Bigger isn’t necessarily better

I’ve just gotten home from New York, after a visit with my publisher, and am delighted to see all the comments about my last post, regarding print size. In his comment, JA Konrath (whose blogsite every writer should be familiar with) wondered what I thought of the new larger-format paperbacks, which some clever soul has christened the “venti” form.

It just so happens, I’ve been thinking a lot about this new format.  And I’ve been asking questions about it, too.  The subject came up while I was talking to my publisher.

For those who haven’t noticed, the new paperback format is about an inch taller than the standard mass market paperbacks, but the same width, and they’re priced about two dollars more.  I first noticed them about a year and a half ago, when I walked into a Borders bookstore and noticed that the top shelf of the wooden paperback display rack was entirely taken up by venti-sized titles.  Not coincidentally, those same pb’s were also on the bestseller list.  But which came first, I had to wonder: the chicken or the egg?  Did the fact those books were on the top shelf HELP them onto the bestseller list?  Or were they bestsellers to begin with, and therefore earned their way to the top shelf?

I asked a Borders sales clerk what she thought of the venti format, and wasn’t it interesting that the best sellers just happened to be all venti?  She gave a groan.  “Oh, THOSE things.  We put them all on the top shelf because that’s the only place where the damn things fit.”

What a stroke of publishing genius!  You produce a pb in a new and unusual format that FORCES the bookseller to place the title on the top row — the very best place to catch a customer’s eye.  What a brilliant move!    

Those first venti paperbacks appeared to be fabulous successes.  They hit bestseller lists, they had great visual exposure, and at the higher price ($9.99) author and publisher were making more money per copy sold.  I wanted my paperbacks to grow up to be ventis, too. 

Then I started asking questions.  And discovered the downside to these paperbacks-on-steroids.

First, the venti format doesn’t mean bigger print — in most cases, it just means more white space around the margins.  Yes, the reader may THINK she’s getting a book that’s more easily readable.  But the font size doesn’t necessarily change.

Second, there’s that price.  Two bucks more per paperback is starting to sound like an extravagance, especially for women, who buy the majority of paperbacks.  It would certainly make me pause before buying.  At $7.99, mass market paperbacks are already hitting the threshold for the budget-minded.  At $9.99 — my god, that’s nearly ten dollars for a paperback! — you are going to see a lot of readers put the book back on the shelf and head for the library instead.  My publisher told me that while the author and publisher may be seeing the same or more profits as always, due to the higher cover price of ventis, they’re actually LOSING volume of readership.  They’re charging a higher price, but selling fewer copies.

That, I say, is a disaster.  Because if you want to build a career as a bestselling author, you need word of mouth, and you need readers.  A lot of readers.  Not just those readers who happen to have enough money to shell out ten bucks for a paperback.  You want everyone — teenagers on allowances, moms on budgets, retirees who are watching their pennies.  You don’t want to lose any of them.  And asking them to pay two extra bucks may do it.

Finally — and this is the real problem — there’s that awkward size, which doesn’t always fit the standard mass market shelves that many bookstores now have in place.  Sure, it’s nice to be on the top row for a week or two.  But what happens when the next shipment of titles comes in?  Where do bookstores and drugstores and supermarkets put those ventis, if they can’t fit them on a lower row, where older releases usually go?

They return them.  That’s right.  They don’t get the prolonged stay of execution a normal-sized mass market may enjoy, sitting on a lower rack for a few weeks beyond its pull date.  If the store doesn’t have room on the lower rack, those ventis are kicked out.  Or they’re laid on their sides, spine out.  They may have had their time in the sun, but it’s a briefer moment of glory.

So I’m happy to stay in the tried-and-true mass market format.  Maybe my paperbacks don’t make that big visual splash that the ventis do, but I’m happy to linger a little longer on the shelves.  Word of mouth sometimes takes months.  I’ve discovered that my sales pattern has a prolonged “tail” – many of my readers discovered me long after my books were first released.  But they’re not going to find me if my books have already been returned to the publisher. 


18 replies
  1. amie
    amie says:

    I think the original *idea* was bigger fonts for baby boomers (maybe since Trade sales were going up and MM sales were going down), but the biggest complaint I’ve heard is that the books are heavier and hard on arthritic hands.

  2. J. Carson Black
    J. Carson Black says:

    Wow, Tess, thank you! I’ve been yearning for Venti, but I guess I, too, will be happy to stay with, uh…Tinty? You’re so right that authors need every bit of word of mouth they can get. That’s why I’m happy if a reader goes to the library or even a used bookstore, as long as, down the line, they get hooked on me–and tell other people.

  3. emilythewise21
    emilythewise21 says:

    I prefer the regular paperback books. It fits cozily in my hands and is just a more comfortable read. Also, today I got my grandma hooked on your books, she just can’t put The Surgeon down. She loves it! I hope September comes soon because practically all the women in my family are awaiting the arrival of your new book!

