Tiny books - the next big thing?

Wed, Jun 29, 2011, 01:00

Publishers are downsizing the book format, with Hodder hitting the market with its flipback model and Penguin already there with their stylish bookettes, writes DARRAGH McMANUS

SMALL BOOKS: why aren’t there more of them? Sounds like a strange question, but it’s a valid one. For readers still in thrall to paper and ink, unlike e-readers, size really does matter. A stately hardback might look beautiful on the bookshelf, but it’s not that handy to carry around.

Besides, there’s an aesthetic pleasure to dinky books. They can be pretty and endearing, these tiny but mighty things: series such as the “Oxford Classics” miniatures of Sherlock Holmesand Last of the Mohicans; the amusingly titled “Midget Classic” series which miniaturised Shakespeare; or perhaps all those quote-of-the-day giftbooks, from Helen Exley sentimentality to Mark Twain’s entertaining cynicism.

Despite all this, the vast majority of books are standard paperback size at least, and often much bigger. So bibliophiles with small bags and weak backs will be heartened by this summer’s innovation from Hodder.

Breda Purdue, group managing director at Hachette Ireland (Hodder’s parent company), explains: “There’s a new format, called a flipback, which has been huge in Holland. A Bible publisher there had some extra paper and brought out this new size.

“It’s the size of an iPhone, and you flip it up and read it. Hodder got the licence for here and are bringing out 12 books this June and July, bestsellers such as One Day, Cloud Atlasand Misery, in this new format. The books are very small, very light.”

Penguin, long a pioneer in producing smaller books, utilising size, design, format and theme to spread brand awareness, has brought out several pocket-sized series of classic works: Syrenswhich featured Kafka aphorisms, Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas, and more; or Great Ideas, containing world- changing essays on philosophy, politics and history, such as Orwell’s Why I Write.

The Penguin 60s series, released in 1995 to mark their 60th anniversary, is remembered especially fondly. These stylish bookettes were six inches tall, 80-something pages long, a few ounces in weight. The cover designs were elegant, the selections made with obvious care. Divided into classics, children’s and modern, the 150 books included Meditationsfrom Marcus Aurelius, Albert Camus essays, The Pit and the Pendulumand Plato’s Phaedrus.

It was a smart, innovative promotional tool and Jonathan Williams, a literary agent in Dublin, has happy memories of Penguin 60s: “They sold for just 60 pence, about a third of the price of a greetings card, so I used to buy one to send somebody for their birthday, rather than a card. Cheaper and better for them! That encouraged a number of publishers to raid their back-lists and bring out small format books.” However, small books are in the minority. In the UK most books are published in hardback, then paperback, but in Ireland the first format is now usually trade paperback.

“The exception is non-fiction,” says Purdue. “Big Christmas books, like John Giles’s which we did last year, that had to be hardback. In fiction, though, only three authors still sell in hardback here: Maeve Binchy, John Grisham and Patricia Cornwell. But maybe Irish people are getting used to hardbacks again; a lot of trade goes through Amazon, which sells that format.”

Williams adds: “Hardbacks are not published as widely as they once were. I often wonder why publishers don’t follow the Dutch idea, where a book is first published in paperback and, if it sells well, they do a hardback. So people who love a book and have read it, lent it so often it’s started to look manky, can later buy a beautiful, sturdy hardback to put on their bookshelves and cherish.”