Bad housing market or good—according to the Commerce Department, figures for sales of new homes were worse in summer 2010 than they have been in 50 years, though September did bring some improvement—publishers continue to offer books on home improvement and decorating in large numbers, though at lower prices and with smaller print runs than in the past. PW spoke with four key players in the category to get their thoughts on the status of today's home improvement and decorating books.

Creative Homeowner: Publisher Tim Bakke and Senior Editor Kathie Robitz

The economy has affected every category in publishing, but the recent recession, fueled in large part by the collapse of the housing bubble, has had particular impact on the home improvement and decorating category.

Creative Homeowner senior editor Kathie Robitz says, "Home is more important than ever, as people are spending more time there. Because of the economy, people don't have a lot of disposable income, so they dine in more frequently and spend more leisure time at home rather than elsewhere. They are looking for ideas that are affordable, easy, and less centered on tasks and upkeep but make time at home more enjoyable. Easy care is also high on everyone's list. Homeowners are downsizing, as well. McMansions are out; smaller but better-organized space is in."

Helpful Tip
"Adults can make their own non-toxic wood sealer using five parts mineral oil to one part beeswax. Children should not attempt this on their own. Heat the mineral oil in a saucepan over low heat. Add the beeswax, being careful not to splash the oil, and allow it to melt. Caution: Keep the heat low and stir slowly. Beeswax is very flammable." Self-Sufficiency: A Complete Guide to Baking, Carpentry, Crafts, Organic Gardening, Preserving Your Harvest, Raising Animals, and More! edited by Abigail R. Gehring, Skyhorse, $24.95 (Nov.)

Publisher Tim Bakke reports, "Do-it-yourself home-improvement—or hammer-and-nail books—especially those involving basics like wiring, framing, drywall, decks, and plumbing, seem to be working best for us. One reason may be that homeowners are interested in maintaining or repairing what they have to save money. Another reason may be that our DIY Ultimate Guide series books tend to be extremely high-value packages—lots of pages, lots of photos, lots of information at a reasonable price."

Bakke continues, "We see a lot of first-time homeowners coming into the market. They may be newlyweds, single parents establishing a new home, or recent graduates eager to establish themselves. We published I Didn't Know That! How to Take Care of Your Home, Your Car, and Your Career by Patrick O'Keefe [Aug.] for them."

Bakke does note that some subjects have run their course: "Books on decorative trimwork, once very hot, have slowed to a crawl. Books on flooring, basements, sheds, and gazebos have been disappointing. Consumers also don't seem to be interested in books on home safety. Some subjects, though important to everyday living for the average home-owner, do not translate into good-selling books. Surprisingly, any book we have published in the ‘green' category has not done well for us."

Hot on the decorating side are books on color schemes and luxury kitchens and bathrooms, though (counterintuitively, as Bakke himself notes) more nuts-and-bolts books on kitchen organization, outdoor kitchens, and eat-in kitchens have not sold as strongly. Also disappointing are books on window treatments, painting, soft furnishings, general makeovers, and lighting.

Firefly Books: President and Publisher Lionel Koffler

Despite Creative Homeowner's experience with green titles, Lionel Koffler believes that one upside to a down economy is that it is drawing a new audience to environmentally friendly topics. He points to an October 18 New York Times article about conservative global warming skeptics in Salina, Kans., who are nevertheless attempting to cut back on fossil fuel use as part of something called the Climate and Energy Project, which focuses on financial savings and patriotic duty rather than a sense of social responsibility.

Helpful Tip
"In a room that is used primarily after dark, a heavily textured fabric or a layered window treatment can warm the atmosphere." Simplicity Home Decorating Book by Simplicity, Trafalgar Square, $34.95 (Mar.)

He sees two sides to the "green" issue: the creation of books on environmental friendliness, and the greening of the process of making books themselves. For example, says Koffler, "More and more we send digital files to our printers and they send digital proofs back, so there aren't printers' proofs going back and forth by courier. That's a green saving."

Firefly also now prints on FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council) paper, which is certified as being made from wood harvested from properly sourced and managed forests, without harmful chemicals, and with a large proportion of recycled paper fiber. After all, says Koffler, "If you're making books, as we do, about polar bears and orangutans, it's best not to destroy their habitats."

