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Pointers from the House that Beanbags Built

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Open the latest issue of National Geographic World–thekids’ magazine from the National Geographic Society–and you’ll find a page that features the Klutz logo and shows kids how to do things–shrink and hike the solar system, make a paper airplane, get parents off your back about a messy room, etc. Monthly pages created by the California publisher, which started running this year, raise Klutz-consciousness among the magazine’s 900,000 subscribers.

They also reflect an emphasis on books as avenues to activity that has always characterized Klutz. The house got its start in 1977 in Palo Alto when John Cassidy and two of his friends from Stanford University decided to sell sidewalk juggling lessons for beginners, along with a set of bean bags. As “The Klutz Story” tells it (see www.klutz.com),“a week’s efforts earned the group $35. ‘It was then we realized the sky was the limit.’ ”

To extend their reach skyward, or at least beyond the local sidewalks, Cassidy and his partners figured they needed a book. With start-up capital of $3,000 to $5,000, Cassidy recalls, they produced 3,000 copies of Juggling for the CompleteKlutz, along with 9,000 accompanying beanbags. Then the three waited to see whether they’d created a huge hit or a total flop. “It took us a few years,” Cassidy says, “to confront the fact that it was neither.”

During those years, the partners pursued what Cassidy calls a policy of “aggressive neglect” that featured forgetting to go to the post office to pick up orders. The juggling book refused to die, though, so when Cassidy began to “marinate” himself in children by co-creating them with his wife and to focus seriously on the publishing program, it had a foundation. Today, Klutz has annualrevenues of about $40 million.

Creating the “Corelist”

Throughout the growth period that began in the ’80s, Klutz has followed the rhinoceros publishing pattern, which contrasts with the mosquito pattern at large New York houses. Klutz gives birth to a small number of titles rather than a whole host, Cassidy explains, but all the babies survive. Indeed, they seem to prosper. The average first printing at Klutz is 100,000 copies, and most titles go back to press, Cassidy reports, adding “they have to.” Like many other publishers, especially smaller firms, Klutz counts on its backlist, but the house has coined a more positive term. Its wholesale catalog features page after page of full-color “Corelist” write-ups, plus several pages that show “Every Dang Thing We Do.”

With a current staff of 65 instead of just the original three and more than 100 titles in print instead of only one, Klutz may owe its success in part to four major strategies:

1. The house continues to think of books in terms of activity and therefore to package them with “the tools of their trade.”

Current titles come with bath oils, yo-yos, pickup sticks, magnets, and a whoopie cushion kit, among other things. Predictably, this has opened doors to sales channels outside the bookstore. More than 30 groups of reps now sell Klutz products into the gift market, the children’s accessories market, the military market, and a variety of international markets as well as into the trade market.

2. Going further, Klutz sells tools for the bookselling trade, including spinner racks, corner hooks, endcaps, counter displays, and toy trees.

“Some stores take them, maybe less than half,” Cassidy reports, but “they’re out there.” The relatively new annual Klutz Summer Display Contest works for them too, Cassidy says, noting that roughly 50 companies competed last year. Reflecting the publisher’s penetration of multiple markets, the winners were Toy Loft in East Aurora, New York; the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis; and the University of Connecticut Co-op.

3. The Klutz outreach to its audience is both broad and deep.

In addition to providing books packaged with playthings, they currently offer foldout guides (“Nastiest Bugs in the Yard”), kits (Secret Rings), toys (including the Icky Poo Toy spawned by The Official Icky Poo Book) and Klutz Buckets, which are plastic jars containing craft supplies with how-to booklets (the biggest, “Build Anything With Sticks,” holds 647 wooden shapes, only some of them “familiar to Popsicle fans everywhere,” along with glue, “wiggle eyes,” pipe cleaners, coated wire, paints, and a brush).

4. They go where the kids are.

The deal with National Geographic World came about, Cassidy explains, because the business Klutz is in is “the kids business; we know what magazines are out there and they know us.” Although the goal of the Klutz pages is more about building the brand than promoting specific titles, the featured line “adapted from the award-winning Klutz books” seems, in fact, to be boosting sales of some related titles. Now that the house has “teamed up” with Nelvana Communications, which is based in Toronto and produces TV, Cassidy expects that Klutz will contact kids through that communication channel too.

Really and Truly Identifying with Readers

The most interesting aspect of Klutz as a kids-business company may be the way it positions itself as a child through a distinctive kind of kid-speak.

For wholesale customers, the firm calls ordering information “a pageful of boring essentials.” In conversation about the roughly 100,000 recipients of the Klutz direct mail catalog, Cassidy characterizes Klutz people as “good pen pals.” On the Web site, he explains that the “dream was to do a book on juggling [and] sell a bazillion in a couple of days.” And copy about Slappies, a new line of animal bracelets, explains: “Last year, we started fooling around with some of those incredibly popular slap bracelets. Since this is Klutz, we also had a bunch of wiggle eyes lying around at the time. (Our office supply closet may be stocked a little differently than yours.)”

Combining an exceptionally vivid and entirely appropriate childlike persona with grown-up activities like brand building and multiple-market penetration has raised sales of the first Klutz book over the 2-million mark and apparently produced a house that lives its motto: “Create wonderful things, be good, have fun.”

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