Finding the Consumer for US Illustrated Books (Part 3)

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The Grand Budapest Hotel book from tk is far more appealing when properly merchandised and displayed.

Abrams’ Grand Budapest Hotel book is far more appealing when properly merchandised and displayed

The continuation of our series on illustrated book publishing in the US looks at the changing retail landscape for specialty and illustrated titles.

By Chris Navratil

Chris Navratil

Chris Navratil

This is the third in a mult-part series looking at the increasingly competitive and innovative illustrated book publishing market in the United States. Part One outlined several of the challenges facing publishers and offered insight from a variety of publishers, including Ten Speed, Harvard Common Press, Clarkson Potter and Rodale. And Part Two, discussed the lists of Time Inc, Phaidon, Artisan, Phaidon, Black Dog and Leventhal, Abrams, Andrews McMeel and Chronicle Books. Today we look at the various sales strategies employed by illustrated book publishers to find consumers.


The gift and specialty market is longstanding staple for many core gift publishers, as well as some of the traditional non-illustrated who have also started dipping their toes in this channel. Most are hoping to rely far less exclusively on sales throughAmazon and Barnes & Noble.

Specialty chains — at one time the foundation of this channel have become increasingly challenging, as the competition for placement at these venues is more crowded than ever. Publishers have grown wise to the fact that an account like Anthropologie or Crate & Barrel can have opening orders in bulk quantities (non-returnable). And if the book performs, the possibility for reorders likely to continue for several seasons. The higher-end most alluring specialty accounts pay careful attention to design and production quality and are becoming highly selective in filling their narrow open-to-buy assortments for given seasons.

Williams-Sonoma and West Elm

51bkFc1MMaL._SX497_BO1,204,203,200_ (1)There are however far fewer specialty chains actively featuring books than there were 10-15 years ago. One of the leading accounts for cookbooks, Williams-Sonoma, merchandises fewer books throughout their displays. Most of their cookbooks are consigned to one particular section, with several of the titles spined-out. While their sister company, West Elm, is now actively featuring cookbooks throughout their stores. The optimum setting for any illustrated book is for table placement, and ideally within one focused theme. You’d like to see your $14.95 Crème Brulee title displayed beside a stack of ramekins and an a Crème Brulee mix, or your Sriracha Cookbook displayed next to, well, a bottle of Sriracha.

Restoration Hardware

One  big disappointment is Restoration Hardware. For several years this was the premier destination for a quirky gift title or cookbook placement. Discoverability had been their key objective throughout the store that at one time aimed to reach a fairly broad consumer range. While a customer may slowly mull over whether to commit to purchasing a $2,500 fire pit for their patio, a $6.95 Little Book of Campfire Songs could quickly satisfy that impulse. This was an illustrated backlist title Restoration actively sold for over five years, purchasing upwards of 50,000 units. Restoration is an altogether different kind of business now, narrowing its reach to a specifically high-end consumer. They’ve gradually dropped much of their book selection as part of their broader merchandising scheme, and now featured just a few expensive coffee table titles but mainly as props.

Kitson’s, Paper Source and Terrain

There are some wonderful smaller chains like Kitson’s (18 locations) and Paper Source (65 locations) that merchandise a broad range of lifestyle and quirky gift titles effectively. And several great individual accounts including a couple of my favorites, such as the Gardener in Berkeley. But Terrain deserves special mention. Along with Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters, this happens to be owned by the specialty retail company Urban Outfitters. Inc. To date there are only two locations, in Glen Mills PA and Westport CT. Smaller upfront orders but great placement, with the overall merchandising vision truly inspiring, bringing the idea of outdoor living to whole different dimension and the shopping experience to a different level. It has become a destination account where you may choose to spend the afternoon, and linger over lunch or glass of wine between purchases. For any publisher focusing on gifty house and home categories this is the place you want to be, sure to gain the notice of the exact kind of customer you may have been targeting when first acquiring the book. Whether they in fact buy the book there at full price – well that’s another issue.

Flash Sale Sites

Flash sale accounts have increasingly become more important – Gilt, One King’s Lane, Rue La La, Zulily. Like all gift accounts they buy non-returnable, but at a steeper 60% discount. Typically higher end or design driven titles are featured and bought in limited quantities. These accounts offer focused reach to targeted customers, but not offering the same sustainable bulk reorder activity found at the chain accounts. The books are well presented on their sites, showcasing the cover designs, but the invested upspecking obviously gets lost in the one-dimensional images. And as opposed to an online retailer like Amazon, the sites don’t offer “search inside” features.

Targeting Consumers

Most of the publishers I spoke with are actively selling to all these accounts and in fact may be publishing some of their titles with this market foremost in their mind or perhaps partnering directly or partnering proprietarily with particular accounts. Weldon Owen has of course been publishing such titles for Williams-Sonoma for years. More recently Andrews McMeel published a series of award winning Sur La Table branded cookbooks.

PicnicArtisan had this market very much in mind with The Picnic: Recipes and Inspiration from Basket to Blanket. A gifty watercolor illustrated rather than photographic package featuring debossed textured strawberries and a specially designed ribbon, a title sure to find placement at several of the above mentioned accounts.

You don’t have to be a fan of Wes Anderson or the film (and I’ll admit that I’m not) to appreciate Abrams’ stunningly beautiful Grand Budapest Hotel. Having recently seen the book faced out at Urban Outfitters, I was blown away. A great match of hip merchandising and targeted consumer, featured faced-out on a shelf lined up with other smartly designed books aimed at their 20-something audience. Though I subsequently saw the book featured on a gift wall at Barnes & Noble, the impact wasn’t quite as striking, as the gift assortment is more likely dependent on co-op dollars than the more careful curation of the Urban Outfitter buyer.

Despite the opportunities special markets can provide finding active business for physical books will continue to be an ongoing challenge. Kirsty Melville at Andrews McMeel voices a concern many publishers are feeling these days. “The biggest challenge to physical books is brick and mortar retail placement scarcity. We have moved beyond the conversation around the value of the book as an object – the muted digital sales of illustrated content combined with the growth in illustrated book publishing tends to support this. To me, the issue is not whether physical, illustrated books will be around, but how readers will ultimately find them.”

About the Author

Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.