Sales of mass-market paperbacks -- the compact, inexpensive books found in bookstores, supermarkets and other retail outlets -- have been soft in the past five years. So major publishers, including Harlequin, Penguin and Simon & Schuster, are tinkering with the format, hoping a slightly bigger "premium size" will increase their appeal.
The traditional paperback is usually 43/16 inches by 63/4 inches; the new premiums are 41/4 inches by 71/2 inches. Premium type size is slightly larger; words and lines are more loosely spaced for easier reading.
"Vision is obviously an issue for baby boomers," says Jack Romanos of Simon & Schuster. "If you make the books more readable, then some of the audience who have moved to larger formats will return."
Those larger formats -- hardcovers and hardcover-sized paperbacks, known as trade paperbacks -- made up 10% each of all books sold in 2004, according to a Book Industry Study Group report. Mass markets made up 23.3%, but have been declining, while trade paperbacks have been gaining ground.
"A lot of that has to do with Oprah, whose book-club choices were always hardcovers or trade paperbacks," says Leslie Gelbman of Penguin. "People got used to the larger type and a bigger book to hold."
Plus, more non-bookstore retailers have added hardcovers and trade paperbacks to their inventories.
In some cases, the new format comes with a higher price; Simon & Schuster and Penguin are charging $9.99 compared with $7.99 for mass markets. Trade paperbacks cost $12 to $16.
Not everyone is embracing the format. "We still believe the traditional mass-market paperback format is a format which allows us to reach the widest number of readers," says Bantam Dell's Irwyn Applebaum. "There was no need to monkey around with a larger, taller, more expensive in-between hybrid. ... Type size always has and always will be an issue for some people, but our readers seem to be coping just fine."
Others are taking a wait-and-see attitude. "We're just watching what's happening with the ones that are out there, and it seems for certain authors at a certain level it's a viable format," says editor Beth de Guzman of Warner. "We're looking into it, but we'll let the readers decide."
Romanos says informal research and early sales indicate that readers like what they see.
Sales of Vince Flynn's just-released premium-size Memorial Day, which was a best-selling hardcover last year, have been higher than last summer's paperback reissue of Flynn's Executive Power. Sales tracked by USA TODAY show Memorial Day sold 15% more in its first two weeks than Executive Power.
Booksellers are optimistic but cautious. "There's great potential here," says Allison Elsby of Borders and Waldenbooks. "But it's going to take some time to see how it plays out. I'm only 38 and I'm pretty sure bifocals are in my near future, and I find it a very comfortable format to read."
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