For an indie publisher to launch its first line with a $300 art book takes guts and vision, but that’s what Ammo Books’ founders Paul Norton and Steve Crist did in 2006 when they published 3,000 copies of Gonzo by Hunter S. Thompson and sold out in less than a year.

Ammo, an abbreviation of the term American Modern, now has 42 art and architecture titles in print, including a line of children’s books that accounts for 50% of its sales. “We started with the goal of one book, and now we have a staff of seven and warehouses in both the U.K. and Germany,” said Crist, a photographer whose publishing background includes jobs with Judith Regan at HarperCollins as creative director, and later as photography editor for Taschen. “We always want to do something new and fresh, and do our best with the packaging and design” said Crist. “This is an overcrowded book market.” Among the press’s most anticipated titles for 2012 are a project by Ralph Steadman and an homage to the work of Ray and Charles Eames.

Norton, a CPA who has always had a passion for books, was the business director at Taschen, where he and Crist met. Although their partnership is divided along the lines of editorial and business, the two make all publishing decisions together. Crist’s wife, Gloria Fowler, serves as design director and publisher of Ammo’s children’s division. The company is based in Pasadena, Calif., and is distributed by Ingram Publisher Services, and Stephen Young Associates for the gift market.

It was Crist’s relationship with designer Todd Oldham at Regan Books that led to Ammo’s most successful series, which springs from the work of illustrator Charley Harper. Oldham was a fan of Harper’s classic Golden Book of Biology and The Animal Kingdom, and tracked the artist down in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 2006. Harper agreed to sign with Ammo, a move that not only brought the artist’s work out of obscurity but was also the basis of the company’s fledgling line of children’s books. Harper died in 2007 at the age of 85, but Ammo now has more than a dozen Harper titles in print, including Charley Harper—An Illustrated Life, which Oldham edited. “Several of Charley’s titles are crossover books, which fit in as easily at the MOMA shop as in the gift market or children’s bookstores,” Norton said.

On the trade side, Ammo recently released the $250 Edward Weston: One Hundred Twenty-Five Photographs, edited by Crist, an edition limited to 2,000 numbered copies, which, like several other Ammo titles that begin as expensive coffee-table books, will likely be published in smaller formats as well. Gonzo, a collection of photographs by Thompson, eventually came out as a smaller $40 book and is now in a “literary edition” at $19.95. “Generally, if we publish something as a $200 book, at some point we would plan to do a ‘popular edition’ at a price of $50,” Norton said. “This often appeals to different accounts and different kinds of customers.” Until now Ammo hasn’t published in the trade paperback format, believing that cloth books have a longer shelf life. Ammo’s forthcoming children’s titles, however, will be released in paperback this year.

What Ammo hasn’t yet committed to is the digital format, although this is likely to occur in 2012. “Our books are art objects that need to be seen, felt, and touched,” Crist said. He and Norton agree that their preference will be for Ammo titles to go digital only in a second or third life after various print editions, including the 7-in.×10-in. “minis,” have been published.

Ammo, which retains world rights to its books, has seen a fairly steady sales growth since its inception. Crist and Norton attend the Frankfurt and London book fairs every year to build on the international market for their books, and are focused now on creating more brand awareness for Ammo. “We especially want to push the marketing on our children’s line,” said Norton. Last year, Vroman’s Books, in Pasadena, featured a special section in the store for Ammo Books, and Norton hopes to see that kind of marketing expand to other bookstores in 2012 as well as the addition of Ammo display fixtures. “At the same time, we’ll keep doing what we do best,” Norton added, “and build the list in a way that makes sense.”