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Novel approaches: Changes in the German art book market

As the recession begins to abate in Germany, the market for art books blossoms

It may be the “beginning of the end of the recession” for German book publishers in general - the opinion of Peter Weidhaas, chairman of the Frankfurt book fair - but art booksellers are still on the lookout for customers with money in their pockets. Although the broader German public is becoming more interested in art, argues Michael Eckel, the manager of specialist art bookshop König in Frankfurt, the market for quality art books is tighter than ever.

Since Taschen broke away from the rest of the market by introducing low-priced books with high print runs, all other German art book publishers have been forced to consider the same tactics. Prestel is one publisher that has followed Taschen’s lead, and does not regret the decision. “If we’d gone on in the same way we would have lost market share,” says Prestel’s marketing manager Gerhard Brubbe. Instead, Prestel has cut prices and increased sales, despite the recession.

In Grubbe’s experience, there continues to be a good market for inexpensive editions priced at thirty or forty Deutschmarks. Series in this price range, such as Prestel’s Pegusus books and Taschen’s Jumbos, have added several new titles in the 1994 autumn catalogues.

Demand has also been stable for expensive editions of the highest quality.

In the wealthy German market, publishers agree that price is scarcely an issue for art-lovers with a profound interest in the subject. Belser has produced the complete works of the late medieval artist Hans Memling in an edition of 1,000, priced at DM278 per copy. Just three months after the launch, only one hundred copies remain unsold, according to marketing manager Manfred Haarer. A number of other publishers have also decided to go upmarket. Even Taschen, a by-word for inexpensive production, is offering its two-volume Jumbo series, usually priced at DM99.95, in a leather-bound edition for DM298.

Since the market became polarised, publishers are increasingly aware of the limits of their market. “For an average book, there’s a theshold at DM89, says Grubbe.

In eastern Germany, that threshold seems to be lower. Peter von Klaudy, marketing manager at E.A. Seeman, a Leipzig-based publisher of medium to higher-priced art books, admits that “the more expensive books go West.” Eastern Germans still have lower incomes than Westerners, and are spending more on stocking their homes with household goods and appliances.

At the same time, art books now cost two or three times as much as those produced under the State socialist system, although the quality is higher. Veronica Reifenegger of DuMont believes that it will take another five years for eastern German spending to catch up with the West.

Another reason, in Klaudy’s opinion, is that there are still so few specialist art booksellers in eastern Germany. “There’s no real art bookshop in Leipzig”, he comments. However, a number of general bookstores in the region are showing particular interest in art, and the gallery shop at the Zwinger museum in Dresden has a long established stocklist of art books.

Although German publishers rely on museums and exhibitions to generate interest in particular artists or subjects, they are seldom commissioned to produce official catalogues. German museums offset their costs with the proceeds of catalogue sales, and therefore tend to reserve the catalogue for themselves.

Publishers have spotted a niche, however, in producing art books on the same theme and of higher quality than the catalogue. Prestel has produced a book on Pop Art to coincide with the Roy Lichtenstein exhibition that opened in Munich in October. DuMont’s work on Cézanne appeared last year at the same time as the Cézanne exhibition in Tübingen. At DM68, the book cost almost twice as much as the exhibition catalogue, but still sold nearly 40,000 copies.

The reason why such books can do so well–despite competition from the official catalogues–is that Western Germany boasts a large number of good art booksellers. Eugen Emmerling of the German Booksellers and Publishers Association estimates that there are 150 specialists in art and architecture, while 300 general booksellers stock a range of art books. Although bookshops in the provinces are allocating less shelf space to art books, the big towns are spawning a number of new specialist shops. That compensates for the fact that art books are scarcely available through book clubs because they are perceived as too expensive for that market.

Publishers, too, are taking fewer chances in the market and recognise the need to find ways to cut costs. International co-productions are becoming increasingly popular.

Rather than waiting until a book has been published and then trying to sell rights, publishers tend now to agree during the planning stage to produce a book in several languages, thus making it saleable in a number of countries. Hazan of France recently produced the complete works of Delacroix in conjunction with an exhibition in Paris; that decision was backed by a prior agreement with Belser that the book would be published in German too. The higher print run reduced production costs and made it possible for Belser to offer a book which would probably have been too costly for the German market alone. The price was an acceptable DM298.

Some of Belser’s competitors are a step ahead. Taschen and Prestel plan most of their books with the international market in mind. They have shown that prices can be substantially lower if the book is produced not just for German art-lovers, but for the market in several countries.

More and more books are likely to be planned with multinational markets in mind: Taschen, which already produces books in fifteen languages, is about to open a New York office in order to increase its publishing activity in the English language. Pure German publishers will be looking for new opportunities for co-productions.

Another viable way of cutting costs is to publish in English. The German public generally has a good command of English, so publishing houses lose relatively few customers by offering an art book in English rather than German.

Any loss in domestic sales is more than compensated for by the fact that the publisher can target an English-speaking audience overseas and saves, too, on the cost of publishing in two languages. Prestel employs English editors at its Munich headquarters and is therefore able to choose whether to produce a book in German, English or in both languages; it currently has 150 titles in English.

Marketing Manager Gerhard Grubbe estimates that around 20% of the art books sold in Germany are in English.

As a third cost-cutting option, publishers are doing away with development costs altogether by re-launching existing titles which are out of stock. Belser has revived several titles first published in the 1980s which sold out at the time; they include Italy and Flanders and The Culture of the Monasteries.

Since no amendments are needed, and costs involve just re-printing and distribution, Belser has been able to lower the cover price from DM178 to DM49.80.

Prestel has re-launched its Keith Haring book, which originally cost DM78 in the autumn of 1992. The print run of 5,000 sold out within a year. The same book is now being marketed as a discount offer for DM39.80; a total of 15,000 copies have been printed.

Over the past few months, the general economic recession in Germany has been drawing to a close, and although the book market always takes longer to recover, publishers are generally optimistic. Publishers say it is too early to judge the success of 1994–that depends too much on the vital Christmas trade, which has only just begun, but the few weeks since the launch of the autumn catalogues have been promising. “The mood is more positive now than it was six months ago”, says Belser’s marketing manager Manfred Haarer.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Booksellers boost the market'