Mark Lamster | Interviews

An Interview with Laurence King

To see him, conservatively tailored in a jacket and oxford shirt, you would not necessarily peg Laurence King as a leading figure in the world of contemporary design. That would be a mistake. King is now celebrating the twentieth anniversary of his eponymous London-based publishing house, which has originated a host of landmark monographs, histories, and works of critical thinking. This November, he will come out with a much anticipated monograph on Saul Bass, the first major book on the American design legend. Even with this distinguished catalog, few Americans are likely to know much about King or his press, as until recently most of his titles were sold in this country by other publishers, who purchased their rights. I got to know him this way, both as a buyer and a seller, when I was an editor at Princeton Architectural Press. We worked on many books together — some winners, some losers — and it was always a pleasure. King is one of the true gentlemen of design publishing, self-deprecating and charming in the classic British manner. An agreement with Chronicle books means that King’s books are now being distributed in the United States under his own banner. With that in mind, I thought it might be useful for readers everywhere to get to know him a little bit better, to hear his thoughts about the state and future of design publishing, and what makes a design book (and book proposal) successful.

Mark Lamster:
You have a fairly interesting history. Perhaps you could give us a sketch of your background, and your entry into publishing?

Laurence King:
When I was growing up, my grandfather was the publisher of the Daily Mirror, the leading British tabloid at the time, and my great uncle by marriage was Geoffrey Faber, who at Faber & Faber was T. S. Eliot’s publisher. So the one thing I had decided was not to go into either publishing or journalism because I felt that my career would always be overshadowed by theirs. However, after leaving Cambridge, I was unemployed and uncertain what to do. A friend of a friend, John Calmann, was setting up a book-packaging company and, wanting some cheap labor, offered me a job. (Book packagers commission and sell books to publishers to sell under their imprint.) It was a pretty ramshackle affair, so my family was distinctly disapproving. But I figured that it was good to get in at the start of something. There were three staff at the beginning — John Calmann, his part-time secretary, and me. John was undoubtedly talented and commissioned some excellent books, but he was no businessman. He had a large Bentley although the company was insolvent and the salary checks regularly bounced. John also had no idea of training people and took long vacations. So to find out how to edit the books, I had to ask his secretary. She had previously worked for Phaidon and gave me advice based on what she remembered had happened there.

In 1980, three years after I joined the company, John Calmann was murdered in his Bentley by a hitchhiker. It was probably the most shocking thing that has happened in my life. His elderly parents, who had lost many relatives in concentration camps in the war, were utterly devastated. But the company had an insurance policy of £100,000 on his life, so it was able to keep going. I was twenty-four, young and ignorant enough to have the false belief that I knew what I was doing, and effectively appointed myself in charge. As I was the last man standing, and the company was unsalable, his heirs did not have much choice in the matter.

Eleven years later, the company was still more-or-less insolvent, but I mortgaged my house and, with some generous-minded and quixotic friends, bought the company from John Calmann’s heirs. I then went to the City of London and raised enough money from a merchant bank to convert the book-packaging company into a publishing company. It was in the recession of the early nineties. I still do not understand what possessed the bank to invest then in an insolvent art publishing company. But happily for me they did, and that is how, twenty years ago this year, Laurence King Publishing was born.

ML: Did you feel like there was some special need in the market that you could fill, something that other publishers were not doing? What was the balance in those first years between art, architecture, and design titles? Are there any early successes or failures that stand out as formative?

LK: The decision to become a publisher did not stem from the perception of a gap in the market. Rather, I fell into publishing by accident and enjoyed doing it, so tried to work out a way of doing it successfully. John Calmann’s legacy was not the company at all, which was loaded with debt, but one book which made it worth struggling to keep it going — A World History of Art  by Hugh Honour and John Fleming. Not published until after John's death, it was the first truly global history of art, an astonishing tour de force by two of the greatest art historians in the world. We had sold the first edition of this book to Macmillan, but they did not understand what they had got. So when I was planning Laurence King Publishing I bought the rights back from them and it has sold well for us ever since and is now in its seventh edition. It also prompted me to commission a line of major histories by leading scholars — on architecture, design, graphics, photography, music, the Italian Renaissance, world religions, etc. I generally sold the U.S. rights of these books to Prentice-Hall to help pay for them. Though hugely expensive and time-consuming, these books gave our list substance. The sales were seldom spectacular, but they have been strong and steady — through times of recession and in successive editions.

But such books, and in particular authors capable of writing good ones, are few and far between, so I needed to look for something else. In the eighties I felt that established publishers and remainder merchants seemed to have the market for books on Western art pretty well sewn up between them, but design seemed to be a new area which was entering the mainstream. As a book-packager initially, we began with International Design Yearbook. It is hard to realize it now, but it was quite innovative when it first came out. The success of the first edition encouraged me to think that design should be at the center of our list and so it has been, with many subsequent books on product design, interior design, and from that into architecture. With graphic design we were lucky, almost beginning with the spectacularly successful End of Print  by David Carson. About six years ago we began to get serious about fashion design, which today also has an important place in our list. Now I like to think that we have one of the leading lists that covers all aspects of design.

ML: One area in which I’ve felt you have been ahead of the curve is interactive design. There were not too many other publishers doing sophisticated books on motion graphics in the mid 1990s when you started, though the market was obviously growing. Now interactive design is challenging the very primacy of the printed book. At some level I feel that the design audience will always want a printed, hard-bound book (so long as the object is well made, and warrants the expense). On the other hand, the possibilities of new technologies are exciting. How are you approaching electronic publishing, and how big a portion of your business do you imagine it will be in the future? How do you see the marketplace and economics of design books changing?

