Let’s Get Small

There’s something appealing about a little book, a book you can easily shove into a pocket or an envelope, a book that looks like it costs no more than a dollar or two. Why is this such an enduring form? Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was launched to the world in the form of a little book, the first of the City Lights Pocket Poets series. Voltaire’s Candide was censored all over Europe, but it was slim enough to sneak around as a pamphlet. Some of the great religious books of all time, from the Tao Te Ching to the Bhagavad Gita to the four gospels were also admirably tiny texts, which couldn’t have hurt their impact. And let’s not forget the “Little Golden Books”, those flimsy contraptions of cardboard and gold foil that so many of us grew up with as kids.

Mini-publishing may be as old as Lao Tzu, but it remains an emerging paradigm, ripe for experimentation. Check out BukAmerica‘s line of small and undeniably cute books, nicknamed “Buks”. They cost $1.49 each, they are organized into six categories (“Idea Buk”, “Word Buk”, “Story Buk”, etc.) and they sport matching logos in a big, smiley font.

Melville House, the publishing company that runs the Moby Lives website, is also in the tiny-book biz with a new offering. Presented as the Art of the Novella series, these titles offer an admirably wide variety of intellectual classics, from Turgenev to Flaubert to, naturally, Melville. Some of these texts are well-known; more importantly, some are not, and maybe this venture will help to make them more so.

I like this new trend a lot, even though the thick and wordy end of the spectrum, represented by the likes of William Vollman and John Irving, is still running strong as well. C’mon, guys. Let’s get small.

8 Responses

  1. Little books and little
    Little books and little prices

    This may not speak exactly to the topic and hand, but it occurred to me as I read your post.

    I’m not a big fan of hardcover books, and this has nothing to do with length. I have a few that I bought because I was too impatient to wait for the PB or for the library to get a copy, but otherwise I stick to softcover.

    Not only are paperbacks cheaper, they’re smaller, so more portable. It’s less weight in the backpack, the spine folds more easily for one-handed public transportation reading . . . I don’t know why more books aren’t released in this convenient form, either more quickly following the hardcover release or even exclusively.

    I’m sure a higher profit margin on hardcovers has something to do with it, but I’m not sure the hardcover bias isn’t turning off potential buyers.

    For certain books that build up enough buzz, people are going to buy the hardcover because they can’t wait, like say Tuesdays with Morrie, the Da Vinci Code, or John Grisham. But I’d guess for most authors, a person might see a review of a book, think it sounds interesting, but then decided “$25? I’ll wait” and then forget about the book by the time the paperback is out. And since paperback releases don’t get prominently reviewed, there’s not much to remind this potential buyer of their forgotten interest.

    Now I know there may be some authorial vanity at having your book in hardcover, but I’d personally rather sell copies.

    No one runs a business at a loss, so if these small books you speak of can sell for $1.49, they must be able to make a profit. Why does a normal quality paperback cost $15 when a mass market cost $7? Is there really $8 in added materials cost.

    The owner of this local used bookstore I like was talking about his pricing philosophy once when I was in there, and he said he prices most of his books at $5 or less because he believes $5 is the impulse buy cut-off, and I think he’s pretty close to correct. There’ve been books that I was on the fence about that I bought there because they were $4 and I said, ” For $4, what the heck.” Whereas I’d seen the same book for $6.50 at another place a month earlier and said to myself, “Do I really need this book?”

    Now, I’m no MBA, and the Publishing Industry is doing so spectacularly nowadays they probably shouldn’t consider any new approaches, but that’s my two cents.

  2. small is goodI agree, Levi,
    small is good

    I agree, Levi, which is why chapbooks have such appeal. Larger than “tiny books” they can still be rolled and tucked away for that perfect stolen moment over a hand-pulled IPA or double ristretto.

    With all the e-this and e-that these days, it feels good to have something in the hand, rough and torn, you know is real.

  3. Amen. In fact, we should
    Amen. In fact, we should start yelling about this here at LitKicks. Trade publishing book prices are ridiculous. I’m not going to read the new John Irving book for another six months, because I really don’t have thirty bucks to throw around. And as you said, Shamatha, I don’t think this system is working great for the publishers either. There has got to be a better way.

  4. Bigger is Better”Howl” is one
    Bigger is Better

    “Howl” is one of the best books of poetry on my shelf and it takes up the smallest amount of space… but condensed space isn’t the always the best thing.

