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BUFFALO'S BRAINY PUBLISHING HOUSE PROMETHEUS BOOKS HAS ACHIEVED WORLDWIDE RENOWN IN ITS NICHE

Acting on a hot tip nearly two decades ago, vice squad investigators paid a visit to a publishing company then located on Bailey Avenue.

"I understand you have 'promiscuous' books here," one officer declared.

Not exactly, although Prometheus Books might easily be misunderstood by the spelling-challenged -- or by those who flunked Greek mythology.

The mix-up underscores founder Paul Kurtz's contention that his growing publishing company remains an unknown commodity on its home turf, even though it celebrated its 30th anniversary this month.

"We have an international reputation. But we're far better known by people in Los Angeles and New York City than we are by Western New Yorkers," said Kurtz.

Prometheus bills itself as the largest independent philosophy publisher in North America.

Sales figures would back up his assertion. Prometheus expects to sell more than 600,000 books on 30 subjects this year, but less than 1 percent of the sales will occur in Western New York.

When it was founded in 1969, Prometheus published books on humanism, dissenting political views and works that aimed to debunk paranormal claims.

But over the years, Prometheus broadened its market to include 1,600 titles on more than 30 subjects. Its eclectic mix of authors includes Steve Allen, Peter Ustinov, Isaac Asimov, Margaret Thatcher, Jack Kevorkian and Leslie Fiedler.

Kurtz, a philosophy professor emeritus at the University at Buffalo, started the company on a $2,000 investment after he concluded that large commercial publishing companies were ignoring what he regarded as some important issues.

Prometheus' first book was "Tolerance and Revolution," a dialogue with anti-Tito dissidents in Yugoslavia. Not exactly the stuff that typically pops up on bestseller lists.

"Most of our readers have always been highly educated, thoughtful and looking for new, provocative material," said Kurtz.

But don't get the impression that all titles are stuffy tomes penned for high-brow scholars. Prometheus' 1999 catalog trumpets a new title called "The X-Rated Videotape Guide VIII," reviews of about 8,000 "sizzling" adult flicks.

Thirty years after the first book rolled off the presses, the founder's $2,000 investment has paid handsome dividends. Prometheus racks up several million dollars in sales each year
and employs 30 people in a sprawling complex on John Glenn Drive in Amherst.

It also has branches in the United Kingdom and Italy and recently established a division in Turkey. Thus far, 238 of the company's titles have been translated into other languages and sold in 34 countries.

Kurtz also publishes a dozen magazines and periodicals, some through an Amherst-based sister organization called the Center for Inquiry. His various enterprises employ about 70 people.

The head of the Amherst Industrial Development Agency said Prometheus Books helps to boost the region's reputation in the "knowledge industry."

James J. Allen said the agency is proud to have played a role in the company's growth. Kurtz has received two incentive packages from the agency in recent years.

"Prometheus is a fascinating company that brings international recognition into our town and our region," said Allen.

The company continues to grow. This year, it will introduce about 100 titles. In 1998, Kurtz bought the New Jersey-based Humanities Press and introduced a new division called Humanity Books.

Industry consolidating

Like many other industries, book publishing has been undergoing dramatic consolidation as larger entities acquire smaller, more specialized publishing houses. Kurtz estimated that about 75 percent of all books are published by seven major conglomerates.

"We've had many offers from people who want to buy us out. In fact, there are constant efforts, but we've resisted those overtures," said Kurtz.

If 99 percent of its sales are made outside the region and with most publishing activity taking place in New York City, why does Prometheus remain in Amherst?

Kurtz said the most powerful inducement keeping him in Western New York is UB.

"We're really an offshoot of the university and a significant number of our employees have come from the university," he said.

Jacqueline Cooke, the company's art director, is just one example of an employee who landed at Prometheus via the University at Buffalo. She majored in communication design and interned at the company in 1990. She started working at Prometheus right after graduation and now plays a pivotal role -- designing covers for books.

There's a saying in the publishing industry: You might not be able to tell a book by its cover, but you can sell a book by its cover. Jonathan Kurtz, the company's vice president and director of marketing, said packaging is key to success.

"We have an entire committee that discusses cover concepts, book titles and pricing. We call it the launch committee," said Kurtz, the 32-year-old son of the company founder.

The younger Kurtz is no stranger to book publishing. As a teen-ager, while his friends flipped burgers and cut lawns after school, he worked in Prometheus' shipping department. He went on to get a marketing degree at Niagara University, spent five years in the food distribution business, then returned to Prometheus.

The Kurtz clan has quite a presence in the company. Jonathan Kurtz's wife, Gretchen, is director of rights and spends a lot of her time monitoring international sales.

"The Asian market is our fastest-growing market. We're seeing a lot of interest in our business self-help books and popular science titles," she said.

Trying to diversify

While Prometheus maintains its niche as a publisher of philosophy, humanism and science books, it has made a concerted effort to branch out into other areas.

Some titles prominently featured in its 1999 catalog include: "Escape from Nicotine Country: How to Stop Smoking Painlessly;" "From Mother and Daughter to Friends," a book written by the mother of Jennifer Aniston, the star of the popular television sitcom, "Friends," and "Monsieur Rene," a novel by renowned actor Peter Ustinov.

Eight years ago, Prometheus published "Prescription: Medicide," Kevorkian's only book on assisted suicide.

"We're still selling the book. Demand increases every time there are ups and downs in the case," said the elder Kurtz.

Editor-in-Chief and Chief Operating Officer Steven L. Mitchell is responsible for reading every manuscript.

Perhaps "skimming" would be a more accurate word, at least when it comes to most of the submissions. His small office is crammed with small mountains of manuscripts. The company receives about 3,500 proposals in a typical year and publishes fewer than 70 of them.

Now in his 20th year with Prometheus, Mitchell said it sometimes only takes a minute or two to weed out unsolicited manuscripts.

"We get some very odd proposals and many of them don't fit our needs. You know, people who claim that they are a reincarnation of St. Paul and those who proclaim that God told them to write the book," said Mitchell.

Paul Kurtz said it's difficult to gauge what will become the next big-selling book.

"There's no magic formula for figuring out what the public wants and what makes a book sell."

One strategy involves keeping close tabs on societal trends and contemporary issues. For example, the so-called "graying of America" has generated significant interest in geriatrics. It's no coincidence that Prometheus has published about 30 books on aging.

Built without debt

Kurtz has some advice for aspiring entrepreneurs: Avoid getting into debt at all costs.

"We've never had a bank loan," he said. "We expand only as our internal capital allows us to expand. It's like a chess game. You try to select the right books, market them effectively, then use the capital to grow."

Is there any chance that Prometheus' impressive growth curve may eventually prompt it to relocate outside Western New York?

The company founder doesn't think so.

"We've already had overtures. When we did a book on Christie Whitman, she invited us to move to New Jersey," Kurtz said.

Christine Todd Whitman is the Republican governor of New Jersey who was profiled in a political biography by Sandy McClure.

Prometheus has also been courted by officials in Maryland, but Kurtz said his company will stay where it is.

"This is quite a congenial climate for publishing," he said.

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