LK: The market for digital illustrated books was always going to move more slowly than for text-only books, but it has developed less rapidly than I anticipated, and in design and art is more-or-less negligible except for the sale of student books to “for profit” colleges, which sell them along to students as part of the price of the course.

Despite this, I feel sure that in the end the market for illustrated books that are content-driven (such as student, reference and how-to books) will become mainly digital. In the end, publishers’ costs for digital illustrated books will be much lower than for printed books, so publishers will try harder to tempt the market into digital products — not just with lower prices, but more importantly by exploiting digital possibilities. At the moment, digital illustrated books are only a major additional cost with little revenue attached, but I do not think that anyone in the art and design area has created one properly yet.

ML: Have you thought about a book as an "app" yet? How will the increasing prevalence of electronic books change the way we think about good old board-and-paper books?

LK: We have made one app, largely just to see how apps work. We published an entertaining book called Whose Hair?, which showed beautifully drawn silhouettes of hairstyles of famous people without their faces. The game is to guess whose hair it is. We transferred this to an app, but also gave it the additional function of being able to add the hairstyles onto any photograph. It is quite fun. We have had more serious ideas for apps, but it is not quite clear yet whether that is the right medium for these digital products.

In any event, there will undoubtedly be a continuing market for printed illustrated books, but I think that they will be seen as a slight luxury. The books will need to exploit more the fact that they are real objects — they will need to be better designed, with more inventive production, and so take advantage of their physical presence. A higher proportion of the printed books market will be dominated by gifts. My real concern is the impact of both Amazon and the digital revolution on bookshops. Illustrated book publishers, and in particular art publishers, need bookshops to survive, especially the increasingly rare specialist ones where there are discerning buyers who understand art, architecture and design. I think that these need to be treated with a great deal of care by publishers because all too often they serve as shop windows for Amazon. They are more important to us than sales through them indicate. It would be great if they could use their reputations and expert knowledge to become competitive with Amazon on-line. But I dread the day when art publishers have to set up loss-making showrooms to exhibit our books, just because we went on being tough with the specialist booksellers. At the same time, booksellers need to reinvent themselves quite fast, which is obviously difficult.

ML: There are some books you just know are going to be winners (your forthcoming Saul Bass book falls into that category), but it is notoriously hard for publishers to predict which books are going to work, and which books aren’t. What’s your secret? Are there books you publish just because you think they deserve a hearing, and damn the sales? Is there a book on your list that you didn’t expect much from commercially, but turned into a bestseller, or what passes for one in our little corner of the industry?

LK: Publishing is all about embracing risk, so I no longer look for something which I think will make money on sales that I try to predict. Rather, I ask whether there is something exciting or special or useful about each book which might enable it to capture the imagination of its target market. I do not try to predict sales, but focus our efforts on trying to bring out in the book what was special about the idea behind it. If it does capture the public’s imagination, then it will reprint several times, and make us money. If not, well then at least it was an exciting idea, and I hope that there are enough other books which have worked to carry the company forward.

We do occasionally publish books just because we think that they should be out there. For example, Hollis’s Swiss Graphic Design. I did not think that Bibliographic (a book on the 100 best design books) would sell particularly well, but we published it because I loved the spreads that the author Jason Godfrey showed us when he was offering us the book. I hoped that other people in the design world might like them as much as I did. We were certainly pleasantly surprised by the sales of that book, which is now doing well in a paperback edition. But the excitement of the game of publishing is not publishing books that are just commercial, or ones that we think uncommercial but meritorious in some way. It generally comes with finding books that both have real merit and that will sell well, which is the most difficult thing. Selling well (in the long run) is one of the things that defines a good book. If no one wanted to read Mark Twain’s books one hundred years after his death, we would no longer say that he was an author of genius, but rather a historical curiosity.

ML: I’m sure you review a great number of failed proposals for each one you accept for publication. What are the most common pitfalls for rejected projects, and what’s the best piece of advice you have for a prospective author?

LK: Few of the books we publish come from proposals made to us. The great majority come from us approaching potential authors or out of discussions with authors we are close to. So what you say about us turning down most proposals that come to us is true. The most obvious thing is to approach a publisher whose books you like, because your creative vision is likely to be in tune with theirs. From what I have said earlier, you can see that I would also recommend authors try to think through their idea in a critical way, to try to work out what makes it unique or special for their target market.

But I would also suggest that prospective authors not develop an idea too far in ways that are inessential without discussing it with a publisher. For example, occasionally we get proposals which contain the kernel of a good idea, but we have to turn down because they have been badly designed (in our view at least) by a friend of the author.

ML: This has been a great deal of fun, and thanks for playing along. But before I let you go, I can't help but ask the “desert island” question. You’re stranded on some forsaken Pacific atol, allowed only five books (and not necessarily books on design); what would you choose?

LK: The question is horribly real to me, because I once worked for some months in a remote part of India without much access to bookshops or libraries. I reread the books I brought so many times I got heartily sick of them. So the first book I would want would be one on how to make a canoe and paddle back to civilization. Apart from that, perhaps great compendia to keep me entertained — the World History of Art or the new, much improved edition of Eskilson’s Graphic Design: A History, which we are about to publish. Otherwise, maybe Balzac’s Illusions Perdues, an anthology of poetry, and a big historical tome — perhaps Schama’s History of Britain.

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Comments [1]

It was a joy to be a small part of this story Lawrence. An astute article on what has been and what is to come. Congratulations on the birthday and continued success.

carrie haines

Jobs | July 14