically aimed for the gift market but it’s the very best of what we could find in the calendar year, 2012-2013 in this case. And the book is called Dare to Look and as you mentioned, what makes it different from the previous nine, because they’re all the same number of pages, 256, oversized format, approximately 2,500 stories, 500 photographs, but what makes this one different is we’ve got a brand new technology, a telephone app that is free at your app store. It’s called Ripley Odd Scan and 18 different pages within the book you’ll see a bright red and green logo and any time you see that page once you’ve downloaded the app, you can scan that page and find hidden content.
For the most part, it’s video. So when you’re looking at the book you might see a really cool picture of a dog with a long tongue and it’s kind of a fun picture by itself but if you scan the Odd Scan on that page, you actually see the dog licking an ice-cream cone with his long tongue on video as well as drinking from the bottom of a long cup. So it’s just an extra added attraction to give you some fun and of course to make it even more real. Because everything in Ripley’s Believe it or Not, no matter how unbelievable it may seem is in fact real and it’s just another way of verifying the truth here.
Jason Hartman: So is that app available for iPhone and Android phones?
Edward Meyer: Yes it is. I personally am not an Android customer and I have to confess, we’ve had a little bit of problems apparently, but it should be up and running fine and available wherever you buy your phone apps.
Jason Hartman: Well Edward, what has made Ripley’s such a sustainable, enduring, engaging and entertaining brand for so many years? I mean what a great story. I doubt people in the business think of Ripley as a great publisher and a great brand like that. It’s sort of something we see in touristy places and things like that but there’s really quite a lot behind it, isn’t there?
Edward Meyer: Well the short easy answer is human curiosity, but as you suggested we’re a multi-faceted company. Robert Ripley was born in Santa Rosa, California in 1890, most of his life he lived in New York City. Died in New York in 1949. So that’s a long time ago, yet we have sustained his founding business for another 60 plus years. We’re in our 95th year since the very first Believe it or Not cartoon. The first book was 1929, the first museum, which we call Odditorium; that’s the Ripley buzz word. And that was in 1933 so even that was 80 years ago exactly this year. So we’ve been in that business. Ripley himself had a long standing radio show. At the end of his career he got into television. Since his death we have had five different television shows, the most famous probably being in the early 80’s, hosted by Jack Palance but we are a multimedia company based on the foundation is truly a newspaper cartoon.
Black and white pen and ink sketches that Ripley drew himself every day for over 30 years. And that’s been continued with six other artists for another 60 years after him. I’d like to think that when people think of the odd or the unusual, we are the people that they think of first. But people want their 15 minutes of fame and if the two headed cow is born on your farm, chances are you’re going to call Ripley’s and see if Ripley’s is A, interested enough to put it in a book, B interested enough to maybe buy the cow and put it in one of our museums.
Jason Hartman: Well, so, in terms of the book, is this the first time you’ve tied in an app with a book, with this latest version?
Edward Meyer: Well, this year is. We’ve actually done 3 different books this year with this technology, but it’s brand new for us this year. And as I said this is our premier product so the other two books have got a couple, this one has got 18. And some of the video on page 172-173, there’s a gentleman that puts 161 clothes pegs on his face. We actually brought him to our offices in Orlando, Florida and created the video ourselves. So we could verify how many pegs it is, we could learn how he does it, what the whole Raison d’être behind why he does it is. So it wasn’t just buying a piece of video that was out there, we created an exhibit basically and it’s a stand-alone attraction within the books. In our museums, again we just did this this year, 2013, we’ve actually got the same technology, we’ve got little poster boards throughout our museums and if you see that poster you can click on it and it’ll give you information about the exhibit that you’re looking at. So it works exactly the same. The book is kind of cool because it really is take home value that you can instantly Email or Facebook your friends with.
Jason Hartman: Yeah that’s what I was going ask you, if you were also utilizing the same idea with the exhibits and it sounds like you are. How many exhibits or do you call them museums?
Edward Meyer: Well, the public calls them museums. We try very hard to use the word auditoriums. That’s our copyrighted patented word. A museum with a difference I guess is the best way to define it. Currently we have 32 in 10 countries. The very first one, that is still existing, the first permanent one opened in Saint Augustine, Florida in 1950. So that particular one is 63 years old and it is still one of our best.
