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Home ownership—every American's dream—is increasingly a reality. According to a report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, the U.S. last year saw a boom in home buying, as Americans rushed to lock in advantageous mortgage rates and beat out ever-climbing prices. Today, 69% of Americans own, a record high.

This boom in home buying has been followed by a boom in home improvement. Home owners, after all, are more likely to do work on their residences than renters are. And with real estate prices soaring for 13 straight years, many new home owners are left "house-poor" after they turn over their down payments, forcing them to handle renovations on their own. In a June 2005 report, the nonprofit Home Improvement Research Institute projected that 2005 sales of home improvement products would hit a record $281 billion.

As a result of both booms, the potential audience for home improvement and decorating books has expanded, but it has also undergone a demographic shift.

As Clarkson Potter publisher Lauren Shakely puts it, "Every time you go broader, you go more middle-class and less elite. There are just more people at that level in the pyramid." Publishers are working hard to find their footing in a shifting category.

Complicating that task further is a new demand among consumers at all income levels for good design. Call it the "Target effect," after the chain that offers high-style, low-cost merchandise designed by the likes of Michael Graves and Todd Oldham.

"In the last decade, design has become a much more broadly recognized measure of value," says Abrams editor-in-chief Eric Himmel. "Design is no longer foreign or removed," agrees CollinsDesign publisher Marta Schooler.

Consumers' new eye for style means no more cookie-cutter houses. Gibbs Smith's editorial director, Suzanne Taylor, says today's home buyers "want to incorporate great design, but they want to be different. They won't go to the subdivision and buy plan three and be happy with that."

As if those demands aren't enough, consumers don't want style to come at too high a price, either. Jim Childs, book publisher for Taunton Press, says, "People want great design, but they don't want to be eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner forever to pay for it."

The Rich Are Different

The larger pool of home owners has altered home improvement and home decoration publishing just as surely as knocking down a wall changes the structure of a house.

Where once this category was awash in luxury, today it is highly practical. The balance has shifted from high-end coffee-table books to hands-on paperbacks that often have the added advantage of being stocked by Costco and Lowe's or, as in the case of Sunset's Lowe's series, are branded by them. Nitty-gritty technique books such as Jeannine Dostal's Spectacular Walls!: Creative Effects Using Texture, Embellishment and Paint, coming from F+W in October, are pushing designer-perfect interiors off the shrinking shelf.

Economical methods and efficient use of smaller spaces are natural topics. Witness Taunton's Not So Big House series by Sarah Susanka. The original title, The Not So Big House, published in 1998, has sold 400,000 copies in cloth and paperback. Outside the Not So Big House: Creating the Landscape of Home,with Julie Moir Messervy, publishing in February 2006, will be Susanka's fifth Taunton title in seven years. All continue to sell briskly, with several holding spots on's home design bestseller lists.

Overall, says Clarkson Potter's Shakely, today's books reach for "a broader demographic than the lifestyle book of the past, which was a $40 or $50 book on a fancier style."

In February, Clarkson Potter will publish Lisa Quinn's $500 Room Makeovers.Quinn, a spokesperson for Ikea, World Market, Kelly-Moore Paints and Mercedes-Benz and a regular on a local San Francisco television show, is typical of today's multitentacled home design authors, and her $22.50 paperback original is typical of the economically minded titles publishers are producing today.

Even houses like Stewart, Tabori & Chang, known for lush coffee-table books, are approaching this newly constituted audience of less-flush home owners with titles like Brini Maxwell's Guide to Gracious Living: Tips, Tricks, Recipes and Ideas to Make Your Life Bloom, a $19.95 paperback by the cross-dressing host of The Brini Maxwell Show on the Style Network.

STC publisher Leslie Stoker says, "We are trying to diversify our list and offer books to both the younger market of first-time home owners as well as to our traditional market, who buy our big, gorgeous style books."

Himmel at Abrams calls the photo books "aspirational books," meaning titles that dangle visions of luxury before readers, as represented by the Slim Aarons photography book Once Upon a Time(2003), which scored an 18-page serial in Vanity Fairand will be followed up by A Place in the Sunin December. The audience for these paeans to the good life, says Himmel, are well-off Vanity Fairand New Yorkerreaders.

But, he cautions, "I don't think one can do a lot of books like that. The market has evolved toward more practical books. We have a very pluralistic program. We're also the company that published Marisa Bartolucci's Living Large in Small Spaces[2003],a paperback."

When publisher Jill Cohen arrived at illustrated book publisher Bulfinch in 2002, she recalls, the house was publishing books on "la vie en roseand la dolce vita—and nobody wanted them."

Today, says Cohen, "Bulfinch is still very upmarket. We don't do the trade paperback stuff and we shy away from TV tie-ins." But books about the work of contemporary designers like Jamie Drake (Jamie Drake's New American Glamour, Oct.) and Kelly Hoppen (Kelly Hoppen's Style, 2004), with a cleaner aesthetic, are "the homes people want to look at right now," according to Cohen.

