Happy Birthday, ABRAMS
With this dedicated issue and the support of the publisher, we celebrate the 60th anniversary of ABRAMS, founded by the inimitable Harry N. Abrams in 1949.
With this dedicated issue and the support of the publisher, we celebrate the 60th anniversary of ABRAMS, founded by the inimitable Harry N. Abrams in 1949.
In the past decade, ABRAMS has aimed to retain its tradition of publishing high-quality art and illustrated books while diversifying and growing in ways that extend that tradition. "The beauty of our books and the artfulness in the way we edit them, design them, produce them and execute them remains the constant in the evolution of our company," president and CEO Michael Jacobs said. "Over the past few years, we have taken what we've always done--making beautiful books--and applied a lot more rigor to the process." The shift has not been an academic exercise. "We had to diversify in order to survive, and those changes have helped us grow," he added.
This year especially, the 60th anniversary of the company's founding by Harry N. Abrams, the effort appears to be working. At a time when most major publishers have cut staff, lists and investments, ABRAMS has had no layoffs, has launched another imprint and is having "an excellent year," Jacobs said. "We are cash generative, and we can fund most of what we want to do."
The good news is due in part to the muscular sales of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney, whose next title appears in October. Revenue from the books has given the company an "opportunity to retool and weather this economy as we revisit where we want to put our energy and resources," Jacobs said. He called children's publishing "the biggest example" of ABRAMS's diversification. "At the same time, we're more conscious of a category focus in our adult programs--editorially and in sales and marketing--and are using this crisis as a time of assessment for both growth and change."
Aside from the arts books that the company has been known for throughout its 60-year history and the children's line launched a decade ago, ABRAMS is and has been a significant publisher in the categories of photography, architecture, music, fashion, design, sports, science and natural history as well as craft, food and wine and the domestic arts. "The things we're good at we're going to do even better," Jacobs commented. At the same time, the company overall is publishing fewer titles. Five years ago, when Jacobs began as CEO, ABRAMS published more than 350 titles a year; now it publishes fewer than 250 across all imprints.
As well as the flagship Abrams imprint, these include Abrams Books for Young Readers; Amulet Books, the middle-grade and YA imprint that the company launched five years ago; as well as Stewart, Tabori & Chang, which was purchased in 2000; STC Craft/Melanie Falick Books, now celebrating its fifth birthday; and Abrams Image, which focuses on popular culture and humor.
A new imprint, Abrams ComicArts, published its first titles this year and will endeavor to bring comics and graphic novels to their rightful place among its constellation of artfully published books. Jacobs estimated that the imprint will release 10-12 titles a year.
The economic crisis has touched all publishers. "It's an exciting and scary time, and we are experiencing a transformational shift in retail and in consumer spending," Jacobs said. This hit home for ABRAMS this year despite the success of some of its titles: "We published some great books this spring," Jacobs said. But results have been less than expected "because customers are very cautious and because store traffic has been severely affected. Consequently core sales have been challenging.
"Anyone making things sold through retail outlets has to wonder how big the pie is and whether it's mostly about taking market share from competitors." He predicted that growth will come from new product development, new markets and "digital on some level if we can figure out how to monetize it."
To maximize profitability, ABRAMS this year instituted stronger cost controls, including some salary freezes, suspending a summer intern program, cutting T&E expenses and paring trade show expenses, among other things. "We call it a creative diet," Jacobs said. Fortunately the company is the size Jacobs believes is optimal: about 100 people. "I feel the gestalt of the place is very positive and energetic."
Since he began at ABRAMS, Jacobs has focused on what he called "unsexy stuff," including inventory management, process change, production enhancements, financial planning and everything "between the top and bottom line."
Sales and Marketing
ABRAMS is broadening and deepening its sales and marketing efforts. "As we've trimmed the lists, we have to make more of our books and market them more aggressively," Jacobs commented. "It's O.K. to publish fewer books that sell more copies. Part of the fun is getting books into more people's hands. If we take a book on, we want to really publish it and exploit its potential."
This may in part reflect Jacobs's own background. Before joining ABRAMS in 2004, he had been at Scholastic "for the first five Harry Potter titles," and earlier worked at Simon & Schuster and Penguin. "I grew up on the sales and marketing side of the business," he said. "Once a salesperson, always a salesperson. I'm proud of how we make our books, but I feel best selling them.
"Marketing books is always challenging, but we have, in my opinion, a competitive advantage in that we're going for rather specific niche constituencies," Jacobs continued. "We try to create a tipping point among aficionados and influencers in the right fields and build from there. We feel we are a publisher for passionate people about their passions."
Although Jacobs admitted that ABRAMS has lagged somewhat in digital strategy, it is a high priority this year. ABRAMS has begun to convert some of its titles into e-books--particularly children's novels as well as some non-illustrated nonfiction--but no visual ones yet. "We don't want to drag our heels," Jacobs said. "But we're happy being a slow follower while figuring out strategy and the marketplace." Laughing, he added, "We may be the last people making physical books, but I can assure you they'll be beautiful."
Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City by Eric W. Sanderson, illustrations by Markley Boyer. Published last month by Abrams, this is a lavish pictorial guide imagining New York City as it was before European settlement. See the Book Brahmin with Sanderson below and check out the wonderfully named Mannahatta Project online.
Avedon Fashion 1944-2000 by Richard Avedon, with texts by Carol Squiers, Vince Aletti and Philippe Garner. Out this month from Abrams, this is an in-depth survey of the full career of renowned fashion photographer Avedon, published in conjunction with an exhibition at the International Center of Photography.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid Book 4 by Jeff Kinney. The fourth in the blockbuster series, from Amulet Books, the title will be released this summer.
Good Eats: The Early Years by Alton Brown. From the writer, director and host of Food Network's Good Eats, this first of two volumes from Stewart, Tabori & Chang chronicles the show's evolution and includes more than 140 recipes and more than 1,000 photos and illustrations.
The TOON Treasury of Classic Children's Comics by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly with an introduction by Jon Scieszka. A collection of strips from the Golden Age of comics and into the 1960s--selected by the author of the classic Maus and his wife, art editor of the New Yorker, who were both editors of RAW. Appearing in September from Abrams ComicArts.
Boilerplate: History's Mechanical Marvel by Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett. An October title from Abrams Image, Boilerplate is the tale of a fictional robot that was designed in 1893, from a husband-and-wife team who have been collaborating on comics and graphic novels for 20 years.
NERDS: National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society (Book One) by Michael Buckley appears in September and is published by Amulet Books. See Buckley's Q&A below.
Weekend Sewing by Heather Ross, photographs by John Gruen. From STC Craft and published earlier this year, this title offers a variety of sewing projects for clothing, accessories and home items that can be made in a day or two.
The Lazy Environmentalist on a Budget: Save Money. Save Time. Save the Planet by Josh Dorfman. This April title from Stewart, Tabori & Chang offers a range of tips on how to be green without breaking the bank.
Luv Ya Bunches by Lauren Myracle. Out in October, this is the first book in a series by the bestselling author, featuring a multicultural cast of characters who use a variety of mediums to communicate the travails of middle school.
11,002 Things to Be Miserable About: The Satirical Not-So-Happy Book by Lia Romeo and Nick Romeo. This was published in the miserable month of February by Abrams Image.
Gore Vidal: Snapshots in History's Glare by Gore Vidal. To be published in October by Abrams, this is a collection of the well-traveled, well-connected writer's own photographs, letters, manuscripts and other personal items.
Giuliano Hazan's Thirty Minute Pasta by Giuliano Hazan. This September book from Stewart, Tabori & Chang is by the son of Italian cookbook writer Marcella Hazan and includes recipes for pasta soup and a range of sauces as well as everything about pasta that a home cook needs to know.
ABRAMS was founded December 14, 1949, by Harry N. Abrams, who was born in London but grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., where his father owned two shoe stores in the Brownsville neighborhood. Adept at both selling shoes and creating art, Abrams attended the National Academy of Art and the Art Students League, where he studied with John Steuart Curry. He got into publishing in his early 20s in a roundabout fashion, working for Sackheim & Scherman, an ad agency whose clients included Doubleday and Simon & Schuster. After working on the Book-of-the-Month Club account, Abrams joined the Club, where he worked for 14 years. He also began collecting art--the ABRAMS office continues to display some pieces dating back to this time.
During his BOMC period, Abrams created the Illustrated Junior Library for Grosset & Dunlap and the Illustrated Modern Library for Bennett Cerf. He began a greeting card company, too, which he sold eventually to Hallmark.
Abrams began his eponymous art book publisher with $100,000 in capital. The first three titles were on Renoir, Van Gogh and El Greco.
Abrams decided to take a risk and began a paperback line to appeal to people who were price-conscious. His comment on this, made during a 1972 oral history interview with Paul Cummings, might apply to much about publishing today: "The point is that if there was no way of surviving under ordinary conditions one might as well take the chance."
ABRAMS, which was independent for many years and then became a subsidiary of Times Mirror, has been owned by La Martinière Groupe in Paris since 1997. "We operate and identify ourselves as an independent publisher," said Jacobs. "And in the spirit of our eponymous founder, we make decisions and set our publishing strategy and tactics and execute them independently as well."
To celebrate its 60th anniversary, ABRAMS has introduced a new corporate logo that includes the tagline "The art of books since 1949." It also has a new website and has officially changed its corporate name from Harry N. Abrams and HNA, Inc., to ABRAMS. The new website includes videos, image galleries, links to editor and author blogs, press listings, an events calendar, institution resources, teachers' guides, newsletters and more.
