Thursday, December 06, 2007

Sushi and Art

Yesterday was a sushi day. You wouldn't think of Boulder as a great sushi town, if you looked at a map. We are more than a mile above the sea and at least 1,000 miles from the nearest ocean. Boulder is also a relatively small town, and our limited population doesn't feature much ethnic diversity. Sure, we have a decent Latino population like the rest of Colorado, but Asians, Eastern Europeans and African Americans are not in abundance. Despite all of this (or maybe it is in fact because of our white, affluent population) we are awash in sushi restaurants. There are five within two blocks of the store.

Days become sushi days when certain sales reps who enjoy sushi are scheduled. These reps, most notably from Harcourt, Taschen, Random House and HarperCollins, hold a hallowed place when I am scheduling appointments. They get first dibs on the dates they want, and I will bend over backwards to accommodate their schedules in any way possible. Once, our Penguin rep, knowing how important a sushi meal was to our previous marketing director and I, made a bold attempt to curry our favor by taking us to our favorite sushi restaurant. He was doing great until they seated him in front of a fish bowl with live crabs swimming around in it. Despite eating what was basically fried chicken, he left feeling sea sick.

Yesterday, the Taschen rep, a sushi veteran, came to town. She and I have a bit of a sushi history together. When I first started working with her, we went to lunch during the Mountains & Plains book show in Denver. We discovered Bara Sushi and Grill within walking distance of the convention hotel and gorged ourselves on so many speciality rolls that we barely got back to the show in time. Ever since, all of our appointments have culminated in a feast.

In fact, when I saw that I had an appointment scheduled with her earlier this week, I wasn't sure why I'd scheduled the meeting. I had just reordered Taschen books to prepare for Christmas and as far as I could tell there wasn't a new catalog out yet for next year's books. As the hour of her appointment approached yesterday, I grew giddy at the prospect that perhaps she was flying up from Houston just to take me out to sushi. Now, that's service.

Unfortunately, it was not that simple. I did actually have to work for my fish. Taschen (a high-end art, photography and architecture book publisher, specializing in low-end prices) didn't have a catalog ready for the spring season, but they had plenty of new books. Without a catalog, I had to rely on my own imagination to picture their beautiful, glossy art books on Van Gogh and Escher, as well as the near-pornographic photos by Roy Stuart, as I stared at a black-and-white Excel spread sheet of book titles.

Frankly, I wouldn't have the patience to do this for most publishers. If a publisher can't get it together to put out a catalog, then why should I order? The books will probably be published late, if at all, and the shipping is liable to be screwed up. Not being organized tends to infect a whole company, not just the design team that creates the catalog. But Taschen is different. It would be unfathomable to pass up an opportunity to buy their new titles. Their books hold a unique place in the publishing pantheon. Taschen simply doesn't follow the normal rules of publishing in this country.

Taschen only sells their books on a non-returnable basis. They frequently run out of stock and often don't reprint their books, meaning that if you don't order enough up front, you'll never see them again. Their pricing structure is completely out of whack with every other publisher. Books that would sell for $29.99 or more from Harry Abrams or Phaidon (Taschen's two main rivals in the United States), are only $12.99 in the Taschen 25 line. Some of these books, like the gorgeous 200-page treatment of the artist Hundertwasser, we sell by the dozens rather than one at time like most art titles.

Taschen's pricing structure is unexpected in other ways as well -- not only on the discount end. We carry more Taschen titles priced over $100 than all of the other publishers combined. These titles are usually slip-case editions that are impeccably made. They are so high-quality that they are still a great value at $150 or more. On the really high end, they also sell signed limited editions of books that go for $400 or more. One of these, Goat: A Tribute to Muhammad Ali, retails for a cool $12,500. If anyone wants to get on my good side, I'd love Ballet in the Dirt by Neil Leifer, a special edition baseball book that currently retails for only $400. The price will rise to $700 on January 1st. To sell books at these prices, Taschen makes sure that they are extravagant affairs, usually boxed with all sorts of extras.

We've never brought in any of these limited editions. Where would we shelve them? Who comes in looking for a $14.00 paperback and leaves with a $1,000 signed and numbered art book by Jeff Koons? No one. What I learned while dipping my cajun crawfish roll into soy sauce and wasabi was that the prices of most of these books never go down. My rep regaled me with stories of $1,000 limited edition books selling for double, triple, or even quadruple their original prices on the web a year or two after their releases. The Koons book is scheduled to go up in price on January 1st even though it won't be released until February.

That made me think. It's not easy surviving as a bookstore selling books for $12.99 a pop. It takes an awful lot of transactions to support 40 to 50 employees and 20,000 square feet of selling space. Our best holiday season ever wasn't the year that The Da Vinci Code was so hot or that Lovely Bones was flying out in bunches, it was the year that John Fielder's Colorado 1870-2000 photography book came out. We might not have sold as many of it as The Da Vinci Code, but the $95 price tag completely altered the economics of the store. Imagine what selling a few books for $2,000 or $3,000 apiece would do. Wow.

As tears welled up in my eyes at the thought of a score more fitting to an Apple store than an independent book store, my rep couldn't be faulted for assuming that I'd eaten too much wasabi. But sometimes even on a sushi day what you remember isn't the amazing fish, but what you learned while eating it.

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