Harry N. Abrams, Inc. History
New York, New York 10011
Telephone: (212) 206-7715
Fax: (212) 675-9080
Sales:$26 million (2002 est.)
NAIC: 511130 Book Publishing; 511199 All Other Publishing
Harry N. Abrams, Inc., now celebrating its 50th anniversary, is the preeminent American publisher of high-quality art and illustrated books. Founded by Harry N. Abrams in 1949, the company was the first in this country to specialize in the creation and distribution of art books. Prior to the establishment of Abrams, nearly all important art books were imported from Europe. Abrams art books established a completely new market in the U.S. Soon after, Abrams publications also appeared in Europe, translated into many languages. Within a few years, millions of copies had been sold on both continents.
- The company is founded in New York.
- A European distributor is hired.
- The company is sold to Times-Mirror Company.
- Harry Abrams retires.
- Paul Gottlieb becomes president.
- Abrams is sold to French publisher Groupe Latingy (La Martiniere Groupe).
Harry N. Abrams, Inc. is the largest publisher of art and illustrated books in the United States. The company publishes and distributes about 200 titles each year and maintains as many as 1,500 titles in print. Abrams puts out many well-known series of books about art and artists, including the Library of American Art, Great Modern Artists, Masters of Art, First Impressions, and Art of the State. The press frequently highlights American artists, from Walt Disney and Norman Rockwell to Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell. The press is also exclusive distributor of museum catalogs for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and New York's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, as well as for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Abrams publishes a wide variety of illustrated books on topics beyond art and artists, including titles concerning nature and animals, food and wine, antiques, decorative arts, and daybooks and journals. Abrams also publishes a broad selection of wall and desk calendars. Abrams publishes illustrated children's books under its Abrams Books for Young Readers imprint. In 2000, Abrams bought the illustrated book publisher Stewart, Tabori & Chang, which it runs as a subsidiary. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. was owned for much of its life by the Times-Mirror Company in Los Angeles. Abrams was sold in 1997 to La Martiniere Groupe of France.
Reversing the Tide in the 1950s
Harry N. Abrams was founded in 1949 by Harry Nathan Abrams, a brash New Yorker who hoped to conquer for America a province that had long been exclusively European--the illustrated art book. Abrams was born in London around 1905 and grew up in New York City. His father owned a shoe store where the young Abrams worked as a salesman. Later, Abrams studied art at the National Academy of Arts and at the Art Students League, but he left without completing a program. During the Depression, Abrams began working at a New York advertising agency, Sackheim and Scherman. Though the pay was low, Abrams gained a lot of experience, and he was introduced to several publishers, including Simon & Schuster, who were clients of the firm. Abrams' boss Harry Scherman eventually quit the ad agency to found a new company, the Book-of-the-Month Club. Abrams moved to the Book-of-the-Month Club in 1936, and he stayed there for 14 years, working in production and marketing.
In 1949, Abrams left Book-of-the-Month Club to start his own publishing company that would put out a new type of art book. Abrams' interest in art had never flagged despite his years as a business executive, and he thought there was an American audience for the kind of illustrated books that had previously been published almost exclusively in Europe. He began with a staff of only five, and in 1950 brought out three illustrated books on solidly world-famous artists Renoir, van Gogh, and El Greco. These three were soon followed by a book by art historian H.W. Janson called The Story of Painting for Young People. Janson's accessible work got rave reviews, with a writer for the New York Times complaining that it was a shame the book was just for children. So Abrams followed this up with Janson's The Picture History of Painting, a broader and more adult edition of the children's book. Abrams used direct mail to market the book, sending a prospectus to buyers of the Time/Life books. This led to sales of 150,000 copies, a remarkable success.
Abrams also imported art books from Europe. Imports actually accounted for about 80 percent of the Abrams list in its early years. European publishers had a strong tradition of illustrated art book publishing, and there was no American firm of comparable stature to these French, Swiss, and Dutch companies. In 1952, Abrams hooked up with a European representative, Fritz Landshoff. Landshoff was a German Jew who had been pushed out of his country for publishing controversial books in the 1930s. Landshoff had escaped to England during the war, then emigrated to Mexico and from there to the United States. After World War II ended, he went back to Holland, where he attempted to continue publishing the leftist writers he had specialized in during the 1930s. However, the times were not receptive to this kind of writing, and Landshoff folded his press. Needing work, he decided to put an advertisement in Publishers Weekly asking if any American firm needed a European representative. To his surprise, several people answered Landshoff's ad. Unsure how to choose, he went alphabetically and called Abrams first. The two men hit it off, and starting in 1952 Landshoff worked to buy European titles for Abrams and to sell Abrams' list abroad.
