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From 'Star Trek' to Maya Angelou to Sarah Vaughan stamps, a look behind the scenes

In a world where Americans increasingly prefer emojis to mail, there's still a market for old fashioned postage — especially the special kind.

Even as the U.S. Postal Service loses billions annually, postage stamps remain a revenue generator. The agency will roll out a new stamp featuring jazz great Sarah Vaughan on Tuesday, making it the fifth commemorative stamp release of 2016. It comes two days after what would have been the singer's 92nd birthday.

It's a unique honor, said William Gicker, manager and creative director of Postal Service stamp development.

"We do more than icons," Gicker said. "There's also a topical figures series, from the White House to skateboards to motorcycles to flowers."

In 2015, the agency issued 28 new commemorative stamp subjects with 72 available designs. One of the best-performing series was Batman at $26 million. The rest of the top grossers in the $10 million range included "Missing Children" in support of National Missing Children's Day and that famous Maya Angelou stamp with a quote that wasn't hers. Holiday and flag stamps remain best sellers with revenues in the billions, Gicker said.

Anyone can suggest a stamp, and each year 40,000 people do. To decide who gets one, Postmaster General Megan Brennan appoints a 12-member Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee. That council works with Gicker's office to create stamps commemorating everything from the repeal of the Stamp Act to Star Trek's 50th anniversary, both coming this summer.

The Times caught up with Gicker about the secret life of stamps.

Citizens suggest stamps. How does that work?

We try to look for what is nationally appealing and subjects relevant to the entire country. We don't do specific cities and we try to keep everyone in mind. Then we move forward to the Citizen's Stamp Advisory Committee, which meets quarterly, and that's a group of private citizens who are usually tops in their fields from history and film to education.

Do you receive proposals with designs?

We ask people not to submit designs, just subjects. We only allow our contract art directors to develop the stamp programs. Our art directors have firms they work with, but they are always looking for fresh talent.

How did Sarah Vaughan get a stamp?

Sarah Vaughan, like many of the subjects that come before the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee, came in through the proposal process. We like to think of our process as the great equalizer, because whether a stamp has 50,000 names signed to a petition or one person writing a letter, we remove the requester information before sending it to the committee. That way if it's a big name or your grandmother — not that your grandmother isn't a big name — they are reviewing the stamp on its own merits.

Is this a big money maker for the Postal Service?

Of course, we want to make money. We need to function like every other business. But it's not the main driver behind the stamp program. It's to honor the best of America. . . . This year, coming up in two months, we have the anniversary of the repeal of the Stamp Act. It's not Disney, yet it's still important. If we can make money off of it, great.

Do you lose money on commemorative stamp production?

No. I wouldn't say that we lost. We're very careful about the upfront cost. We remain aware that stamp use is still on the decline for the average American.

What year is the committee working on now?

Stamps for 2019. We do have a research firm looking at each calendar year and pulling all major and minor anniversaries, be it pop culture-focused or educational-focused or more academic-focused. We try to capture the major milestones of the nation. Some, we already have in consideration, such as 400th anniversary of the landing of the pilgrims in 2020.

You lost $1.25 million on the Simpsons 25th anniversary stamps. What did you learn?

Well, what we learned. . . . Pop culture stamps did actually sell well. We printed them as a booklet (instead of a sheet). We learned smaller quantities of the booklets in commemorative stamps is better for production because of the sales pace use. It wasn't the masses who wanted The Simpsons stamps to use for them to mail things. They were collecting it.

What has been your best seller?

There are many who say the Elvis stamp is one of the highest produced stamps. But really what we do with the flag — any sort of flag design — we sell in the billions with just flat out stamps. For commemorative stamps, Elvis is one of the most popular and Disney is very popular. The Bugs Bunny stamp was one of our big sellers. Also, people like these subject stamps because they are collectors of things on a particular subject. The lighthouse stamps we did as a one-off was so popular we had to bring them back. We also sell a lot of pets, cats and dogs.

If a subject proposal is denied, is it denied forever?

No. . . . They can resubmit that proposal in three years. And when it comes back in the three years later, the committee may reevaluate it and come to a different decision. Committee members serve three-year terms with a maximum of four terms. Our longest serving member is Dr. Henry Louis Gates, who is almost at the 12-year mark.

Any heated battles occur in that room?

Well, I can't really say. Committee meetings are confidential. What I do find fascinating about the group is the intelligent debates. There's no arguing. People just debate the merits and everyone leaves as friends every day.

How do you adjust for the declining usage of stamps in everyday life?

I wouldn't say it has affected the production process. We need to be very conscious of sales and continually correct the quantities being printed. As long as letters are still present, that won't change production quantities. We are very aware of the downward trend in letter-writing and personalization. As a society, we're all connected to our electronics. I text. Certain things, you shouldn't text, though. Thank-you notes should still be hand-written.

What was the aftermath of the incorrect quote on the Maya Angelou stamp?

Well, it's an interesting situation. We did extensive research and all indicators were that it was a quote from Maya Angelou. We have things like that flare up. Mistakes happen, and they don't happen because you didn't try your best. There is no such thing as zero risk. You know, we reviewed everything we had done and we certainly are extremely careful before we publish a stamp. We couldn't see how we could have done anything much differently.

Are you or any of your staffers avid stamp collectors?

I'm not a stamp collector. No one on my staff is. I'm probably stamp acquirer. We work so long on these projects that certain stamps remind me of the process and the people I've met along the way, like the families of a subject's estate. We live and breathe them everyday first through the proposal to the final product and we especially want it to be a positive celebration of the subject. A stamp is very unique in that it's still a form of U.S. currency. And unlike true currency, which only features the heads of the president's as we once did, it's much more visually interesting. With only 24 new issues a year, having a stamp is still a very unique thing.

Have you figured out how to make a digital stamp?

Nothing is off the table.

Give it a try

To learn how to submit your own idea for a stamp, visit about.usps.com/who-we-are/csac.

From 'Star Trek' to Maya Angelou to Sarah Vaughan stamps, a look behind the scenes 03/25/16 [Last modified: Sunday, March 27, 2016 9:46pm]
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