More and more publishers are shoring up their bottom lines with specialty gift books, and the lucrative category is no longer all about inexpensive, small-format impulse buys.

We can all agree that books make great gifts. Yet “gift books” are a market all unto themselves. They represent a unique product category, where style reigns supreme. For publishers, they present challenges including high production costs, specialized marketing, and the necessity of tapping the zeitgeist at just the right moment.

But gift books also have some unique benefits for publishers and physical retailers alike: many are nonreturnable, and their tactile appeal gives bricks-and-mortar stores a distinct advantage over online retailers. The market continues to grow, as unlikely new outlets join traditional bookstores. Gift books’ place in publishing models varies widely—for some publishers, gift books provide a seasonal windfall, while others regard them as a robust year-round mainstay.

Todd Stocke, v-p, editorial director of Sourcebooks, says, “Gift books aren’t just important, they’re deeply embedded in a publisher’s mission.” Lisa Bach, associate director of independent specialty sales at Chronicle Books says, “I define Chronicle Books as a gift publisher—not a book publisher. This is an important distinction in the publishing industry.”

So what exactly makes a book a gift book?

First, there’s the heavy attention paid to aesthetics. Becky Holtzman, assistant publisher at Pomegranate, says her company defines a gift book as a “hardcover, illustrated book, beautifully designed with thoughtful content. We realize the trade definition is different—maybe even the opposite of our definition—but we’ve built our business around making beautiful publications that serve as memorable gifts.”

Rage Kindelsperger, editorial director at Quarto, echoed the importance of beautiful design, saying, “A gift book is a book that you want to look at slowly and set on a table or shelf where you spend a lot of your time, so you can catch a glimpse of the cover.”

Then there’s the physicality of the book, something that John Whalen, founder and publisher of Cider Mill Press, stressed as being fundamental. “A gift book is a ‘book object’ that you cannot re-create digitally. With our gift books, we pay just as much attention to the tactile elements, like the cover embellishments, paper quality, and additional special touches like foil and ribbons, as to the editorial content.”

The other important factor that distinguishes a gift book is that it needs to be able to sell across multiple channels. This quality allows publishers to diversify their business model and weather some of the economic challenges faced by the prevalence of digital options. “Had it not been for my initial gift-book publishing philosophy—one I developed in order to achieve the broadest possible distribution model,” Whalen says, “I’m not sure we would have survived.”

When acquiring a gift book, publishers must determine if it can sell in nontraditional channels outside of bookstores. Whalen says, “With every project we develop, we ask ourselves, where will this book sell outside of a traditional bookstore? If we can’t answer that question, we don’t develop the project.”

Ronnie Sellers, president and publisher of Sellers Publishing, agreed that when considering a new title, his company makes sure it will sell in both the book and gift channels. He added that he looks to invest in content that “will enable us to fully exploit rapidly growing distribution capabilities in both markets.”

These markets are spread far and wide. While publishers still do well in traditional bookstores, many stressed the importance of diversifying. Whalen of Cider Mill says, “In this economic environment, we’ve found it prudent to develop books for every distribution channel possible. We don’t believe that you can be healthy and have a long-term strategy when focusing on one or two channels only.”

These channels cover bookstores, gift stores, museum shops, national specialty retailers, and big box retailers, and then branch out into a more unusual list: wineries, toy stores, even car washes. Joe Biel, founder of Microcosm Publishing, says, “Since 1996, we’ve always done best outside of bookstores: record stores, clothing shops, candy stores, indie groceries, a taco stand in Tokyo, and places where no other books are sold.”

This motley mix seems to be the key to successfully marketing and leveraging gift books. Brenda Knight, publisher of Cleis Press, says that in addition to chains such as Anthropologie, Hallmark, and Spencer’s Gifts, her company has paved new ground with channels including “nurseries, gas stations, hardware stores, and my favorite deal of the year—a Chevrolet dealership in south Texas.”