Landshoff bought many European titles and had them translated into English, but soon the tide began to flow the other way. The Picture History of Painting was a huge hit in the United States, selling some 285,000 copies in its initial run. This book was soon translated into 12 languages and sold under various European imprints. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. also began putting out a 50-cent paperback Art Pocket Books series as well as another series, the Library of Great Painters. These books sold well at home but did even better abroad. By 1957, the young publishing company had put out approximately 200 titles, and its revenue had reached $1 million. Abrams had a much more populist touch than previous art publishers, making sure that commentary on the illustrations was not purely scholarly but was accessible to a general audience. Abrams also had a good eye for what people would like and did well with lavish compendiums like Art Treasure of the World. In addition, Abrams championed living American artists at a time when a new generation of painters was beginning to make a name for itself. In the 1960s, Abrams published books devoted to young American artists who were not yet well known, including the Abstract Expressionist painters Morris Louis and Arshile Gorky and pop artists like Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. These books were valuable American exports, capitalizing on artists who were not known in Europe.
Change of Ownership in the 1960s
Abrams published a lasting bestseller in 1962, a textbook by Janson called The History of Art. This book became the standard art history textbook at universities in the United States and abroad for many years and sold at a rate of about 120,000 copies annually. By the mid-1960s, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. had a fine reputation and rosy prospects. Abrams had started the business with a relatively small amount of capital, about $150,000, and though the firm was doing well, it would take more money to expand. Abrams raised money around 1960 by selling shares to a private investment group, procuring approximately half a million dollars. Nevertheless, this was not enough for the kind of projects the press was hoping to do. While it had a great backlist in its Library of Great Painters and other series, and in Janson's books, Abrams was committed to publishing monographs on contemporary artists who may or may not catch fire. For these and other riskier ventures, the company would be helped by having more financial backing. According to Publisher's Weekly (January 18, 1985), Abrams had another reason for wanting to sell the company. Apparently there was some confusion between Harry N. Abrams, Inc. and Harry N. Abrams, and money Abrams had borrowed on behalf of his company had actually been handled by the bank as a personal loan, meaning that Abrams himself was individually liable if the company should default. When he discovered the mistake, Abrams was both enraged and terrified, and he was willing to sell the company in order to get out of this uncomfortable financial situation. The firm began negotiations as early as 1963 with Times-Mirror, a Los Angeles publishing firm principally known for its newspapers. The deal was completed in 1966, with Abrams still running the company.
Abrams continued as chief executive of the firm for the next ten years. With the generous financial backing of Times-Mirror, the company published a range of books, from very cheap paperbacks to expensive limited editions such as a $300 volume of Robert Rauschenberg lithographs for Dante's The Divine Comedy. The press continued its focus on American artists. One of its most successful books was a huge edition in 1970 of the works of graphic artist Norman Rockwell, beloved for his humorous covers for the Saturday Evening Post. It was part of Harry Abrams' skill to successfully package a popular artist like Rockwell as well as the cutting-edge American artists captured in the Contemporary Artists series. Abrams also put out lavish illustrated books devoted to things like photographs of seashells and dolls.
New Projects in the 1980s and 1990s
Harry Abrams retired from the firm he had founded in 1977. He began a new press, Abbeville, with one of his sons. The company had two interim presidents until Paul Gottlieb became president of Harry N. Abrams, Inc. in 1980. Gottlieb, who had previously worked for the American history and culture magazine American Heritage, had tastes that were in many ways as eclectic as those of his predecessor. The company made some daring leaps in marketing during his tenure. In 1984, Abrams brought out a limited edition facsimile of a fifteenth-century book, Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. A medieval book of hours commissioned by the Duc de Berry, Les Tres Riches Heures had the reputation of "one of the most beautiful books ever created" (New York Times, November 2, 1984). Of course what Abrams was selling was a copy, and so of dubious value to manuscript collectors. Also, the price tag was an astonishing $6,800. Abrams set about selling 350 copies of the English-language edition, sending the book on a national tour of selected booksellers. Other presses had put out expensive facsimile editions of Audubon's engravings or Leonardo da Vinci's anatomical drawings, but this was a first publication of this kind for Abrams. Around the same time, Abrams was marketing the exquisite Les Tres Riches Heures, president Gottlieb became interested in MTV, the cable television pop music channel. So another signal Abrams publication from the mid-1980s was a series of calendars featuring the computer-generated art shown on MTV. The company also put out a book of computer paintings, The Art of David Em, and published other popular culture titles such as Films of Science Fiction and Fantasy.
