Not Butch Enough For Twain

Friday: I pop into Gay’s The Word bookshop on Marchmont Street. Not only is it still going after Borders and Books Etc have toppled (and going for some decades now), but there’s a healthy amount of customers inside browsing away.

Despite owning a Kindle – because I own a Kindle – I still love to purchase nicely-designed paper books to vary my reading life. Independent bookshops are obviously the place to do it. Today I pick up three books for a tenner: Truman Capote’s Children on Their Birthdays, Carson McCullers’s Wunderkind, and James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. The first two are from Penguin’s Mini Modern Classics range, 50 titles celebrating 50 years of their Modern Classics; very cute ultra-pocket-sized grey paperbacks at £3 each. The Baldwin edition is from the Penguin Great Loves range: A-sized pocket paperbacks with a little logo of two penguins about to snog. Perfect examples of the way paper publishing should be going: beautiful & compact and lighter than a Kindle, so even fans of e-books will be smitten. If Apple made paperbacks, this is what they’d look like.

A-sized paperbacks were what Penguin started with in the first place: those classic stripey covers in orange or purple from the 30s and 40s, the design available now on mugs and tea towels and pencil cases, but not for any new fiction. It’s the size I care about. The standard Penguin paperback size for new novels is like most UK paperbacks: B-format, a bit too big for pocket-sized.

Yet this seems to be a uniquely British taste. At the branch of Foyles in St Pancras, they have a range of French language bestsellers, including your Dan Browns and Stieg Larssons. But they’re all A-sized pocket paperbacks. So why do British readers like their paperbacks to be bigger than the French?

I’m guessing it’s a kind of snobbery. The A-format is looked down upon as more trashy (and wrongly so, to my mind). It seems reserved purely for mass-market genre titles, eg those Terry Pratchett paperbacks with the cartoony covers. Or quality reissues of much, much older material, like the Penguin Great Loves, Great Ideas and Mini Modern Classics. Literary and new and on paper cannot be portable, apparently. They tend to be either C-sized paperbacks (even bigger) or cumbersome hardbacks. The newly published Mark Twain autobiography is a hardback of wrist-snapping height and breadth. I’m keen to read it, but I’m not butch enough to lift it up in the shop. Thankfully, there’s a Kindle version. So that’s one point scored for e-books right there: they’re perfect for bigger books.

This also shows up the increasingly anachronistic practise of ‘two tier’ publishing in the UK: a hardback first, then a B-format paperback edition a year later. I’ve read an interesting article suggesting that Radiohead’s album ‘business model’ (I do hate that phrase) should make publishers sit up and take notice. The band releases albums as cheap digital MP3 versions alongside more expensive boxed CD and double vinyl formats. So the collector’s urge to own something pretty on their shelves is sated separately from the basic urge to consume the art itself, and (crucially) at the same time. E-books, thankfully, are now being released alongside the hardbacks, so that’s what weak-wristed portability fans like myself go for. But this leaves booksellers missing out. Bookshops can’t sell e-books, but they can sell paperbacks. And I like the paper experience too, if it’s light and compact. Not just me, either: I-Phones and the success of Penguin’s aforementioned reissue ranges are proof that an awful lot of people want things to be small & cute, whether paper or digital.

So maybe this era of e-books and bookshops struggling to survive will force paperbacks to come out at the same time as hardbacks AND be small & pretty. In which case, speed the day.

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