Influential Book Packager of Non-Fiction Books and Founder of Chanticleer Press, Inc. and Chanticleer Co.
As an émigré publisher from Vienna, Paul Steiner became one of the first so-called “book packagers” of illustrated non-fiction books in the United States. From the 1950s on, he exerted significant influence on the development of this book format in the country. Many of the illustrated books, encyclopedias, and guides to culture, art, history, geography, and nature he developed and produced for and in cooperation with notable American publishing houses—including the innovative wildlife identification books created in cooperation with the Audubon Society—set new standards in terms of quality and design. As part of the internationalization of the publishing business after World War II, these lavishly illustrated publications were also distributed in the German-language market. Like his mentor, the Hamburg-born pioneer of paperback publishing Kurt Enoch, Steiner belonged to a generation of German-speaking immigrants who helped to shape the publishing business in the United States.
Moderne Welt Verlag: Background in Magazine Publishing
Paul Steiner’s early career was rooted in the commercial publishing world of interwar Europe. He was born in Vienna, Austria on January 1, 1913 as the younger of two sons of the wealthy Jewish textile merchant Geza Steiner (1872–1923) and his wife Ilona (née Singer, 1885–1943). Raised in a bourgeois, secular, and culturally open-minded environment, Steiner’s childhood was shaped by an interest in art, literature, music, and the latest philosophical trends, including the theories of Sigmund Freud. However, his father’s premature death, financial misfortune, and the economic conditions in Vienna at the time of the Great Depression greatly weakened the family’s situation and eventually caused it to lose most of its wealth.
Steiner, who was deeply impressed by the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and the music of Richard Wagner and who admired Thomas Mann and Egon Friedell, with whom he was also acquainted, wanted to embark on a career as a journalist or writer. After finishing commercial school, however, he was forced to take a number of other jobs to support his family. Yet he also wrote articles for the daily Neue Freie Presse, for whose owner and editor-in-chief, Ernst Benedikt, Steiner served as a private secretary from July 1934 until August 1935. A childhood friend of Steiner named Wolfgang Foges had meanwhile established, with the financial support of a Jewish heiress, a small magazine publishing house called Moderne Welt Verlag whose main publication was the eponymous magazine, a monthly devoted to fashion, cosmetics, sports and society. Its core business, however, was a number of customer magazines subscribed to by department stores and beauty salons across the German-speaking parts of Europe. From 1935 on, Steiner served as editor and, later, editor-in-chief of the Moderne Welt Verlag and acquired a comprehensive knowledge of the publishing business. Alongside his professional life, he obtained his higher education entrance qualification in 1936 and began to study law. He took the first of three state exams in early 1938, but by March of that year the Anschluss had drastically changed the political situation in Austria; the Moderne Welt Verlag passed into other hands and the staff was “Aryanized.” Steiner was admonished to leave the country. He managed to get his mother to safety by taking her to his brother in Belgium. He then tried to enter the Netherlands as a traveling salesman of the Moderne Welt Verlag, but was deported. Eventually, Steiner received a U.S. visa that allowed him to travel to Brussels in late 1938 and from there to London, where he stayed for a little while with Wolfgang Foges who had already emigrated.
Adprint: Developing Illustrated Non-fiction Books in Exile
The move into exile forced Steiner to rely on his professional network and accumulated expertise as he began to rebuild a career abroad. No longer connected to the Moderne Welt Verlag, Foges had established a publishing company called Adprint in 1937 with the financial support of Lord Glenconner (C. Tennant Sons & Co.). As a “book packager,” he developed non-fiction books for British publishers, contributing his technical knowhow about illustrated material and reproduction techniques to this process. The team with which he worked was made up largely of émigrés, including Walter and Eva Neurath who would go on to establish the publishing company Thames & Hudson. As Paul Steiner described it in his unpublished autobiography:
“Foges had the brilliant idea to establish a publishing house based on the principle of creating books, that is, a publishing house whose sole purpose was to conceive books and book series, to commission the texts from competent authors, but not to worry about distribution (…), instead selling (…) the edition to an established publisher. Since the books in question were invariably non-fiction books that were conceived by an in-house editorial team and because those non-fiction book series lend themselves to illustration, Foges’ book creation house was not just responsible for the text of the individual volumes, but also for the artwork.”
Steiner initially rejected Foges’ offer to join his company in London. In February 1939, Steiner traveled to the United States where he stayed with distant relatives in Akron, Ohio. He eked out a living as a sales representative, roofer, and warehouseman before moving to New York in July 1941 to establish a U.S. subsidiary of Foges’ company under the name Chanticleer Press. In New York, he took up lodgings with the Esbergs, an upper middle-class Jewish family that had fled Germany in 1938 and had since similarly managed to build a new life in New York with the help of friends. Steiner became close to the Esbergs’ daughter, Marianne, who shared his interest in art, culture, and music. In February 1942, the two were married and a year later their son, Thomas, was born. In 1945, Steiner was granted American citizenship.