  4. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    here’s a question-why do paperbacks i have which were printed in the 40’s,50’s and 60’s still have tight bindings even after years of use when new expensive ones crack after a few weeks??as a stamp collector i’ve noticed new stamp hinges are far inferior to the old ones-progress isn’t always forward

  5. Tom Young
    Tom Young says:

    I’m not a big paperback reader. I do think bigger type font is a good thing. I have also noticed even with hard covers the lack of staying power in the bindings of the books the children read, compared to my older ones. I guess I’m really glad they are reading at 10, 12, and 14, books with no pictures.

  6. Liz
    Liz says:

    I hate the larger format paperbacks, Tess. I do most of my reading in bed and the heavier books are just awkard and make my thumb hurt.

    My own publisher has recently taken a deliberate step towards larger print, despite the extra cost of production and I am delighted. One book I was given recently remains unread simply because the print is eye-achingly small.

  7. knyghtingale
    knyghtingale says:

    I’m so grateful you won’t be switching to that bigger size book. As a struggling student I won’t even look at those bigger books anymore knowing that they cost like 3-4 dollars more than the little paperbacks. THANK YOU!

  8. jess
    jess says:

    I’m not a big paperback reader, I can never wait for a book to be in paperback before I buy it! I just buy the hardcovers which I love more and add them to my collection. I have noticed the bigger books are on the top shelf, but didn’t know they returned them, which I think is horrible. And like knyghtingale said, bigger isn’t always better when it’s more expensive! I’m 2 years out of college and still struggling to make ends meet. I wouldn’t be spending an extra 3-4 dollars on a book!

  9. Allison Brennan
    Allison Brennan says:

    I’ve only bought one Venti book because I loved the author and it wasn’t available in MM. I hated reading the book (well, loved the book, hated holding it). You can’t read the Venti while on the elliptical glider at the gym, where I do at least half my pleasure reading. My mom, who is an avid reader (5-7 books a week) hates them and refuses to buy them–not just because of the cost, but because of the way they feel.

    I think $2 more for a format that is far less comfortable than a regular mass market isn’t wise, and I (personally) don’t think they’ll last. I think readers would be more apt to pay another 50 cents for a mass market that has a few more pages to accommodate a slightly larger print.

  10. Kristin
    Kristin says:

    I actually like the bigger size. I hate having to crack the spine of a regular paperback to read the pages comfortably. The bigger size tends to be a bit ‘floppier’ and makes it easier to press flat for reading.

    I don’t like the extra price (if this does nothing for the author or publisher), but I do like the size.

    Or am I thinking of the trade size? Is that another size altogether?

  11. Tess
    Tess says:

    Kristin, the trade paperbacks (which I think you’re talking about) are both taller AND wider than the usual mass market paperbacks. They tend to sell for around $14.00, and are often the format used for literary novels.

    The “venti” paperbacks tend to be popular fiction, and they’re taller than the usual mass markets, but just as skinny — sort of the “Twiggy” version of a mass market. And they’re usually priced around $9.99.

  12. Rhonda Lane
    Rhonda Lane says:

    Thank you for your insights into the realities of the publishing business, Tess. Your explanations are helpful and I can see the logic behind things better now.

  13. Tami
    Tami says:

    You know, I noticed this a couple of months ago. I was browsing my local borders in the mystery section and found an author I had never read. The reason I found it? It was a “venti” paperback on the top shelf. It stuck out above everything else that it caught my eye. I picked it up and started to read it to see if I would be interested in it. Another customer came by and said “oh, i just bought that book last week at Costco. It just jumped right out and caught my eye. It’s a great book, you should get it.” Of course, after a recommendation, I took his word and bought it. Of course, before I was rung up, I didn’t notice the price! YIKES! If I had noticed this in advance, I probably wouldn’t have bought it. The funniest thing is on the front there was a sticker that read “larger format for easier read.” BOY, were they wrong! I was uncomfortable the whole time I read the book. Now after reading the book, I’ve come to be a fan of the author’s and have gone back and bought his other books. I would have never bought the book if it hadn’t “jumped” out at me on the shelves.

  14. Tom Young
    Tom Young says:

    You have arrived, Sam’s Club had a twin book paperback (new bigger size fromat) of yours on a endcap today. There were two ladies looking at one, I just had to tell them what a wonderful writer you were.

    Hope you don’t mind.

  15. vividexpression
    vividexpression says:

    Hi, I am a new fan of yours. I started reading the Surgeon and finished it last night. I cannot wait to read the next book in the series. You’re a great writer!

  16. Patrick
    Patrick says:

    I am not a fan of the venti size. If they DID feature larger print, it would be one thing. But to make them bigger basically just to add white space means that they’re essentially charging more to be able to waste a little more paper.

    I use media shelves as book shelves because I have more flexibility with how much space I can put between individual shelves. I’m not about to take that shelving apart to fit this awkward size in it at the cost of a full shelf that’s just perfect for those mass-market paperbacks that I prefer.

    Glad to know you plan to stay with the better format!

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