Why are books so big?

I’ve got my ISBN numbers, my copy is nearing the post-edit phase, and I’m writing blurbs and looking at covers. I’ve joined the Alliance for Independent Authors. My account is set up at Ingram Spark, and I plan to do Draft to Digital for the ebooks. I will market widely, including through ‘Zon, but won’t have them publish my books.

Being a paper person, I want to see my work in print, not just online or on backlit devices. And although I would have preferred to have my work offset press printed, I can’t afford that and have to go with Print on Demand. Nevertheless, the book can be the size I want: Ingram has tons of sizes to choose from. It’s like standing in the cereal aisle — there are too many choices. No, really, it’s like standing the cold remedies aisle: will this work? what’s in it? what will be the side effects?

Even before I started studying the Victorian era, I was a fan of smaller books. Not teeny-tiny gift books on dogs or motherhood, but 19th or early 20th century size. Collins Classics were 4 x 6 until the 1950s, when they went bigger (4.5 x 7.25) , apparently for college use. Modern Library and Everyman’s Library books were also small, as were all the fiction novels I grew up with, many of which I still have. My old paperbacks are mostly a similar size.

Why were these books small? Paper is expensive, for one thing. The books published near the end of the 19th century by the University Tutorial Press (the arm of William Brigg’s correspondence college) can be taken apart to see that the covers are actually comprised of pages from older books, pressed together. You don’t waste paper.

A lot of text was printed on each page, to save paper but also to have room for a full novel (or even a three-novel set) without making a smaller book into a cube.

Books were also, before the era of transistor radios, portable entertainment. They still are. You can take a book with you for the waiting room, the train, the park.

Since I’ve been teaching, over 30 years now, textbooks have gotten larger and larger, even though the amount of text has gotten smaller. [In addition to issuing new editions for minor changes, textbook publishers have created huge margin spaces in which they print their own notes, I presume to make up for the fact that students don’t gloss texts anymore. One reason students don’t highlight or take notes in a textbook, of course, is because they are either renting the book (not possible 20 years ago) or intend to sell it afterward (easier now than ever). The more students try to avoid the cost of new textbooks, the higher the prices go, until recently with e-book textbooks, which make it even harder to take notes.]

But it’s the fiction paperback books that are a problem. They are now large and unwieldy. Almost all are “trade paperbacks”, which were the more expensive big versions I never bought. They were and are heavy and too large to put in your bag; to me they weren’t portable, because they were the same size as the hardbacks, only paper. You can’t hold them in one hand while drinking your cocoa in the other.

And, as with textbooks, this isn’t because there is more text in them. On the contrary, despite climate change concern, the vast pages have tons of white space: huge margins, massive line spacing, big kerning between letters, large fonts. The first few I bought I thought were an aberration, but it’s the norm. The books get shorter, but the format gets bigger, the prices get higher ($14.95 is typical). But it’s the waste that gets to me.

When I complain to people my age, they say are pleased with the new formats as their eyes age. Well, mine are aging too. Think about a 19th century book, with its tiny print, in an era without progressive lenses, and most importantly with much lower levels of light than we have today (I think this is why people used to read outdoors more — think of all those plays where the heroine is in the garden, reading a book.) We have much brighter sources of light now — we can deal better with smaller print than ever before, but we need it enlarged to kindergarten size? I think not.

I also don’t think a demand for larger print has been behind the change — the number of Large Print books at our local library hasn’t changed in decades. More likely it’s the money, the idea that something bigger is better, and the novels are shorter because people have a shorter attention span. Readers want a “quick read”, but you can’t charge them $15 for a novella unless you package it as a big book. And now that so many people are reading on their backlit device, physical books are becoming niche, so paper books need to be even bigger to attract attention, like boxes for cereal and toys (walk by the book section at Target to see what I mean).

Why do I care, other than the price and the waste? Because I’m about to publish mine, and have to decide what size they’ll be. The “trim size” determines the number of pages and the spine width and design. I have read widely on the subject of trim size, but I have no experience, like someone trying to pronounce a word they’ve only seen written. I have bought a number of self-published books, and find the quality execrable. Because most authors are at pains to not appear amateurish, they don’t indicate whether it’s ‘Zon, Ingram, or someone else who’s done the printing. But in general I notice books where the text isn’t centered properly on the page (with an obvious gutter), bright white paper that looks like photocopy paper instead of cream-colored book paper, and type that looks like what it is: reproduced digital text rather than printing. Choice of paper is also a big deal.

I walk around the house with a ruler, measuring books. I’d be bucking trends to go less than 6 x 9 for non-fiction, or 5.5 x 8 for fiction. If I’m going a bit large to be trendy, the biggest I would want would be 5.06 x 7.81, the UK “B” popular size. But I could choose an old paperback size; Ingram has 4 x 6 and various sizes up to 5 x 7. I just can’t decide. Much of the paper I’ve seen is thick and shiny, so it doesn’t bend well in a smaller book . A new option is “groundwood”, which is essential newsprint and looks like it, but at least it isn’t bright.

It seems silly to fuss, because if I’m lucky my books might sell a dozen copies, so it’s mostly to please myself. But nevertheless, it’s a puzzlement.


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