For the most part, art and photography books exist in a sphere separate from much of publishing. Many of the stores specializing in these categories are affiliated with cultural institutions, and the books they sell are generally pricey. PW asked buyers at seven bookstores specializing in art what's going on in the category.
Archivia Books, New York City
Cynthia Conigliaro self-identifies as "buyer, salesperson, bookkeeper, and sometimes even shipper and receiver." She reports that on the rarefied Upper East Side of Manhattan, which can count on "lots of sophisticated buyers, a fair amount of discretionary income to spend, well-heeled tourists doing the museums and auction houses, passionate collectors of the arts and decorative arts," the effects of a weak economy are being felt.
But she continues, "Worse than the economy is Amazon. I have lost a lot of professional working customers because if they need 10 new books that they see in my catalogue, meaning I have vetted them, that's $600 to $750 from me, but $350 to $400 from Amazon, and that makes a big difference to an architect whose pipeline may be thinning out as his or her clients scale back. I've also lost some of the appassionatas whose iPhone/texting/twittering assistants come in, browse and scan my bar codes, run home with suggestions, and then buy it for their boss online at Amazon."
Still, some titles did very well over the 2010 holiday season and have continued to sell in 2011: Archivia sold 28 copies of Cecil Beaton: The Art of the Scrapbook (Assouline, 2010) in December, nine more in January, and another six in the traditionally slow month of February. Other popular titles include Parisian Interiors (Rizzoli/Flammarion, Feb.) and Paris Was Ours (Algonquin, Feb.), proof, says Conigliaro, that "anything with Paris in the title sells, ditto cats and opera."
Which titles were the subject of big orders for her? "First, no one orders big anymore," she responds, "or at least I don't. Big is 15 to 20 copies, maybe 25. Otherwise it's one to three, or five if you plan on one for the window, one for the section, and three for the display table. The cost of shipping back returns is frightening, as is the cash flow crunch of having large invoices coming due like regular freight trains." She does cop to having ordered relatively large quantities of Balenciaga and Spain by Hamish Bowles (Rizzoli, Mar.); The Best Gardens in Italy (Frances Lincoln, May); Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation by Andrea Wulf (Knopf, Mar.); and a handful of other titles.
Conigliaro's final message to publishers is this: "I would say to those who are fixating on price points that what we need is good content—that is so much more important than price. It's the correlation between good, substantive, interesting, well-designed books and the price. If it's a stupid book with meaningless captions and it's $35, I'm not interested. I'd rather have it cost $75 and be good."
Hennessey & Ingalls, Los Angeles
Carlos Chavez, manager of these two art and architecture bookstore locations, reports that one of the stores' top-selling titles is—not surprisingly—Los Angeles: Portrait of a City (Taschen, 2009), and that he's doing well with Julius Shulman: The Last Decade (Kehrer Verlag, Mar.). "What an eye Shulman had for architecture," Chavez adds. "He made taking photos of buildings an art."
Chavez also has high hopes for Photographers A–Z (Taschen, Apr.). "It's a collection of major photographers from old to current. It presents a view of what people are doing today and what they did in the past. I ordered around 20 copies, and these days that's a huge number for us."
Asked whether the weak economy is affecting sales in this category, Chavez says, "The economy is affecting the whole store, not only this category. People tend to buy in fewer quantities. Instead of buying five coffee-table books, they'll buy two. Our customers still want that nice picture book, but they can't afford to buy five different titles by the same photographer. They tend to be more selective."
But Chavez has no fear of e-books. "You can't really appreciate a photo or art work from a computer screen," he says. "The image resolution is not justified on a computer screen as well as it is in a nice coffee-table. As long as we still have people who appreciate the color, feel, and smell of a book, I think we will be okay."
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
Print and media buyer Chris Conti delivers the unsurprising news that sex sells. "Taschen's Big Book of Breasts  and Big Penis Book  sell insanely well. They are coming out with 3-D versions this month," Conti tells PW. "Those are the most overhandled books in our store—we bought loads of them."