Jason Hartman: Very good. Take us back to the founding of Ripley. It was with this cartoon. Tell us a little bit more about the evolution of the company.
Edward Meyer: Ripley was born in Santa Rosa, California. Tiny little town, still a pretty sleepy little place but in 1890 there was literally nothing there. He got his first job in San Francisco drawing sports cartoons. He was a high school dropout; did not graduate, but from a very early age self-taught flare for art. And a visitor to his little town, to his family in Santa Rosa was connected with the San Francisco chronicle and said this guy’s got some talent. Let me show his work and maybe we can get him a job in San Francisco as a sports illustrator. We’re talking about a time where the camera’s been invented but it really isn’t being utilized for daily newspapers. It’s too expensive.
But all papers would have staff artists that would draw the stories of the day. And Ripley’s specialty was sports. He himself was interested in baseball. Later in his life he gets interested in boxing and hand ball, and plays a bit of tennis and golf as well. So a natural affiliation to sports. Well from three years working in San Francisco, he goes to New York City to try out for the New York Giants. Up to then sports was still more important to him than his art work. But he was making a living by combining the both.
So he goes to New York specifically to play baseball, gets injured seriously in spring training, and never really plays baseball again. He is now in a foreign place, doesn’t know anybody, he’s got no family. The only other skill he has is his art. So he starts to take it a little more serious and it becomes a full time job for him. 1918, he’s already been in New York for 5 years, but in 1918 he creates the first cartoon that he captions with the words Believe it or Not. And it really is just a bunch of sports guys that did some amazing things. Well it catches on pretty quick that the editors decide this should be a regular feature. So he starts doing it once a week, then twice a week, and it grows until it really becomes more important than his other work and such. 1922, end of 22 he takes a round the world trip and it really changes his life. He sees foreign places, foreign cultures and writes a journal type report with his drawings and has them published as a daily diary sort of thing. And it just takes the publishing world by storm, that here’s this little guy with basically no education, reporting on the world very much in a Mark Twain sort of way, but with the addition that it’s got some art work beside it.
And it is from that trip in the early 20s that he really changes his career and starts doing nothing but Believe it or Not’s. Seven years later, 1929, he does his first book and it’s really a collection of the best of things he’s been doing in the newspaper for the last seven years. The book, it’s still to my mind the best book we’ve ever done, and we’ve got about 300 at this point. But the book is loved by William Randolph Hurst who is the millionaire, billionaire newspaper tycoon. And he says hire Ripley. So Ripley goes from being a free-lance artist to being a paid, highly paid artist with King Features Syndicate out in New York. And from that day in 1929, he’s got the financial backing of one of the richest men in the world and Hurst basically says go travel, go find more stories like you did in that diary thing.
So Ripley becomes nicknamed the modern Marco Polo. He travels in his lifetime to 201 countries out of about 230 at the time, and he’s the most traveled man at his time. Everywhere he goes he’s doing his drawings, and he starts collecting items to prove those drawings. If somebody says oh I don’t really believe that there’s shrunken heads made by the Jivaro Indians of Ecuador, South America; Ripley now brings back a shrunken head with him to prove what he drew. And pretty soon he’s got enough stuff to fill a house and third parties are telling him, you should build some museums and display your collection. And so the collecting really came out of literally trying to prove what he was drawing.
Today the collection has roughly 40,000 objects from almost every country in the world. During Ripley’s time in the early 1930s he had temporary museums which he called auditoriums that typically were associated with world’s fair, Chicago in 1933, San Diego in 1935, San Francisco in 1939 and New York City in 1940. And at some point, there’s more money in the Museum business than there is in the Cartoon business so he takes it pretty serious. Sort of a spin off – again, this guy, you could compare him seriously to the Kardashians or any big name star today, Miley Cyrus but not the naked Miley Cyrus. He is involved in all medias, he is one of the most recognized people in the world. 1936, he’s actually voted the most popular man in America. So he’s involved in everything and he wasn’t a natural public speaker, but his radio show would run weekly for 16 consecutive years and typically was only second to Jack Benny.