Firefly has a list heavy on gardening and forest conservation books. Though it shies away from most books on decorating, says Koffler, the press has several titles on building log cabins "in a thrifty and environmentally low-impact way." Koffler says the forthcoming Eco House: Practical Ideas for a Greener, Healthier Dwelling by Sergi Costa Duran (Nov.) is positioned as "an inexpensive book for architecture students to see the 12 or 15 major ways in which a house can be designed ‘green' or designed ‘black.' " The title's cover features a sink/toilet combo that recycles the gray water used for brushing teeth or washing hands to flush the toilet rather than wasting potable water.

Helpful Tip
"Large, upholstered chairs with matching ottomans, each with a cashmere throw folded over the back and a soft down pillow, will be irresistible to everyone." Bunny Williams' Scrapbook for Living by Bunny Williams, Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $60 (Nov.)

Koffler himself uses geothermal heating in his house and, like Firefly readers, wants his home to be environmentally friendly but also attractive. He observes, "There's a fairly big book industry about high style with conservation that is aesthetically very interesting but also smart money-wise. It's the best of the back-to the land movement of the mid-1970s with very contemporary architectural style in terms of the building and also interior decor. Cheaper doesn't have to be junky anymore, and the green ethos doesn't have to be drab."

The economy has also made itself felt in prices. Says Koffler, "We cannot sell a $75 book on architecture to stores anymore. In the past two years we've had to reduce our top retail prices from about $85 to $49.95. We don't have a single fall 2010 book at higher than $49.95, and we used to have them routinely." Margins have shrunk, too, as have print runs. "We're publishing more titles, but printing slightly fewer copies of each," says Koffler.

Taunton: Senior Editor Peter Chapman

Taunton senior editor Peter Chapman says the "big question" in the home improvement category, and all categories, is "What's the role of print (i.e., books) versus other means of delivering information (online, apps, iPad, television, etc.)?"

For the moment, Taunton is following a two-track policy for e-books, or, as Chapman puts it, "Any book that we sign and develop, we see first and foremost as a hard copy. Then we see whether there are e-book possibilities or iPad possibilities." The press has also revisited its backlist. "Six to nine months ago, we looked through all of our backlist and came up with a list of about 150 books to make available as e-books," Chapman reports. "The revenue from [e-books] is about $100,000 a year total. I can see it being 10% of revenue within two or three years." Most e-book sales, in PDF format, are through the house's online store,, and some titles recently became available in Kindle format as well.

Helpful Tip
"Sculptural branches that look like miniature trees (with plenty of offshoots where ornaments can hang) can be found on the ground in your yard or at the local park. Pluck off any residual leaf matter, then place it in a vase that will hold its weight (no water necessary, of course). Try spray painting the branch white for a more elegant look. You can leave it bare, and enjoy the shape as is, or decorate with ornaments." A Homemade Christmas: Creative Ideas for an Earth-Friendly, Frugal, Festive Holiday by Tina Barseghian, Harlequin, $14.95 (Sept.)

But practical concerns about e-books in the workshop remain. "If you have a laptop and you're working in a woodworking shop, there's dust," Chapman notes. "The iPad doesn't have an internal fan, so in terms of clogging up the works, that would be a better device than the laptop, but then you've got concerns about getting stuff on the screen."

There's also some "fear of content sharing," says Chapman, with publishers and authors looking at the music industry as a cautionary tale. Taunton was just about to make its successful Code Check series (Chapman describes it as "a CliffsNotes version of the building code") available as an app when authors warned against it, as file sharing is endemic on building inspector Web sites.

All of this takes place against a backdrop of shrinking orders and sales. "We sell a lot of our books through Home Depot and Lowe's," Chapman reports, "but Home Depot is buying fewer books. Where once we might have done 20,000 copies, now we do 8,000."

Then there's the authority of hard-copy books. Chapman says, "It's nice to have a book by someone who's been doing this for 30 years, and our books are written by people who practice the craft."

