For most book publishers, this is the magical season when virtually any title, from James Joyce to Jackie Collins, can be transformed from mere book to gift item.
But at San Francisco-based publisher Chronicle Books, that transformation is no seasonal miracle. With a pioneering approach to both publishing and marketing, the company has made the book-as-gift a year-round art form -- and its bread and butter -- with its titles on sale in locations ranging from clothing stores to carwashes.
Walk into a housewares store this season and you're likely to see "The Martini," a trim volume on the hip-again cocktail, set out beside a shaker and glasses. "GI Joe," Chronicle's history of the action figure, sits on shelves beside the toy itself, while tobacconists are carrying a dark, musty-looking title called "The Cigar: An Illustrated History of Fine Smoking."
All are books, of course; yet in a way, they're not. While Chronicle also publishes fiction and poetry -- as well as children's books, gift items and more traditional art books -- it has made its reputation with its swank, hybrid creatures: design-driven objects filled with arcane, entertaining information and pop culture images.
Chronicle Books publisher and president Jack Jensen makes no apologies.
"We've never been afraid of novelty books," Jensen says. "Some ought to be glorified magazines but we're not afraid to do them."
"They're not pretending to be producing James Joyce," says Brian Weese, owner of Baltimore's Bibelot bookstores. "But they are clearly producing something that people want."
Chronicle Books' unique publishing and marketing niche better represents survival tactic than lucky impulse.
While the company has been around for almost 30 years, for much of its early history it published mostly books by the writers of its newspaper parent, the San Francisco Chronicle, and regional guidebooks to the Western United States. In the late 1970s, it began producing a few illustrated gift books, but continued to sell them through traditional book markets for another decade.
In the late 1980s, the company had just released the biggest list of titles in its history when it learned that a major bookstore chain had decided not to buy any.
It was then, Jensen says, "We realized we couldn't rely on the retail book trade for our existence."
Jensen was further convinced by a report he saw that claimed that 90 percent of the U.S. population had never set foot in a bookstore.
"Even if that number was wildly off, and it was 70 percent that was still 70 percent of the population we had an obligation to get our books in front of, by hook or by crook," he says. "So our goal became to go out into the marketplace and convince nontraditional retailers that books make great gifts."
So Chronicle representatives began visiting sushi bars, trying to persuade owners to carry the book "Sushi."
They urged florists buy gift books on flower arranging for their best accounts, and persuaded Nordstrom buyers to display a book on rainy days in Seattle next to a rack of raincoats.
But it was the early '90s release of Nick Bantock's "Griffin & Sabine" trilogy -- three volumes that told the story of a vaguely metaphysical romance in a sophisticated pop-up book format -- that really put the company on the map.
The three books, in which the text of the lovers' communiques was presented as they literally might have appeared, on postcards and in letters that had to be removed from envelopes to be read, have sold nearly 3 million copies worldwide, and have been translated into 10 languages. Jensen says the success of the curiously designed volumes made the publishing and bookselling worlds sit up and take notice.
"Having three books on the New York Times best-seller list, they could no longer view us as 'that wacky West Coast publisher,' " he says.
At the same time, adds Chronicle design director Michael Carabetta, "Griffin & Sabine" validated the company's increasingly idiosyncratic approach to design.
"It was taking a book a step beyond a book," he explains. "The enclosures, the envelopes -- not to mention the voyeuristic pleasure of reading someone else's mail."
"I'd consider them a real pioneer in terms of the development of the book as a product," says Bibelot's Weese. "The kinds of books they produce appeal not only to readers who consider themselves literary, but also have a wider appeal, for people who are purchasing them as gifts, as coffee table items or impulse gifts."
The now almost trademark look of Chronicle Books has become a prime factor in the company's publishing decisions. Here, there's no shame in selling a book by its cover.
In his crowded office in the city's burgeoning South of Market district, Carabetta rifles through a catalog to illustrate that point. Each new volume being considered, he says, is shepherded through his nine-person design shop at the beginning of the publication process.
A new cookbook, for example, faces a slew of questions -- whether and how to illustrate it, who will do it (only about a quarter of the books are designed in-house) -- as well as more subtle judgments of image and tone.
"Is it going to be fun, hip, casual meals, or more a sort of gourmet presentation of food?" says Carabetta. "Everything's done in conjunction with design, editorial and production."
One of Chronicle's current "books" is literally not a book at all. "American Tattoo" by Alan Govenar is actually a book-shaped "artbox" that contains a 50-page booklet on the topic, as well as 15 postcards and three tattoo transfers. A title for spring, "Beneath the Sea," is a volume of undersea photographs of tropical fish taken with a stereoscopic camera and printed as three-dimensional images. To make sure readers wouldn't lose the 3D lenses required to view the images, Carabetta's team built them into a fold in the back cover.
Another Nick Bantock book, "Paris Out of Hand" -- a "wayward guide" to a surreal and largely imagined Paris, featuring handy services like Le Service Kidnapping and landmarks like the Metro de Sade station -- was bound in crimson cloth and made palm-sized to evoke the feel of old Baedeker's travel guides. Its appeal is tactile as much as literary.
"No matter who you hand it to, the first thing they do is start moving it around in their hand," Jensen says.
Not every Chronicle undertaking has been a complete success. This season's sales of "GI Joe" -- packaged with a version of the groundbreaking "action figure" -- were diminished by an unforeseen problem: The dolls mysteriously began to mold, and many of the books had to be recalled.
As it continues to refine its publishing formula, Chronicle Books is turning out some titles that are downright Seinfeldian in their narrowness of subject matter, books "about nothing" that cheekily capture pop culture at its campiest. One, "A Stiff Drink and a Close Shave," is an odd whiskers-to-whiskey compendium of manliness; another, "Kid Stuff," celebrates baby boomers' fuzzily warm remembrances of childhood toys like Slinkys and Silly Putty.
Such tightly focused books are tailor-made to shine in settings outside the traditional bookstore. As a result, nearly half the company's sales are through nonbookstore outlets, says Chronicle sales and marketing chief Joan Vogel.
At kitchenware retailer Williams-Sonoma, buyer Victoria Kalish says the broader-based cookbooks are the only ones that don't do well with her customers. Housewares chain Pottery Barn, a Williams-Sonoma subsidiary, says its top three sellers during the holiday season have been Chronicle titles, led by "The Martini."
But Bibelot's Weese says the Chronicle line has secured a spot )) in bookstores like his as well.
"I mean, not everyone is not going to want to read the new translation of Homer," he says. "Especially in bigger bookstores, where you have a wider audience, we need this variety."
While it may not be producing any Pulitzer Prize winners, the Chronicle formula is certainly paying off. In the past five years, says Jensen, Chronicle Books' revenues have tripled, its staff has swelled with young employees -- he estimates the average age of his staff at 27 -- and the number of titles has increased four- to fivefold.
Meanwhile, Chronicle's approach, says Weese, has had an impact on other publishers. More books, he says, are being presented in nontraditional formats.
"People really buy the books," says Pottery Barn book buyer Marie Hewett. "They've differentiated themselves from other book publishers. They're a very creative group."
Pub Date: 12/25/96