Eric Sanderson is author of Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City, published by Abrams last month ($40, 9780810996335/0810996332), which recreates the natural topography of Manhattan as it was before Europeans arrived. Sanderson, who lives in New York City, is associate director for landscape ecology and geographic analysis at the Living Landscape Program of the Wildlife Conservation Society at the Bronx Zoo.
On your nightstand now:
Gods and Goddesses in the Garden by Peter Bernhardt.
Favorite book when you were a child:
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Your top five authors:
Virginia Woolf, Aldo Leopold, Gerald Durrell, Garrett Mattingly and Patrick O'Brien.
Book you've faked reading:
I try not to do this.
Book you're an evangelist for:
Just at the moment, Second Nature by Michael Pollan.
Book you've bought for the cover:
The Atlas of Experience by Louise van Swaaij and Jean Klare, English text by David Winner.
Book that changed your life:
Desert Solitare by Ed Abbey and a short story, "The Swimmer" by John Cheever.
Favorite line from a book:
"Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes."--Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself."
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien.
Favorite part of Manhattan:
Best place in Manhattan to see it as it was before European settlement:
Last month, Michael Buckley published the seventh in his Sisters Grimm series, for which he has planned nine episodes. He comes from a television-writing background (Nickelodeon, Disney, MTV Animation, the Sci-Fi Channel) and interned for the Late Show with David Letterman. In September, Buckley will publish the first in a new series for Amulet Books called NERDS: National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society with a film noir tone the author says was inspired by Ian Fleming. Here he talks about his draw to children's books and the inspiration for his ideas.
What inspired you to write The Sisters Grimm?
There were really only two kinds of children's books: books for boys, where they fight dragons and monsters and save the world. And then there were books for girls, where the girls get to take care of ponies. I have nieces who are very spunky and would never pick a pony over a dragon. I thought it was time to write a book in which girls are the heroes. That was the germ of the idea. The Sisters Grimm concept I came upon after reading about the Brothers Grimm and discovering they had a little sister.
I'm sure I have old girlfriends who never thought of me as a feminist, but I've become one. Hopefully I'm creating an army of girls who won't be happy being sidekicks.
Did you conceive of The Sisters Grimm as a series?
I came from television before I started writing books, and you always think long-term. I imagined it as a multipart series. ABRAMS was brave enough to let me try that and signed me to a three-book deal.
What led you from writing for television to writing books?
The idea of writing a book was very intimidating to me. I knew I liked to entertain kids. Writing for children was something I was pursuing. But writing a book for children was not something I ever considered until I came up with the idea for The Sisters Grimm, and my wife suggested I write it as a book--and proved once again that she was smarter than I was.
And how about your NERDS series, coming in September?
[With] NERDS, it was the same experience. [I thought of this kid,] Jackson Jones, who goes to the dentist and discovers he has 64 teeth, and they're "summer teeth": "Sum 'er going this way and sum 'er going that way." His braces can transform into boats and [all kinds of things]. I saw the director of the group as a James Bond type. The more I thought about it, the more characters started coming to me. All the children have been enhanced by nanotechnology that turns [their shortcomings into strengthes]. There's a girl who's allergic to everything, so it now acts as an early warning system--she's allergic to liars, allergic to being punched in the face, so she can avoid it. One kid's hyperactive to the point where he's almost a blur, and he wears a suit that's powered by his hyperactivity. A kid who eats paste sticks to the wall. When I traveled for Sisters Grimm, I'd try out [the idea] on kids and they'd say, "I want to read that."
There's a definite film noir tone to NERDS. Were you a big fan of The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon and their ilk?
Absolutely. The Maltese Falcon and also Casablanca have that vibe. You have to go to the granddaddy: Ian Fleming was a big inspiration. The movie version of James Bond is nothing like the book James Bond. He's much tougher and colder in the books than in the movies. I was inspired by Andrew Vachs and Jim Thompson, the king of noir, who writes a lot of Sad Sack characters that wind up like the ones in Quentin Tarantino movies--there's a sinisterness to them.
What I wanted to do was create Nerds who are awkward, don't dress well and are afraid of lactose. But I didn't want them to be misfit agents, just misfit kids. These are the kids who do the job when James Bond can't get it done.
O.K., I must ask: Did you wear braces?
I had braces. I was a disaster. I had glasses. I had a bowl cut like Joey Lawrence for a loooong time. I wore high-water jeans. I was a total misfit. I'd hide in the library from the bullies and never leave.
What was the seed for the NERDS story?
I went to my 20th high school reunion [and] noticed that all the popular kids were out of shape, miserable and divorced. The nerds had become amazing people--running companies, married to supermodels, they went on amazing vacations. I thought, I wish someone had told me in fifth grade that this is how it would turn out, that your day in the sun is coming.
--Jennifer M. Brown