Have mercy on our eyes

Last year, while on the road, I dropped into a bookstore to pick up a trade paperback copy of Zadie Smith’s WHITE TEETH.  I’d heard a lot about the book, and was looking forward to reading it.  I didn’t browse through the book first, just paid for it and walked out.  Sitting in a restaurant an hour later, I opened the book, read about two paragraphs… and gave up. I haven’t opened the book since.  Why?

Because I couldn’t read the blasted thing.  The print was too small.

Now, I’m not at all vain about wearing glasses, but I’m not used to wearing them, either.  They feel foreign, sitting on my nose.  Only in the last few years has the perfect vision of my childhood deteriorated to the point that I was finally forced to order bifocals.  But I just can’t seem to enjoy the act of reading while I’m wearing those things.

Now, when I go into a bookstore, the first thing I do before I even consider purchasing a book is I check the print.  I’ve ended up putting a few books back on the shelf — and the chances are, I’ll never read them.  Not every book has a large-print version available.  (And I’m not quite ready to admit that I NEED those large-print editions.) 

I don’t think I’m the only one who’s in this position, with vision too weak for teeny print, but still too good for large-print.  My eyes are in that in-between stage.  Like the pre-teen who doesn’t quite need the grown-up bra. 

I once had a nice chat with a woman from Thorndike Press, who holds the large-print rights to some of my books.  She told me that large print is one of the few segments of publishing that’s showing sustained growth.  The reading population is getting older, she pointed out, and baby boomers (who, I suspect, read more than Generation X-ers) are now in their fifties.  The dumbest thing a publisher can do is print books that readers can’t comfortably read.

Before my books are printed, my editor sends me sample pages so that I can approve the typeface.  Lately, I’ve been paying a lot more attention to the font size.  With the paperback version of VANISH, I asked them to use a larger font.  Publishers don’t like to do this, because it means more pages, more paper, and a higher per-copy expense.  But I insisted, and they agreed.

I don’t want my books to end up like WHITE TEETH, unreadable by middle-aged eyes.

If you’re a writer, think about your older readers.  Take a good hard look at the size of your book type.  If you (or your mom) has a hard time reading it, then who the heck is going to want to buy your book?  If the print’s too small, ask your publisher for larger type.

Your sales may depend on it.


19 replies
  1. writeforlove
    writeforlove says:

    Well, I’m 28 and there’s nothing worse than tiny print in a book. I require spacious font and leading, because it’s all about east and comfort when I’m laying in bed at 11 pm, clad with my nifty book light among a dimly lit room and/or sleeping husband. The conditions are challenging as it is! Ironically, as a graphic designer, large fonts are the enemy when laying out marketing collateral. HOwever, these same rules do not apply. You’re right on. And I’m slowly losing my vision.

  2. Corinna
    Corinna says:

    Small print is just uncomfortable to read. The pages seem so crowded. (And I’m not _that_ old and near-sighted, *ggg*).

    So long,

  3. Rhonda Lane
    Rhonda Lane says:

    Thank you, Tess, for insisting on larger print for the VANISH pb. I think that’s a needed innovation. My eyes aren’t what they used to be, either. Reading the the usual mass market paperback wears me out anymore, and that makes me sad. Plus, I get a nice stretch of uninterrupted reading time by reading while I’m walking on the treadmill. MMPBs don’t seem to work well for that. But they’re great for shoving into a handbag to read in waiting rooms or on planes.

  4. tragicfarinelli
    tragicfarinelli says:

    Yep, I’m one of those people who appreciates the larger print too. I read the Tolkien trilogy a while back, and the copies were given to me before my Gramps died…they were first edition paperbacks and had the smallest print I have ever read before. I think that was the turning point for my already flagging eyes; they now require reading glasses and good lighting! I’m 27. Good for you for insisting on the larger print Tess.

  5. Tom Young
    Tom Young says:

    About three years ago I got my first pair of Bi-focals, I hated them at first always thinking I was having to look through them funny. Now, they don’t bother me so much. Yes, I always check the type size on a book. and as much driving as I do, the scale of maps before I purchase them.

    Thank God for ctrl-scroll.

  6. J. Carson Black
    J. Carson Black says:

    I second JA. I’d curious about those large format paperbacks, too. I bought one, and it broke in half when I reached the middle of the book.

    Unfortunately for me (and my potential readers) my books come out in original paperback. I write fairly big books (100,000 words), and so my print is pretty small. I have no say on how they’re printed.


  7. Meike
    Meike says:

    I just picked up my copy of White Teeth and indeedy, the print it ridiculously small, even for my almost 21-year-old eyes.

    Which is a shame, because it’s a fantastic book.

  8. Chrissy
    Chrissy says:

    I’m only 16, but I have astigmatism (I’m unsure of the spelling) and I don’t have glasses at the moment, I definitely prefer larger print. I had trouble reading my LOTR books, the font was far too small… I only made it through half of the first one before I gave up!

  9. Lorra Laven
    Lorra Laven says:

    I’ve read a lot of comments on literary blogs where readers swear they’ll never read a book online because of the strain on their eyes – not to mention their necks and backs!

    One would think publishers, who are all competing with the internet, would be aware of the importance of choosing a type that was easy on the eyes and therefore enticing to readers – especially the huge segment of the population that is now, sadly, aging.

    Thanks for the heads up.

  10. CDluzen
    CDluzen says:

    I now wear trifocals, and still can’t deal with tiny print, so I appreciate a nice font. But what I really enjoy now are audiobooks on my mp3 player. I’m not sure why more people don’t seem to enjoy listening to books. I can listen while I do housework, take a walk, fall asleep at night … I LOVE it. Thank you, Tess, for the audiobook versions of your work!

  11. sandarnold
    sandarnold says:

    I am wearing reading glasses now. However since I work on the computer all day and sometimes in the evening, my glasses are made to be able to use them for both the computer and reading. If the font of a book is small I still have problems even with my glasses. I do like audio books but the majority of the time I listen to them to and from work as well on any long trips like when I drive to my Mom’s which is a three hour trip. I have started purchasing copies of works from my favorite authors in audio form but only if they are unabridged. If they are not, I buy the book.

  12. Becca
    Becca says:

    The print size is actually one of the reasons that I ONLY read Hardcover books. That and you dont have to hold them open constantly and put strain on your wrist. Even I like the larger font, and Im one of those Generation Xers at a meager 21. Bigger print is better for everyone.

  13. mcatherinemcf
    mcatherinemcf says:

    Hi Tess,

    I know this subject is long past but I just discovered your blog.

    I have pretty much stopped buying paper books because they are too uncomfortable for my eyes, despite the eye doc saying my correction is 20/20. I read ebooks almost exclusively on either my Palm Tungsten E when out or my laptop at home. I have never been bothered by the small screen of my Palm. And it is really nice to carry 458 books with me at all times! I use a laptop at home or occasionaly out; I don’t have a problem with back or neck strain because I read in my easy chair with the laptop on a tv tray type table.


  14. childofthewilderness
    childofthewilderness says:

    oh dear i’m pretty jealous of you. i’ve been wearing glasses since i was six and currently i’m around a quarter of your age but my myopic degree’s nearing 800 on both eyes and astigmatism’s high too.

    haha i know this post is really ancient and i’m really spouting nonsense but yeah, be happy for decent eyesight!

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