Helpful Tip
"There's nothing like a chandelier to lend a space a little je ne sais quoi. Admittedly, choosing one can be as big a commitment as deciding on a sofa, but when it's made from inexpensive wire and chain, you can relax a little." Home from the Hardware Store by Stephen Antonson and Kathleen Hackett, Rodale, $22.99 (Nov.)

Taunton has a large magazine publishing arm, and the magazines are now using Microsoft tags—bar codes that can be scanned with smartphones. Chapman gives as an example a tag on a Whole Foods ad in Fine Cooking magazine that when "read" with a smartphone might take a reader to a recipe from Whole Foods. He'd like to see that technology used with books as well, but the question of longevity is a tough one. "If you did it in a book in 2010 and someone's buying it in 2020, would it be compatible?" asks Chapman.

Ultimately, says Chapman, "Maybe books will have a different role. Maybe there will be things books can do that online can't do. Maybe they'll become niche-oriented and more expensive. Maybe there will be a desire for well-produced artifacts that people spend money on, book as object. I don't know whether it will be 92% e-books and 8% hard copy or 50–50. No one has the answer."

Thoughts from the Home Front

We spoke with several players in the home improvement and decorating category; herewith, opinions and observations.

Author Jonathan Adler (Jonathan Adler on Happy Chic Colors and Jonathan Adler on Happy Chic Accessorizing, Sterling Innovation, Nov.) says, "Home decorating books are like crack cocaine to me! I love them, I read them, I collect them, they make me happy. With my two new books, I am a crack dealer—I want my books to be gorgeous, but very, very useful and affordable! I am dedicated to bringing style, craft, joy, and a general feeling of grooviness to your home. As I always say, if your heirs won't fight over it, we won't make it."

According to Chronicle executive editor Jodie Warshaw, "Customers are looking for titles they can relate to. There will always be a market for lavish coffee-table home decor look-books, but that market is contracting. Instead, we're finding a larger audience for books that feature achievable home decor and home improvement ideas for real people."

"We are conscious of our price points, but the key is pricing a book appropriately for the audience. A book such as Carolyne Roehm's A Passion for Interiors [Nov.] is rightly priced at $60 and that is not a deterrent to her audience—it may even be a selling point," says Clarkson Potter editorial director Doris Cooper.

"The high price point of many books certainly didn't help this category during the recession," says St. Martin's editor Alyse S. Diamond. "However, there's something to be said for having home improvement and decorating tips in book format—it can be more useful to have a book that offers inspiration, especially one that includes everything from decorating to gardening to cooking to party planning." Diamond cites September's Home Made Simple by the experts at Home Made Simple, which boasts a monthly newsletter with 12.5 million subscribers, a Web site with 2.3 million unique visitors, and a Learning Channel TV show.

"Women make themselves crazy trying to live up to the impossibly high standards put forth by Martha Stewart and HGTV. It's time to focus on defining their own realistic organizational goals," says Seal Press publisher Krista Lyons, pointing to Alicia Rockmore and Sarah Welch's Pretty Neat, a January paperback intended as a response to what the authors term "org porn."

"Currently, the buzz in the residential real estate world has to do with homeowners ‘under water,' [owing] more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. As a result, there is much less home equity money available for funding big home improvements, and people are focusing more on simple maintenance, and also some of the easier improvements: built-ins, new floors and countertops, etc.," says Creative Publishing International publisher Bryan Trandem. Coming in January: The Dog-Friendly Home: DIY Projects for Dog Lovers by Ruth Strother.

"While sales figures for many decorating/design books have declined over the past five years, there is still an appetite for high-end books that are objets d'art. Rustic style—à la cabins and handmade wood furniture—seems to have a perennial market," says Gibbs Smith managing editor Madge Baird. The publisher released two similar books by the same author—Ralph Kylloe—at two different price points this fall: September's Rustic Elegance ($60) and October's The Log Home Book ($24.99).

"The economic downturn of recent years has created a cautious approach among consumers in all categories. Home improvement and decorating is an area where people perceive an opportunity to do it themselves and save substantial money. Buying a book is much cheaper than hiring professional help, if that book answers the right questions," says Storey publicity director Amy Greeman. Published in February, Gerald Rowen's Compact Cabins includes 62 design ideas with floor plans and details on building materials and energy efficiency.