In 1987, Abrams published The National Geographic Society: 100 Years of Adventure and Discovery. This was a big hit for the press, and by 2000 there were over 1 million copies of it in print. The press also continued its exploration of American artists with a 1987 book on lost pictures by painter Andrew Wyeth. This book eventually sold more than 500,000 copies, and it was a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, the first time an art book had ever been chosen for the leading slot. Abrams also expanded its series of books on individual artists in the 1980s. It initiated the Masters of Arts series, featuring artists from around the world, as well as its Art of the State series, which highlighted unique features of individual American states. Also in the mid-1980s, Abrams began the first of its successful collaborations with renowned museums. In 1987, Abrams won the right to exclusively distribute worldwide the exhibition catalogs and related works from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In subsequent years, Abrams arranged similar deals with three other major New York museums--the Whitney, the Guggenheim, and the Museum of Modern Art. Gottlieb had realized from early in his time at Abrams that huge museum exhibits that drew thousands of people might be a natural marketing tie-in for the publisher. The company brought out a book about the National Air and Space Museum in 1979, and put out a new edition in 1988. According to an article in Publishers Weekly (April 8, 1988), Gottlieb claimed he got ideas for books by "wandering the Mall" in Washington, D.C. Abrams put out books called The National Gallery of Art and The National Museum of National History in the early 1980s. Another museum-inspired book was the 1988 David Hockney: A Retrospective, which it published jointly with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. However, Harry N. Abrams was not all about artists and museums. It also published in 1988 The Very Best from Hallmark: Greeting Cards through the Years. In addition, the company worked with its parent, Times-Mirror, to promote some of its other media properties. Times-Mirror owned both Golf and Ski magazines, and Abrams did Ski: 50 Years in North America in 1988, followed by Golf in America: The First 100 Years.
Along the lines of museum exhibition books, Abrams greatest coup came in the mid-1990s when it got an exclusive early look at French Impressionist paintings which had been locked unseen in St. Petersburg's Hermitage museum for almost 50 years. The museum's curator let Paul Gottlieb know that he was planning to exhibit the paintings, and Abrams rushed a book to press under arduous circumstances. Abrams staff worked around the clock laying out the book and translating the text into six languages. Hidden Treasures Revealed sold over 200,000 copies immediately, at a price of close to $50. Abrams split the profits 50-50 with the Hermitage and still apparently made a sizeable profit itself.
Changing Hands in the Late 1990s
Around this time, the company's relationship with its parent, Times-Mirror, became strained. Times-Mirror's new chairman, Mark Willes, who took over in 1995, was reconfiguring the media conglomerate, and he decided to axe any subsidiaries that could not promise a 12 percent return on investment. Though Abrams was the largest art publisher in the United States and had had many very successful books, its return on investment was calculated at only 8 percent. This mathematical formula was all there was to the issue, and Times-Mirror announced in late 1996 that Abrams was for sale. At that time, annual sales were said to be $50 million. Interested bidders ranged from large publishing houses to individual investors. In 1997, the French firm Groupe Latingy (later La Martiniere Groupe), a five-year-old French publisher of illustrated books, agreed to buy Abrams for an undisclosed price. Groupe Latingy had worked with Abrams on the French edition of Hidden Treasures Revealed and another book called A Village in France. The press had grown quickly in Europe and had acquired some smaller rivals.
After the sale, Abrams went through several changes. It closed its Amsterdam and Tokyo offices, and some staff who retired were not replaced. The company also contracted its international distribution to a London firm, Thames & Hudson. Paul Gottlieb continued to head the company until 2000. One major development after the shift in ownership was the launching of a children's imprint, Abrams Books for Young Readers. Abrams had put out some children's books since the 1980s. One of its best-selling authors was Graeme Base. Abrams had published his imaginatively illustrated Animalia in 1987, and this sold over two million copies worldwide. In 1999, Abrams debuted a dozen children's titles under the new imprint. It hoped to sell these both in conventional bookstores and in museum gift shops where many of its other illustrated books were sold. Then, in 2000, Abrams acquired the illustrated book publisher Stewart Tabori & Chang for approximately $6 million. Founder Andrew Stewart had briefly been president of Abrams, in between Harry Abrams and Paul Gottlieb. Stewart Tabori & Chang had been acquired in the mid-1990s by U.S. Media Holdings, but the parent had not prospered. U.S. Media was in bankruptcy proceedings when Abrams bought Stewart Tabori & Chang. The company specialized in coffee-table books on visual topics like gardening, decorating, and cooking. Abrams also picked up U.S. Media's Golden Turtle unit, a publisher of calendars.
In 2000, Abrams gained distribution rights from some overseas publishers. It became the U.S. and Canadian distributor for the London press Booth-Clibborn Editions Ltd. and the distributor for publications of the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Next, it gained a contract to distribute the exhibition and collection-based titles of the Victoria and Albert Museum, also in London. Late in 2000, the company announced that its long-time president Paul Gottlieb would become vice-chairman of the parent company, La Martiniere Groupe. The founder of the parent company, Herve de la Martiniere, would become chief executive of Abrams, while Alan Rutsky would take over as president and chief operating officer. Paul Gottlieb died two years later. The company continued in the 2000s much in the same vein as it had previously. Its books spanned the gamut of visual arts, from newly discovered drawings of M.C. Escher to the fashions of Giorgio Armani. Its list contained about 200 books annually, including many children's books, and the company maintained some 1,500 books in print.
Principal Divisions: Abrams Books for Young Readers; Stewart, Tabori & Chang.
Principal Competitors: Phaidon Press; Yale University Press; Thames & Hudson Ltd.
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- "The New Collector," Newsweek, July 11, 1966, pp. 84-85.
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Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 58. St. James Press, 2004.