3 Mirthful Publishers Laugh All the Way to Bank

If you let a trio of jokers run a company--it may grow.

Price/Stern/Sloan Publishers, a Los Angeles-based company that started out 23 years ago publishing joke books by its three founders, said last week that it had signed an agreement to buy the assets of HP Books, a wholly owned subsidiary of Knight-Ridder.

Price/Stern/Sloan will pay about $14 million in cash, said L. Lawrence Sloan, the company’s chairman and chief executive.

HP Books, a Tucson-based publisher of consumer-oriented books on such subjects as cooking and photography, has annual sales of about $20 million, he said.

Price/Stern/Sloan will use cash and an already existing line of bank credit to pay for the deal, which should be effective about July 1, Sloan added.

Assets of HP Books include about $11 million in inventory and accounts receivable, an advanced computer system and rights to about 350 titles now in print, plus about 150 titles contracted for future publication, he said.

It is Price/Stern/Sloan’s sixth acquisition in the last eight years. The company’s sales have grown from $2.2 million in 1977 to an estimated $36 million this year, excluding HP Books, Sloan said.

But the company began with the bosses’ sense of humor, he said. “All the early books we wrote ourselves.”

Leonard Stern, now one of the company’s vice presidents, used to be a writer and comedy director for Steve Allen, who from 1956 to 1960 hosted a Sunday night comedy hour on NBC that ran at 8 p.m. against CBS’ “Ed Sullivan Show.”

Senior Vice President Roger Price used to work nightclubs as a stand-up comedian. Sloan was a newspaper reporter who covered Hollywood.

Price/Stern/Sloan had $31 million in sales last year, and about 60% of it came from the publication and distribution of children’s books and related audio and video cassettes, he said.

The publisher also markets self-help books, calendars, puzzles, games and poster art, and produces Questron, an educational book series with an electronic “wand” accessory that allows the reader to test his or her understanding of the material.

Joke books now account for just a tenth of sales, Sloan said solemnly. Price/Stern/Sloan has edited and published such titles as humorist Dan Greenburg’s “How to Be a Jewish Mother.”

Miami-based Knight-Ridder sold HP Books to concentrate on its core newspaper and television businesses, Knight-Ridder Vice President and Controller Phillip Kane said.

“It’s our only book publishing company, and there just wasn’t a good fit.”