“I Love it When a Publisher Surprises You”: A Word With . . . Lauren Gallagher

In this month’s A Word with You, we talked to Lauren Gallagher, the book and media buyer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Lauren is also a dance writer and was formerly a dance critic for the San Francisco Examiner. Follow her @snickersnacked.

So . . . how are you? 

Haha, sort of a loaded question this year isn’t it? I’m hanging in here. I keep thinking about those photos of kittens hanging from a tree branch on Get Well cards from the 1990s. I’ve had some non-Covid related health things to sort out, but I’m grateful to otherwise be ok. Books, music, and football (soccer) have been my salvation this year, along with a newfound love of alcohol wipes. 

Has the COVID crisis affected how you buy and think about books? 

So far the crisis hasn’t changed how I think about books, but I hope it changes how some publishers think. I’ve felt for a long time that the industry needs more of a sense of urgency.  What needs to be in print and in what way? Do we really need another $60 book that is, in essence, a hardcover magazine? Publishing should be visionary and at the forefront of thought—establishing not chasing trends. Design matters. When done right it cultivates a strong relationship between book and reader. Think about our memories of the small trims of Beatrix Potter or the Flower Fairies or the gold bindings of the Little Golden Books. Penguin’s orange paperbacks, Everyman’s Library, and New Directions’ Lustig covers are icons. At the other end of the spectrum is Taschen’s SUMO program, which works because they choose the right artists for the format. Younger generations of book buyers are choosier, have less space, uproot more, and don’t believe in the same accumulation of ‘stuff’ as the boomer generation-publishers have a responsibility to get it right if they want to continue selling books.

I hope to see more books published with thoughtful intent rather than chasing trends. Penguin’s collection of Zadie Smith essays, Intimations, got it right: urgent, affordable, and pocket size. I hope the future of publishing will be more intentional—small presses continue to be amazing at this. I also think more direct-to-paperback publishing should be happening: I have always sold more than twice the paperbacks in the same amount of time as a hardcover of the same book. With paperbacks, a customer’s cultural investment is increased: they can afford to diversify their library, are more likely to buy higher quantities, take more chances on writers and genres, which increases their investment in the ecosystem of publishing. 

To be honest it hasn’t changed my buying choices, some of the trending topics are subjects I’ve always ordered (mindfulness and art, how to draw/paint etc.). Changes have really been in terms of ordering fewer copies.  

What are publishers doing now that you are particularly excited about? Who is inspiring? 

This was a strange year, without the in-person fairs like Art Book Fair and no in-person visits from sales reps, it’s hard to feel like you have full scope. I’m always impressed with Atelier EditionsAnthology EditionsFUELSiglio, but I also love it when a publisher surprises you. Samuel Ryde’s Hand Dryers looks like it should be Hoxton Mini Press or FUEL, but, it’s Unicorn! Imagine that!  

I can’t stop looking at Africa State of Mind from Thames & Hudson, it is luscious. T&H’s Lartigue book is intimate and joyful like his photographs. Aperture’s The New Black Vanguard, DAP’s Young, Gifted & Black: The Lumpkin-Boccuzzi Family Collection of Contemporary Art are remarkable. Abbeville’s Watercolor: A History, printed on Munken paper, is a real showstopper. Art Institute of Chicago’s El Greco catalogue and Montreal MFA’s Signac & the Independents were real standouts in innovative and luxe design for scholarly publications. The wordless picture book, The Wanderer by Peter Van Den Ende, really got me. His illustrations are stunning. The vulnerability about the little paper boat, rolling with the waves, having to take in whatever comes its way feels like a metaphor for this year. Chronicle’s list continues to impress me with their ‘gimme,’ list of tactile titles.  

What’s the best (or worst) piece of advice you’ve received recently? 

Take care of yourself. 

What does business look like right now?

Promising: even though it is not a normal year, we still see robust demand for books. Obviously it is a lot of locals, rather than tourists. Hundreds and hundreds of separate titles move out of the store each week.  The Met customer remains a voracious reader with diverse interests, and that pleases me. Online sales are strong. We had a lot of demand for Peabody Essex’s Jacob Lawrence catalogue since the exhibit was here, and that was wonderful.  

What do you hope for the future of bookselling in museums? 

I hope books remain the core reason for the retail presence in a museum, and that museum and art publishers continue to innovate, since their books are key revenue drivers for museums. I hope bookstore footprints hold, rather than shrink, since books are shopped differently than other retail products. Variety does not necessitate lack of curation, it exists in tandem with it and is necessary to achieve optimal book revenue. Bookselling and the publishing industry operate with different industry standards and tools compared to apparel and gift retail and this can sometimes be misunderstood. I’d also love to see museum bookstores given the same tech advantages of bookstores, like auto-populated data entry, for example. A girl can dream! 

What are you working on and what are you reading? Do you have anything you would pair it with (a food, a movie, another book, etc.?) 

Normally I’m critiquing dance but that’s a wash for a while. I’m working on essays and writing to my #penpalooza pen pals, a letter exchange initiated by Rachel Syme, which has been marvelous. I spent a few days glued to the couch devouring Anne Enright’s Actress, and was bereft after finishing it—she floors me. Ferrante’s latest, another fast read, I now recommend for Ferrante neophytes. In addition to re-reading Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, dipping in and out of Proust and Matthew Beaumont’s Nightwalking, I’m reading a Maigret a day, which pairs well with watching soccer on a Spanish channel-their announcers let you know when to look up. I get a kick out of Car & Driver, and read its letters to the editor in the bath with a Malfy gin and tonic tubside. 

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