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Books: the new black
29.07.10 | Felicity Wood and Lauren Hewitt
Coco Chanel once said: "In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different." The queen of chic could just have easily been talking about the changes in the fashion book market in recent years. Despite the recession, and many style-conscious consumers turning away from £300 dresses, let alone £300 books about dresses, the fashion book market has grown in the last decade with total sales figures for the genre rising from just over £1.1m in 2001 to more than £5m in 2009 through Nielsen BookScan’s Total Consumer Market. This growth is down to several factors, including a unique retail position and the constant reinvention of the sort of titles published.
In the nineties and early noughties the fashion book market was dominated by luxury gift books celebrating the biggest names on the catwalk. In the past few years, however, there has been a shift away from these expensive titles, and publishers’ lists are now full of cheaper, more accessible books that focus less on the brands themselves and more on the people and work behind the brands. Additionally, there is a trend for the "how to dress" type of title, popularised initially by TV duo Trinny and Susannah, and still going strong with the likes of Gok Wan behind it.
Commissioning editor at Laurence King Publishing Helen Rochester says: "In the noughties it was all about luxury brands, and we saw big books on Tom Ford and Gucci and other such designers do really well, but as the way people [shop] has changed, the type of books that have become popular has also changed." Rochester points out that one of LKP’s bestselling titles is Nina Chakrabarti’s make and mend/do it yourself book My Wonderful World of Fashion. She adds: "This reflects where the market is going as people have less money to spend on books and fashion in general, but at same time there is an almost anti-Primark effect, where people don’t want things that are ready made and they want to do it themselves."
Jonathan Earl, head of sales for Thames & Hudson agrees, explaining that as purse strings have been squeezed, fashionistas have been looking elsewhere for their inspiration: "The recession has resulted in a change in the market. We have produced some expensive gift books in the past few years that have sold well, but I think it is fair to say that the last couple of years has seen a shift, and the emphasis now is on a slightly more scaled down approach, focusing on the making and mending phenomenon and nostalgia for the recent past."
Earl adds: "Books on street fashion and street photography have also been selling really well and this exemplifies the recent trend of moving away from the bigger brands and more into what people are wearing themselves out on the street. This is derived from a new web-based fashion culture, which publishing now has to reflect."
Indeed, last year Penguin released The Sartorialist by Scott Schuman, a book based on his street fashion blog, which has gone on to sell almost £150,000 through the TCM, and led to a new wave of similar tiles, from FaceHunter by Yvan Rodic which was published by Prestel in April and The Selby is in Your Place by Todd Selby (Harry N Abrams), also released in April. For Andrew Hansen, sales and marketing director of Prestel UK, one of the other major reasons behind the successful growth of the fashion- book market is that a growing online fashion community has made it easier than ever before for publishers to create lists based on what people want. He says: "One of the biggest trends of the past few years is that rather than mainstream luxury, books on street style and fashion have sold really well. More and more people have their own blogs on the internet and it is a really happening area. Social networking has helped grow the movement as well; in the past we used to go out to clubs and see what everyone else was wearing, but with the web, you can be in Berlin and see what people are wearing on the streets of Tokyo."
As part of this shift, Hansen explains that high street clothing stores have become increasingly important retail environments for fashion publishers, as the right sort of book, at the right sort of price, can be a perfect impulse buy for customers who are interested in fashion but not necessarily dedicated book buyers. This unique position within the retail industry is another factor behind the growth of the genre. High-street clothes retailer- Urban Outfitters for example- stocks a wide selection of books at lower price points, including design titles such as Tees: The Art of the T-Shirt by MAKI (Laurence King) and Élisabeth Couturier’s Talk About Design (Flammarion), and Fashionista: A Century of Style Icons and 50 Fashion Designers You Should Know, two Prestel titles by Simone Werle.
