The world of art and photography books is one of lushly illustrated and exciting titles, many of which are expensive, too. PW recently asked buyers at five bookstores specializing in art and photography titles to comment on the latest trends in this category and their predictions for the future.

Sean Halpert, senior book buyer for the store at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, notes, “Museum bookselling is different, thrilling, and odd. Depending upon your shows, you can have Christmas-like selling four or more times a year. We are the conduit to the [museum’s] collection, and we try to support every show, every event, every curatorial department, and our demographic is all over the place. We have to please many masters and make it look seamless.”

As with most museum stores, the museum’s own publications are perennially popular. “The upcoming Museum of Fine Arts list is very exciting,” Halpert promises, “with books on Sargent watercolors, Goya, Jamie Wyeth, and hippie chic.” Non-museum titles currently selling well include Lewis Hine (D.A.P., Jan.) and Robert Adams: The Place We Live (Yale, 2011).

And while Halpert reports that the store also orders “large stacks of other museums’ major exhibition catalogues,” he believes it’s the “quirky gems” he seeks out that keep customers coming back to the store. “I’m not going to lie,” Halpert admits. “I am very excited about Abrams’s upcoming book on Julia Child and her cats [Minette’s Feast, May]. Talk about a natural for any New England bookstore, but especially the MFA Boston where we did many events with Julia and, well, if you don’t carry good cat books you might as well call it a day. We carried The French Cat [2011] from Stewart, Tabori & Chang in the Degas nudes exhibition shop and sold several hundred copies.”

Has the economy had an impact? “Certainly,” says Halpert. “Book sales in a museum are discretionary anyway. After admission, parking, and lunch, people may still have some money for a souvenir or a postcard, but, most hopefully, for a book. So you had better carry titles that one wouldn’t think to look for elsewhere. This is certainly one reason why we have remained successful even when our bookstore became a third of its former size in a remodeling completed last September. A bookstore has to have a vibe, a vision, its own identity, a mystique.”

When asked about digital options, Halpert predicts, “Eventually I’m sure you’ll be able to get a virtual coffee-table [book] for your virtual library, but like a fireplace on a TV screen, there is no permanence, no heat in an e-book art book. The Guggenheim offered the catalogue for its Maurizio Cattelan exhibition as an e-book, and we’ll be doing the same here in the future, but it’s such a different experience. Certainly some people will end up preferring it, because you will be able to take your art books anywhere and everywhere, especially if you travel or move a lot, but let’s face it, books make a home, and owning a library gives one a sense of security, of solace, of nesting, of permanent knowledge.”

At the Rizzoli Bookstore on New York City’s West 57th St., buyer and assistant manager Joe Pilla is uncertain about the future of digital art and photography books. He says, “E-readers work beautifully for novels, biographies, and histories. However, I’d like to see the electronic device that can do justice to the selection of large-format, illustrated books that we’ll be featuring this spring.”

That selection includes Culture Chanel by Jean-Louis Froment (Abrams, Mar.). “We have many titles on Coco Chanel, perhaps the most admired French designer, but this one is a spectacular, oversize distillation of what made Chanel and her circle so special,” says Pilla. A second fashion title, Autobiography of a Fashion Designer: Ralph Rucci (Bauer and Dean, 2011), Pilla deems “an example of a book crafted with such skill and love that it’s an objet d’art in itself, something that can’t be duplicated electronically.”

Pilla says Pierre Hermé Pastries (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, Mar.) is equally unlikely to translate well to electronic format. “This is a book, with its marvelous blend of history, recipes, and, ahem, pastry porn, that demands to be displayed on—naturally—a coffee table and not just stowed in the kitchen,” he observes.

Pilla is also anticipating the arrival of Venetian Interiors (Rizzoli, June) by Nicoletta Del Buono with photography by Giuseppe Molteni and Roberta Motta, and Gardens for a Beautiful America 1895–1935 (Acanthus, Apr.) by Sam Watters, with photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnston; and off to a strong start is The Ivy League (Assouline, Feb.) by Daniel Cappello. Of the latter, Pilla says, “We’re eager about this one not only because a fair number of our customers are alumni of its august institutions [the Harvard Club’s not far away], but because ‘Ivy style’ is of increasing interest to the design mavens who are our regulars.”

