Abrams Books: Making Publishing an Art

M.S. in Publishing students in the ABRAMS conference room

The entryway of ABRAMS was adorned with framed copies of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. A table in the conference room was filled with eye-catching covers including everything from the stunning photography book Earth from Above by Yann Arthus-Betrand to the first book in a new children’s series, The Strange Case of the Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger. The NYU-SCPS M.S. in Publishing students arriving for an industry visit were eager to learn more about the art and business of making beautiful, heavily illustrated books.

Gathered around the table were the company’s senior executives, assembled for the NYU visit by Senior Editor Andrea Danese. First up was Michael Jacobs, President and CEO of ABRAMS, who said that despite the industry-wide downturn in physical book sales, the company (founded in 1949), remains strong because it focuses on design. “These are books, but they’re also gifts, objects that people want to own,” Jacobs said. “Part of our ethos here is we want to make books that deserve to be physical objects. Everything we do is artful.”

The students were all excited to be in a publishing house where print books still make up so much of the culture and the bottom line. So far, ABRAMS’ e-book business has been mostly in children’s books, with titles that are more text-heavy. But Jacobs said that as e-reading technology improves, he expects more ABRAMS books to be made into e-books. “Because we’re small, it’s easier to adapt to change,” he explained.

Next up was Charles Kochman, Editorial Director of the company’s ComicArts division, who spoke to the students about starting the comic book imprint for ABRAMS after working at DC Comics. Kochman was the editor who bought the rights to Diary of a Wimpy Kid  after talking to author Jeff Kinney at New York Comic Con in 2006. “It [Wimpy Kid] didn’t feel like an adult writing like a kid,” Kochman said. “When you read certain picture books or kids’ books, you can see the hand of adults. This felt like it really could be the diary of an eight-year-old.”

The book, of course, became a mega-hit series and now ABRAMS is printing six million copies of the latest Wimpy book Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever, which, according to Kochman, is the largest print run of any physical book this year. The launch plans this month include a six-city bus tour replete with a snow-making machine. The series is not yet available as an e-book, but the executives mentioned an e-book in the near future.

While the Wimpy Kid series may dominate the ABRAMS children’s list, Susan Van Metre, publisher of Abrams Books for Young Readers and ComicArts, said ABRAMS allows her to take risks that bigger publishers might not allow. As an example, she showed students Lauren Myracle’s bestseller ttyl, a book written for tweens that uses Internet slang and is printed in two colors to look like an IM conversation.

In the adult division, ABRAMS recently published George Harrison: Living in the Material World, a visual biography by his widow, Olivia Harrison, priced at $40. ABRAMS is about to publish the official legacy book of The Oprah Winfrey Show with a $50 price point.

Deborah Aaronson, Associate Publisher of ABRAMS, explained that although the higher price point on some of the heavily illustrated books may deter some buyers, the publisher needs to sell fewer books at $40 or $50 to make a profit. Generally, though, ABRAMS customers seem to regard their purchases as art objects and therefore have little problem with the price point.

Students also got a peek into the collaborative cover-design process. Art Director Michelle Ishay showed iterations of various covers, including some compelling designs that were ultimately rejected. A cover of JFK with a cigar in his mouth for a book entitled Portrait of Camelot: A Thousand Days in the Kennedy White House was replaced with a more conventional candid shot of Jack and Jackie.

“Nobody today wanted to see JFK smoking,” she said. Ishay explained the challenge of designing a cover, which serves so many purposes: “It needs to be beautiful, it needs to be functional, and now, it needs to work as a thumbnail on Amazon,” she said.

At the end of their visit, the NYU publishing students toured ABRAMS’ art-filled offices and received signed copies of a new book in the legendary Babar the Elephant children’s series, Babar’s Celesteville Games by Laurent de Brunhoff, son of the original creators. Like the Wimpy Kid series, the Babar books are another example of how ABRAMS nurtures classics and grows talent.

by Kristin Vorce

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