Come As You Are

In general, there's a new casual style afoot in American homes, which is naturally reflected in books. In 1999, the New York Timespublished an article titled "The Last Gasp for the American Living Room," which reported that Americans were rejecting formal living rooms (which largely went unused) in favor of "great rooms"—combination living rooms/dining rooms/family rooms that also serve as media centers. These are the kinds of rooms featured in Relaxed Living Home Plans,a $6.95 paperback that Reader's Digest will offer in February.

Bunny Williams is a decorator with more than 30 years' experience and the author of An Affair with a House(Stewart, Tabori & Chang, Nov.), about her own beautifully restored 18th-century abode in New England. She now recommends that clients locate their televisions in their living rooms, showing that this room has returned to being prime space for entertainment.

"People live more casually these days," says Williams. "Look how people dress—you go to the theater and people are there in their exercise clothes. Living more formally takes effort, and a lot of people don't have the help."

Katie Brown hosts a show on A&E and another on Lifetime Real Women and writes a syndicated column, "Domestic Dilemmas." Her third book, Katie Brown's Weekends: Making the Most of Your Two Treasured Days(Bulfinch, Oct.), includes instructions for creating a lemonade stand with children and crafting fabric wall hangings—things that, as she points out, a previous generation of women would have learned from their mothers, not from the pages of a book.

The 42-year-old Brown observes of her generation, "Our lifestyle is more busy, so it has to be more casual. Houses are truly reflections of what's going on in our society at the time. With extended families, the high divorce rate, families just aren't as rigid as they used to be."

Design Is Not Wasted on the Young

Part of the newly democratized home-buyer market consists of young people—although not in the numbers one might expect. The average age of the first-time home buyer is actually climbing slightly because of the high cost of real estate.

But while young people are no more likely to purchase homes than they used to be, they are more likely to pick up hammer and nails once they do. According to Childs of Taunton Press, the bulk of do-it-yourselfers are between 28 and 42, simply because people in that age range often can't afford to pay others to do the work for them.

But young people aren't just doing it themselves out of necessity—they're learning to like it. Young women have already transformed knitting from a granny's hobby to a hip pastime, as evidenced by sales of the Stitch 'n' Bitchbooks published by Workman (the original has 215,000 copies in print). With a similar attitude toward DIY, the bimonthly magazine ReadyMade has attracted 300,000 readers (the magazine's press kit describes them as "smart, upwardly mobile, urban-minded and environmentally conscious") since its December 2001 debut.

In December of this year, Clarkson Potter will publish ReadyMade: How to Make (Almost) Everything: A Do-It-Yourself Primerby the magazine's publishers, Shoshana Berger and Grace Hawthorne.The projects in ReadyMade—a wall mural of empty CD jewel cases and a shoe-box shoji screen—are proudly homemade, and the book itself is a practical object, with a ruler built into the cover.

Indeed, young people are now so well-versed in home improvement that there are even tongue-in-cheek takes on the subject for them, such as Voltaire's Paint It Black: A Guide to Gothic Homemaking(Red Wheel Weiser, Oct.), a five-by-eight-inch hardcover with black pages that covers creative uses of black spray paint ("Coat just about any commonplace object with it and you are nine-tenths of the way to making said object look Goth") and black electrical tape.

Likewise, Josh Amatore Hughes's Punk Shui: Home Design for Anarchists(Three Rivers Press, Apr. 2006) stands as a home decor guide for those "who seek a punk-ass lifestyle."

But selling home improvement books to the young is no joke. Perigee senior editor Michelle Howry has zeroed in on single women home buyers as a potential market for chick-lit—style nonfiction titles like Julia Bourland's Twigs: The Go-Girl Guide to Nesting(Oct.), a $14.95 paperback. Perigee also published Vanessa Summers's Buying Solo: The Single Woman's Guide to Buying a First Home(Mar. 2005) and Howry recently acquired Remodel This!,a woman's guide to supervising renovations. Howry points to a recent study by the National Association of Realtors that showed that 21% of homes purchased in 2003 were bought by single women.

I Want My HGTV

Home improvement shows have proliferated madly since Trading Spacesbecame a breakout hit in 2000, and the popularity of these new takes on This Old Housecontinues to pressure the category in a more accessible direction.

"The TV shows have brought the whole notion of designing your home to a much wider audience," Clarkson Potter's Shakely says. "Maybe in the past those people didn't realize you could do more than buy a living room suite or matching bedroom furniture."

Just as the Food Network has significantly altered the cookbook landscape, the 11-year-old HGTV cable channel has changed the field of home decor. Its impact on publishing has not, however, been as great as the impact of the Food Network on the cookbook category ("Video Made the Cookbook Star," PW, Mar. 21, 2005).

The reasons have less to do with differences between the networks—both owned by Scripps Media—than with differences between cookbooks and home improvement books.