Also at Rizzoli, art and photography buyer Thomas H. Collins lists Apple Design by Ina Grätz (Hatje Cantz), published last year, as one of the store’s bestselling design titles. Titles of interest, according to Collins, include Gerhard Richter: Panorama (D.A.P., 2011), about “one of the most important painters working today”; the Cindy Sherman retrospective in conjunction with the exhibit at MoMA in New York (Museum of Modern Art, Feb.); and The Modern Architecture Game (NEXT Architects, Mar.), a board game that tests knowledge of great architects and their famous buildings. Collins expects We Own the Night: The Art of the Underbelly Project (Rizzoli, Feb.) to be “this year’s hottest title. Since the Underbelly Project is inaccessible to the public—murals in an abandoned and closed-off New York City subway station—this book offers the best means of experiencing the most talked-about street art project of the decade.”

Andrew Uchin has seen a run on titles of local interest in conjunction with Pacific Standard Time, a series of exhibitions on art in Southern California from 1945 to 1980 at museums and other cultural institutions, including Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum, where he is store manager. Uchin says, “We have a collection of many of the new book titles from the recent Pacific Standard Time exhibitions that have drawn much interest. Our own exhibition catalogue, Proof: The Rise of Printmaking in Southern California, was copublished with Getty Publications [2011] and focuses on printmaking in Southern California in the mid-20th century as a contemporary art practice and its spread throughout the U.S.”

Of course, for museum stores, stocking up on titles related to current and upcoming exhibits is a must. The Norton Simon Museum will host an exhibit on cherry blossoms in Japanese prints starting in April, so Uchin anticipates that “books on Japanese woodblock prints and Japanese culture will be popular. Random House’s Pie Books has a nice title on details of Japanese artworks entitled Cherry Blossoms [2009] that we expect to sell well.” On the other hand, this summer the museum will host an exhibit on the still life, and, Uchin laments, many of the titles on that subject that he hoped to stock have turned out to be out-of-print.

Continuing on the out-of-print issue, Uchin adds, “Artist monographs seem to have a short shelf life, particularly when they are tied to museum exhibitions. It’s proving to be a challenge to negotiate proper inventory levels with our ability to obtain significant artist monographs that are still in print. With certain author events, particularly in relation to books about Old Masters, we sometimes have to search in the secondary market for books that are now out-of-print.”

Despite the economy, says Uchin, art books continue to sell well. But, he adds, “Perhaps our situation is unique in that the Norton Simon Museum Store’s primary focus is books, and we strive to carry a depth of titles that reflect our wonderful collections, which comprise European art from the early Renaissance to the 20th century, postwar American art, and Asian art spanning 2,000 years.”

Uchin does see one thing publishers might want to address, and it’s not a subject that’s lacking in books or any particular format that’s been overlooked. Instead, he says, “I truly believe that art books are beautiful objects, and a wonderful way to extend the experience of a work of art. However, in recent years I’ve seen the quality and care of the packing and shipping of book orders from publishers decrease. As a result, very often catalogues arrive damaged to the point where we cannot sell them, and, with the limited print runs of many titles, fewer books are available to sell. I hope to see improvements in this regard in the future.”

Chris Conti, print and media buyer for the store at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, says, “I can’t quit thinking about Boulevard by Katy Grannan [Fraenkel Gallery, 2011]: sun-drenched/messed up fashion photography using street people to a Mad Max effect. And Vivian Maier: Street Photographer [Powerhouse, 2011], Chicago street photographs by an unknown, which were randomly recovered posthumously from a locker. The three-volume William Eggleston Chromes [Steidl, 2011] and Joel Sternfeld’s First Pictures [Steidl, 2011] are guilty pleasures as far as super-nostalgic, color photography goes. The new gigantic monograph on Alexander Girard [Ammo, 2011] is also chock-full of eye candy.”

But it’s a U.K.-published series that Conti finds “impossible to keep in the shop”—the Documents of Contemporary Art series from Whitechapel Gallery (which partners with MIT Press in the U.S.), which he describes as “very well-written and illustrated surveys on various topics.”

The store has also seen success of late with children’s books, especially those by a French illustrator working in Berlin under the name Blexbolex, who has had two books distributed in the U.S. by Enchanted Lion press. Seasons was a New York Times best illustrated book in 2010.

Finally, Conti laments that “it’d be nice if publishers offered museums or independents some exclusivity or special editions. The chains and Amazon get better discounts. Kino Lorber just offered us a new DVD on photographer Francesca Woodman, called The Woodmans, about three months in advance of the official street date. I wish publishers would do the same, and I think this exclusivity or special preview could compete with e-books as well.”

