J. Crew, purveyors of GOATED mall prep since 1983, have put up some big Ws over the years: Jenna Lyons, the Michelle Obama dresses, the Liquor Store on Broadway – now operated by Todd Snyder – and the discovery of a ton of #menswear design talent (Snyder included alongside Frank Muytjens and now Brendan Babenzien). Also, tons of really beautifully art-directed catalogs – an endless summer for a grinning passel of Block Island WASPs.
People went nuts for those catalogs. Now, J. Crew is betting that nostalgia for pre-internet everything is powerful enough that people will pay $125 for a coffee table book largely composed of those images. Forty Years of American Style is basically a religious text for privately educated Unitarians.
The book is fun to flip through and features engaging essays by Lyons, onetime CEO Mickey Drexler, Snyder, Lisa Birnbach, Anna Wintour, and others, but it’s still fair to ask the question: Who is buying this?
Given the price point, it’s safe to say that the intended audience isn’t a bunch of 40-year-olds looking to relive the Felicity years. Nor is this for the art crowd that typically buys books on Frida Kahlo or the architecture of Louis Vuitton stores from Assouline, the publisher. That basically leaves the J. Crew marketing department. Odds are good that J. Crew – aping common behavior among folks running for political office – guaranteed a certain number of sales. These things are getting stacked in an office somewhere as prescribed by a Q2 marketing plan.
This kind of thing happens a lot. The biggest customer for a big glossy brand book like Forty Years of American Style (or you know, a book about the architecture of Louis Vuitton stores) tends to be the brand itself.
“If you see a brand book, you can assume it is majorly subsidized,” Alan Rapp told SPY. He’s the editorial director of the art and design publisher Monacelli Press, which is owned by the even bigger art and design publisher Phaidon, which has published brand books of their own about Chanel, Nike, Paul Smith, and elBulli.
“You can assume that the client’s support covers the production cost completely and from there it should be low to no risk for the publisher,” says Rapp.
By placing an order large enough to cover the costs of the book’s production, brands financially de-risk publishing for the publisher. They also put themselves in a position to control what’s published while still working with prestige publishers. For their part, publishers get the shine of putting often very lovely and well-designed books about coveted brands like Nike or Herman Miller or Barbie or Marvel Comics. And, once in a while, one of the books hits with an audience outside the marketing department.
”The mutual benefit to the brand and the publisher is that a big gorgeous book doesn’t feel like a marketing piece,” says Rapp, “because of the history and format. Books don’t read as marketing the way a brochure or even catalog does, because they present a bigger canvas.”
But ultimately, yes, the books are marketing cosplaying as prestige publishing. That said, not all books pass for genuine publishing efforts. The J. Crew book isn’t for sale on Assouline’s website or, for that matter, on Amazon. It can, however, be purchased at jcrew.com, which supplanted the old catalogs before anyone thought to recycle them.