When the British backers wanted to withdraw their support from Adprint, and thus from its American subsidiary, Steiner bought up the company in 1952 with the aid of his own financiers and with the support of Marianne’s brother, Andreas Esberg, an accountant. In the decades that followed, Steiner turned the company, now called Chanticleer Press, Inc., into an internationally successful producer of non-fiction books. A branch of the business called Chanticleer Company, in which Steiner’s son Thomas also worked from the 1970s on, assumed responsibility for the organization, execution, and quality control of high-quality prints and reproductions. In particular, Chanticleer Company handled modern four-color prints, often on behalf of publishing houses and museums in, among others, New York, Paris, and the Vatican.
Chanticleer Press: Coffee Table Books and Field Guides for an International Market
In terms of content, Steiner shared Foges’ approach of producing general educational titles for a wide audience on a broad range of topics. As opposed to Foges, however, he also began to produce richly illustrated coffee table books. As a 1996 obituary for Steiner in the New York Timesdescribed his achievements: “[Steiner] helped reshape the publishing business in the United States and made the illustrated coffee table book an industry staple.” In developing illustrated non-fiction books that combined affordability with high-quality content and form, featuring hundreds of color reproductions, Steiner benefited from the expertise he had gained in Europe. At the same time, however, there was a need to develop adequate organizational structures, production methods, and design innovations. By combining these aspects and working with printing companies in Italy, Austria, Switzerland and Japan, Steiner was able—in cooperation with other émigrés such as the non-fiction author Fritz Kahn and the designers Ulrich Ruchti and Massimo Vignelli—to realize novel and lavish book projects. Particularly notable in this regard are the field and pocket guides that Chanticleer Press produced for the National Audubon Society and whose design was revolved around visual aspects. As Massimo Vignelli explained:
“Paul had the brilliant idea of creating bird guides with photographs rather than drawings (which had been used by everyone else until then), and we organized the material visually, streamlining the process of identifying birds. The guides were an instant success. More than thirteen million books in the field guide series have been sold since then, and they are still selling well.” (Paul Steiner: Liber Amicorum 1997, 50)
Jane Friedman, former Vice-President of Random House, similarly cites the Audubon field guides developed by Steiner as one of the most successful book series in the history of the publishing house (Paul Steiner: Liber Amicorum 1997, 17).
Chanticleer Press not only had an impact on the popularization of the illustrated coffee table book in postwar America, it also reached back into the European publishing market. The conception and financing of those successful books was made possible by close communication and cooperation with the American publishers and by Steiner’s knowledge of the U.S. book market. Equally important, however, were international co-productions that became more and more common with the postwar internationalization of the book market; they spread out the high costs of production, so that the books could be offered at attractive prices to the general public. Chanticleer Press produced books for U.S. publishers, yet also retained the international rights to distribute them in, for instance, Germany where a long-term cooperation with the publishing house Droemer Knaur evolved. Steiner’s clients in the United States included Abrams Publishers, Viking Press, Doubleday & Company, A. Knopf, and Random House. As Robert L. Bernstein, former president and CEO of Random House, recalled:
“When I first came to Random House from Simon & Schuster in 1957, one of the wonderful things that happened to me was meeting Paul Steiner. Here was a man full of ideas, particularly for difficult illustrated books that required not only good texts, but a lot of manufacturing know-how. Paul was one of the first to understand that frequently these grand projects required international publishing to reach cost-effective printing levels.” (Paul Steiner: Liber Amicorum1997, 7)
The books produced by Paul Steiner reflect a new understanding of the design and content possibilities of the medium as it competed with other forms of mass media such as magazines, photography, and film. It was an understanding that can be traced back to his early experiences at the Moderne Welt Verlag in Vienna. Several factors shaped the way Steiner conceptualized and created books, including the influence of mentors like Wolfgang Foges and Kurt Enoch, his personal background, his training in the canon of Western art, as well as aspirations that were underpinned by the cultural ideals of an enlightened bourgeoisie—in spite of, or perhaps because of, his experiences with exclusion, persecution, and displacement. When awarded the Golden Decoration of Honor of the City of Vienna in 1986, Paul Steiner thus emphasized how important Viennese culture and his good education had been to his survival and subsequent success in his new home country. This, he noted, was combined with a commitment to social awareness and responsibility, an attitude he re-encountered in FDR’s New Deal America. Over the course of his career, Paul Steiner—like the other Central European immigrants about which Robin Kinross wrote—contributed to the phenomenon of infusing “mass-produced artefacts with an aesthetic and social consciousness.”
In the late 1980s, illness forced Paul Steiner to resign from his position as publisher and chief executive. Andrew Stewart, former CEO at Abrams Publishers, took over the management of Chanticleer Press in 1987 and led the company until it officially ceased operations in 2005.