Of course, there still is a dedi-cated part of the market for glossy and expensive coffee table books. Taschen, for example, publishes a £300 book on Kate Moss by photographer Mario Testino this month, and book departments in high fashion temples such as Liberty and Selfridges still provide a profitable home for these premium fashion titles. W H Smith has been running the concession within Selfridges on Oxford Street since February 2009 and more than 2,000 book lines are stocked under the heading of Fashion and Design. The concession also operates alongside a "premium limited-edition" section of the department store which frequently features high-end fashion titles, such as Alexander McQueen: Genius of a Generation by Kristin Knox (A & C Black) and Grace Kelly Style: Fashion for Hollywood’s Princess by Kristina Haugland, Jenny Lister and Samantha Erin Safer (V&A Publishing). A WHS spokesperson explains: "Fashion books are a niche offer for us in the Selfridges’ concession so we do place more focus on our stock range than at other WHS branches. When customers can afford designer clothes they don’t mind spending that bit extra on a related book, so we send them to the fashion section to browse in the hope they’ll see something else they like."
London department store Liberty’s bestsellers include 1960s Fashion Print: A Sourcebook (Batsford) by Marnie Fogg and 100 Contemporary Fashion Designers (Taschen) by Terry Jones. Michelle Alger, buyer for home and furniture, says: "We have just started to carry fashion books as a main category over the last 18 months and they are becoming incredibly popular purchases and make great gifts. Our selection can range from books on Cartier jewels to vintage handbags and we try to cater for a wide selection of customers, from the young aspiring student to the older market that really appreciates beautiful design. We have also dabbled with vintage fashion books and these have proved to be very successful with international customers throughout London Fashion Week. I have already seen some great fashion titles coming through for autumn release and it seems to be a hot topic with publishers and each season we seem to get a more intelligent offer from them."
At the museum
Sales opportunities for fashion books are also created by museums and galleries, with visitors to places such as the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Fashion Museum and the Fashion & Textile Museum wanting to purchase beautiful books exploring the collections they have just seen. Frances Ambler, an editor at V&A publishing, suggests that the V&A’s own fashion titles do well, both inside and outside the museum, because of the respect that people have for the brand: "People come to us, and buy our titles, because of the strength of our reputation. Our niche titles continue to sell really well for us because people- want that in-depth historical knowledge that they know they can get from us."
As well as street-wise fashionistas and dedicated gift-book buyers the fashion book market has also benefited from the rise in popularity of fashion courses in recent years and the stream of students eager for inspiration and guidance. Fashion retail specialist R D Franks for example says that over a third of its customers are students wanting to be in the industry. Tutors do not always have the time to teach practical skills within allotted studio time and the publishing industry therefore profits from students buying not only inspirational books, but also key practical textbooks. This surge of interest in fashion courses has also co-incided with a rise in interest from the mainstream media in Fashion Weeks, and London Fashion Week has become incredibly important for publishers in both commercial terms as they can launch books alongside key calendar dates to tap into the global interest created by fashion weeks around the world.
As with the rest of the industry, fashion book publishers are also starting to explore digital possibilities and it is a challenging time for the genre. Rochester sees the student market as the area where digital fashion books will eventually flourish-, but only once the necessary technology has been established: "Our books are so integrated with images and texts and at the moment there is not really a delivery system that can reflect that, although we are experimenting with some PDFs as straight e-books in America. Tutors say that students are there just tapping away on their iPhones while they are in lectures, so we are looking into digital developments as it would be amazing if we could do things with those devices."
Many fashion publishers see the digital arena as a two-way street, with editors being able to source information easily from the web, and printed information now able to work in digital forms. As Earl explains: " . . . there is a virtuous circle to fashion books and fashion- blogs: we publish books which stimulate debates online and then publishing opportunities arise from those debates." Earl does not see the switch to digital happening for a while though, and he argues that the student market will continue to provide robust printed sales and for him it is a case of marrying products of both forms of publishing together. "The market will go there [digital] to some degree, but for the medium term students will still need relatively inexpensive course books, so from that point of view there will probably always be a market for printed books."
Earl adds: "In future generations there will be a tremendous interest in all of that information being available digitally and we are certainly tracking that as part of our own electronic publishing strategy. But, I think it is also significant that so much of fashion revolves around sheer quality of feel and colour. You could never replicate a swatch book digitally for example and yet swatch books are still enormously important for both professionals and students, so with that in mind it is quite likely that some areas of fashion publishing will remain quite old-school."