Culture And The Market: The Emergence Of Coffee-Table Books

Koel Mitra

Koel Mitra is a doctoral fellow in the Department of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University, Kolkata. She takes herself seriously only while sleeping and jokingly at all other times.

Finished, finished… There’s no respect for that (Arts). Cultural life is not an area of serious investment over a long period of time…”  Stuart Hall

This essay aims to look at “marketing” as not merely a process of selling goods but as of a strategic tool that can determine the cultural sensibilities of a certain mass of people. The two most discussed terms in the contemporary methods of marketing are therefore, not surprisingly, “strategic planning” and “market penetration”. If we look deeper into the phrases, we might enter one such domain where the question begins from as basic issues as “what are the strategies?” and “how to penetrate the market with such given sets of strategies?”. Is there really any relation between phase 1 (strategic planning) and phase 2 (market penetration based on phase 1) that can lead to affect the cultural understanding of a generation? Or is the journey simply one-sided? Is the reverse also not true? If the market affects the culture of a certain mass of people, does not the culture also affect the marketing strategies of “products” within the same locale? If the journey is two-sided, where lies the scope of a newly formed literary genre; a genre based primarily not as a subdivision of literary concerns, but as a subdivision of marketing tools? Let us specifically take up the case of the “Coffee table book” to know the nuances that operate between the literary sensibilities and embracing-market at the same time.

What is a Coffee table book? The most widely accepted wiki-based encyclopedia of our times, the Wikipedia, answers this as follows:

A coffee table book is a hardcover book that is intended to sit on a coffee table or similar surface in an area where guests sit and are entertained, thus inspiring conversation or alleviating boredom. They tend to be oversized and of heavy construction, since there is no pressing need for portability. Subject matter is generally confined to non-fiction, and is usually visually oriented. Pages consist mainly of photographs and illustrations, accompanied by captions and small blocks of text, as opposed to long prose. Since they are aimed at anyone who might pick the book up for a light read, the analysis inside is often more basic and with less jargon than other books on the subject. Because of this, the term “coffee table book” can be used pejoratively to indicate a superficial approach to the subject.”

This essay, with regards to coffee table books, intends to look at three things:

(1) That organizations (publishers and book-sellers) follow a customer-centered approach to marketing,
(2) That marketing is run by culture-specific “rohstoff” (literally translated as “raw material”. but in this context it means the raw subject matter upon which the stoff – the performed subject matter – operates) and
(3) That cross-continental differences in the adoption of marketing in the UK, the USA and Australia differ largely from that in south Asia and this exists due to differences in the operating environment.

I personally wish to see, in this essay, if this search will lead us to the revelation of a theory/practice divide by virtue of which a “text” might get modified, altered, transformed from one genre to the other, and whether or not such practice may jeopardize the context of the work itself.

Publishers and book-sellers have seemingly been facing two major problems in a multilingual diversified country like India. Organizations have started to adopt business-like techniques used in the other profit-oriented sectors and are increasingly confronted with market pressures typical of “for-profit organizations” (as against non-profit organizations: sectors that do not necessarily operate on the use-value, exchange-value paradigm only), like competition for funding and the need to earn money to start and fulfill their mission. Such techniques and approaches have been recognized as important especially in the book-selling field because the “marketing” concept, which advocates an understanding of the customer, does not comply with the need for the market of aesthetics. While a soap (bar) may be targeted to a section of the mass, a soap (serial) needs to create a mass and further set them as a target. So much said and done, where shall we, in such a huge field of arts place the genre of a coffee table book? Is the coffee table book a genre in itself at all?

