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.