The approximately 3,500-square-foot Phaidon Store, which opened in December 2009 as a pop-up in New York’s venerable gallery district in the SoHo neighborhood and moved down the street to its current permanent location two years ago, sells books solely from the publisher Phaidon. It also frequently partners with other groups for events, such as a presentation of work by Israeli artists organized in conjunction with Israel’s Ministry of Tourism to promote the forthcoming Wallpaper City Guide to Tel Aviv.

Manager Charlotte Hundley says the most exciting title in the store right now is a book with a bonus that’s only available in Phaidon stores or from its Web site—the collectors’ edition of Hella Jongerius: Misfit (Phaidon, 2011) by Louise Schouwenberg. Hundley explains that this edition of the book is accompanied by a specially commissioned, one-of-a-kind porcelain vase crafted by Jongerius herself. Hundley notes, “I love when I see art books representing a new interpretation of the publishing format. Hella Jongerius: Misfit has escaped the limitations of the printed medium, adding an exciting new dimension to the traditional art book.”

Hundley and her co-workers are also looking forward to another exclusive collectors’ edition, Pawel Althamer: Nomo from Mars (Phaidon, Apr.). She notes that this work, similar to the Jongerius book, includes along with the contemporary Polish artist’s monograph a “very limited edition, alien-like brass figurine made by the artist” based on his large Nomo sculpture. It sells at a premium, too: a retail price of $1,200.

As for photography, in April the store will be stocking a healthy number of copies of Questions Without Answers: The World in Pictures by the Photographers of VII, showcasing photographs from the photo agency VII. Says Hundley, “It’s an extremely moving record of conflict—environmental, social, and political, both violent and nonviolent.”

Considering e-choices?

Are coffee-table books destined to follow novels and nonfiction and make the leap from the paper page to electronic format? Publishers agree that change is afoot, but no one can predict the form it will take. Sharon Helgason Gallagher, president and publisher, ARTBOOK | D.A.P., says, “Art and other complex visual books have always been a relatively small ‘ecosystem’ within the larger publishing industry. While art book publishers must work within the wider context established by trade fiction and nonfiction houses, we face very different realities: the economics of high-quality print production, the complexity of visual reproduction rights, and the time and expense of unique graphic design.” Some see these “realities” as reasons not to pursue an active e-book strategy for art books, while others see just the opposite, embracing the iPad, for example, as what Gallagher calls “a more seductive visual experience than the lowly epub.” The digital art book does hold promise,” she says. “At ARTBOOK | D.A.P. we are enthusiastically embracing this move with our clients and helping them to create, distribute, and market. We expect that over the next 12 months, we’ll finally see a critical mass of well-designed, thoughtfully produced digital art books. But until there is a broader and deeper selection of titles available, it is—in my view—too early to judge their success in market terms.” Lindy Humphreys, Abrams’s director of digital assets and publishing technology, says, “Our goal is to have digital editions available of each of our illustrated books for which we have rights when we publish our print editions and to market them simultaneously.” Abbeville Press is working on making a large number of its art and photography books available on e-readers, tablets, and mobile devices. “E-books and apps offer us an exciting opportunity to bring our extraordinary books to an even broader audience to browse at a remarkably affordable price. We will have an intuitive user interface that lets readers seamlessly search the text, zoom in on high-resolution images, and in some cases, view multimedia features,” says publisher Robert E. Abrams. Bill Wolfsthal, associate publisher of Skyhorse Publishing, says, “We’re delighted to see that the market is growing for full-color, beautiful e-books. Books like 100 Years of Fenway Park [May] and Great Ranches of Today’s Wild West [May] will always exist in print, because they make such wonderful gifts, but they are also useful reference books and a pleasure to browse on the newest e-readers.” Cathy Teets, president, Headline Books, considers two recent titles with different digital destinies: “We haven’t released The Magic of Digital Fine Art Photography by David Ritchey [2010] digitally and probably won’t because the impact of the printed page is so phenomenal.” On the other hand, Teets continues, “West Virginia Waterfalls: The New River Gorge by Ed Rehbein and Randall Sanger [2010] does lend itself very well to a digital version set to dramatic music.” She concludes, “I think art and photography coffee-table books will maintain their allure as gifts, keepsakes, and educational tools—because you can’t hold and touch a digital image on the computer. Also, this publisher is a firm believer that there is no greater gift than an autographed book, and the digital market can’t touch that kind of personalization.”