Cohen of Bulfinch points out that "most decorating books sell 20,000, 40,000 or 50,000 copies, maybe 100,000 copies if a book is a huge success. Sales are more modest than for cookbooks." She believes that this is due to the nature of the activities: "People are cooking a meal every day, but they're not redecorating their house all the time."

As a result, says Cohen, "It's high risk chasing these hit shows. Some work and some don't. Plus, when they're a hit show, they want a lot of money up front. If the book doesn't sell half a million copies, it doesn't pay out."

As with Food Network books (i.e., those "authored" by the Food Network, not the cookbooks by individual hosts like Ina Garten and Rachael Ray), Meredith has the right of first refusal with HGTV books. Todd Davis, Meredith's executive director of new business development, says that all the HGTV-branded books "are performing at a level greater than that of the average decorating book."

He acknowledges that HGTV does not have the same instant-bestseller impact as the Food Network does, but says sales are certainly "buoyed" by the association with the cable network; HGTV serves as a "very strong promotional partner" with advertising both on the channel itself and on its Web site,, where the books can be purchased. The titles Curb Appeal,on exteriors and landscaping,and Designed to Sell,with tips on spiffing up a home in order to unload it, are due out in January 2006.

Meredith had its first taste of the power of television when it published Trading Spaces Behind the Scenesback in 2003. That was followed by six additional Trading Spaces titles in quick succession. Davis reports that more than 250,000 units have shipped for each title.

But Trading Spacesisn't even on HGTV—it belongs to TLC. That's another reason HGTV isn't nearly as all-powerful as the Food Network—it's not alone. There are now home improvement programs on numerous cable channels, as well as ABC, with Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

Television is "the elephant in the room," says Himmel at Abrams, noting that publishing as a whole is focusing on authors with name recognition, whether from television or elsewhere, in order to combat the shrinking space available in stores. "Because of consolidation of the retail trade, the account base is smaller. It's much harder to create books that will have an independent life of their own," he says.

It's Not a Gas

Of course, sales of home improvement and decorating books do not exist in a vacuum. The category is not exempt from the general malaise afflicting the book market.

The category did remain somewhat immune to the economic downturn that followed September 11, 2001, remaining healthier than most, as Americans curtailed their travel and redirected their disposable income to their houses (as PW reported in "Cocooning Trend Generates Cautious Optimism" Dec. 3, 2001).

Sales of books that tapped into the then-current desire for stability and fierce patriotism may even have benefited from the uncertainty of that time: Jim Childs recalls that Taunton published Dale Mulfinger and Susan E. Davis's The Cabin: Inspiration for the Classic American Getaway two weeks before 9/11, and eventually sold 100,000 copies in hardcover.

Today's economic woes, however, are harder to overcome. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have not inspired the same nesting instinct that 9/11 did and, more crucially, they have driven up the cost of gas to such a degree that shoppers are hesitant even to leave the house. After Katrina, the Consumer Confidence Index in August hit its lowest point in more than 10 years—lower than the figure reached in September 2001.

"Cost of fuel is a huge concern for mainstream people," says Taylor of Gibbs Smith. That house hopes a renewed interest in conservation will lift sales of its "green" titles, such as Jennifer Roberts's Redux: Designs That Reuse,Recycle, and Reveal and Lori Ryker's Off theGrid: Modern Homes + Alternative Energy (both Oct.).

But don't bet the glue gun on it. "You're talking about $3-a-gallon gas," says Taunton's Childs. "Are people's feet taking them into retail venues? Are they going to feel confident dropping 70 or 80 bucks on a couple of books? Even with the housing and home improvement boom, I don't see that changing."

For a listing of forthcoming home improvement and decorating titles, see

Home Sweet Homicide Home improvement is often declared murderous—especially by the growing number of do-it-yourselfers. But Sarah Graves, author of Bantam's Home Repair Is Homicide mystery series, takes the expression literally. In the nine books in Graves's series (the latest, Nail Biter, is due in December), Jacobia "Jake" Tiptree solves mysteries while repairing her historic house in Eastport, Maine.
Graves herself lives in a nearly 200-year-old Federal white clapboard house in Eastport, Maine, a town that has about 2,000 residents at the peak of summer, she estimates.
Bantam executive editor Kate Miciak, who acquired the series at around the same time she acquired a 250-year-old house herself, says the growing interest in home renovations has spurred sales: "All of a sudden everyone's poring over paint chips."
The series moved from paperback to hardcover with the 2001 title Wreck the Halls, and Miciak says sales have grown with each new title. The unusual home repair angle—the books feature practical tips set off in boxes—has garnered attention for the books off the book pages and has opened up some new retail sales channels as well.
"Wadsworth's Hardware on Water Street here in Eastport, which is the country's oldest ship chandlery, started carrying the books this summer, and they've sold 200 already," Graves reports.
—Natalie Danford