About the Size of It

            Once upon a time, at the Book Fair, we opted to divide our fiction and our mysteries by size, for easier shelving.  In those days, we had two basic sizes.  We called them Hardback and Paperback.  They were officially, to those in the book trade, known as “octavo” (roughly 9 ½ by 6 ¼ ) and decimo-sexto (roughly 4 1/8 by 6 ¾ ).

            Even in those days, of course, life was not so simple.  Art books, religious books, and children’s books, especially, might come in all shapes and sizes.  Even in the world of Fiction and Mystery, life was complicated by the fact that British paperbacks (and the American Signet, which was related to the British penguin Books anyhow) were a silly millimeter taller, while some of the pocket-sized classics of literature came in paperback at a quarter inch or so shorter than the standard novel.  AND there were companies that published hardcover decimo-sexto volumes.  Still, we stuck to our separation of big books from little books in these categories because there were basically these two sizes.  Separating them was fairly simple, and made shelving easier.  All the little books made a neat row, and if the bigger books didn’t have the mini-me versions throwing off the line, they made neat rows, too.

            Our lives were complicated by the huge expansion of the Trade Paperback market.  Those decimo-sexto books are what are known to the mavens as Mass Market Paperbacks.  The trade Paperback is a paperback book the size of its hardcover equivalent (octavo sized, if you’re trying to keep up.  There’s a decimo-octavo, too, but I’m ignoring it.  You’ll understand why in a bit.)

            Trade Paperbacks, or at least big paperbacks, had always existed.  They were handy for outside reading texts for college students who, having shelled out a few hundred dollars for textbooks, didn’t want to have to pay hardcover prices for all those books on Colonial America or Utilitarian Philosophy the professor recommended.  At about the same time the CD began to gain on the LP, though, publishers began to wonder if they couldn’t sell more books with a handsome paperback the size of a hardcover book.  The buyer would get that bestseller everyone was reading, but with the price and weight advantage of not paying for the cloth cover and dustjacket.

            This clabbered up the batter at the Book Fair, as more and more novels and mysteries began to appear in Trade Paperback.  “But it’s a paperback!” they would cry, as I moved the books back into the space where I wanted them.

            “No, no!” says I.  “It’s for neat displays: big books with big books and little books with little books.”  More than once I regretted that we had not called the categories “Big Mysteries” and “Little Mysteries.”

            The next development came in the early twenty-first century.  Without asking my permission in the least, paperback publishers started to publish Mass Market Paperbacks that were five-eighths of an inch taller than the old standard, making them 4 1/8 x 7 3/8.  This really messed up packing them in the boxes, and complicated life for the set-up volunteers at the Book Fair, who now had to give up neat rows or give up alphabetizing, since they now had big little books and little little books to deal with.

            The latest development, which seems to have begun around 2010, is that Trade Paperback publishers, to save money, have started making their books smaller.  I picked up two Trade Paperbacks, both published in 2010, which have turned their paper backs on the standard octavo size, and trimmed their margins.  One of these mysteries measures 5 x 7 ¾ , the other 4 ¾ by 7 3/8, or just five-eighths of an inch wider than the Mass Market Paperback in its new size.  Lesser Book Fair Managers would lose hope at this point, seeing that lovely sorting system starting toward the drain, but not your Uncle Blogsy.

            To me, it proves that a book is something special.  You just can’t get this kind of fun with a Kindle.

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