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10th of December 2018

Books



Move over, phones. Make room for books that fit in a back pocket.

Diminutive books are typically the fodder of dollhouses and bibliophiles. But an American publisher is hoping readers in the United States will take to a new format of small, horizontal books whose pages flip upward, like swiping a screen on a phone. The tiny books are already a hit in Europe, where versions of works by well-known authors such as Ian McEwan and Dan Brown have sold in the millions. The trend had gone relatively unnoticed in the US until a copy of one of the books arrived at the office of the publisher for John Green, a popular author of novels for teens. Thinking it was a good fit for US readers, she moved forward with a box set of his books, published in October. Some people aren’t sure they are ready to open their wallets, while others are clamoring for more titles. “When cuddling up at home, it is incredibly convenient that they can be held in one hand,” teacher Jessica Hauser writes in an online interview. “After I discovered John Green miniature copies, I searched high and low for others.”

Boston

Maggie Van Nortwick cradles the book in her palm and flips upward through its razor-thin pages, pausing now and then to read a paragraph or two. Finally, she looks up with a smile.

“This is cute,” she says. “But kind of a curveball for me.”

The book in question, John Green’s debut novel “Looking for Alaska,” measures no more than a few inches on each side. It is cellphone-sized and, unlike regular sized books, can fit easily into a back pocket or small purse. The type is small but readable; the pages barely opaque.

Ms. Van Nortwick, 18, likes the new format, but it may take some getting used to, she says.

Published by Dutton Books for Young Readers, a division of Penguin Young Readers, the book comes in a box set with three other best-selling novels for teens by Mr. Green, including “The Fault in Our Stars” and “An Abundance of Katherines.” Though most of these books came out years ago – 2005 for “Looking for Alaska” – Dutton recently made the decision to reissue them in a miniature format, called “Penguin Minis.”

Since Johannes Gutenberg first invented the printing press more than 500 years ago, books have remained remarkably stable in format. They have sturdily withstood many predictions of their imminent demise, which have arrived alongside every innovation from paperbacks to ebooks. Penguin, whose orange-spined paperbacks democratized reading in the postwar era by offering classic works at a low price, has a history of disrupting the industry. It launched the mini box set this fall with a 500,000 initial print run. But the question of whether these small, horizontal books will find a life in the United States – beyond that of a passing trend – remains to be seen. 

“I don’t think this is going to be the disruptor,” says Carol Jago, associate director of the California Reading and Literature Project at the University of California, Los Angeles. “For every invention and idea that does disrupt how things have been done for years, there are 10,000 others that were interesting ideas but ultimately didn’t make it.”

“But I applaud John Green for taking the chance,” she adds. “Let’s see if there are things we can do to bring kids to reading.”

Small books are nothing new, of course. Miniature books, which measure no more than 3 inches in height, were all the rage among collectors in the 1800s across the US and Europe and some of the oldest tiny tomes date back to the 16th century. Their novelty lay in the odd juxtaposition of diminutive pages containing big ideas – such as religious scripture or Dante’s complete works – that fit snugly into a pocket or a child’s hand.

A 'revelation' 

This latest iteration comes from Holland, where a style of book called “Dwarsliggers,” or Flipbacks, has taken off in the past decade. Mini editions by popular authors like Ian McEwan and Dan Brown have sold there in the millions, but the printing method had gone relatively unnoticed in the US. Until, that is, Julie Strauss-Gabel, president and publisher of Dutton Books for Young Readers, received a Dutch copy of one of Green’s novels at her office.

“I picked it up and looked at it, and it was a revelation to see it for the first time,” she says. “It just seemed like something that made so much sense for me, from what I know people want.”

And so she began to gather more information about the Flipback printing process and, later on, decided to move forward with a mini-set by Green. As a popular author with several best-selling novels under his belt, he was a natural choice for the experiment, Ms. Strauss-Gabel says. His name and book covers are recognizable, she notes. Plus, he was excited about the idea from the start. 

“Like a lot of writers, I’m a complete nerd for book making and the little details that make a physical book really special,” Green told The New York Times. “[Mini books] didn’t feel like a gimmick, it feels like an interesting, different way to read.”

With Green’s support, Dutton partnered with the Dutch printer Royal Jongbloed in order to produce the English editions, and, after months of careful adjustments, the four-book mini box set came out in October 2018. The books retail for $12 each, or $48 for the set of four. Green fans were delighted, Strauss-Gabel says.

Readers in the US have taken to social media to express their opinions. On Instagram, Jessica Hauser, from Spokane, Wash., wrote “Yay tiny novels!” in a caption for an image of “Looking for Alaska.” 

“I really love how portable the tiny books are, but when cuddling up at home, it is incredibly convenient that they can be held in one hand,” the high school English teacher writes in an online interview. “After I discovered John Green miniature copies, I searched high and low for others. I know if Green's sell well the plan is to print others. I am hoping that comes to fruition!”

Some readers still need persuasion 

While it seems intuitive that iPhone-sized books would appeal most to Millennials and Generation Z, some older readers appear to relish the concept as well.

“I love that it’s something smaller that I could carry in my back pocket and read as I go along, or sit down to rest and read,” says 80-something reader Bill Callahan as he flips through “The Fault in Our Stars.” “So yeah, I would be interested in that. Though I haven’t actually heard of John Green.”

Tiffany Galloway also likes the format, but the 30-something says she wouldn’t necessarily buy one off the rack.

“I like the traditional size of the book, because well, I’m just so used to it. But it’s not for my age, is it?” she says, “It’s for younger. It would be good for them, just not for me because I’m older and in my ways.”

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Based on the success of Flipbacks in Europe, Strauss-Gabel maintains that tiny books are for anyone to enjoy, not just the iPhone generation. She plans to continue expanding the mini-book series to other popular authors, with a new wave of titles for next year.

“When people hold them for the first time, it makes such a difference. So I feel like we got it,” she says. “It has been exciting to watch a response across a very broad range of customers … and it’s just great to see people in love with print.”

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