It's not just a brand name on a big fancy book. "Taschen" is a man, Benedikt Taschen, who started his publishing empire with a comic-book shop leveraged with a stock of remaindered art books. The firm is headquartered in Germany, but when he's in Los Angeles, his landing pad is the Chemosphere, the John Lautner flying-saucer-on-a-hillside. Taschen just released a three-volume collaboration with National Geographic ("Around the World in 125 Years"), and it's clear from the myriad images at his desk that Taschen cast his eye, and his approval, over what's in those books and so many others.
You have a dozen stores and L.A. has two of them, in Beverly Hills and the Farmers Market on Fairfax. Does that say something about L.A. as a book city?
It was by coincidence. One-city-one-store is usually fine, but this great location in Farmers Market was offered to us. I always liked this market. First of all, I hate shopping malls; something like the Beverly Center — not 10 horses would get me in there. But [the Farmers Market] is a great destination, this mom-and-pop store segment.
But bookstores are closing hither and yon. What are you doing right?
That's what we ask ourselves every day! It's a very anachronistic business we are in. I was always disappointed how existing bookstores and other retailers were carrying our product — they always picked this and that one, and I always regarded them as a family of books. Unless people see our books together, they would not go in to come out with "Julius Shulman: Modernism Rediscovered," or the circus book we did, or many others. But once you see them together, it opens up your mind and you think, wow.
There was a [Paris] bookstore that always made picky choices of what they would take and what they wouldn't. [It] went out of business. We did a store [nearby] and it was super-well appreciated from the first day on.
Some publishers have bestselling authors whose work subsidizes unknowns. Is that your model: big books making little ones possible?
No, we wouldn't operate that way. It's reported like that, but of course publishers only [print books] because they think they might be bestsellers as well. You never know what is your bestseller until you have a bestseller.
We know that with a number of titles, there are limitations; that this one will not make any money or even that we lose money, because it's just part of the idea of a family of books. Not everyone is equally strong; it is your duty to support them.
Is your list determined by your personal taste?
I would put it this way: The core program has a lot to do with my taste, but of course there are a number of titles which are less close to my heart than others.
Do people come to you and say, "I have a great idea for a Taschen book"?
A few years ago, I counted one month — we got nearly 3,000. We answer everyone, but it's very rare we pick one of the projects. So we send a nice thank-you letter. Sometimes they are really interesting ideas, but as you know, the execution of an idea is completely different — especially with the books we are doing, much more complex than just writing one text about one subject. An idea is great, but maybe you have to work a year, two or three years. It's exactly like the work on a big documentary. Whatever the subject, you have to work with maybe 100 or more sources to find out what they have to contribute.
You've pledged to make Taschen Books carbon-neutral.
I supported this forestation program for maybe five years already, but last year we made a survey of the carbon numbers you have to offset. You talk to all your suppliers, you know exactly how they operate. All of your suppliers, the printing companies, the transportation — then [calculate] the energy you have to carbon-offset. It's a very complex and interesting subject.
Resale prices for some Taschen titles have gone up tremendously. Do you regard them as investments?
Surely not as investments. The vast majority of our books inspire people when they buy them or get them as a gift. A great side effect is most likely they will at least hold their value or maybe gain value. If people just buy something growing in value, I would not advise them to buy our books — do something else. But if on top you have this [increase], then, great!
Our collectors' books — the signed and limited editions — the majority of buyers are male. That's what we know from our client profiles. We hear quite often that they have this hobby, to collect these books. Often the family says, "Why do you buy all these expensive books?" It's very helpful if they can say their hobby is endorsed by this [increase]!
Is there a sweet-spot price point?
It just depends on the buyers. We take great pride that we have books that cost $10 or $15; then, of course, we have $50 or $100 or $1,000 or more, but we always take the same care because that's what we think we owe our customers. If you're a student, maybe the sweet spot is $20, and if you are a Hollywood mogul, then the sweet spot is probably … $25! [Laughs.]