Laurence King Publishing, an art and design house founded in the U.K. in 1991, is gearing up for the debut of This Is, a series of titles about 20th-century artists presented in the style of graphic novels, with illustrations, original art, and text. The first three titles—This Is Dali, This Is Warhol, and This Is Pollock, all written by art historian Catherine Ingram—are set to be released on May 6 and are priced at $14.95. In the fall, books about Chagall, Gauguin, and Bacon will be added to the series.
“Catherine presented the idea to us, and we took a long time to work out the format,” explained Laurence King, founder and owner of the press. “It was important to know how to pace the books.” They came up with a plan for a 30-book series; Ingram selects the illustrator for each project, choosing one whose style complements that of the artist in question. “The books provide commentary on the works of art, and on the artists’ lives as well,” King added. He also noted that the series is slightly edgy and is designed to appeal to a broad audience that includes older teens. As part of the marketing strategy, the books will ship to stores with complimentary This Is canvas tote bags bearing the artists’ faces, which booksellers can then give away.
King, who is 58, has deep family roots in the publishing business. His great-uncle was Geoffrey Faber, a cofounder of Faber & Faber. His grandfather, Alfred Harmsworth, was the publisher of Britain’s Daily Mirror tabloid. “I decided not to go into publishing or journalism because I felt my career would always be overshadowed by theirs,” said King, who struggled to settle on a career path after graduating from Cambridge University. He eventually accepted a job in 1977 with book packager John Calmann, where his clients included Abrams, Rizzoli, and Thames & Hudson. After Calmann was murdered in 1989, King ran the company for two years before buying it in 1991 and changing the name to Laurence King Publishing.
During the early ’90s, in the midst of a recession, King managed to raise enough money from a merchant bank to convert the packaging firm into a publishing company. “I still do not understand what possessed the bank to invest in a then-insolvent art publishing company, but, happily for me, it did. It was a great liberation.”
Today, Laurence King has 330 titles in print and a staff of 55, with one full-time employee in the U.S. (Debra Matsumoto, a publicity and marketing manager). In 2013, the company’s U.S. sales, which now account for 25% of its total revenue, grew by 87% compared to 2010; overall sales worldwide grew by 20% in the same period. Since 2006, Laurence King has been distributed in the U.S. by Chronicle Books, and it does particularly well with its fashion, textile, and design books. Children’s is another area where sales are growing, and King has expanded the list to the point where the house will produce a separate catalogue for those titles beginning next year. “We came into children’s books almost accidentally,” said King. “Some of our adult art and fashion titles were revised for young children, and they’ve done very well. My Wonderful World of Fashion , for instance, has sold 100,000 copies.” Another bestseller is Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book (2013), which recently surpassed 250,000 copies sold worldwide.
King’s publishing philosophy is distinctive: “We want to make each book an adventure,” he said. “We’re always discovering how to make it more amazing, more suitable to the market. We push our books to the extreme.”