What people complain about when they complain about the book business is concentration, the combination of numerous formerly independent publishing houses into a few large corporations. Agents, booksellers, and authors can still remember a time when passionate men ran these companies, making deals when they were all juiced up on enthusiasm.
Today, there are few cultured dilettantes in publishing. (Among the current crop of young editors, I know of only one honest-to-goodness heiress.) That is, unless it’s the illustrated-book business.
“I have to show you this,” says Prosper Assouline as he jumps up from the red Mies van der Rohe chair for the seventh time. “It’s a joke – but it’s not a joke.”
The publisher of Lee Radziwill’s Happy Times strides across the big open room in the Starrett-Lehigh building that serves as an office for him and a dozen employees. Walking away from a stunning view of the Hudson River (“the dream of a Moroccan Jew who has finally come to New York”), he approaches a glass-topped desk he designed himself and had fabricated in France, gestures proudly, and waits. A second passes, but gradually one discerns that the glass is in the shape of the city of Paris – and the metal base it rests upon forms the route of the Seine.
“You see?” asks Assouline with a very Gallic shrug that says, I have come to America to make my fortune – but I bring a little bit of Paris with me wherever I go.
Assouline took great pleasure in having Lee Radziwill come down to the Starrett-Lehigh building to shape her ideas into a book.
“Europe is full of small illustrated-book-publishing operations run by interesting cultured people,” says one American publisher. “They all want to establish American beachheads. Most come, take one look at the rents and start-up costs, talk to their bankers, and go home.”
But not Assouline. With his wife, Martine, who runs the day-to-day operations of their Paris-based publishing house, Assouline published its first list here in New York last year. In 2000, the Assoulines published 27 titles in Paris; they will do as many as 31 in New York in 2001.
“That takes balls,” says an editor. “True, they have a healthy business in proprietary publishing,” referring to Prosper’s other role as a custom publisher and freelance creative director for Chanel, Christie’s, and Ralph Lauren. “That probably generates a lot of cash – they’ll need it.”
Like Benedikt Taschen, the German publisher who started as a comic-book dealer before graduating to picture books (everything from fetish images to decorating ideas), the Assoulines are moving from art direction to trendy photo books.
Taschen developed illustrated books for designers – 100 Male Nudes, 1000 Chairs – which they use, says book packager Nick Callaway, “as pictorial encyclopedias.” The Assoulines are doing the same thing for the world of fashion.
“Their program has been driven by their superb visual taste,” says Eric Himmel, editor-in-chief of Harry N. Abrams. “The Assoulines are very much in the business of marketing taste – and their fashion-consciousness in a fashion-obsessed decade.”
“I admire what Prosper does,” Callaway adds. “His focus is much narrower than Taschen’s and addressed at the high-style business. It’s an extension
of him: You are what you publish. Taschen, Assouline – these companies have revitalized illustrated-book publishing.”
The Assoulines published the occasional book starting in 1991, but their first big hit was in 1995. A successful library of small books covering the careers of important fashion designers, called Les Mémoires, allowed them to found the publishing company. Then came a grab bag of projects: a collection of Alexey Brodovitch’s famous spreads in Harper’s Bazaar; controversial photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson by David Douglas Duncan; a book about bullfighters’ costumes. Together they constitute an almost eight-figure business, making Assouline France’s largest independent publisher.
“The very cool thing that they did was to suss out that in America, fashion is now less interesting than class distinctions,” Himmel says. “They published Brooke de Ocampo’s Bright Young Things, a fresh take on lifestyle publishing that struck a nerve and that only a European completely at ease with the idea that the rich deserve everything they inherited could have published.”
“Prosper had his finger in a lot of different pies,” says photographer Pamela Hanson of the son of Moroccan immigrants (his parents were hairdressers), who made his mark early as a teenager working at magazines. “France is very old-fashioned,” says Hanson, who has known Assouline for twenty years, “but he was very entrepreneurial and built this big empire. For me, I did this funny little lingerie catalogue with him years ago, and next thing I know, he has this big publishing company.”
“He communicates his enthusiasm better than anyone I’ve met,” observes Philippe Segalot, of Christie’s. “You buy the guy.” He shows that enthusiasm when he tells the story of working with Lee Radziwill. Though they’d met several times in Paris, Assouline took great pleasure in having Radziwill come down to the Starrett-Lehigh building to shape her ideas into a book.
“I think maybe she didn’t have a passport good for this part of town,” he says, chuckling over the thought of the glamorous society figure riding the elevators of the former industrial building along with the endless parade of bicycle messengers. “She probably sat in the car the whole way down like this.” Assouline breaks his narration here to sit bolt upright, his eyes terrified saucers and his hands formed into claws clutching at imaginary suitcases. “But she was a great sport about it and arrived with two of the most beautiful brown lizard suitcases filled with photographs.”
Though anyone would have jumped to publish Radziwill’s book (there are 50,000 copies in stores), the five large New York publishing houses have begun to let go of less-glamorous illustrated books. “Corporate publishers are very passive,” says an editor of photo-heavy books. “They aren’t going to go directly to the independents and the museum stores – and they aren’t going to go back to resell those accounts.” Which is what it takes to make a profit in picture books.
The design work is just too labor-intensive, and the returns too small, for a trade house with only a few of these lavish titles. International audience or no, Assouline can afford to put these books together because he runs another design-intensive business that pays for the computers and designers.
Sitting in the Garden of Bottino, the fashion-and-art commissary on Tenth Avenue, with the collar of his custom-made-in-Milan suit turned up against a chill, Assouline orders lunch for all three of us – himself, his wife, and me. In his confident but not yet imperious way, he says: “There is only one good thing on the menu here.” Then he doles out wine as if we were seated in his home.
Martine, African-born and Swiss- and South American-raised, has been compared by her friends to Catherine Deneuve, but the reference is more to her poise than to her beauty. As a couple, the Assoulines are memorably warm and appealing people. Prosper brims; Martine ballasts. Together, they seem anything but cold European fashion folk.
At the moment, though it feeds their other business, neither finds fashion very interesting. “It is all the same,” he says. “In the magazines, you have to look at the caption to know who the designer is. You should be able to tell from the clothes!”
“We are not marketing people,” Martine says of their future. “But we are enlarging our idea of the market.”
Though they have been approached by two different publishers, they are determined to stay independent. “To be small is to be strong,” says Martine, who runs the book operation from an office just around the corner from the Place Vendôme, “but it is very tiring.”
“You’re on the bicycle all the time,” Prosper agrees as he pounds his hand-made Berluti shoes up and down on the floor, miming an exhausting pace. “But if I only want to make money, I’m going to sell pizzas or jeans.”
Suddenly, a woman across the restaurant catches his eye. “I want to publish her book,” he declares. “What a story she has!”
I look up to see Bette Midler – dining the day before her sitcom is canceled – and ask, “Bette Midler? Really?”
“No,” he exclaims, his incredulousness amplified by his accent. “Her! “
Sure enough, Ileana Sonnabend, the octogenarian art dealer, is seated with a group at the next table. Prosper falls into a narration of her career high points.
I ask the Assoulines what their ambitions are. Prosper hesitates a beat, more for translation than reflection, before declaring in fractured Franglais, “To be a publisher considered very chic.”