Assouline Vice President and the son of the founders of one of the most famous publishers in the world, Alex Assulin, told L’Officiel Ukraine about his role in the family business, collaboration with Netflix and sustainable development opportunities for book publishing.
The story of Assouline began a quarter of a century ago, when art director Prosper Assulin and his wife Martin decided to release a book about their favorite French hotel, – Prosper made photo illustrations, and Martin wrote the text. They created the first books in their apartments, and a couple of years later they opened an office in Paris, and a little later – in New York, Venice, Geneva and London. Very soon, the family publishing house began to collaborate with well-known fashion houses and create collectible large-format books about the heritage and work of famous couturiers.
In 2001, Assouline launched the series of Icons, starting with the memoirs of Jackie Kennedy's sister Lee Radziwill, who herself wished that it was Assulin who published her biography. And it did not fail – the book "Happy Times" was sold in a circulation of 40 thousand copies. Despite this, the company did not go the way of mass production, but firmly occupied the niche of luxury life-style publications, equating the creation of books with art. Besides the fact that the best photographers and artists of the world work on each edition, illustrations for some of the limited books are glued by hand and framed in an exclusive gift box.
Despite the general digital revolution, which has also captured book publishing, today Assouline continues to be a successful family business, under the brand name of which not only collectible books on fashion, architecture, art and travel are created, but also author libraries are created and book boutiques around the world are opened. Their number last year was replenished by Kiev Corner Assouline, located in the Domio High Concept Store.
Alex, please tell us how you made the decision to join the family business? Say, at the age of 18, you assumed that you would work in a publishing house created by parents?
Oh, this is a very interesting way. I grew up in this world and from childhood I was a part of it, watching the whole process from the inside, and the publisher’s first office was actually in my bedroom (smiles). I have always been involved in this business, every summer I helped my parents whenever possible. And how can one not be interested in creating such magnificent art objects? Therefore, yes, I was always interested in this, studied graphic design, as well as marketing and advertising at Concordia University in Montreal, and then at Columbia University Business School, after which I joined the family business. It is a real blessing to work with such a wonderful product every day.
Often, family business is a big challenge, so many people, on the contrary, are trying to distinguish between business and family relationships.
Surely this will be understood only by those who worked within the family business. Yes, sometimes some frustration and even conflict situations may arise. But how cool it is at the end of the day to realize that with your family you are creating a beautiful product step by step. I am very happy, because in our family everyone, I, my parents and brother, have their own business responsibilities, we are all good at this and harmonious in working together. The path to this took five years – it took so long to find an understanding of the development of our common business and come to what we have now.
Publisher Assouline occupies a niche of expensive premium publications, some of the books are created manually. Is there any place for innovation in such a business, especially considering that you studied digital marketing at a business school?
You are right when I joined the company, it was digital strategies that became the main part of my responsibilities.
At that time, we needed to add a digital dimension, so I worked on it. This is clearly good from a marketing point of view, when the publisher, in addition to sales in stores and boutiques, announces and sells its content online.
Last year, you started a collaboration with Netflix, publishing books based on their most successful films, including Alfons Cuaron's Roma, Martin Scorsese's Irish, and Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story. Is this also part of such innovation?
This is not so much a matter of innovation as a way to tell a story in a different way. Netflix wanted to submit its films through a different resource, on paper, using beautiful books, so we were happy to be part of this. We plan to develop this area, although I cannot say that now it is our priority. But we would like to do similar projects with other platforms – tell stories using different tools, especially for documentaries. In fact, it is not so simple: the creation of one book can take one and a half to two years, you need to select the content, write the correct text, go to the archives, put everything together.
At the same time, the book "Marriage Story" about the film of the same name with Scarlett Johansson in the lead role was released almost simultaneously with the premiere on Netflix.
Yes, we released it in parallel with the television premiere. Nevertheless, it is worth considering that before this, in December 2019, the United States also hosted the premiere in the cinema. By the way, I really liked this movie, I recommend everyone to watch it.
You recently launched a very interesting eco-initiative, promising to plant one tree for each book sold.
