The State of US Illustrated Book Publishing (Part 2)

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Sometimes an illustrated book is a monument to itself, such as Chronicle's "The Thing The Book"

Sometimes an illustrated book is a monument to itself, such as Chronicle’s “The Thing The Book”

The continuation of our series looking at the increasingly competitive and innovative illustrated book publishing market in the United States.

By Chris Navratil

This is the second in a four-part series looking at the increasingly competitive and innovative illustrated book publishing market in the United States. Part One, published yesterday, 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. Today we look at several more ways different publishers are meeting the challenge of catering to the demanding market for illustrated books.

Branded Publishing at Time Inc.

Margot Schupf

Margot Schupf

When it comes to illustrated book publishing, Time Inc. has been leveraging their own magazine brands to partner with external brands such as Animal Planet and Mad Magazine, as well as well-known authors such as chef Emeril Lagasse. According to Time Inc. Publisher Margot Schupf, “The physical package is of equal importance, with the goal to publish each brand intelligently, making the most of each brand platform and putting all their best resources behind it.”

Their upcoming cookbook examples include: Essential Emeril: Favorite Recipes and Hard-Won Wisdom from My Life in the Kitchen, My Southern Journey: True Stories from the Heart of the South by Rick Bragg. While outside of the cooking realm are Sports Illustrated Super Bowl Gold 50 Years of the Big Game and Animal Planet Animals: A Visual Encyclopedia.


Lia Ronnen

Lia Ronnen

Artisan has long been recognized for their beautiful high-end cookbooks such as the groundbreaking The French Laundry Cookbook, among the first book to hit a $50 price point for a cookbook and make a success of it. Under the leadership of Publisher Lia Ronnen, the publisher’s vision has expanded well beyond cookbooks and is now “bringing a visual lens to range of topics,” including decorating, gardening, jewelry design and even humor, as well as encompassing a broader range of price points. Rather than wait for agented proposals they’re aiming to get ahead of trends, with Ronnen constantly on the lookout for “thought leaders, “ and authors who are authorities on emerging trends. Yet form and function must work together, through careful curation of the right pictures to tell the necessary story. Though these occasional thought leaders may also be bloggers, Ronnen maintains that the content needs to be altogether fresh to the book, with the originating blog more of a basis for promoting the book. The bestselling Remodelista and The Kinfolk Table are such examples.

CrossroadsCookbooks however will remain a staple of Artisan’s list and Ronnen’s group continues to seek out new innovative packaging directions. This fall she’s excited about a new vegan cookbook, Crossroads: Extraordinary Recipes from the Restaurant that is Reinventing Vegan Cuisine, from Tal Ronnen, chef of Crossroads restaurant in Los Angeles. She in fact describes the unique design treatment, “The cover is made of two separate pieces of paper that are cut and pasted on an angle–front, back, and spine — so that the cover design reinforces the book’s title and message, Crossroads, which also refers to being at a culinary crossroads.”

While a successful cookbook platform of Kinfolk Table extends to the house and home category. Again describing the unique package design here: “The other is the cover material for the newest book from the Kinfolk team, The Kinfolk Home: Interiors for Slow Living. In this case we sourced a special paper we hadn’t used before in order the achieve the photographic look and feel the kinfolk team was going for. It’s very tactile, and very beautiful, and thicker than normal. It’s a great way to set the tone for what is to come inside.”

Phaidon and Black Dog and Leventhal

Phaidon publisher Deborah Aaronson acknowledges the well-established brand strength of Phaidon “as providing a great launching pad for trying new and different things. A startup with a great backlist.” Aaronson is among several key members who have joined Phaidon in the past year, including CEO Keith Fox, and she’s highly optimistic about their future. Having begun at Phaidon in spring 2014, she is excited about launching her first list in Fall 2015, including titles that were conceived in house, informed more by interest and understanding of the subject than by cutting edge trends.

Map from PhaidonLike Ronnen at Artisan, Aaronson is less reliant on agented proposals. This is certainly the case for their cookbooks but also for other subjects with timeless interest that can be given the special Phaidon treatment, and with an aim to reach a broad audience. Among the upcoming fall titles Aaronson is particularly excited about Map: Exploring the World, a beautiful exploration of maps from all periods and from around the world and Body of Art, a diverse and multi-cultural exploration of the body through time, cultures and the media.

