Husband-and-wife team Martine and Prosper Assouline have built their luxury publishing house by doing what feels natural. Since starting in their Paris apartment nearly 20 years ago, Assouline is now a US-based market leader.
Founding and running a global business with your husband may sound like a recipe for disaster but for Martine Assouline – who started her eponymously named publishing house with her husband Prosper in 1994 – it’s clearly worked. “We’re always together – just like two books on a shelf,” she says, from the company’s headquarters in New York’s Chelsea. “There’s no real separation between our work and our life. We’re together, so we can make very fast decisions and it’s great that we share is a common taste.”
Martine looks like the archetype of a chic Parisienne. Having trained as a lawyer and explored several careers, including photography and public relations, her involvement in the publishing business came relatively late. “We simply decided to make books that we couldn’t already find in bookstores,” she says. “To be honest, the beginning was not very strategic. We were both attracted to books, Prosper was a successful art director and I loved literature. The business began from a room in our apartment.”
Nearly two decades later and Assouline employs around 50 people on both sides of the Atlantic, with its original office in Paris alongside the Manhattan hq and four retail boutiques (three in the US and one in Paris). However, the informal way that the company began continues to influence how business is done today. “We’re not managers in the traditional sense. There is no strict formula. We naturally link how we work with how we live. Personal relationships are important to the business because we work in the field of culture and we are always meeting interesting people – that’s our fuel.”
Managing a publishing empire means combining a diverse workforce, from editorial to art direction and accounts or press. Balancing these daily management tasks alongside creative decisions requires a clear separation for Martine. “I have to know every area of my business, and be clear when I’m working on either the creative process or general management. I need to be able to work at two speeds simultaneously – the slow creative process and the immediate practical pace – and shift seamlessly between the two. I think my training in law has really helped here. Law structures the mind and focuses it straight to the point.”
This flexible approach, centered around a collaborative spousal relationship, has clearly worked for Assouline, with expansion into new markets including Peru and Turkey coming about from informal, personal contacts. Martine takes on the practical business role, allowing Prosper to be impulsive in commissioning books and working with talented photographers. “We tend to look after different territories in the business but none of that is set in stone. We’re always talking about everything we’re doing together,” she says.
The crossover between personal and professional life seems to be part of what drives the business’s success, but the couple still know where to draw the line in how they communicate. “We’re always discussing our ideas together but if there are daily tasks, we stick to email. We can be in a taxi together and emailing each other. If not, the little things would invade our lives and none of that is interesting or exciting. That way when we come to talk about ideas things move forward quickly because we are enthusiastic about it.”
Assouline has been a rare publishing success story while much of the industry has seen decline. Martine puts this down to the decision to move the business from Paris to New York in 2005. Their product was firmly entrenched within the luxury goods sector and they soon realised there was a gap in the global market for their books. “Initially, we only sold in French and in France. But at the international book fairs, publishers like Rizzoli, Abbeville and Vendome were buying the rights to our books, translating them and selling them all over the world under their own names, especially in America. We realised we had something important and recognisable and that we could do that ourselves in the US.”
The company began buying back all the titles that it had co-published. For Martine, 2003 was their turnaround year. “It was then that we realised that we were in the position to brand ourselves as the first luxury culture brand. We launched at Bergdorf Goodman that year and saw that the Assouline customer was shopping there rather than at traditional bookshops.” Since then, the company has seen global growth, yet America is still the most important market for Martine, owing to a mixture of success and loyalty. “This is the place that gave us the chance to do what we do and we understand the market here. For the moment, we are not a huge company, so it’s important that we know what we do as well as our limits.”
While focused on controlling the limits of Assouline’s growth, Martine doesn’t seem concerned with limiting the convergence of work and home life for herself and Prosper. “We are totally different but totally complementary, for us, it’s the perfect partnership.”
What time do you like to be at your desk?
By 8.30, so I have time to work with the Paris office.
Where’s the best place to prepare for leadership, an MBA school or on the job?
I would say that an MBA is helpful because I never had that experience myself.But, if you don’t have the character to be a leader, an MBA won’t help.
Describe your management style
When making a decision, I like to ask the people who are involved in the situation – including Prosper, before I make my mind up.
Are tough decisions best taken by one person?
I always consult the manager of each team before I make big decisions. I check Prosper is happy with my decision and it’s done.
Do you want to be liked or respected?
I want to be respected. But being liked is a bonus.
What does your support team look like?
Each department has its own manager and I work with them directly.
What technology do you carry on a trip?
My BlackBerry and iPad.
Do you read management books?
No. I didn’t have management teaching but my father was an excellent manager. He was very human but at the same time very fair and clear.
Run in the morning? Wine with lunch? Socialise with your team after work?
I hate to run. I love to have a good Bordeaux with Prosper every night. I hope our employees do the same and prefer that than socialising with me!
What would your key management advice be?
To be determined but to listen and explain well.