Pocket Paperbacks and Digital Editions

November 19, 2008 | 4 books mentioned 16 2 min read

What better time than now to bring back the pocket paperback? People have no money to spend on hardcovers, and even the full-sized trade paperbacks are a pricey, given the economic times. There are also strong trends in our society that encourage less waste and the downsizing of our myriad possessions. A return of those classic 6 3/4 inch by 4 1/2 inch volumes, now all but extinct, save for in a few genres and in used book stores, could save paper and space and entice younger readers for whom $25 for a hardcover and $14 for a paperback is too much money to risk.

I’ve written in the past that books are too big — not too long, but too bulky and heavy and expensive — and pined for a return of the pocket paperback, so that carrying a book with you didn’t feel like such a chore. A combination of factors led to the demise of the pocket paperbacks that were prevalent in the middle part of the 20th century. These pocket paperbacks had been sold at newsstands and drugstores rather than bookstores, but as these venues stopped selling books, the pocket paperback market shrunk. Around the same time, a wave of consolidation hit the alternative book distribution network that had sprung up around these pocket editions, shrinking the number of books available, and consolidation among publishers folded the purveyors of the pocket editions into larger publishing conglomerates built on a different business model. Finally, the introduction of the trade paperback — the larger paperbacks prevalent today — squeezed the pocket edition out of the publishing equation except in a few genres — romances and mysteries — that still cling to the similarly-sized mass market format (which you can still see at grocery stores and in airports).

covercovercoverBut perhaps the pendulum will swing back towards pocket editions again. HarperPerennial recently introduced the Olive Editions collection. According to the marketing material, “they fit in your back pocket and only cost ten bucks each.” (And eight bucks on Amazon). So far the line includes three titles, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon, The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, and Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. At 7 inches by 4 1/2 inches, they are a touch larger than the pocket paperbacks you see in used bookstores, and while their cover design is smart looking, they are not as inviting as the pulpy art that used to emblazon even the classics. Nonetheless, they represent a smart move by HarperCollins, and one hopes that they will announce more titles in this format and that other publishers will follow suit.

A full-fledged return of pocket paperbacks would be surprising, however, as ultimately it seems likely that an even smaller format will take center stage, a format that is indeed infinitesimal. With hardware innovations driven by Amazon’s Kindle and perhaps Apple and Sony as well, reading on these devices will become more palatable for a larger percentage of readers. Selection of titles will improve and developments like Google’s recent deal with publishers will further expand the availability of titles in digital formats.

Like many other sectors of the economy, the publishing industry is likely to face serious challenges over the coming year. The silver lining of course, is that this may drive innovation. New formats (digital and tangible) created now may entice a new generation of readers down the road.

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.


  1. I always thought the Penguin Great Ideas Series was a nice start, even if it focused on classic and not modern lit.

  2. Ironically, I just wrote a post before seeing this one about how I find these small-sized editions so annoying.

    I see editions of literary fiction in this format occasionally here in Buenos Aires under the label "export" or "open market" edition.

    It's better than nothing, but I certainly am willing to pay a few more dollars for the trade paperback edition. (BTW, abroad the editions are not necessarily any cheaper than the trade editions).

  3. Interesting post indeed, though the question of quality arises: are consumers who are used to the space and cleanliness of trade paperbacks going to go for smaller type and lesser production typically found in these cheaper editions? The question of production and design is ever present in forecasts for e-books too, of course. Haven't readers become savvy about how books are presented to them visually?

  4. Interesting post. As for the Kindle, alas, three months on, mine is still sitting in its box. The whole hook-it-up-to Whisper Net thing… One day…

  5. In Australia we seem to get TPB very quickly as the overseas hardbacks are priced so ridiculously. It's cheaper to personally import titles from Amazon US than to buy the same edition from a local bookstore (even with airmail costs factored in).

  6. I find the mass market-size paperback a handy size to hold, but usually much too bulky to put in any pocket.

    In order to cut down on bulk, the publisher has to reduce the size of the type face and spec very lightweight, cheap paper. I prefer a 6" x 9" trade paperback, which, after a lot of indecision, was the size I chose for my first book as an independent publisher this summer. The Cure for Jet Lag was originally published by Berkley Publishing Group in a 4.25" x 8" format with print so tiny it was barely readable. Page count 160. THAT edition could fit into your breast pocket and it did sell hundreds of thousands of copies. My new edition is still 160 pages, but in a 6 x 9 trade paperback format. Nice, colorful cover on good paper stock. Still slim enough to slip into a case beside a laptop, and not falling apart and difficult to read.

    So, sure, if you want a disposable book and to wear your strongest prescription reading glasses, go for the "mass market" size.
    Lynne W. Scanlon
    PS I have a kindle and I love it, even though the back panel is always falling off. My big disappointment came, however, when I wanted to pass a great read on to a friend. That's not going to happen with a Kindle! Of course, perhaps the friend went to the bookstore and bought it! That's good for the author and the publisher and the bookstore.

  7. Ultimately, the size of the book matters less than the quality of the words inside. I think we'd all do well to remember that and focus less on how we're sending those words out to the world. If the story warrants a good read, readers will find it.

    That being said, nothing helps a product more than being portable. I suppose the question is one of preference. Do you want a book that's short, squat, and fits in your pocket (though not your back pocket unless you want sciatic nerve damage) or would you prefer a thin, lanky edition that could slide into a briefcase, laptop, or messenger bag? Either way, I support the end of the hardcover. I read them from libraries, but haven't bought one in years.

    And as for the Kindle…

  8. Thanks for this post.

    Ironic, isn't it, that Allen Lane founded Penguin Books to provide pocket-sized quality books for train commuters?

    Since Penguin is run these days by accountants with little regard for literature, or their own history, you now need a dedicated backpack to carry around their 'product'.

  9. I did this when I published my first novel four years ago and it was a big success for me. People indeed responded positively to the smaller size, and many bookstores that offered to carry it said it was specifically because they loved the form factor. If financial constraints hadn't forced me to use POD/trade paperback for my later titles I'd have used the mass market size for all of them.

  10. I grew up on the pocket paperback and was sorry when it died. For the past five years I've been trying to convince an editor that now is the time to return to it. Some books won't work as pocket editions (too unwieldly) but the vast majority will.

  11. All I know is that I'd love to see a return to the pocket size paperback; nothing beats it for cheapness and portability.

  12. Wonderful article you have written here.

    Personally, I find myself satisfied with the size of all of my pocket paperbacks. They easily fit inside of my purse so I find it very easy to read on-the-go.
    Also, environmentally speaking, these books are a much better option all around.

  13. One of my easiest reading experiences ever (even while standing in a moving subway car) was with a truly portable edition of Vanity Fair published in Thomas Nelson and Sons’ New Century Library. Dimensions: 6 1/4 by 4 1/4 by a half-inch thickness. The pages are Oxford India Paper—opaque, thin, and durable. The entire book fit in the palm of my hand and was lightweight, even at 784 pages. The type size wasn’t reduced and there are still margins. This is a true pocket book.

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