Books, Not Tales, Get Taller Before Baby Boomers' Eyes
By EDWARD WYATT
The New York Times
August 12, 2005
They carried dog-eared copies of "On the Road" in their back pockets during college and devoured Tom Clancy paperbacks on airplanes as young executives. But as baby boomers near retirement, they are finding it harder and harder to read the small type of mass-market paperbacks, the pocket-size books that are the most popular segment of the publishing business.
Faced with declining sales, two of the biggest publishers of mass-market titles, the Penguin Group and Simon & Schuster, have begun issuing new paperbacks by some of their most popular authors in a bigger size that allows larger type and more space between lines.
"We've been losing the foundation of our customer base because their eyesight is getting worse, and the books are getting harder and harder to read," said Jack Romanos, the chief executive of Simon & Schuster, whose Pocket Books division introduced the mass-market paperback format in the United States in 1939.
More mass-market paperbacks are still sold each day than any other type of book; last year consumers bought 535 million of them. But that number has steadily declined for a decade and is down 11 percent in the last five years, while the overall number of books sold has fallen just 7 percent, according to the Book Industry Study Group, a publishing trade group.
For publishers, the main advantage of the new book is that it is the same width as a traditional mass-market paperback, which allows it to fit in the wire racks at airports, grocery stores and drugstores. Those outlets are among the biggest sellers of the romances, westerns, mysteries and thrillers that make up the bulk of paperbacks sold. Publishers have also raised the cover price of the new books to $9.99, $2 to $3 more than the traditional paperback but still less than the $14 cover price of the digest-size books, known as trade paperbacks, that are now the primary format for nonfiction books and literary novels.
Readers appear to be responding well. Larger-edition paperbacks of six authors have made it onto the New York Times paperback best-seller list since last month, when they started appearing regularly in stores. The Pocket Books edition of "White Hot," the latest suspense novel by Sandra Brown, is in the new format and will top The Times's list on Aug. 21, the first time one of the new, bigger editions will reach No. 1. (That list reflects sales in the week ended Aug. 6.)
"We've gotten so many letters and e-mails from readers saying, 'Thank you for making the type larger,' " said Leslie Gelbman, the president of mass-market paperbacks at Penguin, which test-marketed the first larger paperback in December. Good response to that offering led Penguin, a division of Pearson, to expand its program this year to seven of its best-selling authors, including the romance novelist Nora Roberts and the thriller writers Clive Cussler and Robin Cook.
Harlequin Enterprises, the biggest seller of romance novels, has also joined the movement. Last month it began issuing larger-format paperbacks of its new line of romances for older women, called Next.
Not all of the responses have been positive, however. Publishing industry executives said that some big discount retailers, including Wal-Mart Stores, objected to the higher price of the new paperbacks and ordered smaller-than-normal volumes of the books because of doubts whether their customers would buy as many.
And at least some readers have complained about the new format. On the electronic message board on the Internet site of Vince Flynn, whose latest thriller, "Memorial Day," was published in the new format last month by Pocket's Star imprint, some fans have said that the new books feel clunky and are difficult to hold. Others say they like the changes, however, and over all the new book is selling better than Mr. Flynn's last novel, according to Simon & Schuster, a unit of Viacom.
The large bookstore chains, including Borders Group and Barnes & Noble, are taking a wait-and-see attitude. "We need more time to be able to judge," said Allison Elsby, the manager for genre fiction at Borders and its Waldenbooks division. "There are just a handful of titles out in this format, and while the initial reaction looks relatively positive, it has only been a few weeks."
Publishers have tinkered with the size of mass-market paperbacks over the decades, mostly to meet the demands of printing presses. But at a time when sales of ready-made reading glasses are up - they grew 11 percent last year alone, to $439 million, according to VisionWatch, an eyeglass industry research group - this change is meant to meet the needs of those who buy and read paperbacks.
To make the new books easier to read, publishers increased their height by three-quarters of an inch, to 7½ inches, while keeping the same width, 4¼ inches. The longer page allows publishers to increase the type size by up to a half-point, to 10½ points, and to increase the leading - the space between lines - to 14½ points from about 12. As a result, a page of the new books has about 32 lines, compared with as many as 38 lines in their predecessors.
Sales of mass-market paperbacks have also been declining for reasons other than America's worsening eyesight. Book superstores and warehouse clubs routinely discount the price of hardcovers by as much as 50 percent, giving readers less reason to wait - customarily, a year - after a new book is published to buy the cheaper paperback version.
In addition, the decline of the mall bookstores led to fewer impulse purchases of the lower-priced books, and the popularity of trade paperbacks grew significantly when Oprah Winfrey began recommending those books exclusively for her book club.
Because price-conscious discount merchants like Wal-Mart and Target also grew in importance as booksellers, publishers of mass-market paperbacks have been unable to raise prices, which have been essentially flat for a decade. To maintain their profit margins, publishers have resorted to lower-quality paper and other methods of lowering production cost.
But the smaller pocket-size paperback is still used for the authors whose books sell the most copies, like John Grisham, whose novels reside for eternity on the backlist, the most profitable part of a publisher's inventory. And it is those continuing sales - which sometimes total five or more times the number of hardcovers sold - that allow publishers to pay the large advances that those most popular authors demand.
Some publishers remain skeptical about the changes. Irwyn Applebaum, president and publisher of the Bantam Dell Publishing Group at Random House, said that Bantam Books had tried a similar experiment in the late 1980's but abandoned it after issuing about three books.
"We think the current mass-market format is best," he said.
But Mr. Romanos of Simon & Schuster said that without the change, the mass-market segment was in danger of withering. "If you go back 20 years, the mass-market paperback was really driving the business," he said. But more recently, "it hasn't been carrying its weight."
"As long as we have to continue to pay what we do for brand-name authors, we need a healthier paperback format to make it work."
You know, it's strange...when I was a little girl, I never cared about the size of my books. Mass-market paperback? Fine. Hulking huge hardcover? Equally fine.
Now, however, as a young adult, I find I care very much about the size of my books, and for no logical reason, I appreciate small books less than I appreciate trade paperbacks and hardcovers. As if the pleasures become bigger the bigger the book in my hand is. Books of decent size size seem to tell an expansive, bountiful story. Tiny books inspire ideas about as exciting as the illos on stamps. (I figure the Harry Potter
books in the US are always printed so big in the hopes that book weight will counter the dearth of intellectual weight.) And this is for no good reason at all. I'm a bit nearsighted, but that in no way interferes with my ability to read small print up close, of course.
So, when I buy books, I prefer to buy hardcover editions (deeply discounted, of the bargain shelf, if possible, or used), and if that's out of the question, then a trade paperback. Very rarely will you see me buying something the size of a mass-market paperback unless 1) it's actually a graphic novel or 2) that is the only printing of the book available.
Is this irrational preference of mine merely another manifestation of the American obsession with all things BIG? From big houses to big SUVs to big dinner plates? Or is it really just symptomatic of a larger public shift toward progressive blindness? Who knows?
Oh, and here's something even more irrational! I have no such preference when it comes to Japanese books! I love bunko editions for their heavy helping of pages and actually detest the A4 size that some doujinshika like using on occasion. A4 is just TOO BIG for manga, and most of the time the flaws of the contents merely get magnified. B6 books, a little bit bigger than the standard NPB manga size but still abut the size of a mass-market paperback in the US, are my preferred dimension of manga. Again, am I buying into the prevailing ideology--which in Japan is that SMALLER is better???