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Price Is No Obstacle
Calvin Reid -- 7/31/00
Several art book publishers are finding that
content can outweigh even a hefty price tag

Art book publishers are accustomed to selling books with high price points, but in recent years several art, and photography titles have done very well at prices--often $100 or more--that haven't limited their appeal to rare book dealers and art history professors.

Sharon Gallagher, president of Distributed Art Publishers, a distributor specializing in museum and college stores, told PW, "While there is a trend toward promotional pricing and packaging for illustrated books, we've experienced a growing market for high-end books in the $50-$150 price range." To prove her point, Gallagher singled out two "extremely successful" backlist titles, both from Scalo Press: Robert Frank: Moving Out ($80), a photographic retrospective catalogue (copublished by the National Gallery of Art), and I'll Be Your Mirror ($70), a career-documenting collection of work by photographer Nan Goldin (copublished with the Whitney Museum). "We are finding a growing market of book collectors, people who collect rare books and frontlist titles produced in collaboration with the artist," said Gallagher. "These are books that can be considered art objects themselves."
Passages is the less expensive
follow-up to a $150 bestseller.
The most extreme example of the trend is Helmut Newton's SUMO, published in January by Taschen, a $1,500 (that's right), card-table-sized (it comes with its own stand), 480-page collection of elegantly kinky photographs. Another example is Abrams's publication last November of African Ceremonies, a $150, two-volume, boxed set with more than 850 color images by photographers Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher. The two spent 10 years documenting the vanishing rituals and ceremonial practices of African societies, Abrams CEO Paul Gottlieb told PW, andthe book is also intended as something of a tribute to the scope of the artists' life work (this is their fifth book). Gottlieb had expected the title to sell a dignified number of copies to specialists and libraries, but a combination of timely media praise and enthusiasm from African-American buyers and Internet retailers swept the book to #9 on the Amazon.com list within weeks of its release. Abrams was out of its 25,000-copy first printing by Christmas. "I've never seen anything like it," said Gottlieb.
The book currently has 65,000 copies in print after four printings, with a fifth on the way. Gottlieb is quick to note that this is special book, lavishly produced and filled with gripping visual subject matter. "It's an exception," he said. "It d sn't mean there's a market for expensive books, it means there's a market for good books in the right format." To coincide with a current exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art--and partly to counter the imposing price point of African Ceremonies---Abrams copublished Passages: Photographs in Africa by Beckwith and Fisher with the museum. Passages is a smaller, more conventionally priced ($24.95), softcover collection of photos excerpted from the original book.

While Gottlieb is correct--Ceremonies is an exception--British art book publisher Phaidon discovered that it, too, had an exceptional, pricey title that was ringing up surprising sales. Earlier this year, Phaidon published Inferno, an oversized, somberly designed collection of 382 extraordinarily moving black-and-white photographs by the award-winning photojournalist James Nachtwey. Since its arrival in the stores in March, the $125 book has been selling--and selling extremely well, according to Phaidon, which d s not release exact figures. Inferno is not a collection of pretty pictures. One of the premier war photographers of his generation, Nachtwey has documented an international array of human misery and social disintegration with images from assignments in Bosnia, Rwanda, Zaire, Chechnya, Kosovo and Romania.
The subjects of a noted photojournalist
attracted attention--and sales.
Several factors converged to help make this book successful, according to Julia J rn, Phaidon's publicity director. First, she said, Nachtwey, who is also a Time photographer, was at a "turning point in his career" and about to become famous outside of his profession. In May, his work was the featured exhibit at the International Center for Photography, and the book's grim subject matter and his disturbingly elegant portrayal made headlines everywhere. And there was one other factor: an Oprah appearance. "We got a spike in sales after that," said J rn.
Inferno also benefited from an author tour--uncommon with art books. "James is charismatic and moving about his work, and we decided to get him out there," said Mary Albi, v-p of sales and marketing. "Phaidon d sn't usually do that." It launched the book as part of the Phaidon Photographers series, meet-the-author events hosted by Barnes & Noble, and then sent him on a speaking tour to human-rights organizations and colleges around the country. "In the face of its content, the book took off," said Albi, "Independents, chain buyers--they all wanted the book."

Art publishing newcomer William Arnett hopes that content will continue to prevail over price for the October release of Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South ($99.50), Arnett, a lifelong art collector based in Atlanta, Ga., became frustrated with mainstream publishers and launched his own publishing house, Tinwood Books, at this year's BEA. Tinwood's premier title is produced in association with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the New York Public Library and documents the art-making traditions of rural, southern black folk artists--a legacy Arnett told PW is vanishing.

John Brancati, v-p and general manager of Rizzoli Bookstores, pointed out that his stores attract just the right clientele for these books, and he cited strong sales for many of them. "Photography books sell if the photographer has a following; fashion is similar," he said. "It's also very seasonal, with a lot of sales in the fourth quarter. But gift books sell well year-round." He said backlist titles, such Asbury Webers's Chop Suey Club ($65) and The Best of Flair, a boxed set facsimile of the 1950s fashion magazine published by Rizzoli Books in 1999 for $250, show the viability of art books despite the high price point. This fall he will be watching Giorgio Armani (Abrams), a lavishly produced $75 book copublished with the Guggenheim Museum, which opens its Armani exhibit on October 13.

In an era of e-books and digital delivery, DAP's Gallagher suggested that perhaps grandly presented print works seem even more precious. "The paper-and-ink book, when well-conceived and produced, has a new role to play and a new life as an art object in its own right."
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