It's not just a brand name on a big fancy book. "Taschen" is a man, Benedikt Taschen, who started his publishing empire with a comic-book shop leveraged with a stock of remaindered art books. The firm is headquartered in Germany, but when he's in Los Angeles, his landing pad is the Chemosphere, the John Lautner flying-saucer-on-a-hillside. Taschen just released a three-volume collaboration with National Geographic ("Around the World in 125 Years"), and it's clear from the myriad images at his desk that Taschen cast his eye, and his approval, over what's in those books and so many others.
You have a dozen stores and L.A. has two of them, in Beverly Hills and the Farmers Market on Fairfax. Does that say something about L.A. as a book city?
It was by coincidence. One-city-one-store is usually fine, but this great location in Farmers Market was offered to us. I always liked this market. First of all, I hate shopping malls; something like the Beverly Center — not 10 horses would get me in there. But [the Farmers Market] is a great destination, this mom-and-pop store segment.
But bookstores are closing hither and yon. What are you doing right?
That's what we ask ourselves every day! It's a very anachronistic business we are in. I was always disappointed how existing bookstores and other retailers were carrying our product — they always picked this and that one, and I always regarded them as a family of books. Unless people see our books together, they would not go in to come out with "Julius Shulman: Modernism Rediscovered," or the circus book we did, or many others. But once you see them together, it opens up your mind and you think, wow.
There was a [Paris] bookstore that always made picky choices of what they would take and what they wouldn't. [It] went out of business. We did a store [nearby] and it was super-well appreciated from the first day on.
Some publishers have bestselling authors whose work subsidizes unknowns. Is that your model: big books making little ones possible?
No, we wouldn't operate that way. It's reported like that, but of course publishers only [print books] because they think they might be bestsellers as well. You never know what is your bestseller until you have a bestseller.
We know that with a number of titles, there are limitations; that this one will not make any money or even that we lose money, because it's just part of the idea of a family of books. Not everyone is equally strong; it is your duty to support them.
Is your list determined by your personal taste?
I would put it this way: The core program has a lot to do with my taste, but of course there are a number of titles which are less close to my heart than others.
Do people come to you and say, "I have a great idea for a Taschen book"?
A few years ago, I counted one month — we got nearly 3,000. We answer everyone, but it's very rare we pick one of the projects. So we send a nice thank-you letter. Sometimes they are really interesting ideas, but as you know, the execution of an idea is completely different — especially with the books we are doing, much more complex than just writing one text about one subject. An idea is great, but maybe you have to work a year, two or three years. It's exactly like the work on a big documentary. Whatever the subject, you have to work with maybe 100 or more sources to find out what they have to contribute.
You've pledged to make Taschen Books carbon-neutral.
I supported this forestation program for maybe five years already, but last year we made a survey of the carbon numbers you have to offset. You talk to all your suppliers, you know exactly how they operate. All of your suppliers, the printing companies, the transportation — then [calculate] the energy you have to carbon-offset. It's a very complex and interesting subject.
Resale prices for some Taschen titles have gone up tremendously. Do you regard them as investments?
Surely not as investments. The vast majority of our books inspire people when they buy them or get them as a gift. A great side effect is most likely they will at least hold their value or maybe gain value. If people just buy something growing in value, I would not advise them to buy our books — do something else. But if on top you have this [increase], then, great!
Our collectors' books — the signed and limited editions — the majority of buyers are male. That's what we know from our client profiles. We hear quite often that they have this hobby, to collect these books. Often the family says, "Why do you buy all these expensive books?" It's very helpful if they can say their hobby is endorsed by this [increase]!
Is there a sweet-spot price point?
It just depends on the buyers. We take great pride that we have books that cost $10 or $15; then, of course, we have $50 or $100 or $1,000 or more, but we always take the same care because that's what we think we owe our customers. If you're a student, maybe the sweet spot is $20, and if you are a Hollywood mogul, then the sweet spot is probably … $25! [Laughs.]
You started out trading in comic books. Is Taschen still into comics?
Not for a long time, but we have started slowly to make a comic-book program, and we will do some very big productions in a couple of years.
What's behind the partnership with National Geographic?
It was a kind of unconventional marriage. It is the first time ever they gave someone unrestricted access to the archives in Washington. There are so many photographs that have never been published, or when they were published, people didn't realize what great photos they were. Nat Geo had restrictions on the [photo] size; the size never changed from the very beginning, this relatively small size. A story published in 1950 would not necessarily choose the pictures we would choose today.
Nat Geo showed us the exotic; nowadays, people visit those places and everyone's got a camera. Does that change our relationship with these images?
For sure toward photography in general, but people necessarily think, "I can do that." That would be too naive.
What difference has digital photography made to your work?
Much easier, absolutely. We could not produce what we do now without digital technology. We don't alter the images, but it makes the handling much easier.
You've made books about nudity, and some specifically about breasts and penises. Some people wanted you to airbrush the nipples from the cover of the Helmut Newton book.
At the time here in America, a [fear] of nipples was second after a terrorist attack. I did not take this too seriously. If someone doesn't like it, nobody's forced to buy our books. But others would not like it if we airbrushed the nipples! We've tried to make it [so] people don't have to be shy.
Taschen is known more for pictures than text. Are narrative books going away?
[Our books] are visually driven. Our National Geographic project, if you don't have great captions which tell you in a short version the entire story of that picture, you would get lost right away. I always saw it as equally important as the picture itself.
So a picture isn't just worth a thousand words — it may need a thousand words.
I completely agree. The National Geographic [project], the percentage is probably 20% [text] to 80% [photographs], but without that 20%, you would not understand anything.
Does it bother you when people refer to yours as coffee-table books?
If I would be a book and had the choice — you would see my spine or see me full frontal in the middle of the house on the coffee table, of course I would choose to be a coffee-table book. When I go to the house of a stranger, the first thing I do, I check what books they have. You can learn tremendously when you see what people have on their shelves.
Are there projects you want to do that you haven't?
One is World War II. I'm thinking for maybe 10 years, how do you do this?
Do you use a Kindle?
No. A book has no real need for electricity. I buy a lot of old books that you won't get on a Kindle anyhow. You get a lot, but a majority that I wouldn't read anyway.
Do you dog-ear pages?
I do it with novels and biographies. I usually don't do it with art books. Look, here's a biography of this famous German literary critic. Usually I have no pen available. But at least I can [do] that!
This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript.