Taschen Books Chief Reveals New Projects, Talks 'Fifty Shades' and $12M Books
Benedikt Taschen, L.A.'s biggest book titan, opens up about how to make (and sell) very expensive art books, his love of Disney and why he would like to produce porn movies
This story first appeared in the Dec. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Benedikt Taschen is the showman of book publishing. His most famous gamble — 1999's Sumo, a mega-tome of photos by Helmut Newton that weighs 66 pounds and stands more than 2 feet tall — sold out its limited print run of 10,000 copies. The original list price, a cool $1,500, has made for retail sales of at least $15 million.
Part of his success — Taschen's eponymous company is the world's largest art-book publishing house, having sold 10 million books in 2013 — is his carefully crafted personal image. The privately held firm's most recent catalog, showcasing its collectors' editions, includes scads of magazine profiles on the Germany-born son of physicians who opened his own comic book store in Cologne at 18. Taschen, 53, is an intriguing composite of brash provocateur (he's infamous for tomes like 2008's The Big Penis Book and a serious look at the work of foot-fetishist Elmer Batters) and refined tastemaker (with beautifully realized books featuring everything from 1960s surf culture to the work of Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado). He not only published a 2005 book on the architecture of midcentury L.A. visionary John Lautner but also lives in the space-age Lautner house pictured on its cover: the Chemosphere, an octagonal disc perched atop a 30-foot concrete pole in the Hollywood Hills.
What his company lacks in scale — it publishes about 50 new titles a year — it makes up for in influence. Key Hollywood players are devotees, which helped Taschen win rights to publish the archives of Stanley Kubrick and James Bond, and he exclusively tells THR he's planning a series of books with Disney, including a look at its legendary founder, Walt Disney. New releases this season include the limited-edition Barbra Streisand by Steve Schapiro and Lawrence Schiller ($750), revealing 100 photos of the star during her early years in Hollywood, and the 712-page 75 Years of Marvel Comics: From the Golden Age to the Silver Screen ($200).
Now, 34 years after its founding, the company, whose U.S. market accounts for 20 percent of total sales, operates 11 bookstores, including two in Los Angeles (in Beverly Hills and at the Farmers Market on Fairfax), and has 300 employees among Berlin, Cologne and its U.S. headquarters in L.A. Taschen — who splits time between L.A. and Berlin and is married to his third wife, Lauren (he has five children from his marriages) — spoke with THR about how one book can cost $12 million to produce, why he would like to produce porn movies and how Donald Duck changed his life.
For all of the wildly priced books and star collaborations, you make most of your money selling low-priced art, travel and style books — including Cezanne for $9.99. Correct?
Books below $30 account for over 50 percent of our business. When young people or people without too much money start to buy and grow up with these books, that's the same readership that later buys books that cost $50 or $100.
So much is written about your "sexy books," as your website calls them. How big a business are they?
Let's just say The Big Penis Book gets far more attention than our books on Richard Neutra. It's quite diverse: By far the biggest part, subjectwise, is art, fine art and paintings and sculpture; number two is for sure photography; and then we have architecture, design, fashion, popular culture, film and sex.
How do you get people to buy books mainly of images when they can see everything on the Internet?
A book can be kind of a good friend, a pal for you. There is no doubt that most publishers do not consider this enough because you have to make books look good. Most of them don't look good at all — they look really, really bad.
You started selling books very young. What were you into then?
I was interested in one particular comic book artist who made the Donald Duck series: Carl Barks, who is one of the great American 20th century art geniuses, and he's still totally underappreciated. I thought I was the only one collecting comic books, but I learned that others did the same but much older than me — people who were looking to buy back the lost dreams of their childhood. So I started dealing when I was still in school; I had a little mail-order business when I was 14. I have this DNA for what a collector needs or loves. What we wanted to do later on with our books was create the ultimate fetish items for the collector.
What does it mean to you to be doing books with Disney?
Without Disney and his impact, my life and my career would be completely different. It is kind of an homage.
How do you cover such a wide array of subjects, from Magritte to books about bondage to tiki design?
We treat them all the same. We do children's books, Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. Children's books don't have to look stupid because they are made for children. And sex books, years ago, always looked very stupid, and there's no reason. You can apply the same aesthetic standards to everything.
The Helmut Newton Sumo book really put you on the map. How did it come about?
The inspiration came from Audubon's Birds of America. We, of course, are not the inventors of big books — they existed for hundreds of years. We are probably the ones who made them with state-of-the-art technology and commercialized them in a different way.
Is it true your other enormous book, the 800-page GOAT, as in Greatest of All Time, about Muhammad Ali, cost $12 million to produce?
It might have been something like that. We had to pay Ali. He signed all the copies — 10,000 of them. We had to pay Jeff Koons; he did something for the book. And then pay 100 photographers and writers and print it, production. It took a couple of years to do it, and we did more research than for probably any other book. It's for sure one of the books I am really happy how it came out in the end.
Who has turned you down to do a book?
I write letters, and if there is a no at that time, I'm very persistent — I contact and ask again. With people like Robert Crumb and many others, it did not happen overnight. You have to build a relationship, and people have to know what you are doing and trust you and your editors.
Are you saying no one ever has told you no?
Unfortunately, some died in the meantime. The comic artist Moebius and I were working on a book together, and then the poor guy died. Then the same thing happened with [architect] Oscar Niemeyer.
You have talked about doing a TV channel or producing films, even porn movies. Why haven't you?
Unfortunately, it's only talk. The porno movies won't happen, but the idea was intriguing for me since this industry needs to understand that the biggest sexual organ is the brain. And [porn] productions, at least the ones I know, seem to be made for no-brainers.
Would you have published Fifty Shades of Grey?
That's a good question. I never read the book. I can give a hypothetical answer: If I would have known the book would sell 10 or how many millions, and I thought, "Well, it's probably not a masterpiece, but it doesn't hurt anybody," would I have published it? Yes, no doubt. If I thought, "This is a real piece of shit here, but it will still sell millions," then I would ask myself, "Is it that bad that it would damage our brand?" If I would say yes, then I would not have published it. The brand is more important.
Is Taschen pitchable?
We always have a handful of books somebody brought to us. On the other hand, we get every month at least a couple thousand suggestions on books which we don't do, and we send nice letters saying thank you. But we have a couple of great titles coming up for next year. Michael Muller is a movie-set photographer, and he did all these superhero movies. But his passion, for many years, he photographs sharks. What he does is amazing. This is an example of a proposal somebody gave us.
You recently published 75 Years of Marvel. What do you think of their recent superhero movies?
The last one I saw was [Sony's] Spider-Man. It was, well, how can you say this nicely? I think it was fine. It was nothing outstanding or special.
Why do you have three copies of What Makes Sammy Run? on your bookshelf?
It's my favorite book to give away; I gave away at least 50 to friends. Because I think it's one of the great American books in the 20th century. I buy 10 or so every couple of months.