Laurence King, founder of the eponymous publisher, talks adult colouring books, soviets, Ezra Pound and anti-digital

Harriet Green
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King has always created books for an international market

"We caused a shortage of felt pens in Brazil,” says Laurence King, founder of Laurence King Publishing, the creator of the original adult colouring book that sparked the recent craze. In 2013, the firm published the Secret Garden, illustrated by Johanna Basford.

In the first two years, it sold 250,000 copies. “It was then we became aware that it was adults doing the colouring, so we organised a publicity campaign around it. It was like lighting the touch paper. In nine months, we’d sold 10m copies.” The firm has now sold 16m colouring books. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime. People are always asking me ‘what’s next?’ and I haven’t a clue. But our editors will come up with entertaining and invigorating ideas. It’s all just managed luck, really.”

The expressions “managed luck, managed gambling” epitomise the approach King has taken in his career. After leaving Cambridge, he “wasn’t sure quite what to do”. A friend offered him a job in book packaging, putting design ideas to publishers. “It’s what you do if you don’t have any money and want to be a publisher. I wanted to go to Ireland and become a poet, but I didn’t quite have the strength to turn him down, so we began making books."

Tragically, King’s friend was murdered by a hitchhiker in 1980. King was left “with no-one to take the business forward, so I just carried on”. In 1991, he came to the City to seek funding. “I thought I’d built up enough credibility to raise money. Publishing is quite a capital-heavy business, because you need a lot of stock.”

Turning up in the midst of the 1991 recession could’ve been a problem for King, except that he found a “wonderful bank, sadly no longer in existence. Hambros was frightfully funny – a sort of hunting, shooting and fishing outfit – and they lent me enough money to convert into a publishing company and go forward.” Veteran publisher Robin Hyman was made King’s chairman. “He was the headmaster and I was the cheeky school boy. He said I ignored him completely, but there was always one ear open. He won’t appreciate me saying it, but I owe him a lot.”

Re-inventing the wheel

Laurence King Publishing started out with design books. “History of Art was sewn up, so we focused on the likes of professional graphic designers and student books on design.” Twenty-five years on, its books – from category definers to the very unusual – and other products like games and stationery span advertising, architecture, graphic design, interior design, photography and art.

“Things went along nicely for a while, then the internet happened. Increasingly, the community we were publishing for was getting what they needed from there, so we began producing these inventive, beautifully made but very considered books.”

King says there’s nothing anti-digital about the publisher. Only 1 per cent of its business is from e-books, compared to the 20 per cent publisher norm, but plenty of its customers appreciate anti-digital content. In the spring, a monograph presenting the work of typographer and letterpress practitioner Alan Kitching will be published. “We get our ideas from very different sources. Coming out of this design community meant that, in many ways, there wasn’t really a distinction for us between books and content-filled other things. We wanted to create beautiful things, things that would surprise people.”

Opening Frank Lloyd Wright Paper Models (out this summer) will bring the opportunity to cut and fold 14 Kirigami buildings. The Read This If You Want To Take Great Photographs series will soon be followed by one specific to Instagramming. King’s “very cool” teenage daughter came up with Where’s Warhol?, having already helped him cook up the firm’s first children’s fashion book. “That got us into shops that weren’t bookshops. Usually, fashion chains just ring up saying ‘we want a pink or a yellow book’ – they’re not too interested in the content.”

A quick segue into a discussion on the world created in the film Her – where creative types are the highly-prized knowledge workers: “there’s a problem with having great writers paid to be geniuses – it’s too easy, it’s positively soviet. What makes the game exciting isn’t having original ideas – anyone can do that – but having the crazy ideas that work. I had a great-uncle who was a poetry publisher. He got very cross with me and said I must do commercial books to pay for the good ones. But the reason we look back at Ezra Pound, Sylvia Plath as great writers is that people still want to read them. Plato’s royalties today would amount to a lot. There’s not an inherent tension between quality and commerciality, you’ve just got to do it right.”

Local global

The company has “always been international because there will always be a few people everywhere interested in our books. South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan are just as important if not better markets for us than the UK.” Veering towards globalisation, we agree there’s no point discussing politics. “The real lesson from globalisation to my mind is that it’s a mistake to think about it as ‘international’. It’s a system of inter-connected local markets. How do you make something you can sell around the world – that is general – but that has particular appeal?”

I ask the answer. “It’s to have friends, actually. I’ve got a Japanese friend who feeds me ideas, and some of our best successes have come from Japan.” The Yuko Higuchi-illustrated colouring book Museum, for instance, which follows two children as they are transformed into the creatures they encounter, has been a hit world-wide.

King’s young team (“some of them were born after the company was founded!”) keep him abreast of new ideas and trends: “there was a famous judge who, in 1964, asked who the Beatles were. I’m always worried I’ll become him and ask what a meme is.

“People obviously just see your successes; the trick is to make sure those outweigh the failures.” King describes the 110-120 books and things he produces a year as “racehorses. You don’t pick a trend or winner by studying the market or being scientific – by then it’s too late. My father had a secret passion for gambling. I don’t, but my entire life is spent with these managed gambles, which makes it rather exciting.”

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