Coffee table books took reading into the realm of beauty. While they convey information, their first job is to sit there and look pretty, giving pleasure even if no one actually lifts the cover.
The concept of a coffee table book is a relatively recent phenomenon, although Michel Montaigne in his 1581 book Upon Some Verses of Virgil suggests that his essays would only “…serve the ladies …to lay in the parlor window…” In other words, to be seen and only occasionally browsed for amusement.
Almost four centuries later, art books published by Cailler, Editions Tisne and Éditions Mazenod, among others, combined color images with lengthy text in a folio format – a large printing size. The books targeted the art market and were limited in scope, but can still be considered coffee table books by today’s standards.
What we would recognize as the first proper coffee table book debuted in 1960. David Brower, then the executive director of the Sierra Club, promoted a series of nature books in hardbound folios called the ‘Exhibit Format.’ The series featured more photographs than text, a strategy that reversed the approach of earlier large format books, because Brower wanted “… the eye … to move about within the boundaries of the image …” The series began with black-and-white photographs from famed photographer Ansel Adams in This is the American Earth and ultimately encompassed 20 volumes of nature photographs. To see the image was almost as good as experiencing nature itself.
Publishers saw the success of the Sierra Club series and produced their own takes on the large, photo-centric and text-light format. They soon discovered coffee table books can sell well without focusing on art or nature. The first book to use the words ‘coffee table book’ in its title was The Coffee Table Book of Astrology, published in 1962.
What makes for a good coffee table book?
Size matters. A coffee table book worthy of the name should boast a trim size of at least 9in by 10in, to accentuate the table it sits on. Anything smaller would disappear into the backdrop. Of course, if it’s too big, the book could overwhelm even the room itself. The double elephant folio version of John James Audubon’s Birds of America series is lush and gorgeous and meets David Brower’s stricture that “… the eye cannot encompass the image all in one glance.” But with pages that measure more than two feet by three feet, it is so large as to be awkward and ungainly – a definite no-no for a coffee table book.
Another important part of a coffee table book is content. It needn’t be copiously wordy, but there must be some there there. Whatever the content, it must bring out an immediate ‘hmm’ which compels you to pick it up and read.
Initially, the accepted range of coffee table book topics was limited to art histories or art-adjacent themes. A prime example is The Complete Work of Michelangelo by Mario Samli, which was published in 1967 and weighs nearly five pounds. Contemporary coffee table books deliver so much more. In a recent list dubbed 38 Coffee Table Books That Are So Beautiful It Hurts, Buzzfeed.com showed how far the coffee table book has come. Number one on the list: sneakers. The Ultimate Sneaker Book tells the story of the iconic footwear in 650 pages and countless images. There are also travel guides, such as ‘City Guides’ from Cereal Magazine that celebrates New York City, London, and Paris with images that makes readers long to pack their bags and go. Others showcase interior design, plants, furniture, food, and any topic that yields fanciful images that transform the seemingly mundane into art objects themselves.
What collectors look for
According to industry records, the fastest-selling contemporary coffee table book is Sex by the singer, actor and producer Madonna. Released in 1992, all 1.5 million copies sold out within three days of the book’s release at $50 (about $95 with inflation). Despite its abundant first-edition production run, it remains the most popular out-of-print book. A copy signed by Madonna sold for $1,100 at auction in 2018.
Of course, collectors of coffee table books seek rarities, too. In 1844, William Henry Fox Talbot produced a book of ‘photographic drawings’ of silver-salted black-and-white prints of daily life. The Talbot publication is considered an early predecessor to the modern coffee table book, and a 1985 reprint achieved nearly $950 at auction in 2019.
Montaigne may have lamented his essays being only fit for a parlor window, but adding exquisitely-shot color images could turn his tome into art fit for conversation at any table, library, online meeting – or, why not, even a window ledge.