Small Books, But Big Reads

In a trend befitting an age of diminished attention spans, publishers are beginning to invest in the notion that good things sometimes come in small packages. For years, most of the books found in any large bookstore have been restricted to one of three formats: book rack-sized mass-market paperbacks; larger, more expsmallbooksensive trade paperbacks; and hardcovers. But a mini-revolution in miniature books has challenged the dominance of these categories, as publishers have flooded the market with books that are shorter, slimmer and cheaper.

“Small things have always had a fascination for people,” says Penguin editor in chief Katheryn Court. In 1995, the Penguin 60’s–a line of novellas, short stories, essays and poems by authors ranging from Dorothy Parker to Dostoyevsky–racked up international sales of more than $30 million. The success of these 95 [cts.] pocket-size editions, which began as a gimmick to commemorate Penguin’s 60th anniversary, attests to what many publishers deem a growing demand for portable, bite-sized reproductions of serious literature and ideas.

“I think in general people feel terribly pressed for time,” says Court. “If they can pick up something on a bus and read it all the way through, it’s very appealing. People want to be knowledgeable in 30 pages.”

The trend towards diminutive editions isn’t restricted to literary classics, however. When Louis Rubin co-founded Algonquin Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1982, he began publishing fiction by new writers in hardcovers with a trim-size of 5×7 inches (about an inch wider than mass-market paperbacks). This format was once a hallmark of the Modem Library, but had long since been discontinued. The 5x7s, Rubin says, were meant, in part, to counter the increasingly prohibitive cost of hardcover books. “It’s sad but true that the same person who doesn’t mind spending $30 on dinner is going to complain if a book is more than $19. The book business has been hurt by that.”

Algonquin’s 5x7s, now priced at $16.95, have proven so successful that other publishers have begun using the size, too. And the house is even considering publishing a first novel, aptly tided Big Fish, by Daniel X. Wallace, as a 5×7 on its fall list, with a 1×1 1/2-inch companion volume.

The Ballantine Publishing Group is also experimenting with slimmed-down paperbacks. Its Ivy mass-market editions cost $1.99 or $2.99, and in February Ballantine launched the Library of Contemporary Thought, a monthly series of short, nonfiction I trade paperbacks on topical subjects, priced from $7.95 to $9.95.

“There’s no forum any longer for long, extended think pieces dealing with the issues of today,” says Ballantine publisher Judith Curr. “Newspapers and magazines don’t have the luxury of that spar&e anymore.” Experimenting with different price points and trim sizes, she says, is essential to survival in an intensely competitive marketplace. “It’s perceived that the book market is not growing much,” she comments. “Unless we try new things, we’re going to go by the wayside.”

Alqonquin’s Rubin doesn’t agree. “I don’t think it has anything to do with people reading less. They may be reading worse, but they’re not reading less.”

Not surprisingly, short books sometimes prove to have a shorter shelf life. The Penguin 60’s were discontinued in 1996, despite their initial success, in part because booksellers found them both hard to r-ack and comparatively unprofitable. Also speeding their demise was a glut of copycat series, like the Orion Mini-Books, the Modem Library Minis and the tiny self-help books, gift books and other gimmicky items that sprung up in their wake. “There was a whole spate of [small-format] books in the last three to five years that were nonbooks,” says Court at Penguin. “The market was completely overwhelmed with merchandise in small formats. People got sick of them.” It’s no coincidence that Ballantine hosted a series of prepublication bookseller dinners to promote the Library of Contemporary Thought, which unlike the 60’s, are the same size and spine-width as conventional trade paperbacks, and therefore easier to stock.

Roxanne Cody, who runs the independent bookstore R.J. Julia, in Madison, Connecticut, is quick to distinguish between the serious small-format fiction and nonfiction and the point-of-purchase books, which she compares to Hershey’s Kisses. “On these impulse items, it’s a problem when a monotony develops in the marketplace,” she says.

But customers do pay attention to price, says Cody. “A lot of people who would rather read hardcovers would rather not spend $20,” she says. “Does the price point or packaging for a fiction tide change its demand in the marketplace? Absolutely.”

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