    Has anyone ever seen those little religious pamphlets that float around? If you haven’t, take a look… it’s a treat. Basically it runs as a small comic book format that highlights a specific issue: evolution, life after death… you get the idea.

    Anyway, a certain scenario runs down where a character (usually an academic or well-to-do skeptic) speaks at great length about one of these subjects. Another character interjects and a heated argument ensues. It always ends with the latter character winning by citing bible passages peppered with poorly cited evidence.

    Like most things in life, portability in literature can be abused. It allows a writer to simplify a message to the point of certainty in certain mind’s eye. It rarely converts anyone, but keeps the converted heads nodding in approval.

    (Portability also allows greedy publishers to jack up the price on hardcover books:)

  5. In 2003, 34 percent of adult

    In 2003, 34 percent of adult hardcover books were returned to publishers, compared with 28 percent in 1993, says Albert N. Greco, a professor at the Fordham Graduate School of Business and a leading industry statistician. That’s more than one in three adult hardcover books that publishers edit, print, distribute and market. According to the Association of American Publishers, those returns in 2004 had a wholesale value of $801 million, up from $743 million in the prior year. It is a system nobody likes, but no one knows how to change, even though the country’s largest book retailer says it would like to try

    From a recent article on the travails of the publishing industry.

    Now I’m not a retail expert, so I’m not sure if a 66% sell-through rate is just par for the course across industries, but it seems entirely possible to me that people might be more willing to buy a cheaper book.

  6. AristollectionWalking into

    Walking into someone’s fancy library, for the sake of Joyce we’ll go with Trinity College’s library, only to find a bunch of shoddy paperbacks would be a letdown. They don’t last as long and don’t look as good. But walking into my personal library, hardcovers are certainly in the minority. If I was an author that got to choose, I would undoubtedly prefer my books came out in hardback, it just seems…more permanent. Plus they have a different smell and feel. All that despite the fact that I prefer reading a well printed paperback with nice big margins. If you can’t wait, get your name on the list at the library or go to Costco.

    My favorite of the small pamphlet sized books: The Saddest Summer of Samuel S. Hilarious!

  7. i heart miniFor me to read
    i heart mini

    For me to read something, portability is key. If I can’t carry it with me everywhere I go and read it comfortably in any locale, then I’m probably going to ignore it. Plus, I have a nonexistent attention span, so the shorter the better, really. Plus plus, I don’t like to spend a lot of money for, well, anything.

    This is why I am enamored with Dover Thrift Editions. Classic literature for under $5 (usually around $1 or $2, if you want to get specific). Granted, the quality of these paperbacks isn’t the absolute greatest, but they’re readable, which is the important thing. And sometimes, they even have footnotes, and oh, how I love the footnote.

    When I buy a book at, say, Barnes & Noble, I know it’s going to cost me at least as much as a CD, which (I feel) is tantamount to making a commitment. I’m wary of making commitments in all forms, yet I love buying books. It’s a problem. The thing is, with these smaller books (esp. Dover Thrift Editions), I can buy at least ten books for the price of one regular book (increase that when it comes to hardcovers). I may not read them right away (or at all), but I can if I want to. And I like having options.

  8. small small small You
    small small small

    You mentioned the Tao and the Gita. I carry these two books with me all the time. I bring them to work, and when I get a bit oppressed by the workaday world. The nasty slings and arrows. The lowest nook on Fortuna’s Wheel. I have easy access to a piece of mind.

    Right now I’m reading a nice collection of Shakespeare, four plays one book, a bit thickish sure, but it was made in the 60’s and the binding can take all sorts of abuse. I mean it. This book can be practically folded in two, shoved in any little nook, carried with practical ease. I can bring it anywhere. I may have to buy his whole collection in this format. Who wants to carry around the Norton Shakespeare? It weighs about fifteen pounds!

    One of my faves is the fist edition of Leaves of Grass. Slender, smallish print and great poetry.

    Ya, small is the bomb. Paperbacks are cool but the bigger the paperback the more likely it is that it will fall to pieces. I had the Collected Robert Frost split right in half on me; I had just brought it home from the book store, opened it up and RIP! It was to big!

    How convenient is it to lug some tome around, sit with it flopped over your legs, and read as it slowly cuts off the circulation? Not very. Give me a small book.

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