The Genteel
October 20, 2017
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Rick Owens Coffee Table Book, by Rick Owens makes for an edgy statement, Rizzoli. Source: rizzoliusa.com.

When conversations began a decade ago about the death of print and the birth of the glossy eBook, I quietly learned how to live in denial. I understood the advantages of eBooks and eReaders, and even found them exciting, but I refused to believe that in the near future, a digital predator would soon cannibalise my beloved print copy.  

Now, in 2012, eBooks are having their cake and eating it too; according to UK trade organisation, Publishers Association, during the first half of 2012, digital fiction sales were up by 188 per cent while digital non-fiction sales were up by 128 per cent over the same period in 2011. Are the days of beautifully packaged text - quality paper, sturdy binding and smart design - behind us? Are we to resort to Steidl's Paper Passion perfume to remind us of the irreplaceable scent of a freshly printed book? Well, perhaps not quite.

Her Majesty Royal Art Edition by
Vivienne Westwood and Harry Benson.
Source: modaoperandi.com.

During the book's lifespan, publishers have magnified two of the book's qualities - its design and its mark of intellect and luxury - to develop a niche market for book lovers: the coffee table book. The content of coffee table books is usually carefully curated and the books themselves are typically large in size so to stand out while passively sitting on your coffee table. Besides being visually arresting, coffee table books can also furnish a room. In a sense, they're not just books; they're items, like vases or picture frames, but smarter. 

The tactile experience surrounding coffee table books pose challenges for digital replication. I cringe every time I see an eReader display - its muted, dull colours meant to prevent eye strain, but deprive readers of stunning images. Even advanced retina displays can't evoke the glorious sensations and meditative qualities that heavyweight, glossy paper, with abundant room for white space, text and high-resolution photography can.

To be fair, some well-designed eBooks have surfaced recently, such as The Numberlys, an interactive children's book developed by Moonbot Studios, or Inkle's Frankenstein, an interactive re-telling of Mary Shelley's classic tale that will surely impress.

Yet, it's not the same. The print book, specifically an art book, is a social item, whereas eBooks - no matter how beautiful and glossy they might be - are anti-social; they hide in your iPad or eReader, and are for your eyes only. A room without books feels cold and without personality; art books live and breathe in their surroundings, while adding ethereal beauty to the atmosphere.

Of course, another element that differentiates coffee table books from other print and digital publications is its price. The coffee table book's value is determined by the exclusivity of the book and its content. For US$75, one can get a hardcover copy of Rizzoli's Louis Vuitton Marc Jacobs or for  US$890, one can purchase a copy of Taschen's Norman Mailer and Bert Stern, Marilyn Monroe, signed by Mr. Stern himself.  

…for the future I see a broadening market for slightly higher-end collectible books, as books become more bespoke, valued and cherished in our digital age.

2013 will bring with it a fruitful crop of coffee table books, from Dolce & Gabbana Camprioni, which explores the fusion of sports and glamour through Domenico Dolce's photographs, to Francesco Vezzoli, a book edited by Christina Perrella that offers an intimate look into the artist's fascination with celebrity culture. In January 2013, art book Her Majesty Royal Art Edition by Vivienne Westwood and Harry Benson will surely grace many reading rooms and offices around the world with its royal presence.

Besides "exclusive" status, publisher Charles Miers of Rizzoli USA, a prolific publishing house of highly collectible coffee table books, reveals to The Genteel that a great coffee table book must hit three specific points: "First and foremost, integrity to the subject. I think books are very transparent, and book buyers are very educated about books and are very discerning. Second, a book is successful if it can give [to the reader] a sense of being in the place of the subject, or as if you're in the same room with the subject. Third, a creativity and care brought to the book itself."

Today's book buyers are more sophisticated than they were five, ten, twenty years ago; with fresh information on any given subject - no matter how niche - readily available via online search engines, book publishers must not only present strong, accurate and exclusive content, but package it in a way that matches the reader's sophistication and satisfies their hunger for beautiful images.  

With the increasing popularity of eBooks and eReaders, high-end publishers such as TASCHEN, Rizzoli, Phaidon and Steidl ought to take advantage of the coffee table book's growing status as an art item. Miers reveals a positive outlook for the art book's future to The Genteel, "…for the future I see a broadening market for slightly higher-end collectible books, as books become more bespoke, valued and cherished in our digital age. It seems that [in our digital culture] people are attracted to anything handmade today."

Major publishing houses, Phaidon and Steidl, have curated a list of must-have coffee table books for The Genteel reader; so go ahead, and judge the book by its cover. 

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