About six months ago, I thought about it, because I want every business to be as stable as possible. Of course, I understand that it is extremely difficult to completely switch to a sustainable model, but all companies must take a step forward, this is their responsibility. This is also not easy for us, because paper is the basis of our products, so we decided to plant trees for every book sold. First, we did it where the biggest problems arose – in the Amazon forests in Peru we planted 25 thousand plants in honor of our 25th anniversary. And since January, we began to do this in the forests, which serve as our source of raw materials. Now we cooperate with Italian factories, sometimes we work with manufacturers from Romania and Finland. Our partner is One Tree Planted, which has access to all these places, they help us to be part of such an initiative. I am glad that we are succeeding in being a part of sustainable development, I am also considering other areas in which we can step by step improve the situation. Say, we can’t use paper from recycled materials, because our publications require the highest quality, but we can do what we can do.
Assouline books are collection editions that you release in different series. But surely you have a bestseller, the most successful publication?
In 2008, my father, Prosper, decided what the publisher’s main collection should be – these are large-size books in which each illustration is pasted by hand. It is interesting that at a time when digitalization became the main direction of the book industry, he saw a trend in the completely opposite approach – in creating premium publications, which became our best sellers, in particular, a series of travel books. We focus on lifestyle themes, everything about lifestyle. We are not crazy about marketing news, this is not our approach. We have been developing our strategy for all 25 years of our existence in order to understand who our real customers are and how to supply them with the best product. Therefore, this business remains family – if we do not feel connected with any topic or direction, we do not do this. Today we publish about 60 titles a year and want to stay within this framework, but we plan to expand the line of different cities, as we see that these books find a great response from buyers. Now we are preparing a publication about Saint-Tropez, my parents went there a few months ago to shoot, and I went to Morocco to publish a book about this country. This is the thing that really worries us, it can be called a vision of Assouline people and a lifestyle. Because we bring our world through content, through the visual component, even through the music that sounds in the stories that we tell in our books.
The Ukrainian book industry is very young, could you give some advice for our publishers? For example, how can one achieve success in this business without losing quality?
This is the most important thing. It must be remembered that quality today is something that is valued the most. This is the main thing. If you start doing something poorly, people immediately see it. Also, starting a publishing business, it is worth considering what exactly you want to do and what is your market? Let's say you are going to publish a premium product or are counting on mass demand, are you betting on text or on an illustration? If your business has long been running, but something goes wrong, you need to look back and remember what you wanted. There are not many players in our Coffee-Table Books sector, but we are all good at what we do, so there are no special competitions among us. If you find a clear place in your matrix, then where you want to be with your product, you will expect success.
I cannot but ask you about Azzedine Alaya – for the whole world he was one of the greatest couturiers, but for you he was a godfather and for your father a close friend. How hard was it for you to work on a book about him and his legacy?
He was one of my best friends. In 1992, Azzedin Alaya showed the latest collection in the classic format of seasonal shows, and my father took many pictures in the studio at the time of preparation and at the show itself. Based on them, he decided to create a small book, but then were not the best times for this. After the death of Azzedine, we decided to publish it with additions to pay tribute to him. I was proud of this work, this is an incredible heritage that people should see, Alaya was an extraordinary couturier, and watching him in the studio was something incredible. Yes, he was one of the people dearest to me.
In the end, could you tell us which book you are reading now and on which media – do you prefer modern gadgets or are you an old-school reader who selects exclusively paper books?
You know, I only bought an e-book last year, I liked using it. However, just a month later, I lost it, because it is so small. As for the books themselves, now I have returned to reading novels, mainly by French authors.
Are these modern writers?
No no. This is all the good old classics. Due to the fact that I read everything that is being prepared in our publishing house, there is not much time left for the rest of the literature. I try to structure it: in English I read, as a rule, non-fixation books that help me develop as an individual and businessman. And in French – fiction, for example, I love Frederick Begbeder. Now I'm reading "Perfumer" Patrick Suskind, I like this novel, a very sensual book.
See also: How It Was: Opening Assouline Publishing Book Corner at Domio