So, there’s hundreds, millions of people glued to the radio every Friday night to hear this guy. At the end of his career he changes from radio to television, 1949. Television really started late in 48 and all the classic shows that we think about early television Milton Burrow, Lucy, all actually came a little bit after Ripley. He was one of the very first people on television even. So when he dies in 1949, there is one permanent Ripley museum in New York on Broadway. And all of his collection is sold at public auction. And a Broadway entrepreneurial type guy in Presario named John Arthur goes to the public auction and buys up as much of the collection as he possibly can and then teams with a gentleman named Doug Storer who had been Ripley’s right hand man since 1930.
And they decide to continue the company but neither of them draw so they have to hire an artist. But they really get into book publishing in a serious way. In Ripley’s time he only did 3 books and in the 50s and 60s we’re two or three a year and in Ripley’s time there’s only one museum and John Arthur by the end of his career, he’s built four or five. And then the next guy who’s a Canadian named Alec Rigby, took the company from New York City and moved it to Toronto, Canada.
And that’s where I come in, and over the years, we’ve never stopped the cartoon, it was continuously done 365 days of the year. It is the longest running cartoon in newspaper history. We’ve continued publishing. And we’ve not only continued the auditoriums but we’ve got into other attractions. Today we have 32 Ripley’s Believe it or Now museums but we have 60 other attractions ranging from miniature golfs to haunted houses, perfect for Halloween, to three world class aquariums, including one we just opened in Toronto about three weeks ago now.
Jason Hartman: Now are the aquariums, are they weird fish or what?
Edward Meyer: No, that’s a fair question and we do get asked that a little bit. And there may be one or two things you may not see at another aquarium but they are a basic educational aquarium, created by a fun company that we do things a little bit different, that the learning experience is a little more immersive and hopefully more fun, is what we try to put into our aquariums. And it’s still basically sharks but you get to walk through a shark tunnel as if you’re surrounded by the sharks. You get to touch the horse shoe crabs; you get to play with wave machines. So, it’s not weird fish, but they’re presented differently, is what makes our aquariums different from somebody else’s.
Jason Hartman: So, when you look at the company’s revenue today. I mean, how does it kind of divide up? Where is the money coming from mostly? Is it like even between auditoriums and book publishing or what’s the big thing now?
Edward Meyer: Well, I’m not going to give you exact numbers, but…
Jason Hartman: Oh I didn’t expect exact numbers.
Edward Meyer: Prior to the opening of the Toronto aquarium, our aquarium business and our attraction business were roughly the same with publishing being the left overs. But with this third aquarium, we will be making more money from our three aquariums than we do from all our other business.
Jason Hartman: Very interesting. Fantastic. So what’s the weirdest thing in the history of Ripley? Can you pick one thing that was just the craziest, craziest Believe it or Not?
Edward Meyer: Well, if you ask me tomorrow I’ll probably tell you a different answer than I do today, but I have hundreds of favorites. Typically, I think the absolute strangest thing I’ve ever acquired is a full sized taxidermied African elephant head. Roughly ten foot by ten foot, weighing several thousand pounds. It has two trunks. Two fully sized working trunks, one over top of the other, Ripley’s has a long relationship with animal oddities but usually they’re domestic animals. Cows, pigs, chickens, so very rare to have a wild animal and then of course to have the biggest animal on the face of the earth. This is a full grown huge animal. This animal is as big as a car and the trunks are roughly 5 ½ feet tall and about 35 inches around, so they’re as big as a person. Truly a one of a kind piece. We’re never going to see another one.
Jason Hartman: Yeah, to top that you’re going to have to have one with three trunks.
Edward Meyer: There you go. I have long said and I’m only half joking, that I will retire when I find something with three heads. Because we’ve got two headed cows, we’ve got two headed chickens, we’ve got two headed rabbits, in total we probably have over a hundred two headed animals in our collection. But I’ve never seen or heard of one having three heads other than a Greek mythology. So that’s Edward’s Holy Grail.