Illustrated humor books are another top choice, especially if they're inexpensive. "I think people believe that for $15, it's not worth looking for it cheaper somewhere else," Conti says. Adam Chester's S'mother (Abrams, Apr.), he says, is "hilarious. He's collected letters, notes, and Post-Its from his neurotic mother, who never quits being a hypochondriac." Conti also gives high marks—"genuinely funny"—to Chronicle's recently published F in Exams: The Very Best Totally Wrong Test Answers."
Speaking of inexpensive books, how is the economy affecting this category? Conti observes, "I don't think it's the economy really; I think it's Amazon. We see people writing down titles or taking pictures of them with their phones. I'm not above asking people, ‘What can I do to get you to buy that book from us?' " But print books aren't going anywhere if Conti has anything to say about it: "I'm on a computer all day. Books are a bit of an escape for me. I can't imagine looking at art books on a three-inch screen."
Museum of Modern Art Store, New York City
Book manager Norman Laurila says some of his bestselling titles aren't available anywhere else: they're the catalogues for exhibitions at the museum itself. "I'm involved along the way, but seeing the finished books is something I look forward to," he says. The store typically sells 2,000 to 5,000 copies of exhibition catalogues.
Other current bestsellers include Jean-Michel Basquiat (Hatje Cantz/DAP, 2010); 1,001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die (Random House, 2007); Color: A Natural History of the Palette (Random House, 2003); Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life: 1990–2005 (Random House, 2006); and Alfred Stieglitz New York (Rizzoli, 2010). Stieglitz, Laurila points out, was the museum's first curator of photographs.
Laurila has high hopes for a dozen or so upcoming titles, including monographs Glen Ligon: America (Whitney Museum of American Art/Yale Univ., Apr.) and Gerhard Richter: Landscapes (Hatje Cantz/DAP, June)—the former artist is the subject of an exhibit at the Whitney until June 5, and Richter, according to Laurila, is "a perennial favorite with our customers." Also among Laurila's forthcoming faves are The Total Artwork in Expressionism: Art, Film, Literature, Theater, Dance, and Architecture 1905–1925 (Hatje Cantz/DAP, June); Ugly: The Aesthetics of Everything (Fiell/DAP, Aug.); and Photographic Memory: The Album in the Age of Photography (Aperture/DAP, May). Laurila views art/photography titles as exempt from e-book competition "at the moment and for the near foreseeable future" and doesn't see the flat economy as negatively affecting the category.
However, he cautions, other factors are putting downward pressure on sales. "A majority of our visitors are tourists," he says. "The new weight restrictions and second bag charges by airlines have made travelers much more aware of buying heavy items, and books are heavy—art and photography titles more so.[And] with each season, the average price of a well-produced and often imported art/photography book has risen. It's still encouraging to see so many books sell in the $75 range, but that's fast reaching the level where we see price resistance. It's got to look like a $75 art book—lavishly produced and substantial."
Powell's, Portland, Ore.
According to Tom Luce, new book buyer for fine arts, performing arts, sciences, and romance, "New book sales in general have taken a hit with the economic downturn, and photography seems to have particularly slumped. While I can't say that I'm seeing a big resurgence, I will say that the free fall has slowed, and we may start to see some increases again."
Though photography titles may not sell strongly at the moment, Luce adds, "Camera guides and how-to books on digital photography have continued to perform, and we do well with some photographers, such as Lee Friedlander and Todd Hido. One of our surprising hits has been Detroit Disassembled by Andrew Moore [Damiani, 2010], a photographic representation of the physical decline of Detroit's infrastructure and once-significant buildings. As a native Michigander, I found it fascinating." The title has "taken hold," he says, with sales of 20-plus copies.
Luce doesn't blame digital distraction for the downturn. He says, "I don't think that e-books are greatly impacting this part of the business. Books in these categories have a significant visual component that, at least so far, means they aren't well reproduced in e-book format. The economy has had a much greater influence on these books the last couple of years or so than e-books have."
Luce's list of top-selling art and architecture books is an eclectic group that includes 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School by Matthew Frederick (MIT, 2007), which "just sells like mad"; Art Forms in Nature by Ernst Haeckel (Peter Smith, 1974), "a classic that, deservedly, just keeps on selling"; and Relational Aesthetics by Nicolas Bourriaud (Les Presses du Reel, 1998).