Physical retailers have a particularly strong advantage over online sellers when it comes to gift books, according to Sellers. “Gift books are often purchased as impulse items to be given as a gift on the same day or perhaps the next day,” he says. “Consumers don’t have the option, therefore, of looking at the book in the store, then ordering it online. So when it comes to gift books, bricks-and-mortar stores still have a competitive advantage over online retailers.” He added that gift books almost always sell through, “so returns are a nonissue.”

Brett Cohen, president of Quirk Books, says, “Gift books are usually priced in a range that makes them a nice add-on purchase. Also, they are typically something a consumer wants to browse for and look over. You can’t beat a physical store when it comes to browsing.”

But gift books’ physicality also creates challenges for production and marketing. Jennifer Brunn, senior director of publicity at Abrams, says, “It’s an artisanal process, which depends on attention to fantastic design, production, and resources. These books are more expensive to create and take longer to make.”

High production costs often result in outsourcing production overseas. Alison Devlin, v-p, director of marketing at Running Press, says, “We are not finding domestic printers that can answer our need—we are forever in search of that domestic printing partner.”

Whalen of Cider Mill agreed. “Manufacturing costs are high for gift books. They are traditionally four-color projects, which usually pushes their production offshore. Printing in Asia demands a longer lead time for production, and a longer replenishment cycle when it comes to reprints.”

An additional challenge is the competitive landscape in the retail marketplace. Cohen says, “Reaching the audience is the biggest challenge. In most outlets gift books are a sideline item, and they don’t typically garner a ton of national media. So we have to get a bit more creative in reaching the market and building excitement for the product.”

Part of reaching an audience is staying on top of consumer trends. Bach, of Chronicle Books says, “Timing is crucial—tapping into the overall zeitgeist in the retail world cements a book’s success.” John Bacigalupi, senior national account manager at Taunton Press, agreed. “Like most publishers, we’re always trying to figure out what the next big thing is going to be.”

Despite the assortment of challenges, publishers report that bookstores are expanding their gift-book sections, noticing trends such as retailers building displays around a particular theme, and innovating merchandising strategies by pairing books next to other non-book objects. And it’s not just bookstores that are expanding their offerings. Bacigalupi says that they’ve noticed “more and more gift books are available in specialty stores where you wouldn’t expect them, like cookbooks in Lowe’s.”

Knight of Cleis Press remarked on the trend of gift books in eco-stores. “Books about gardening, nature, and sustainable living sell across the board, from chains to indies to gift retailers. These are feel-good books, where you feel like you are contributing to the planet by gifting the book to someone.” She also notes the trend of “books that give back,” in which the purchase of the book donates proceeds to a specific organization.

Publishers also are optimistic, mostly reporting an increase in sales. Perigee, which publishes 15–20 gift books per year, says the gift market has been a growing area for them and that their sales are up 20% from last year. Cider Mill says sales in the gift-book category have been “phenomenal. Ultimately our goal is to have 60% of our business coming out of nonreturnable sales, and usually much of that comes from the gift channel.”

Brunn of Abrams says, “Cookbooks always make great gift books, and this season we are having great success with My Portugal, by the acclaimed chef George Mendes, and Melissa Gilbert’s My Prairie Cookbook.” Perigee adds to the cookbook lineup with Edible French, by Clotilde Dusoulier, creator of the award-winning food blog Chocolate & Zucchini.

Books about drinking are also perennially popular. Running Press has had success with Tim Federle’s Tequila Mockingbird, a gift-sized cocktail book with a literary slant, and his recently published Hickory Daiquiri Dock, a cocktail book for new parents with a nursery rhyme twist. Cider Mill published The Spirit of Gin, by Matt Teacher—a lively exploration of the new gin revival—which sold out its first printing before finished books even hit the warehouse. Taunton’s big gift books of this year have been cookbooks such as Fresh from the Farm, by Susie Middleton, Meatless All Day, by Dina Cheney, and Cooking Allergy-Free, by Jenna Short.

