Germany's Publishing Heavyweight

Benedikt Taschen, known for inexpensive books on artists, has gone ultra-high-end with a glossy, 75-pound tome on Muhammad Ali

German book publisher Benedikt Taschen puts everything he has behind his new releases. On Apr. 15 he unveiled GOAT: A Tribute to Muhammad Ali. The limited-edition photo book about the boxing legend sells for $3,000 a copy. Weighing in at 75 pounds, it's so heavy that just picking it up gave Taschen a double hernia that required surgery in mid-March. "We're including a note inside to always have two people lift it," he says.

GOAT, which stands for Greatest of All Time, may be the most outrageous venture yet from the 43-year-old Cologne native, who prides himself on two decades of shaking up the stuffy world of art-book publishing. His company, Taschen, now publishes the world's best-selling series of art books, the $9.99 Basic Art profiles of famous artists.


  Taschen's formula of mining popular culture for glossy book ideas is being copied by other publishers. "He has pushed the edge of what's possible in a very creative way," says Charles Miers, publisher of Rizzoli New York, the U.S. arm of the Italian art book publisher and retailer. "Benedikt likes risk."

Art books, typically coffee-table tomes on well-known artists, are a niche business. They account for roughly 1% of the $11.9 billion U.S. consumer book market, according to David Jastrow, a senior analyst at publishing-industry researcher Simba Information. But they provide a comfortable living for Taschen, who has his offices in a former mansion in Cologne and operates retail stores in that city, as well as in Paris and Beverly Hills. Taschen declines to reveal revenues at his 150-employee outfit except to say they're greater than $50 million. He says the business has been profitable since the late 1980s.

Taschen grew up flipping through art books. The son of two physicians, he skipped college and at age 18 opened a 225-square-foot comic-book store in Cologne. His parents and an aunt bankrolled him for years, even taking out mortgages on their homes. In 1984, he acted on a hunch and bought 40,000 remaindered copies of an English-language book on surrealist painter René Magritte for $1 each. Taschen sold them to German bookstores for five times what he paid.


  Inspired by that success, the entrepreneur launched the Basic Art series the following year with a 96-page paperback on Pablo Picasso. Taschen now publishes 60 titles in the series, on subjects ranging from 15th-century Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo to pop-art king Andy Warhol. In 1989, he produced his first high-end book. The two-volume Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings was priced at $60, as little as one-quarter of what publishers charged for similar compilations.

To keep costs down, Taschen pays authors flat fees rather than royalties. He requires stores to buy in larger quantities, reducing his distribution costs. And while many publishing houses share the expense of printing in other languages by licensing titles to local publishers, Taschen prints all of his books himself, in as many as four languages, and often using low-cost Asian presses.

"He's very good at getting print runs based on worldwide demand," says Barnes & Noble (BKS ) Vice-Chairman and CEO Stephen Riggio. "Customers get extremely high-quality books at a low price."


  Taschen's catalog now includes books on architecture, fashion, interior design, and even vintage erotica. His two-year-old Naked as a Jaybird is a $40 collection of photos from the 1960s nudist magazine, Jaybird. It comes with stickers that can be used to make the photos more family-friendly. The publisher opened a U.S. office in Los Angeles in 2002 and plans to delve further into popular culture, including a series of inexpensive profiles of film directors, similar to his Basic Art titles.

Taschen's company tested the waters of ultra-high-end publishing in 2000 with SUMO, a collection of photos by the well-known fashion photographer Helmut Newton. In the tradition of the Japanese wrestlers that inspired its name, SUMO weighed 66 pounds and came with its own Phillipe Starck-designed metal stand. Taschen initially priced the book at $1,500 a copy and raised that to $3,000 last year. Now, with Newton dead and just 400 of the 10,000 copies left to sell, Taschen is boosting the price to $5,000.

SUMO proved helpful in winning Ali's cooperation. Impressed, the former champ gave Taschen extensive access to himself and his entourage. Taschen is packaging the title with typical flare. The book's spine gleams in hot pink leather, a nod to boxing gloves and the color of Ali's first Cadillac. Each copy will be signed by Ali and artist Jeff Koons, who created a plastic sculpture that will be sold with each $7,500 "Champ's" edition. This summer, Taschen will auction off a copy that's signed by each of the more than 150 people mentioned in the book, including the Dali Lama and 98-year-old German boxer Max Schmeling.


  A compendium of the best writing and photography on Ali, GOAT took four years and $12 million to produce. Taschen figures selling two-thirds of the 10,000 copies will allow him to turn a nice profit, but some say hitting that number could be as difficult as going 15 rounds with Ali in his prime.

"People are ogling it," says Douglas Woods, general manager of Hennessy & Ingalls, an art-book store in Santa Monica, Calif., that has a copy of GOAT on display. "In terms of selling big numbers, we're not really expecting it to."

Taschen says it'll be a long time before he attempts another project of this magnitude, in part due to a lack of subjects with broad appeal. Might John F. Kennedy work? "You couldn't get him to sign it," Taschen says. That's the kind of thinking that got him out of his tiny comic-book store.

By Christopher Palmeri in Los Angeles

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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