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The key: fill a gap in the marketplace

Most people associate the name ''Harvard'' with the university in Cambridge, Mass. But it also refers to a small town, originally settled by Shakers, about 50 minutes' drive from Boston. It was here, in 1976, that the Harvard Common Press was founded in the basement of a house on the village green.

In 1981, Bruce Shaw, an energetic, stylish man in his early 30s, bought the majority ownership from Larry Anderson, one of the original owners. Two of the original founders still own a portion of the company, and one, Kathleen Cushman, serves as editorial director.

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Mr. Shaw, who apprenticed to the publishing business with David Godine, another independent Boston publisher, is clear about what drew him to his chosen activity. ''I love to read and I love books. Basically, I am a marketing person, and it's very easy for me to get behind books as a product. Working with Godine made me appreciate beautiful books. What interested me particularly about Harvard Common Press was its common-sensical focus. It concentrates, basically, on useful nonfiction that fills a need in the marketplace.''

In addition to his training in marketing at Godine, Shaw has also acquired an MBA from Boston University's Business School and worked as a sales representative for Godine and a group of other small publishers. ''You can always be lucky and find a best seller. But the main ingredients in a successful publishing house, or in any successful business, are good, careful management and good people. If you have those elements, I don't think you can fail.'' But, he acknowledges, ''it takes a special type of entrepreneur to take the risks that are inherent in publishing.''

In 1981, when the press changed hands, it boasted eight titles in print and had been producing at the rate of one to two titles a year. This year it will publish 15 titles, and 24 are scheduled for 1985. This spring Harvard Common Press purchased another small publisher, Gambit Books, and that acquisition has brought it another 50 titles in print. There are plans to repackage and actively promote six of these titles next fall.

Within the last year, Harvard Common Press has formed a relationship with a new distributor, Eric Kampmann, whose base of operation is in New York. Says Shaw: ''I have a special confidence in Eric, because he sells directly to the chains and the wholesalers. This means he knows the people personally, knows what they want and what they will buy.''

Harvard Common Press resembles larger publishers in that it farms out certain operations. Jacket covers and copy editing, for instance, are handled to a large degree by free-lancers. Publicity and promotion, as well as the sale of subsidiary rights, are handled on the premises by Court Chilton, marketing director, who joined the press after a period at St. Martin's in New York. Shaw says, ''We definitely feel we do as good a job in the area of promotion and publicity as any larger publisher.''

Nearly everyone takes part in the decision to acquire an author, although Shaw makes the final decision, after listening to his colleagues and often sounding out members of his board. He readily admits that the press cannot compete with large publishers on the basis of advances. Many of their authors are first-timers, and an average advance runs between $1,000 and $2,000.

Shaw returns to the theme of common sense that he feels underlies Harvard Common's basic, no-nonsense, nonfiction approach. ''A small publisher,'' he muses, ''has to be very focused and develop expertise in a few areas. Our intention is to forge an identity and do things that haven't been done before.''

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