How the Luxury Book Publisher Assouline has Managed To Thrive in an Anemic Book Publishing Market

Stories from Departures.
Jan. 1 2012 7:00 AM

The World of Assouline

How a luxury book publisher has thrived in an anemic market.

Book publishers Martine Assouline and Prosper Assouline.
Book publishers Martine Assouline and Prosper Assouline.

This piece is reprinted from Departures.

Bright autumn light fills the red-walled Manhattan office of book publisher Martine Assouline. A wall of windows soaring 15 feet high overlooks the Hudson River; sunlight glints off the water. Martine puts on a pair of chic yellow-rimmed Balenciaga sunglasses while her husband and co-publisher, Prosper Assouline, makes espressos from a machine handily situated next to the conference table. The machine is almost futuristic in its complexity but also looks somewhat resigned: Clearly it is pressed into service many times throughout the day. Martine is midstory:

“We were in Paris, and I received a call,” she says, her English laced with a luxurious French accent. “When my assistant told me who it was, I said ‘Are you sure?’ I thought it was une farce, a joke. To have such a person calling herself! But I spoke with her, and she said to me, ‘I would like to have lunch with you and talk about a book.’ ”

The “she” in question was Lee Radziwill, the American-born jet-setter of international renown and exquisite style. Not long after this momentous outreach, Radziwill turned up at Assouline’s Paris headquarters, several stylish suitcases in tow. Inside them were letters, notes, mementos, and photographs, some still in their frames, representing various chapters in her glamorous life. Martine, Prosper, and Radziwill sifted through the material for days, revisiting the 1960s and ’70s jet-set scene. From those memories came Happy Times, a glossy 2001 memoir that would become one of Assouline Publishing’s most successful titles, with more than 40,000 copies sold around the world.

Plenty of publishers would have jumped at the opportunity to bid for the Radziwill project, but the book was a natural fit for Assouline Publishing, which has published more than 1,000 exquisite photography books celebrating the beau monde since 1994. Its first book, La Colombe d’Orcelebrated a quiet hotel in the south of France where the Assoulines had spent many blissful weekends. “It was exactly our vision of luxury,” Prosper recalls. “Small, with fantastic spirit—no marble and flowers, but full of art and soul.” He took the photographs; Martine wrote the text.

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Looking back, the couple says they didn’t know La Colombe d’Or’s publication would lead to the founding of a Paris-based publishing house; they’d considered it a one-time project. “La Colombe was a love between Martine and me,” says Prosper. After all, Prosper, Moroccan born and raised, had a background in fashion and magazine publishing; Martine, whose childhood took her from Africa to South America, was an attorney and a publicist at Rochas, a prestigious fashion house.

But it was clear from the beginning that Martine and Prosper had a compelling, distinctive approach to their subject matter. La Colombe d’Or immediately resonated with its readers, and the couple had no shortage of ideas for more books. The subsequent creation of Assouline Publishing “was not really a decision,” Martine says. “It comes as life comes—you take roads big and small.”