Our images of the colonial India usually involve a relatively primitive economy with relatively low levels of per capita income, no factories and generally low levels of technology in the cities and towns, and much of the population engaged, in isolated places and for long and terribly demanding hours, in agriculture and/or the Arts (caves, kings’ ateliers, temple architectures, etc.). Bookselling is as early a business as book making is. The book trade has been with us ever since. However the distribution of books have gone through immense changes in patterns across time. Here we will focus on the age when chain stores gradually became a dominant force in retail bookselling. This proceeded in two phases. During the first, the stores of the chain companies were of roughly the same size as those of the independents. The principal non-organizational difference between the two was locational: the independents were primarily located in centrally recognized business districts and particular shopping streets of towns (College Street in Kolkata), while the chain stores were predominantly to be found in suburban and regional malls. In the second phase, the chain stores gained magnitude of order and retail independence from its modal independent counterpart (on a wide variety of metrics) and began to be seen more in libraries than shops (The Archeological Survey of India bookstore). Or perhaps in this case the shops often doubled up as libraries. The third phase started by blending the previous two. The shop and the library got merged to a certain kind of library-cum-shop store popularly known as “leisure stores”. Here, a reader could hang around, pick a book, read it while sipping coffee in the same store and go back NOT buying the book. What eventually becomes more important is the culture of the coffee. The book at best acts as an elite accompaniment. The book-sellers’ attention gradually shifted from selling a book to a simultaneous business of selling the book and the coffee. More collaborative retail stores opened. To widen the book-industry it became parallely important to expand the coffee shop industry as well. The phenomenon of such superstores is striking. This interest is only heightened by the diffusion in other lines of retail trade of apparently similar formats (generically known as category-killers). These category killers not only started killing the sale of other books but also the earlier identities of the same. An apt example and very striking in this regard would be the Kamasutra, which has gone a long way in the international book market from being a book on aesthetics to a coffee table book journeying through other book categories of politics, ethics or even pornography. Several sections of the book has been omitted and/or altered to transform it to a coffee table book in cases more than one.

An American edition of the Kamasutra has the following hardcover (pictures blurred on purpose):

Which one is your fav?

The catch-line of this book boldly reads “This state of the art KAMASUTRA US edition consists of 28 beautiful and sexy styles you might not know about. Which one is your fav? (WARNING: Explicit Content !!!)”.

What happens to the text when almost all parts of it are omitted and only 28-odd scenes are sold in the market in the name of the “original text”? A glossy book with lots of colours and designs shape the coffee table book. What comes out is almost a montage of colourful posters piled together to take the name of a much sought-after book throughout the world, across ages.

Let us look at another striking example. While the previous book does not even bother to state the fact that it is (at best) their own interpretation of the Kamasutra, another US-based publisher takes on a more “honest” role and publishes the book as The Revised Kama Sutra.

The Revised KS

It is a hilarious novel about sex in India and has been published in twelve editions, seven languages and nine countries worldwide. But that is not all. This book has a catch-line too. It reads “The Revised Kamasutra : A Novel of Colonialism and Desire”. Immediately the book may seem to become a political text. It becomes, albeit in a funny manner, a discourse on “colonialism” and also on “desire”. This can be significant. This book seems to lay out the history of India, with a focus on the evolution of the capabilities of a certain reading generation, required to sustain the new formats and operations of emerging sensibilities. Lastly, the book becomes a “novel”; a European genre that is suited to sensibilities at least not corresponding to the Kamasutra. This becomes an important book of the coffee table stacks across retail bookstores.

Other kinds of coffee table books are chiefly travel-books. They aim at eroticizing and creating an exotic image out of places not necessarily in an interest of tourism but more in a picturesque interpretation of a land that makes a book album-like, colourful and glossy.

Face of India


The book has the following words written on its preface:

“Of the thousands of Indias that jostle for space in our newspapers, our poems, our art, and our consciousness, few are ever acknowledged. Even fewer are admitted. Perhaps as a way of addressing at least some of them, here is India for a Billion Reasons, a loose collection of thematic writings about the country, interspersed with photographs, old and new. It’s a coffee table book for what it believes is a largely ignored populace, the expatriates and the newly-returned NRIs.”

In a paper titled `The Historical Atlas : Teaching tool or Coffee Table book?’, Jeremy M. Black mentions the age-old proverb that “history is about chaps and geography about maps”. The coffee table book is headed to break both these notions. They are heading straight into the affluent market as a category killer and killing the presence of any text outside its visual appeal. As a result, such a book is rendered into an apolitical photo album that is devoid of any history or geography. That is there as a “leisure-activity”, to be turned over and forgotten. One company claims in their website “This coffee table large format book production estimate service is free. The Printers associated with will print large format ATLAS style hard cover books for, wild life books, historical books, map books, sales books, outdoor books, mountain scene books, commercial photo albums in the following sizes; 10 x 12, 10 x 14 and 10 1/2 x 16 1/2 inches. Custom sizes are also available.”