Jason Hartman: Yeah, yeah. And every auditorium is different obviously, right?
Edward Meyer: We have wax figures that are common to several museums. But actual hard artifacts everything is real, everything is authentic, everything is one of a kind, so 32 museums, each with roughly 500 exhibits. There are 500 different exhibits. No two museums have very much in common.
Jason Hartman: Have any of the more mainstream museums tried to get a hold of your stuff or buy it from you?
Edward Meyer: Well, I mean, we’re buyers, not sellers. So we don’t get too many people trying to buy our collection. But we are the envy of many main stream museums. I’ve sat beside the people at auction houses and outbid them as a privately owned company, our budget tends to be a little bigger than other people’s. and we’re not dependent on fund raising, etcetera. A good example, we have a very impressive collection of Russian Cosmonauts space material. And one of our people we were bidding against was the Smithsonian and for the most part we got what we wanted and they didn’t because they couldn’t afford the prices that a public auction sometimes hits. And we do get the occasional people asking us if we’ll sell. Shrunken heads is probably the best example because they’re a very rare item and people know that we have more than enough. But they’re hard to find anywhere else so it doesn’t harm anybody to say, hey would you sell me one. But they’ve got to offer us way more than what it’s actually worth before we’ll part with it. Tt’s valuable to us as an intrinsic piece as well as the material value.
Jason Hartman: Yeah, that’s fascinating. Fascinating stuff, well what’s next for Ripley’s?
Edward Meyer: What’s next for Ripley’s? Well this year back in May, we published a biography of Robert Ripley, not literally the first, it’s the second but the first one back in 1960 only pulled part of the story, so it’s really only the full length biography. And it has generated some interest to do a PBS documentary on Robert Ripley. So I’d say that’s the next best thing. Probably still be about a year before it gets on the air but we’re working very hard on a PBS television show.
Jason Hartman: Good. Well, yeah that’s fascinating, fascinating. Good stuff. Well Edward, any tips for publishers, for book authors that want to get noticed and don’t have a taxidermied elephant with two trunks? Any tips you can share? You’ve done such a great job.
Edward Meyer: Well I was going to say one thing that isn’t always easy, because everything costs, but our new book that we’ve been talking about, Dare to Look, is one in a series of ten that all have lenticular photography on the front. And the word lenticular is just a fancy word for layered but it looks like the eye ball is looking through some window blinds. And that has become one of our iconic features, to have lenticular photography on the cover with literally in this case, it looks like the eye ball follows you when you open the book. And that’s the single thing I think that makes the different in any kind of, any product, is marketing. And books is a very competitive field and is a dying field to be honest, so your book has to stand out on the shelf. I can’t stress enough how valuable and how much money you should spend as a percentage on the cover because if the cover doesn’t make you pick it up, it isn’t going to sell.
Jason Hartman: That’s a very good point, that’s a very good point. That photography is really amazing. So spend some extra money on the cover, if your book has photography in it as well, that would be another good place to do it.
Edward Meyer: Yeah, we’re a very visual society and I don’t know anybody personally that reads more than I do. But today’s audience doesn’t read much and they like pictures, so if there’s an ability to add some visuals to your book, that’s going to help I think and I almost hate to say it because I am a big reader, but keep it short and sweet. People today don’t read. Get to the core of the story and drop a few adjectives.
Jason Hartman: Yeah. That’s unfortunate. We live in this sound bite society.
Edward Meyer: And that’s the best term for it. People want the information in a minute or less.
Jason Hartman: Yeah, so keep it short, keep it snappy and remember the old saying a picture says a thousand words. Edward Meyer, thank you so much for joining us today. The website of course is ripleys.com. Are there any other websites you want to give out?
Edward Meyer: Yeah, we’ve got ripleypublishing.com and each one of our museums has its own, so if you’re traveling in Tennessee and you want to know about the Ripley’s museum in Gatlinburg, you can look at the ripleysgatlinburg.com.
Jason Hartman: Well, Edward Meyer thanks so much for joining us today.
Edward Meyer: Alright, thanks for having us on. The book is Dare to Look and makes a great Christmas gift.
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Transcribed by Ralph
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