Harry N. Abrams, launched 50 years ago this fall, has grown in that half century from being the first American art publisher to a house with a wide range of interests.

Paul Gottlieb, who has led the house for the past 20 years and who two years ago helped arrange the sale of the company to the French La Martiniere group after years as a subsidiary of Times Mirror, told PW something about the company's beginnings and how he got to know Harry Abrams himself. The founder was a noted collector of art, who in the company's early days covered the walls of the publisher's offices with a now-priceless assembly of abstract expressionists and fashionable artists of the early 1950s.

Gottlieb was then president of American Heritage. Their first contact, he said, was when Abrams called to "tear me apart for a promotion we'd just done on Norman Rockwell as an illustrator. He was just doing a book on the subject himself and thought he owned Rockwell!" After that, as relations warmed up, AH took over mail-order distribution of Abrams books, which Harry continued to do for the trade. "At a certain point, in the mid-'70s, as Harry got older, Times Mirror [which had bought Abrams in 1966] was encouraging him to find a successor."

TM also, Gottlieb recalled, tried to buy American Heritage from McGraw-Hill, which then owned it. That, however, helped to introduce Gottlieb to such Times Mirror execs as Robert Erburu and Martin Levin, but when they tried to hire him for Abrams he refused. "I felt I was too old to join a company with someone like Harry at the head." Meanwhile, Abrams left in 1977 to found Abbeville with his son, Robert (who still runs it), and Gottlieb came aboard as publisher in 1980, just after Abrams died.

It was a time, just after the publication of Gnomes, brought aboard by Andy Stewart, when the company was experimenting with properties beyond its original art publishing mandate. "But I felt we didn't have enough future projects," said Gottlieb. "We were doing licensed stuff, like note cards, and went into limited editions and prints, but I thought it was time to bring the focus back to our core, which was high-quality art and illustrated books--when possible with a popular tone, like The Art of Walt Disney, a big hit at that time."

At this stage, Gottlieb was only just beginning to develop the kind of relationship with major art museums that would later become an important element in the publishing program. "I think I created the idea of the museum catalogue auction, with the Treasures of the Vatican at the Met, as a way that would maximize the return for the museum." He also began to distribute museum-published catalogues for major shows and now works closely with the leading New York art museums. As a Russophile who frequently journeyed there, both before and after the Soviet Union broke up, Gottlieb also made trailblazing deals with major Russian museums for books on their legendary collections of Western (particularly impressionist) masterpieces.

The recent development of a children's list (Children's Books, June 7) was inspired partly by the hugely successful publication of books by Australian illustrator Graeme Base (whose The Worst Band in the Universe will lead imprint director Howard Reeves's first children's list this fall). The aim is ultimately to do 15“20 titles a year, for a range of kids from toddlers to preteens, concentrating, naturally, on highly illustrated books, illustrators and art subjects.

The purchase of Abrams by the Paris-based La Martiniere group two years ago has led to a certain amount of slimming--offices in Amsterdam and Tokyo were closed, for instance--and a slight reduction in staff, brought about, asserted Gottlieb, through retirement rather than firings. There has also been a new emphasis on younger people taking on new levels of responsibility, such as Amy Rhodes, v-p and sales & marketing director--who has created a house rep group for the first time--and v-p and managing editor Margaret Chace. In another highly important move, solidifying Abrams's wider international role, distribution outside the U.S. was taken over by London-based Thames & Hudson.

T&H remains, according to Gottlieb, one of Abrams's significant rivals in the art market, along with Britain's Phaidon Press and Yale and Princeton University Presses, both of which do some notable art books. As for general publishers' interest in art books, "they tend to go in and out of it."

In a typical year, Abrams will publish about 200 titles, perhaps half of them distribution titles, 80 or so originated in-house. They cover a wide range--not only art but design, fashion, food, travel, nature, photography and entertainment, with an emphasis always on their signature lavish look. The backlist is about 1300 strong, many titles active since the firm's early days, and including such notable classics of art history as H.W. Janson's History of Art. Maybe 10 titles a year go into the bargain Abradale list and, said Gottlieb, "We can reannounce a paperback version of something and sell it all over again." A typical example is Barbara Braun's lavishly illustrated Pre-Columbian Art and the Post-Columbian World, originally published in hardcover in 1993 at a lofty $75 and scheduled for paperback in fall of 2000 at a price less than half of that, and thus more likely to appeal to art students.

Gottlieb still d s the occasional monograph on a new artist, "and I'd like to reinvigorate that side," he added, recalling that the house was the first to publish David Hockney's work and discovered Broadway designer Julie Taymor long before The Lion King. "I still love to find a subject that hasn't been done and done." With the increased public interest in art, and more money for art education in the schools, Gottlieb thinks "the market is coming towards us."