A Look Back At: 'Gnomes'
Suzanne Mantell -- 11/10/97
Abrams has just released a special 20th-anniversary edition of Gnomes, and the 1977 book, which has never gone out of print, is certainly a milestone in mass merchandising. A pseudo-scientific inquiry into the natural history of the "wee people," the book was created by Dutch artist Rien Poortvliet and writer-physician Wil Huygen and bought for the U.S. and Canadian markets by then Abrams president and publisher Andrew Stewart. Published in October 1977, the book jumped onto national nonfiction bestseller lists three weeks after publication and stayed there for 62 weeks.
More significantly, however, the book spawned spinoffs and other products that pulled in almost $10 million in gross retail sales in the U.S. alone. Abrams created a subsidiary, Abrams Art Papers, to develop products based on Gnomes lore, including calendars (625,000 sold in 1977) stationery, note cards, gift tags, wrapping paper, posters and jigsaw puzzles. Led by then-Abrams v-p of special sales Lena Tabori, the house aggressively pursued licensing arrangements (at the time Snoopy was the main competition) for products that blanketed people's lives: clothing, jewelry, embroidered infantware, figurines, plates, music boxes, wristwatches, wall clocks, key chains, tie tacks, dolls, games, bookmarks, soap and more. Department stores featured gnomes in boutiques and window displays, promotions and advertising. At the height of Gnomes-mania, Ingram put images from the book on the cover of its two-million-copy Christmas catalogue.
Abrams, soon with publisher Paul Gottlieb at the helm, fed the phenomenon with more books: The Pop-Up Book of Gnomes (1979), The Gnomes' Book of Christmas Crafts (1980), Teeny Tiny Gnome Tomes (1981), The Secrets of the Gnomes (1982) and Gnome Tomes (1983). A paperback of the original book was published by Bantam, at the time headed up by the late Ian Ballantine, an appropriate promoter of the book, being himself "gnome-like, cute and mysterious," said Stewart. Together Stewart and Ballantine developed related but distinct spinoffs -- Fairies, Giants, Witches -- at *Stewart, Tabori &Chang, and Ballantine himself published the Gnome-influenced Dinotopia years later at Turner.
Due to an editing error, some incorrect information appeared in the above article when it originally ran. The correct information about Giants, Fairies and Witches is that all three titles were published by Harry N. Abrams Inc. (not Stewart, Tabori &Chang). The latter two titles are still in print and, in fact, Witches, written by Erica Jong and published in 1981, has just been reissued with a new introduction by the author.
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