Publishing Gulf?

How Internet pipe dreams and literary ambitions dismantled one of Texas's largest publishers

Around the same time, Gulf purchased the Pisces line of diving and snorkeling guides.

"It was quite a growth spurt for us," says Calk. "It really made us probably the largest for-profit publisher of Texana in the world."

Even at its high-water mark, Gulf was only secondarily a publisher of trade books. Most of its business still came from the core oil-field journals, along with engineering, management and reference books, including a large Las Vegas-based publisher of computer books acquired in 1997. But by the end of the line, Gulf's trade titles were accounting for nearly $4 million annually in sales, according to Calk -- about half of the book division's revenue. Gulf had kept close to 200 trade titles in print, and introduced between 25 and 30 new titles a year, making it a rare, and profitable, midsize player in an industry increasingly dominated by merging conglomerates and specialized niche publishers.

Making a splash:  the John Graves letters book.
Making a splash: the John Graves letters book.

"Basically what happened," Tim Calk says, "was we were dot-commed. They came in and, to make a long story short, were going to take one of the oil and gas products" -- the World Oil Catalog -- "take it on-line, an e-commerce type of thing. There are IPOs dancing in everyone's heads. And in about four months they realized this isn't going to work, and they pulled the plug, but by that time it was already too late, they'd already decided to sell all the books. They were digitally oriented and they weren't paper-and-ink-oriented. The entire book division was cashed out."

"They" were Houston's SCF Partners and Massachusetts' Battery Ventures, who jointly purchased Gulf in January 2000, marking the first ownership change in the more than 80-year history of the family-owned company. Gulf president Rusty Meador announced that the book division would remain intact, and the purchasers anticipated just a few layoffs before a hiring spree to ramp up the company's new on-line component.

Those predictions went the way of the NASDAQ.

Calk eventually was adopted into the oil-field magazine division but says that "out of 30 or so employees in the book division, I'm really the only person left. We used to do our own in-house book design, typesetting, proofing, editing -- everything was done in-house. When they decided to get rid of the books, all that operation started to wind down."

Enter John Wilson, a sales manager at Gulf who had briefly, in the job shuffling, been director of Gulf's book division. When Gulf's books were put on the block, Wilson teamed up with Houston entrepreneur Larry Taylor, a marketing and management consultant, and the TaylorWilson team purchased Gulf's trade line for an undisclosed amount in June 2000. The partnership put up a Web site touting what it foresaw as a two-pronged publishing and marketing business.

Under a Web-site heading of "Content Publishing," TaylorWilson promised to "work with authors to create useful, relevant content that can make a difference and is valued by the end user." Under "Integrated Marketing," TaylorWilson wrote that "we regard the author not as a person who delivers us a manuscript, but as a marketing partner who can be branded through a disciplined and aggressive integrated marketing effort."

There was talk of "allowing end users to access the information in the method of their choice. It may begin as a book, but the content may be extended into a Web page, CD-ROM, DVD, video, cassette, speech or workshop."

TaylorWilson clearly wasn't aiming for business as usual.

Chairman and CEO Larry Taylor and VP Amanda Dewey were pictured on the site in bohemian black turtlenecks.

In August, Dave Hamrick was hired as marketing director, but quickly set about using his connections to squeeze out the Graves letters book, long a pet project for the ardent Graves fan and friend.

And then the whole enterprise went to hell, for reasons that, if anyone truly understands, no one wants to explain.

Larry Taylor declined to elaborate on TaylorWilson's untimely demise, and claimed to not even have a phone number for John Wilson.

John Wilson, still reticent, is more forthcoming.

"I put together a group that bought the trade books, although 'putting it together' makes it sounds like I was in charge of it. Basically I got the ball rolling, and then it rolled over me. We had big plans, but I left TaylorWilson in November of last year. We purchased the assets in June, and by September or October, we'd hired new people and suddenly the direction had shifted in a way that I didn't want to go…I wanted to do relatively conservative publishing. Basically they accused me of not thinking big enough…There were plans, it was just underfunded. I really want to be careful about this -- I hate these kind of things where people cast aspersions. I just had a philosophical difference with Larry Taylor as to how a publishing company should be run…Let's put it this way: I learned what it means to be a limited partner."

Dave Hamrick, who may or may not be the new hire who helped shift TaylorWilson's direction, says diplomatically, "Whatever they said, I'll stand by that and won't comment further."

Tim Calk, meanwhile, watching from Gulf Publishing's new Greenway Plaza offices (the historic Allen Parkway building was demolished, to the jeers of preservationists, in May of this year), came to this conclusion:

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