Abrams is flaunting its age. The publisher, turning 60 this year, is marking the occasion with a newly designed Web site, launched last month, as well as a sleeker new name. Formerly known as Harry N. Abrams or HNA Inc., the company will now be simply called Abrams. As president and CEO Michael Jacobs explains, “Abrams is both our historical and current brand identity and what better time to emphasize it than while we're celebrating our 60th anniversary.” The company has also unveiled a new logo to reflect the name change, which will appear on the updated Web site and on all companywide signage.
Founded by Harry N. Abrams in 1949 with $100,000 in capital, Abrams was the first U.S. publisher to specialize in art and illustrated books, and its new site underscores how much the company has grown and diversified beyond that initial focus. The site is organized according to the publisher's core categories, which include art, photography, craft, food and wine, graphic arts, sports and children's books, as well as by imprints (Abrams; Stewart, Tabori & Chang; STC Craft/Melanie Falick Books; Amulet Books; Abrams Books for Young Readers; and the newer Abrams Image and just launched Abrams ComicArts).
All publishers are facing daunting issues, but for a high-end illustrated publisher, it's that much more critical to adapt in order to survive. For Abrams, associated by many with glossy, expensive coffee-table books, survival means a shift in focus, as well as a more finely honed (read: smaller) list. Once putting out around 125 books a year, the flagship imprint is now down to about 85 (although Abrams Image, a newer imprint with a certain amount of crossover, generates 20 a year). Over the past five years, says Jacobs, “We've looked under the hood a bit” to accomplish “what we needed to do to make the business profitable.” Changing Abrams' mix to include other kinds of books—kids', crafts and cooking have given more balance to the program, putting it on a firmer financial footing. Owned by the French La Martinière Groupe, Abrams doesn't disclose sales figures, but Jacobs says it has grown significantly in the past three years and has been steadily profitable for a longer period.
A big part of the company's financial turnaround has come from the children's side. The publisher launched Abrams Books for Young Readers in 1999, and the middle-grade Amulet in 2004. “It's been the fastest-growing segment of our business,” Jacobs says. The windfall of the Wimpy Kid series, which has sold 16 million copies in the U.S. alone, gives some sense of how important the children's initiative has been for Abrams, but Jacobs says the impact at the publisher has been cultural as well as financial. The children's program propelled the company's evolution by bringing a “whole new set of talented people in,” says Jacobs, and this influx of new perspectives “re-energized the company. We're younger in spirit,” he says. At the very least, the success of the children's program has made the publisher more open to opportunity.
Just before joining Abrams in 2004, Jacobs had put in seven years at Scholastic, a sign that Abrams took its expansion into the children's market seriously. At the same time, a huge proportion of Abrams' audience remained baby boomers, so it was critical not to abandon those readers, Jacobs notes. With titles like the successful 2006 Abrams Image hit, Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar, Abrams demonstrated that it still knew how to connect with the parents of its new target demographic.
The first Wimpy Kid title was published in 2007, after one of Abrams' editors on the adult side, Charlie Kochman, discovered author Jeff Kinney at Comic-Con. Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which evolved out of the work on Kinney's Web site and material on Funbrain.com, has now gone on to generate two additional titles as well as a DIY book, with the fourth book in the series due out in October; a fifth, unscheduled, title is under contract. The series has become a global phenomenon, with rights selling in 30 countries; the books are now bestsellers in Australia, Germany and Israel, and are “gaining traction” in the U.K. And the Wimpy Kid movie is due out from Fox sometime next year.
Abrams' relatively small size—it employs about 100 people—works to the publisher's advantage, says Jacobs. “We're selective about what we do. We can be more focused from the start than general trade.” The closely curated list is attractive to authors as well. “We attract people to the kids' list because of its size,” says Jacobs. “It's 60 books a year, not 200.” Abrams' size can make it more flexible than a larger organization—adult editor Kochman could acquire and edit the Jeff Kinney books, for example. And as with the Kinney, the house is able to generate a number of projects directly from its established constituencies in the art and photography worlds, another way it controls its own list. “We generate projects ourselves; we approach artists ourselves,“ says Jacobs. A good number of books on the Abrams list aren't agented, which can also keep costs down; while the kinds of advances Abrams pays vary, Jacobs says they're not “the biggest.” The house would rather direct its capital toward production and marketing.
It's a misperception that Abrams titles are all $70 coffee-table books. Abrams hardcovers tend to start at about $25, with most titles falling in the “sweet spot” of $30—$40; the books in the $65—$80 range are the exception. The majority of those expensive titles are either published around the holidays, with their built-in gift market, or in the spring, giving the publicity department the rest of the year to work on the title. Platform is the crucial issue at that price point, not only because of price-conscious consumers but because retailers are reluctant to take on a lot of expensive inventory unless they're confident they can move copies. Still, 60 years of experience means Abrams knows how to publish these books well. Last fall's Vanity Fair: The Portraits, retailing for $65, sold over 50,000 copies. “It was the right demographic, marketing platform, market-to-price ratio,” explains Jacobs.
Another adult title Jacobs touted as representative of the new Abrams list is Eric Sanderson's illustrated Manahatta: A Natural History of New York City, which just shipped. Published to coincide with the quadricentennial of New York City on September 12, the book, which reconstructs in words and images what the city looked like 400 years ago, will tie in to an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York that opens on May 12. Manahatta, at $40, falls within Abrams' target price point.
In spite of the challenges of publishing and selling books in 2009, Jacobs remains optimistic. “Even within these difficult times, I'm feeling like we're pretty vibrant,” he says. Sixty years later, the company may be taking some inspiration from founder Harry N. Abrams, who began his publishing career during the early years of the Depression, and whose career was defined by innovation and resourcefulness. Harry, who gained a foothold in publishing at an ad agency that handled Doubleday and S&S accounts, moved to Book-of-the-Month Club before founding his own company, along the way beginning a greeting card operation and subsequently selling it to Hallmark. Today, Jacobs says, “We have to look for every opportunity.”
It seems that the publisher has done just that. In the past 10 years, aside from its children's ventures, the company acquired the reference imprint Stewart, Tabori & Chang in 2000 and launched Abrams Image in 2006. And it remains open to change—to a point. “Too many new things can be distracting,” says Jacobs. The dominant philosophy, he says, is “doing new things in the context of things you do well.” Trying something as a one-off isn't frowned upon, but more critical is to “get stronger in strong categories,” while maybe taking the foot off the pedal in less successful categories. So that means full speed ahead on kids and crafts, and looking for more series and franchise-building opportunities at Amulet. At the same time, Jacobs plans to tighten the focus of each imprint's list even further. Abrams imprints now produce around 250 titles a year, down from 300 several years ago, and Jacobs would like to get it down to 225, then 200, the idea being to “publish smarter” and “focus attention on what we're doing.”
Speaking to the new tagline that accompanies the redesigned corporate logo—“the art of books since 1949”—the implication is clear. The company's goal and raison d'être—whether in the area of art, craft or self-help—is to produce artful books, what Jacobs deems “beautiful books in a great tradition, but younger in spirit.” Given the revitalized ethos of the company, Jacobs says Abrams is as “young as it's ever been.”