In the fall of 1998, the British art book publisher Phaidon made a splash with Cream, an unusual collection of the work of 100 of the "best" contemporary artists from around the world. The cleanly designed coffee-table book was an authoritative guide to contemporary art, chosen by 10 cutting-edge curators and accompanied by commentary from 10 prominent international writers. Phaidon launched it with gala parties, gallery exhibitions and heady panel discussions in London and New York. A year later, its successor, Fresh Cream, turned heads with an innovative package, presenting each large, rectangular volume inside an inflated air pillow.

Now, Phaidon has applied a similar formula to Blink: 100 Photographers 010 Curators 010 Writers (May), which coincides with a related exhibition in London. As stylish and timely as its predecessors, Blink presents the work of such contemporary photographers as Philip-Lorca Dicorcia, Rineke Dijkstra and Carrie Mae Weems, along with short, accessible critical essays. In New York, more than 400 people turned out at the spacious Deitch Gallery in SoHo to hear photographers Tina Barney, Ike Ude and moderator Cheryl Kaplan discuss the book.

"We've done well with this concept," said Mary Albi, director of sales and marketing at Phaidon. "We've built a reputation in photography books, so the release of this new book has attracted attention." Albi isn't exaggerating. When asked to comment on Phaidon's publishing program, retailers around the country sound as though they've been stage-managed by Phaidon owner Richard Schlagman himself. "Beautiful books," "great design" and "reasonably priced" were just a few of the comments that booksellers offered to PW.

"We love Phaidon," said Robert Barrett, manager of Los Angeles's Hennessey + Ingalls art and architecture bookstore. "They have hot-looking books that stand out—and sell." In Barrett's view, the house distinguishes itself from the competition by being "very aggressive, publishing books on contemporary artists that customers are asking about, as well as on cutting-edge architecture, photography and design. Their books on contemporary artists are informative, well thought out and beautiful. No one else does these kinds of books as well."

Despite reports that the art book market is in a slump, Barrett said that in the past few months, business has been "surprisingly good. Just when you think things are getting grim, something like Phaidon's Andy Warhol Catalog Raisonne shows up. That's just a great book." Albi agreed with Barrett that "the art market has been taking a beating since the dot-com bust at the end of 2000," and said that "2001 was a ratty year for us." But she also noted that sales have been better than predicted in the last three months. Though reluctant to divulge exact sales figures, Albi told PW the house had achieved "six-figure" sales for titles such as Century, The Art Book, The Photo Book and others in its series of giant omnibuses. The house has also done well with photographer Steve McCurry's Portraits, which includes his famous National Geographic cover image of an Afghan girl with a transfixing green-eyed stare.

The just released Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonne 01, edited by Georg Frei and Neil Printz, is the first of a monumental, full-color, seven- or eight-volume catalogue of the complete works of the pop art master. By the end of the year, Phaidon will also publish a currently untitled work by photographer Nan Goldin, one of the house's bestselling artists. New works are also arriving in the popular series Art and Ideas, Themes and Movements and 55.

The 55 series of small handbooks on classic and contemporary photographers, priced at $7.95 each, has become a bookseller favorite. Among its selling points is the wide range of artists included (Walker Evans, W. Eugene Smith and Nan Goldin, among many others) and the expandable 120-copy display rack that Phaidon supplies free of charge to stores. With 30 books already published in the series, and 12 new titles coming this year, many booksellers find the spinner rack an important selling tool. "Phaidon's books sell well across the board, but the only way these would work in our store is on the rack," said Peggy Hailey, head buyer at Book People in Austin, Tex. Borders spokesperson Ann Binkley said the chain uses the display rack in "select stores. But the titles sell very well with or without the fixture." So far, the house has distributed about 2,000 racks, according to Phaidon publicity director Amanda Mendoza.

When retailers do complain about Phaidon, they practically apologize for doing so. Gigi Loizzo, director of retail operations at the International Center of Photography bookstore in New York City, cited a lack of advertising, co-op and marketing support. But she and others quickly added that Phaidon's books are distinguished by trend-setting subject matter, high production values and accessible texts, as well as the house's customer service.

"We don't advertise. We're not trying to buy our way into the market," said Albi. "But we're aggressive about sending our authors on tour. " She also emphasized the importance of Phaidon's six sales reps—"they're experts, they know the books and the competition"—and its distribution, which the house handles itself with a staff of 15 at its Harrisburg, Pa., warehouse. With about 17 employees in its New York City office, Phaidon publishes about 50 books a year. Half of them are initiated from the U.K. headquarters and half from the U.S. office, said commissioning editor Karen Stein. "Some are very specialized, some general. We're not after instant hits. We publish for a long shelf life."

"We can't be all things to all people," said Albi. "But we've learned that if you invest enough in the right details, in great editorial, high production values, paper and pricing, then the books can really sell themselves."