[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s a physical object and a feat of technology, the printed book is hard to improve upon. Apart from minor cosmetic tweaks, the form has barely evolved since the codex first arose as an appealing alternative to scrolls around 2,000 years ago.
So, when Julie Strauss-Gabel, president and publisher of Dutton Books for Young Readers, discovered “dwarsliggers” tiny, pocket-size, horizontal flipbacks that have become a wildly popular print format in the Netherlands it felt like a revelation. “I saw it and I was like, boom!” she said. “I started a mission to figure out how we could do that here.”
This month, Dutton, which is part of Penguin Random House, began releasing its first batch of mini-books, with four reissued novels by best-selling young-adult novelist John Green. The tiny editions are the size of a cellphone and no thicker than your thumb, with paper as thin as onion skin. They can be read with one hand the text flows horizontally, and you can flip the pages upwards, like swiping a smartphone.
But, in the past few decades, most of the pivotal advances in publishing have been digital, with the evolution of e-books and digital audio. Recently, some publishers have tried shrinking print books as a way to repackage older backlist titles in an effort to entice readers to buy new editions of books they already know and love and own.
Three years ago, Picador released mini-books by Denis Johnson, Jeffrey Eugenides, Hermann Hesse and Marilynne Robinson the tiny editions are 5-13/16 inches tall by 3-11/16 inches wide to celebrate the imprint’s 20th anniversary. The form was so popular with independent booksellers that Picador decided to publish another collection in 2017 of non-fiction titles by Hilary Mantel, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion and Barbara Ehrenreich and is planning to release more next fall.
It is unclear if even such a literary and social media supernova as Green can popularise an unfamiliar new format. But Dutton is cautiously optimistic that minis will take off during the holiday retail season and is printing an initial run of 500,000 copies. “I have no idea how people will respond to this,” Green said. “They’re objects that you almost can’t get until you’re touching them.”
It is a bold experiment that, if successful, could reshape the publishing landscape and, perhaps, even change the way people read. Next year, Penguin Young Readers plans to release more minis and, if readers find the format appealing, other publishers may follow suit.