Has the coffee table book been reduced to an album really? The industry started by naming certain books as coffee table categories. It then moved ahead to make the genre more and more user-oriented and customer-centric. Towards the end of the last decade, we find websites offering to make glossy, coloured, hardcover coffee table books on images of the customer’s choice. Several rates for several layouts are quoted on the website and the customer has to upload her personal photos and select a personal rate quote. A hardcover coffee table book will be formed and will soon be mailed to the customer’s address. A close analysis of this recent trend shows that there are primarily three broad categories of coffee table books. Firstly there are the ones that cater to niche or localized audiences and tastes, with small print-runs like a compilation of Rathin Mitra’s line drawings, or Victoria Beckham’s That Ultra Half an Inch, or those on eclectic topics like Playboy centre-spreads, or India, or the Kamasutra, which plays out to global but niche audiences. There is a third kind of coffee table book, one that has been commissioned for a specific need, and is usually a brand promotion vehicle for the commissioning organization. Royal Enfield — The Legend Rides On was one such book, commissioned by the Royal Enfield India to celebrate fifty years in India. Organizations these days are gradually shifting more towards the third category and promoting the same as personalized gift products. Kapil Kapoor, Director, Roli books points out, “We don’t refer to our books as coffee table books as that is demeaning to the quality of books we publish. We publish illustrated books that are for reading, reference, and information.”

What makes a coffee table book demeaning? If it is so, what makes organizations still prepare such books including the director of the organization here mentioned, with or without the tag? Or let the question be reversed for a while. Why is it that coffee table books have managed to gain such a large sale when many people (including publishers) actually think it to be demeaning? Is it an attempt to consciously create a mass/niche divide and have one book catered to both the readers? Is it an attempt to re-interpret the rohstoff and prepare two stoffs out of it, one for the intelligentsia and the other for a general mass? Or is it also an equal attempt to create two readerships out of two economic classes; one that is granted the rights to visualize coloured pictures while another cannot? Or is it just that one class is made to feel special by such books and soothed by assuring the fact that such coloured privileges are not reachable to all? Also, are these differences enough impetus to ignite the senses of those countries with a comparatively richer per capita income than that of India, where a large mass might actually be able to afford both the coffee table version (more expensive) and “non coffee table version” of the same book? It is here that market penetration and strategic planning becomes important; it is here that the markets are assumed to be different, created and made different and several categories under the coffee table books are targeted to reach the several categories of mass in question. Where one mass might be offered a modified version of a text in the name of a coffee table book, it is here that another class can also be offered the privilege to make her/his own original coffee table book altogether.

The “new competitive climate” in which the publishers are working especially in India, have highlighted the fact that the growing competition is partly caused by the increasing number of charities entering the sector due to the withdrawal of direct public funding in many activities previously undertaken by the government. A second threat is the active collaboration of non governmental organizations which are coming up with huge funds and working on coffee table books as a strategy for further fund-raising. So coffee table books have gained a cyclic marketing structure, one that is assumed to be most cost-effective and profitable for businessmen across all sectors. The positioning and repositioning of publishers in the marketplace has in itself become more market oriented. Sometimes these books are created to ensure profits, which act as front covers for many non-profit and non-governmental organizations. Such profits are integrated and utilized for further non-profit initiatives as well as for the production of a recycled round of newer coffee table books.

Bikash D. Niyogi, Managing Director of Niyogi Books, says “The audience is very smart. Firstly, they will go for a book only if the subject interests them and even then, they will read only if it is by the master of the subject”. If any reader might wonder why that should not be the case and why a reader must read a book that is of no interest to her/him, simply for the purpose of sale and profit, Niyogi has his strategies up the sleeve. He says, “A coffee table book has a long shelf life, unless the subject is extremely time-sensitive, like a book made for a specific event. So, the publisher has a long window of opportunity to recover the costs.” All this seems to indicate that coffee table books are quite sure-shot successes. By this time what we understand for sure about a coffee table book is its high chances of Return-on-Investment (ROI). This section of books is not printed in huge numbers. The limited numbers have an affluent or very rich clientele in mind, that are the buyers of these books. Sometimes the target is not only for the rich, but also for a class like the “fanatic fans”. An overly priced limited edition book on (say) Sachin Tendulkar’s cricketing career may come with personalized signatures on each print. The buyer base in such cases adds a further dynamics to the book than just affluence. The book is converted to a collector’s item and is thus transformed into an artifact. Publishers across the world and especially in India where the market follows no strict patterns and is largely advertisement and pulse-based, a surer ROI definitely makes coffee table books worth selling and a huge hit among the publishers and booksellers.

