Thirty years ago it was a simple thing to spot a promotional bargain book. You went to your local bookstore and looked on the sale table for any 128-page volume whose title began with the words The All Color Book of... Then you filled in the blank with anything ranging from puppies to garden flowers to shore birds to tanks of World War II. And since the books often came direct from packagers in the United Kingdom with little or no editing for the American market, more often than not you could expect color to be spelled with a u —The All Colour Book of American Cookery.

The bargain world has changed considerably during the intervening decades, and perhaps radically since the turn of the century. Wendy Friedman, president of North American and South American sales for the U.K-based Parragon Books offers a definition of the promotional book that still largely holds true. She calls them "highly illustrated books sold for the correct retail price"—usually about half the price of a comparable trade book.

But at the same time, a promotional and bargain book has become more difficult to spot. It could be a copy of Moby-Dick or The Complete Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy produced for the bargain market. Dictionaries, whether pocket-size or doorstoppers, may be bargain productions. Licensed titles ranging from Disney Princess to Nascar are regularly found on bargain tables, along with journals, sketchbooks and even the Bible. And thanks to more sophisticated editing, digital technology and better color printing, those slender All Color Book of... titles have morphed into more authoritative volumes that take an encyclopedic approach to their subject matter.

Most of the sources that offered bargain titles to the retail trade in the latter decades of the 20th century have gone away, but there are still two houses, Random House Value and Book Sales, which boast an impressive longevity. If you consider Random House Value Publishing as the current incarnation of Outlet Books, begun in 1933 by Nat Wartels and Bob Simon, it has by far the longest presence in the bargain business. It's currently headed by David Naggar, who reports that they now produce 10 to 15 books per season—"Our emphasis is on licensing unique product and developing titles ourselves." He also oversees an impressive backlist of around 500 titles—Gray's Anatomy has been available since the 1960s, and The Complete Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has been in print for 20 years. In their omnibus series that brings together three novels by a popular author, writers like Dean Koontz and Rosamunde Pilcher have lately been joined by Sue Grafton and Terry Brooks, while many others have left the list. And since Value titles can be combined with all other Random House imprints, the books can make their way into bookstores of any size.

Book Sales, which has been in operation since 1964, offers a wide range of remainder titles mixed with packages and reprints. Certain titles, like The Treasured Writings of Kahlil Gibran and the Strand edition of Sherlock Holmes, have been with them almost since the beginning. Other titles have been a surprise. President and CEO Melvin Shapiro was against The Art of Blacksmithing when Frank Oppel, his v-p of marketing and acquisitions, suggested it. Shapiro recalls, "I said, 'Are you crazy? Where are you going to find a blacksmith?' " The book has been in print for 15 years.

Shapiro and Oppel concur that the secret is to keep the formats fresh. "We still deal with the basic food groups," says Oppel. "History stays strong. New Age was down, but now it's back to some degree." Book Sales also has a long list of art instruction titles and a recent hit with The Guitar Chord Bible, a book that also benefits from the fact that it will never need updating.

When Parragon entered the U.S. market in 2001, it warehoused 60 titles in the States. Today that number is closer to 1,500 and, thanks to licensing agreements with Disney and Bratz, this year it will add 500—600 new products. Cooking of every possible variety and children's titles remain the company's bread and butter, with pricing that starts as low as $1 and seldom goes above $15.98. Parragon is increasing both its range of substantial reference books aimed at teens and its commitment to Spanish-language and bilingual titles.

Distribution Issues

Just how available the range of bargain titles remains to smaller retailers is an underlying issue in the promotional market. In addition to the companies already noted, Abrams maintains the Abradale series of bargain reprints of earlier editions that can be bought along with regular trade titles. In a similar vein, Taschen America has kept active the Taschen 25 list originally created to celebrate that company's first 25 years in publishing. By reformatting some of its earlier bestselling titles, it's been able to offer each season a new range of bargain books at about half their original price. This season brings a two-volume Dalí book at $49.98, and the Leonardo title that was originally a successful $200 item is now $59.98 in a reduced format. Most Taschen 25 titles remain under $20.

The Texas Bookman has a list dominated by remainders, but for more than 10 years has mixed in a range of promotional books done as coproductions with publishers in the States, the U.K. and India. A weakened dollar has forced the Texas Bookman to discontinue some of the lines they were bringing in, but they still do two versions of a Spanish-English dictionary in addition to Spanish Step by Step , which has sold more than 100,000 copies since 1995. Partnering with Roli Books in Delhi, the company brings in blank journals in a variety of styles that sell for $3.98 and $4.98. "The thing we can publish ourselves and do the best with," admits general manager Robert Wilkie, "are books without words in them."

Daedalus Books in Columbia, Md., has recently entered into promotional reprinting in a joint venture with George Braziller. According to Tamara Stock, director of wholesale operations, "George Braziller called and said, 'I have great books that I cannot do again at my prices, why not go in on a reprint.' " So far Daedalus has done Hiroshige's One Hundred Famous Views of Edo and Odilon Redon: Pastels; both were originally $85 hardbacks that are now $39.98. The success of these two titles has generated a potential list of four more for 2008.

Several overseas promotional packagers are not set up to handle smaller accounts, although both Hinkler in Australia and Igloo from the U.K. are exploring the possibility of opening U.S. warehouses. Black Dog & Leventhal in New York started as a promotional house in 1993, but has now gone almost strictly trade. Some titles from its Tess Press proprietary line may make it to other wholesalers on a title-by-title basis, but generally the company announces a title, builds a print run, sells it through and doesn't hold inventory.

At a couple of other houses the minimums may be high, but the low prices and the desirability of licensed children's product makes the product attractive to smaller retailers. Modern Publishing, which has been in business for 40 years, has a mix of licensed and original children's titles at prices ranging from as low as $1.98. The emphasis is on educational and activity books, and for many years they have done well with Fisher-Price tie-ins. This year new products include a line based around the phenomenally popular Disney title High School Musical. Bendon Books, a more recent entry into the children's activity market, has since 2002 offered Disney titles, Garfield and a rotating list of other licenses. This year new franchises include the NBA and The Littlest Pet Shop. Their $1,000 minimum order may be high for small retailers, but the title mix must be tempting. In 2008, Spider-Man and Scooby-Doo will join the line.

The exact size of the promotional bargain business is difficult to judge. Most annual bestseller lists don't take into account promotional titles, though Parragon's Wendy Friedman notes that her company has had titles that could have made a top-50 list. Over the years many standard titles from Random House Value, Book Sales and Parragon have certainly sold in the millions, and larger companies can have annual bestsellers that outperform trade bestsellers but never get the recognition.

And what holds true on the vendors' end is also almost certainly true for retailers. Can a well-placed stack of High School Musical activity books or the Guitar Chord Bible generate sales that compete with or top the majority of trade titles? And unlike remainders or hurt titles, successful promotional books have the added appeal of seldom going out of stock and of keeping up with changes in taste. Low fat gave way to low carb; Pilates and "the ball" replaced yoga; and when little girls across America lose interest in their Littlest Pet Shop toys, some enterprising promotional packager will be ready with a tie-in to the next fad.