The King and I

It is not often that I get to reprise an interview I did 20 years ago with an executive occupying the same position at the same company today. But in talking to Laurence King, founder and m.d. of Laurence King Publishing, ahead of the company’s 25th anniversary party later this month, I was able to look again at a business that is now rightly lauded for its recent success with the Johanna Basford colouring books, but which should also be praised for the careful development of its lists over two decades as well as its sheer staying power.

I interviewed King back in 1996, when the company—then known as Calmann & King—had annual sales of just £3.7m and was returning a profit of £122,000. Before Basford, i.e. in 2014, its accounts showed a bigger business than in ‘96 (sales of £10.9m leading to profits of £362,000), but one with financial ratios that were broadly similar, indicative of being part of a publishing niche—in this case, the market for high-end illustrated books—that in the past 20 years has changed less than we might have thought. As King notes, the business makes its money from its modest successes, the reprints of new titles and backlist sales (which make up 76% of its turnover annually). Before Basford you would hardly describe LKP as a hit-maker, yet it has been at the forefront of many of the major trends we now see impacting on all of publishing: the idea of countering the threat of digital by turning books into desirable objects, a strategy employed now not just by non-fiction publishers, but also within many fiction houses as part of a print revival; the verticalisation of publishing, whereby brand authors (or perhaps just brands) deliver everything there is to be delivered to an audience, regardless of format; and the burgeoning gift sector that LKP, partly prompted by its US distributor Chronicle, has embraced, with products such as Bird Bingo (I confess, I’m a fan) and this year’s Clash of the Titians, Top Trumps for art lovers.

In some respects, therefore, the Basford period (leading to soaring annual sales of £35m in 2015 and a profit margin north of 10%) could be read as an aberration—albeit a welcome one—as outliers often are, even for creative businesses constantly searching for hits. Like Bloomsbury and Quercus, LKP must figure out the best way of spending the unexpected bounty of its massive hits, as well as the ramifications of losing its top author to Ebury last year.

The launch of this year’s FutureBook Conference is a reminder that publishing has been—and will coninue to be—radically challenged by digital. But visiting King again, after so long, I was reminded that some principles are timeless—and timely.

Philip Jones is editor of The Bookseller.