JP Leventhal of Black Dog and Leventhal knows something about reaching a broad audience, having established a reputation for publishing timeless and definitive category killers for many years; often immense illustrated treatments on subjects ranging from lifestyle to history and religion to science and fine art. With many of these titles conceived in house as well. Their fall 15 list includes such examples as The Illuminated Life of Christ at well priced $24.95. Among their other key titles are The Atlas of Cursed Places and the $75 hardcover, Florence: The Paintings and Frescoes 1250-1743.

Though the author hasn't produced any new material in 15 years, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes continues to be a bestseller and hit the NYT bestseller list.

Though the author hasn’t produced any new material in 15 years, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes continues to be a bestseller and hit the NYT bestseller list.

Abrams and Andrews McMeel

Abrams is more committed than ever to publishing illustrated physical books. They’re in fact growing their list, title count and category focus and intensity. And with their new Notarie stationary line focused more on publishing original content. President and CEO Michael Jacobs states, “Not surprisingly, even publishers who’d abandoned the illustrated categories are coming back in the game and they are both large and small competitors. It’s the core of our business We’re expert at curation, editorial development and excellent design and production.  We plan on “sticking to our knitting” and welcome the competition. After all, we’ve been at it for more than 65 years!”

Among the many distinctively designed titles on their Fall 2015 list include cookbooks from their STC imprint such as Home Baked and Hey There Dumpling, from Abrams Craft The Mood Guide to Fabric and Fashion, and from Abrams the Chip Kidd designed Charles M. Schulz and the Art of Peanuts.

At Andrews McMeel Publisher Kirsty Melville notes that the playing field is much more competitive than even five years ago. She has a bigger and broader story to tell:

“We’ve been through some transformation or reimagining of our business over the past 10 years, mostly as a response to the disruption in the marketplace As a company that depended on newspapers to drive awareness for our core humor/cartoon category we have needed to diversify our content and find other authors/platforms and distribution channels to support our publishing, hence the development of cookbooks, puzzles and games (our Posh Puzzle line) and children’s books.

I have spent my (almost) ten years at AMP, in a constant process of transformation! In my view, it still comes down to the author, the idea and the quality of the content, along with the design and production values that express and represent the core idea. To compete, we have to produce books with outstanding production values. To succeed, we have to market and sell them really well.”

Melville cites The Complete Calvin and Hobbes in both hardcover and paperback as stand outs because of the design/quality of each physical book package. Bill Watterson has not created any new material for more than fifteen years yet both hardcover and paperback collectible packages have been New York Times bestsellers. She further notes that his fans prefer the physical experience of reading his comics in book form, over the digital experience.

Chronicle Books

In describing Chronicle Books Christine Carswell says the “’main focus isn’t to publish illustrated physical books. Rather, it’s to surprise and delight our customers and consumers with the distinctiveness of our publishing. It’s to deepen their passions, invite them to explore new ones, and to make them smile. What Chronicle Books offers readers, above all, are design and production values that enhance our authors’ stories and texts, and illustrators’ art and photography, and that hopefully appeal to the readers themselves.”

Carswell further notes that, “The notion of giving is intrinsic to our work here at Chronicle Books and it goes beyond books: publishing illustrated physical formats is also a key focus for us, as it has been for decades. Stationery, journals, games … the list goes on. It’s not about trying to out-do the next gimmick. It’s about burnishing the editorial, design, production, sales, and marketing gifts you offer creative talent in ways that others wouldn’t think of — and honoring the trust that authors, illustrators, and photographers place in you as a result. And it’s about envisioning what will render our publishing more appealing to those who will ultimately hold it in their hands.”

There are of course several great examples of distinctive and beautifully designed books from Chronicle.  A particular favorite of Carswell’s is The Thing The Book, “a glorious celebration of the book as physical object that deserves a far wider audience. Each part of what makes a book, from contents page to footnotes, from bookmarks to index, finds expression through the eye, mind, and pen of such illustrious contributors as Ed Ruscha, Jonathan Lethem, Miranda July, and David Shrigley. It’s a collaboration unlike any other.”

And in response to my question of whether she feels optimistic about the future of illustrated physical books Carswell points to an exciting new project coming in the fall, This Book is Planetarium, “each of its spreads features a genuine working object. Six, in all; including the afore-mentioned planetarium; a fully functioning speaker; a musical instrument, and more! It’s an extraordinary volume that speaks to the enduring delight and discovery of the physical book.”

Chris Navratil has worked in illustrated adult and children’s book and gift product publishing for over 20 years. Most recently he was VP Publisher at Running Press and prior held positions at Accord/AMU, Potter, and Chronicle Books. He and his partner live in New Hope, PA along with many dogs and cats, and with frequent guest appearances by numerous and assorted woodland creatures. Chris can be reached at

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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.