A "klutz" who knows kids - Klutz Press - Company Profile

by Steven B. Kaufman

Growing businesses share their experiences in creating and marketing new products and services.

It started out as a whim. In 1977, John Cassidy was working as a student teacher at a high school in Mountain View, Calif. When the sophomores in his remedial-reading class started dozing one day; he tossed out 75 tennis balls and handed out instructions on juggling.

Suddenly alert, students were soon juggling up a storm. The incident prodded Cassidy and two friends from Stanford University to publish a book titled Juggling for the Complete Klutz, packaged with three beanbags. It sold 3,000 copies within weeks and 50,000 by the end of 1978, the year the three formed Klutz Press in Palo Alto, Calif.

Cassidy and company hoped sales would keep building on their own, allowing the three to work as rafting guides in Northern California and Idaho. "The idea of building a career had no appeal," says Cassidy, 45, Klutz's chief executive.

That changed in 1982 with the publication of the company's second book, The Hacky Sack Book, a how-to guide to the beanbag-kicking game--with beanbags included. Sales took off again, and Cassidy knew he would be foolish not to concentrate on the company.

Today, Klutz Press is a successful publisher of interactive, "multimedia" children's books, spanning everything from clay modeling to knot tying to map reading. The company, which has published 45 titles, sells nearly 5 million books a year without having to advertise, generates annual sales of about $25 million, and employs 35 people.

For years, Klutz books have been fixtures on Publishers Weekly's lists of best-selling children's nonfiction. Now, Klutz Press is preparing to work with a German publisher to expand into Europe.

Cassidy, the only partner still fully active in the business, says he is "obsessively" devoted to Klutz products, which means most of them stay under development for two years. He tests his books on his two children as well as on pupils at Escondido Elementary School, located in Stanford, and he seems to retain a sixth sense about what kids like.

Mostly, he says, they like having fun. Cassidy ensures that by supplementing the durable cardboard pages of his books with the "equipment" kids need to experience what they read. Cat's Cradle, a book about making string figures, comes with a tie-dyed loop of string. Watercolor for the Artistically Undiscovered is accompanied by a brush and a six-color palette of watercolors.

The Explorabook, published with San Francisco's Exploratorium science museum, includes a magnet, a mirror, and packets of agar to produce bacterial cultures. All of Klutz Press' books sell for less than $20.

"Kids don't learn all that much by listening or reading," Cassidy says. "They need to get elbow-deep in a subject and touch it, feel it, and smell it."

Some Klutz books appeal to adults as well as to children, broadening sales. Watercolor for the Artistically Undiscovered, for one, is popular among retirees.

Unusually big press runs--150,000 compared with the 10,000 to 15,000 typical of children's books--keep prices down. And because Klutz books are also viewed as toys and novelties, they appeal not just to booksellers but also to a wide variety of retailers-- more than 10,000 altogether.

Kurt Feichtmeir, general manager of the Exploratorium museum's consumer products, thought the $18 Explorabook, published in September 1991, might eventually sell 100,000 copies. It has already sold more than 800,000. Feichtmeir, initially stunned by the success, now understands: "John has a magical way of presenting a topic, whatever it may be."

As might be expected, the atmosphere at Klutz Press, located in a former warehouse, is California casual. Few people have titles, and fewer still wear standard business attire. Nobody, including Cassidy, works particularly long hours.

"In terms of being laid back, we take a back seat to nobody," Cassidy says, and he adds that he's not interested in seeing Klutz grow any faster than it has grown in the past.

Growth nonetheless remains part of the game plan, as the European expansion indicates. In the wake of the success of the Explorabook, Klutz Press is also pushing more aggressively into educationally oriented titles. EarthSearch, a geography book, was published last October, and now a book on general science and one on mathematics are in the works.

"Talk to a kid about fun and math, and it's like you're talking about two different sides of the universe," Cassidy says. "If we can climb this mountain, there's nothing we can't tackle."

Odds are, the endeavor will be successful. It's all a matter of approach, and fun is always foremost. "I can hang a spoon off my nose," Cassidy boasts, "and I take a lot of pride in that."

Steven B. Kaufman is a free-lance writer in San Jose, Calif

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