If Willy Wonka had gone into publishing he might have created Klutz Press, the company co-founded 30 years ago by John Cassidy in Palo Alto, Calif., as a way of having fun at making a living.

About the same time as the debut of the Pet Rock, Cassidy and Stanford buddies Darrell Lorentzen and B.C. Rimbeaux decided they wanted to produce a “scam” product of their own and created an instructional booklet on a silly subject they knew—juggling—and packaged it with three bean bags. Voila: Juggling for the Complete Klutz was born. Much to their surprise, sales continued well beyond the six-week run they expected. Klutz sold a few thousand copies of the book the first year, when it got picked up by Ingram. In year two, sales tripled. Before they knew it, they had a real company; to this day, Juggling for the Complete Klutz has sold more than 2.8 million copies, and remains on the backlist along with 150 instructional books on everything from making paper dolls to constructing a model Statue of Liberty.

On a recent visit to its new Palo Alto location in a former Coca-Cola bottling plant, Klutz cofounder and current publisher John Cassidy lamented that the new space has not been completely “Klutzified.” But Klutz culture can be spotted everywhere. Old bicycles hang from the hangar-like ceilings, balloons swirl above air conditioning vents in the floors, and the materials room contains everything from pom-poms and glitter to rubber chickens. No one would look twice if any of the 55 employees strolled around in Groucho Marx glasses.

About 10 years into Klutz's history, Cassidy's co-founders moved away from the area, leaving him to run the day-to-day operations. In 2000, when his partners wanted to sell, Klutz was acquired for $74 million by Nelvana Ltd., which was then acquired by Corus Entertainment. Cassidy (whom everyone calls Cass) explained that neither Nelvana nor Corus, both electronic media companies, were a good match with Klutz, which saw its sales slip from the $41.1 million it reported in 1999, the last year it was independent, to an estimated $39 million in 2001. In 2002, in what Cassidy described as the company's “destiny,” Scholastic bought Klutz for $43 million. Scholastic does not release sales figures for its divisions, but claims that Klutz's sales have grown steadily and that the company has benefited from exposure to previously untapped channels of distribution—namely Scholastic's book fairs and clubs.

Not Messing with Success

“It's a great fit,” said Cass about the company's newest owners. “They regard us as being quite California, quite West Coast, and they leave us alone for that reason. It's one of the few acquisitions in which the synergies did happen.”

Although Lisa Holton was not president of Scholastic trade publishing at the time of the acquisition, she said Scholastic knew better than to mess with a good thing. “It has a very distinct culture,” said Holton. “If you tried in any way to incorporate that into a larger company, you'd just kill it.”

Holton attributes the success of Klutz to its complete integration of departments and collaborative spirit, with Cassidy as head cheerleader. Designers have as much say about a book as editors. Klutz may be Cassidy's brainchild, but “there are a lot of little Casses,” said Holton.

Ellie Berger, senior v-p and publisher of Scholastic's trade division, said the way the two entities work together has evolved. One of the biggest challenges for Klutz, which had its own warehouse in Santa Clara, was handing over distribution to Scholastic. Then, since Klutz products are not flat books, Sheryl Brunell, Klutz's executive director of sales, said it took a little while for Scholastic to work out the distribution kinks. “We ship in six-pack displays, that's our minimum quantity,” said Brunell. “It was an interesting transition.”

Last year Scholastic pilot-tested Klutz's Build-a-Book product, which, as the name implies, allows consumers to create their own books, at 8,000 of its book fairs. Scholastic has more than 114,000 book fairs, according to Holton. “Klutz still sells really well in the trade and specialty markets like Michael's, but it sells really well at fairs,” she added. “We're just now experimenting with clubs.”

Berger said the differences between both the corporate cultures and the kinds of product both Scholastic and Klutz produce makes for an easier relationship. “They complement and do not compete with what we do,” said Berger, who spends quite a bit of time at the Klutz offices. “It's such a rich creative environment,” she added. “To change that, you'd have to be careful about not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”