There’s More Than One Way To Read A Book
Back in 2009 I interviewed my editor at Penguin Random House on the confusing subject of book sizes and shapes. Simon Taylor told me: ‘In the UK, the large size is generally referred to as B format. Trade paperbacks tend to be larger still – Royal octavo or Demy formats. But in the US they call it trade paperback; whereas the smaller format is referred to as A format, or ‘rack size’, or ‘mass market’ format… So you can see, there’s confusion from the outset.’
Publishers have always liked the big airport sizes, even though they’re unwieldy for readers, especially ones travelling with ever-smaller luggage allowances. He continued; ‘In such a cutthroat retail environment where display counts for so much, this larger format means the book not only takes up more physical space but it also allows a cover design to be more impactful. I also think there’s an aspirational/qualitative element to the choice of formats as well.’
Some publishers started testing the water with smaller formats (Raymond Chandler was reissued in small format) but there was no common consensus yet. The sheer portability of ebooks makes a reader desirable.
Yet over the years publishers have tried other book sizes. During the war American soldiers were issued with paperbacks that read vertically and could fit into a uniform pocket. Armed Services Editions, or ASEs, were paperbacks that soldiers could take with them wherever they went. Between 1943 and 1947, the US military sent 123 million copies of over 1,000 titles to troops serving overseas. By the time the war ended, they’d transformed the publishing industry, turning the cheap, lowly paperback into something civilians wanted.
The idea wasn’t new; it had been around since the Italians tried it out at the beginning of the 16th century. The scale of publishing the slim titles was different, though. ‘The Great Gatsby’, which was not a success on first publication, became a hit with soldiers. Since then, others have tried to make the paperback appeal again. In Europe other formats exist, including a slender size that’s very compact and collectable; I recently bought a set of Ray Bradbury novels in this format but they have a problem; old paperbacks were usually much thinner and easier to open, but they fell apart after exposure to sunlight.
New technology means that paperbacks rarely split into sections now, but with publishers favouring long novels it’s almost impossible to get them to stay open. Now comes a new idea; the dwarsligger or ‘flipback’. Invented in the Netherlands in 2009, they use fine onion-skin paper and the pages are flipped upwards, mimicking the swipe effect of phones. They are apparently very easy to consume and avoid the problem of trying to hold the book open. The first titles are all in the Young Adult category because the young are less resistant to change. If they sell, other titles will be produced. I think it’s a brilliant idea, and hope to see them in the UK.