However, strange that the Indian market is, there are lots of risks involved in this business. A good insight into what will sell and in which market, is a must to succeed in this venture. For example, a very costly book on a football icon, in an otherwise cricket-crazy country may not be the most successful of coffee table books. Market sources point out that Pele by Gloria Books, which is priced at a lakh and forty thousand Indian Rupees, is not doing all that well in the Indian markets. Publishers in this country feel that in Indian markets, Indian culture, including religion and religious practices, is the safest bet. There are titles by numerous authors, each exploring India through different lenses. So there is Exciting India, 100 Wonders of India, Hidden Faces of India, India of Dreams and Fantasy, and many more with an India somewhere in the title. India Then And Now, 270 pages and priced around Rs 3,000, seems to be the hot seller in this category. The book is divided into two halves. In the first half, `India Then’, historian Rudrangshu Mukherjee revisits ancient India. In the second half by Vir Sanghvi, `India Now’ showcases contemporary India.

It is prominent that coffee table books focus on the visual factor. It has in its priorities the packaging of the book over written content. The examples from the retail chains and debates by publishing organizations underscore three pertinent issues. First, there is a close relationship between retailers and manufacturers regarding decisions about product assortment. Second, consumer preferences, tastes for variety, and demand are the key drivers of product assortment decisions for both retailers and manufacturers and even when the two segments have merged. Third, changes in a retailer’s management practice (Category Management decisions) influence manufacturers’ decisions about product assortments. Moorthy, in an essay, `One Dimensional Representation of Products’ writes, “Because all consumers prefer more of a certain attribute to less, we will call this attribute quality.” By this quality which the coffee table book is so devoted to maintaining, contents have changed, writings have disappeared, markets have been shaped and coloured coffee table books have penetrated their level best to an upcoming generation that has accepted the visual culture as an assortment of their tastes and a vent of their decision process. The coffee table book manufacturers have also, no doubt, enveloped this culturally defined emerging sensibility to a newer market defined visual culture. Strategically planned market penetration policies have turned such assortments like the coffee table books into a lucrative business with a conforming ROI. The cultural affinities and engagement of the affluent with a general pattern of high tones, rich colours and visual gloss have long been observed in haute couture; be it in clothing, shoes, make-up, etc. Whether the coffee table books market wants to conform to that taste of lucrative visuals and cater to the group the veins of the same taste is a query that one may have. The questions on whether coffee table books are converting the general category of books from “reading” to “collecting”, from “creating” a pattern of taste to “catering to” an existing pattern of taste are intriguing ones. However, what one may realize for sure is that in the case of the coffee table books, the genre of the book does not define the reading market; it is the other way round where the market gives shape to a specific genre.


  1. Superstores and the Evolution of Firm Capabilities in American Bookselling; Raff, Daniel M. G.; Strategic Management Journal, Vol. 21, No. 10/11, Special Issue: The Evolution of Firm Capabilities (Oct. – Nov., 2000), pp. 1043-1059.
  2. The Historical Atlas: Teaching Tool or Coffee-Table Book?; Black, Jeremy M.; The History Teacher, Vol. 25, No. 4 (Aug., 1992), pp. 489-512.
  3. Art History and Its Publishers; Michael, Ann Holly, Mark Ledbury, Douglas Armato, Susan Bielstein, AndrewBrown, Roger Conover, Vivian Constantinopoulos, Stephanie Fay, Herman Pabbruwe,Catherine M. Soussloff, Ken Wissoker; Art Journal, Vol. 65, No. 4 (Winter, 2006), pp. 41-50.
  4. Strategies for Introducing Marketing into Non-Profit Organizations; Kotler, Philip; Journal of Marketing; Volume 43, No. 1; (Jan, 1979); pp-37-44.

2 thoughts on “Culture And The Market: The Emergence Of Coffee-Table Books

  1. Pingback: Content and Contributors – July 2014 | aainanagar

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