"There are several schools in the area," says Luce, "including the Art Institute's Portland outlet, and we consistently see solid sales of professional and academic works. Typography is a strong topic for us also. Graffiti art comes and goes, but seems to be on the upswing again. Poster art has been doing well the last year or two. Lowbrow art and artists have been steadily popular for some time now, though individual monographs seem to be far more popular than collections of various artists."
Rizzoli Bookstore, New York City
Assistant manager/buyer Joe Pilla believes art and photography books are the rare category in which print may be able to compete easily with e-books. "While a textual book is fine on an e-reader or smart phone, a quality, large-format illustrated book is diminished via download," he says. "It suffers in size and resolution of display. Also, quality illustrated books are used by a number of our customers as essential elements in interior design. A well-crafted book still has value as an object, and a quality illustrated book even more so as an art object."
Pilla adds that there's no reason for print and electronic books not to co-exist. He likens the current evolving scenario to the arrival of cable TV and home video in the 1970s: "We were told that theatrical movie showings were soon to die. Well, we've gone from VHS to DVD to digital downloads of flicks—and people (young and old) still enjoy going to the movies. Movie houses—true, far fewer indies and mucho multiplexing—still have value, commercially and aesthetically. I feel the same way about books and bookstores. Digital progress will change and challenge them, but booksellers, particularly independents, will find a way to survive."
E-books may not be hurting the category, but the economy sure is. Pilla says, "The recession certainly did slow larger, more expensive book sales in 2008 and 2009. In 2010, some of the illustrated categories bounced back. Some categories—interior design, fashion, art—have rebounded better than others: photography, architecture, design. Our customers are still price sensitive. We benefit when publishers price their illustrated books closer to $50 than $100."
However, quality wins out, says Pilla. "In recent months, a three-digit price hasn't hurt a clearly quality illustrated title, as our sales on Tuscany: Art and Interiors (Rizzoli, 2010) at $125 and Assouline's Cecil Beaton: The Art of the Scrapbook at $250 have shown." The store's bestselling title for the past six months "by a wide margin," says Pilla, has been New York Parties: Private Views (Rizzoli, 2010). "It's lavish, yes," he notes, "but it was astutely priced at $55. Without the recession, it might have been $75."
Other books that rank high include New York: A Photographer's City (Rizzoli, Mar.) and Patti Smith: 1969–1976 (Abrams, Mar.), which Pilla notes complements the singer's National Book Award–winning memoir, Just Kids (Ecco, 2010).
SFMOMA Museum Store, San Francisco
Buyer Annie Conde reports that the current "bread-and-butter titles"—all under $40, she notes—are Little People in the City: The Street Art of Slinkachu (Macmillan UK, 2009); Secret Lives of Great Artists by Elizabeth Lunday (Quirk, 2008); How to Read a Photograph by Ian Jeffrey (Abrams, 2009); San Francisco Street Art by Steve Rotman (Prestel, 2009); and Patti Smith's Just Kids.
Conde says, "We're selling more inexpensive books, although people are still in the market for the exquisite art book and important monograph. Our customers expect to find these kinds of titles here. I think the economy has created a larger market for collectible art books. Publishers produce smaller print runs, so the book is out-of-print a few months after being released and suddenly selling for two to three times the retail price. In that sense, the economy has helped increase the value of art books."
Conde has high hopes (and has placed substantial orders) for Delusional: The Story of the Jonathan Levine Gallery (Gingko Press, July), about an early champion of lowbrow and street art; Murakami Versailles (Editions Xavier Barral, Mar.)—"two great tastes that taste great together"—and Frederic Chaubin: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed (Taschen, Mar.)—"a fun tour of cold war Soviet architecture."
Conde is of two minds about the possibility that e-books will cannibalize the art book category. She says these books are exempt from e-book competition "for now." The future, though, looks a little uncertain. "Some museums are exploring the possibility of providing out-of-print exhibition catalogues on line, or as e-books," Conde comments, "which would be a great service for students and researchers. But for the trade coffee-table art book, you'd lose too much in the translation. Things related to the physical properties of an art book, like scale, paper texture, printing effects, the proportion of one image related to the next, and reproduction quality, which artists and museums are very particular about, can't be easily reproduced in an e-book. If anything, I could see those qualities becoming less important to an increasingly digitized society. I hope that time is in the far-flung future."