Art books make reliable gift books as well. Pomegranate says it strives to produce at least a couple of monographs on contemporary artists each year, including one of its most successful gift books, Elizabeth Murray’s Monet’s Passion, now in its 16th printing. Pomegranate’s 2014 monograph Irene Hardwicke Olivieri: Closer to Wildness, on the contemporary Oregon artist, has thrived. Brunn, of Abrams, says, “We continue to do really well with our fashion books; this year’s Vogue and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, Tory Burch, and Kate Spade New York: Places to Go, People to See have been favorites in the marketplace.”

Children’s books make up a significant portion of gift-book sales. Cider Mill notes that one of its highlights is The Night Before Christmas, featuring original artwork from Charles Santore. Whalen says he and his company have developed multiple formats to create a version of this book for every retailer they can imagine, turning it into a variety of gift items. They’ve also developed gift books about dinosaurs, using embossing techniques to make the padded cover feel like dinosaur skin.

It’s no surprise that Star Wars and Star Trek are still go-to gift books, particularly for children. Chronicle Books has Goodnight Darth Vader and is planning a new series called Star Wars Epic Yarns, targeted to both kids and adults. Cider Mill reported that Fun with Kirk and Spock proved a fantastic collaboration with CBS and the Star Trek brand. Quirk also came out with The William Shakespeare’s Star Wars Trilogy boxed set.

Activity-driven books and kits also constitute a large portion of the gift book market. Quarto says it’s had great success with kits, including Tangle Art and Creative Doodling & Beyond. It’s also published a successful Zen Drawing Pack and art and writing journals that have embedded pens on their covers.

Baker & Taylor reported its Thunder Bay press line had multichannel success with 1000 Dot to Dots, the Complete History Series, and its Origami series.

For Tuttle Publishing, origami kits and paper packs are a cornerstone of business, both in the trade and gift-book channels. Christopher Johns, sales and marketing director at Tuttle, says, “For sales, we reach the largest net of customer with this category—from the Metropolitan Museum of Art carrying Origami Bonsai to the Federal Reserve’s Money Museum carrying Money Origami. When I started 10 years ago, we were doing one or two kits a year; now we release three to eight origami kits and paperbacks a season and have almost 100 titles in our backlist.”

Other areas that do well are crafting titles, such as Taunton’s Hand-Stitched Home, by Susan Beal, and inspirational books such as Sourcebooks’ New York Times bestseller In the Garden of Thoughts and Cleis Press’s The Grateful Life and The Grateful Table. Books driven and inspired by social media are also a hit, such as Chronicle Books’ Grumpy Guide to Life.

Going forward, publishers are continuing to bet big on cookbooks as gifts. In 2015 Cleis is publishing Getting Laid: Everything You Need to Know About Raising Chickens, Gardening and Preserving—with Over 100 Recipes! by Barb Webb, and Sellers’s big book of the spring season will be Build Your Own Burger, a flip-page cookbook that offers more than 60,000 different burger combos.

Publishers are also adding new products to their lines. Norton says Baker and Taylor is launching a new Novel Journal series, with the lines of the notebooks made from the text of classic works. Pomegranate is publishing Edward Gorey: His Book Cover Art and Design in the spring, covering Gorey’s 45 years of design work in the book publishing industry. Running Press has great hopes for publishing gift books in conjunction with HBO’s Game of Thrones in 2015, and Cider Mill believes the upcoming Peanuts movie will help create more demand for Peanuts-themed gifts, including its first-ever finger puppet book featuring Snoopy. The publisher is also releasing an illustrated edition of Alice’s Adventures Underground—the original, unabridged manuscript that later became Alice in Wonderland—in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the classic Lewis Carroll book.

Microcosm’s Biel says “teaching people DIY survival skills seems virtually recession proof,” and accordingly the publisher will offer travel guides and books on DIY sustainability skills in its 2015 gift lineup.

While the rise of e-books and digital reading devices puts pressure on the publishing industry as a whole, the gift-book category remains a dependable niche keeping many publishers in the game. Kindelsperger, editorial director of Quarto says, “I still think there is a place for a special book you can hold in your hand.”

Below, more on the subject of gift books.

Gift Books Gain More Bookseller Fans

Gift Books Are Big Business for Christian Publishers

A Selection of Gift Books, Spring 2015