If the fine arts publishers in the United States have not suffered from the recession as much as their European counterparts have, it is due less to their editorial prowess than to the savvy their retailers have shown in tapping into new markets. In 1993 the US publishing industry’s overall revenue grew 6.4% over the previous year and the revenues of publishers of fine arts titles are thought to have grown in direct proportion. Visual arts books, which accounted for 3-4% of the total turnover in book publishing during the late 1980s are now guessed to make up between 4 and 5%, over $100 million retail annually.
America’s fine arts publishers are “feeling bullish this season”, as Mark Magowan of Abbeville put it, largely because of the increase in their market. Since 1991 about 400 super-stores have opened nationally. The Riggio brothers, better known as Barnes and Noble, have opened four superstores in Manhattan in four years. “The biggest change in the publishing business these days is the phenomenon of the super-store and the breakneck pace at which these stores are opening”, says Oscar Schoenfeld, a recently retired thirty-five-year veteran of the fine art publishing business in America.
Without these previously untapped markets the industry would most likely have fallen on very hard times. The new doors that have opened in the past three years have barely affected the print runs or prices. The average price of an art book in 1990 was $42.18. The average price in 1993 was $46.29. The difference is largely attributed to inflation. The price jump which publishers anticipate for next year will be due to a 30% increase in paper prices. Print run numbers are more telling. The average print run today remains at 3,500, the same as it was in 1989.
Five years ago fine arts books reached their market primarily through the independents and museum shops found only in the classier parts of town. Today almost anyone who can make their way to a mall can find a good selection of art, architecture, sculpture and photography. Like the independents, the super-store’s motto is quality and service. These stores, which often carry deep stocks of 100,000 books, stock art departments few independent book dealers are capable of supporting. Not to be discounted is the entertainment value these stores offer: their retro fittings, coffee bars, author’s readings and signings, give them something of the air of a bibliophilic theme park. Today, when independents close, super-stores are at least partially blamed.
The corollary of this expanded market is a treacherous market. Are Americans, enthralled as they are by their cable televisions, VCRs and home computers, capable of suddenly supporting a book market that has almost doubled? As Mr Schoenfeld points out, “There are two factors we don’t know and can’t accurately caculate: first, are these super-stores economically viable and, second, how many of these books are being returned?”
Mr Magowan’s figures on returns to Abbeville from super-stores place backlist at 15 to 17% (about 20% of their stock) with the front list being returned in the upper 20s percentile. One book buyer from a national account, who would only speak off the record, conceded the average return rate from super-stores to be 50% and higher. These are alarming figures. Historically, large publishers have said they could stand no more than 40%.
What is going to happen to those books? Fine arts titles are increasingly finding their way into another new market, the warehouse clubs, or price clubs. Instead of a wide selection they are offering deep discounts, better than half off list price, to an audience that has not been in a bookshop in years, if ever. As Don Reick, the manager of Doubleday’s bookshop on Fifth Avenue told The Art Newspaper, “I’m sometimes tempted to buy products there for my shop, because it’s cheaper than I can get them from the publisher”.
Greater exposure has not brought greater acceptance of the product illustrated book publishers are offering, especially of fine arts titles. It is all that publishers can do to keep up with what the public does not want. None of the three houses that dominate fine art publishing in America–Abbeville, Abrams, Rizzoli–is comfortable with that moniker. “We’re illustrated book publishers”, they all say, not just art book publishers. Editorial policies are changing to keep up with non-art trends. Abrams’ incredible success with their gift book about gifts, Only the Best, is reflected in this year’s Precious Moments from Abbeville. Wrapping paper, calendars, and reduced formats are all helping.
Where broadened editorial policy has not succeeded, severe measures have been taken. Rizzoli has “downsized”, meaning they laid off almost everyone making a decent salary. This included their president, who was replaced by their controller. In cutting things to the bone they fired three or four sales managers and dismantled their distributions system, giving that task to St Martin’s Press. The risk they run is in estranging themselves, particularly from the independent book sellers who still make up 50% of their sales.
Don Reick characterised the current trends in the market: “No single monograph seems to be capturing the market the way overviews do. Phaidon’s Art Book, the American Impressionists, the early moderns, histories of art, surveys of art are all selling. Sales of the Life-Style/Interior Design books that saturated the illustrated book market four years ago are now down 30%”. This reflects a diminution of interest in and saturation of the market. There is a growing perception among publishers that monographs on post-war artists are not selling due to lack of substance.
What sells in mid-America are pretty picture books, as Solveig Williams of Rizzoli put it, “Something you can give Aunt Grace for a present: Homer, Cassatt, Sargent, the American Impressionists”. Mr Reick explains, “In Europe you can print 15,000 copies of a monograph on a contemporary artist and expect to sell them. That same 15,000 in this country, whch is ten times larger, would probably fail. It takes a level of sophistication that we’re just approaching here. But tastes are changing. I think Ken Burns’s photohistory The Civil War has had an overall good effect on American book buying habits. Suddenly they see reason to spend more on an illustrated book, so it’s less of a stretch to sell an art book”.
The cost of an illustrated art book in the US
A book in the mid-price range published this year by Abbeville has been taken as an example for the breakdown in costs involved in producing an illustrated book. The work has 204 pages and 200 colour prints. Format 9 7/8 by 12 1/4 inches. The print run was 18,500 copies.
The total cost was $70,448
Editorial plant: $6,000
Design plant: $12,974
The cost per copy was $13.18 which included mainly:
Paper, printing, binding: $10.50
*Plant unit: $2.68
The publisher applies a multiplier of 4.93. This gives a sales price of $64.97 and a retail price of $65.
50% of the sales price goes to the sales force, distributors and bookshops.
*Plant includes, as well as editorial and design, the author’s and photographer’s royalties (5%), authors and photographer’s expenses (if any), picture fees, consultants, freelance editing, copy-editing, proof-reading and indexing.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The super-store phenomenon'