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The scents and sensibility of a high-society publisher

Assouline puts out flattering fashion books that are visually appealing. And if they smell good, even better.

January 05, 2007|Robin Givhan | Washington Post

NEW YORK — Publisher Prosper Assouline is sniffing a $250 book. He has hoisted the enormous tome "Masks" by Thierry Despont from the table in front of him, swung it open and inserted his nose. He looks a bit like a bookworm with an extreme case of myopia. But he is not reading. Although Assouline is a man who sells books, he is not one who traffics in words. He sells style. And he believes wholeheartedly that one can -- and should -- judge a book by its cover.

Assouline made his professional reputation as an art director and continues to create glamorous marketing campaigns for companies such as Harry Winston. But he also has turned his attention to the publishing world, where he sells fashion books that are rich, grand and suitable for photographing atop a Christian Liagre coffee table. When Assouline walks into Barnes & Noble, he practically weeps. So many unattractive books.

His company sells a lot of things -- fancy composition books for $125, $149 decorative ostrich eggs hand-painted with a letter from the alphabet, $750 cashmere throws, $1,200 bronze bookends made from vintage Masai leg bracelets and $45 candles. The candles come in three scents: wood, leather and bibliotheque. Bibliotheque, which is French for library, is meant to smell like a book.

"The Diptyque people make the candles," says Assouline, who is French. "The woman tell me I am crazy. She say, 'Give me three books you love to smell.' "

So he went home and searched his stacks for a pleasing bouquet.

In order to placate a skeptic who finds it difficult to believe that books have distinctive odors -- other than the stench of overwrought prose -- he has offered "Masks" as evidence.

"Masks" is a handmade picture book of cotton paper. It weighs as much as an infant. And it has a distinct scent that is woodsy and dusty, with a hint of ink. Maybe it smells good. Maybe it just smells.

For comparison, he offers "Ricky Lauren: Cuisine, Lifestyle, and Legend of the Double RL Ranch," which sells for $50. The book stinks like wet paint.

The scent lacks character, he says. "We print it in China." But Assouline is a businessman as well as an aesthete, and so he notes, "The book sold out, so it smells good." Then he laughs.

Assouline has become the fashion industry's favorite publisher for books that are beautiful, splashy and highly flattering. He does not deal in unauthorized biographies about designers and their demons. In the world of Assouline, designers do not wrestle with addictions. They are not on the edge of bankruptcy. They lead glamorous lives in exquisite houses and make spectacular clothes.

"I think vanity is a perfectly good reason to publish a book," Assouline says. "I appreciate when people think a book is beautiful or for decoration because I know when you open the book it's going to be a good book."

When the Council of Fashion Designers of America decided last year to create a pictorial history of American style, it turned to Assouline. In 2004 he published a book about designer Carolina Herrera. It is, of course, a picture book, but it isn't filled with photographs from the designer's runway shows or of the famous women who have worn her clothes -- Renee Zellweger, Laura Bush. It is page after page of Herrera herself.

"When we make a book on a designer, it's important to get the spirit of each designer," Assouline says. "What's most important about Carolina is her. So we make a book not about clothes but her, on 200 pages. After that we make a book on Donna Karan, but it's different because she comes from marketing. So it's all about her ads. With Oscar [de la Renta], the most important with Oscar is the life. To eat well, to travel. The book is like a personal album."

And who is the audience? Who, for instance, is interested in a $60 book of photographs of Herrera, a designer with whom the average person is unfamiliar? "The first client for 'Carolina' is Carolina," Assouline says, meaning that Herrera's company agreed in advance to purchase a significant number of the 7,000 books produced. ("I can't comment on business relationships with outside companies," says Herrera publicist Phoebe Gubelman.)

"I wouldn't call it vanity publishing, but it gives you a sense of the kind of deals that can be made," says Barbara Hoffert, editor of the book review at Library Journal, a publishing trade paper. "There's a lot of people with a lot of money and an interest in celebrities.... There's enough people to make a go."

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