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King Turns a New Page  

- Friday, July 9, 2004
- The Sun Lowell, By Dan O'Brien (Sun Staff)

Lowell book maker makes mark in competitive short-run publishing industry.

LOWELL - As King Printing Company Inc. surpassed its 20th year in business during the late 1990's, executives of the high-tech book manufacturer saw a storm on the horizon.

"We could see that tech was in for tough times," recalled Thomas Campbell, King's senior vice president of sales. "Tech companies were either being gobbled up, or going out of business. We needed to look for another way to generate revenue."

The company, which to that point had made its name by publishing such items as annual reports and high-tech textbooks and manuals, embarked on a new market: self-publishing. This is the concept of working with an individual aspiring writer who wishes to publish his or her own work.

"People can be surprised at what they can do," said campbell, who estimates King has worked with about 2,000 new authors over the past four years.

Indeed, the motto for King and ADI Books, the sister operation that does the actual manufacturing, is "There's a Book in You."

Campbell says that at King Printing, aspiring authors can order as few as 100 books. A typical run is 2,500 and can take anywhere from two to 18 days.

"It could cost you as little as $300 total, just put it on your credit card," Campbell said. "The catch is, it's up to you to sell the books."

Some are better at that than others. Haverhill resident Christopher J. Haraden published "Storm of the Century," a memoir of the Blizzard of '78 that sold some 10,000 copies. But Campbell says there are others who insist on publishing several hundred copies and find there simply isn't sufficient demand for them. The result is a pile of unread books in their respective garages.

"Some people can't bear the fact that their books might not be interesting to a wide audience," Campbell said. "But that doesn't mean they can't publish on a smaller scale for self-enrichment."

Campbell says estimates of the size of of the so-called "self-publishing" industry run anywhere from $11 billion to $36 billion.

And where there is self-publishing, there is sure to be "short-run" publishing. Short runs represent as few as just a couple hundred copies of any given title - exactly the market that King hopes to corner.

But it's competive. Jim Conway, CEO of Courier Courp. in Chelmsford, estimates that the number of publishers doubled, from 32,000 to 65,000, from 1990 to 2000. Similarly, the number of titles being printed went from about 850,000 to almost 2 million. Thus, run lengths "have dropped pretty markedly," Conway said.

"Publishers don't want to make the investment in inventory," Conway explained, meaning they don't want to be stuck printing more books than is in demand. "But King, they're one of the small shops that is better run. Whereas we would be considered short- to medium-run, they're more like ultra-short."

Conway said publishing a book at Courier costs about $1 to $1.50 a copy for a 300-page paperback, including cover. He said it generally takes two to four weeks, depending on the season. Right now, with publishers getting ready for the fall academic season, non-shool books may have to wait a bit longer.

Conway said short-run publishing makes up about 5 percent of his company's annual revenues, which were $202 million in the most recent fiscal year, and that topics "cover the gamut."

Campbell says hot topics can change, but he has recently noticed an interest in publishing self-help books. Religion and travel-related topics have also been popular subjects of late.

Privately held King doesn't disclose profits, although Campbell said annual revenues are "not more than 15 million." But that's still way up from the $9 million cited in a Sun article on the company in 1995. The company operates three shifts.

Campbell said King has lured prospective authors somewhat by advertising at trade shows and magazines, but mostly through "word of mouth."

"We offer end-to-end service here, from how many books you should publish to what might make a good cover," Campbell said. "We do it quick and we offer a competitive price."

Because after all, he concluded, "Anybody can be the next Jack Kerouac."

Dan O'Brien's email address is

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