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Coffee table books weather publishing’s decline

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When private equity billionaire and art patron Leon Black recently bought the London publisher Phaidon, it brought attention to a rare slice of the publishing industry that’s actually not faring too badly.

Phaidon publishes big, beautiful, expensive art books, the kind sold in museums and specialty book stores and destined to adorn stylish coffee tables. They cost $50, or much more for collector’s editions, such as a $4,500 book on the work of the photographer Jeff Wall, which includes a print. Publishing observers say lush, handsome books are in a good position.

“The appeal of art books and coffee table books today is getting stronger and stronger as books dematerialize in the digital space,” says Michael Coffey of Publishers Weekly. “The art book stands out more and more as an object.”

Kindles and iPads just can’t compete with the experience of vast color photos, thick paper and sturdy binding. That’s why people who may read novels digitally still open their wallets to mount trophy volumes on their coffee tables. They’re vital design elements.

“There’s something about the level of detail, the color, the color rendition and the simple artistry of a really well-done coffee table book that can tie a whole room together and bring it to another place,” says New York School of Interior Design dean Ellen Fisher.

Designers who need more than a rug to really tie a room together call on Jenny McKibben of the New York bookstore Strand. She runs the venerable bookseller’s service to interior designers and set decorators, who hire her to find books that fit the spaces they create. One of her current clients is a hotel. The vivid imagery of coffee table books is perfect to keep guests amused as they wait in the lobby.

“They’re not getting engrossed in a book,” McKibben explains. “It’s basically about finding something to fascinate people in a small amount of time. We try to find some books with some really beautiful images to capture their imagination, maybe make them want to travel more.”

That beauty, expensive and irreplaceable by a digital book, is what’s keeping coffee table books relatively healthy, even while life is pretty ugly for publishing in general.

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