Why Have Paperback Books Become Larger?

I’ve always loved my shelves of paperback novels; all the books were of similar size and sat in neat, orderly rows. Over the last few years, though, things changed. At one point, every thriller I bought seemed to be a different size to the previous one and the shelves became a mess, so in this month’s blog, we dig into what’s happening.

When Paperbacks Were Invented

Mass market paperbacks were born in 1935 when Allen Lane launched the Penguin brand and published the first “commuter friendly” books. His aim was to produce books of quality literature at low prices and to sell them at train stations alongside the newspapers, magazines, and cigarettes. The cover price was set at six pence, and 1 million paperbacks were sold in the first ten months, including novels from Christie and Hemingway. The covers were colour coded – orange for fiction, green for crime, and blue for biography. Lane wanted a consistent size and layout for the books, and Penguin settled on 4⅜” x 7⅛” (111 mm x 181 mm). It used an approximation of the “golden ratio” of 1.618 to set the relationship between height and width so that the cover would look pleasing, while also maximising the number of pages that could be obtained from paper of the size used by the printing presses of the day.

The US following in 1939 with the launch of Pocket Books, which started to produce paperbacks that were more squat than Penguin’s, at 4¼” x 6⅞”. Although not definite, the reason for the smaller size was probably that paper size standards in the US were different to the UK’s, so a book needed different proportions to make the most of the US paper it was printed on.

Mass Market Fiction Paperback Trim Size

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

In the UK, the height of the standard mass market paperback dropped slightly to 7” (178 mm), and become known as the A-format (UK). The reason for the small reduction is hard to determine but may have been due to the 1943 Book Production War Economy Agreement that was introduced to help with paper rationing by controlling font size and words per page; or it could have been caused by the introduction of rotating carousels in the US to hold paperbacks. Whatever the reason for the change, the A-format was standard for many years. Looking at the books on my “neat” bookshelf, all its books are of that size, published in the seventies and eighties.

Have you recently read a novel from that period? I reread one recently, and it has to be admitted that the font size in those early mass-market paperbacks seems quite small. And that was the cause of a major change in paperback book sizes that took place in 2020. Publishers were concerned by falling sales, and felt it was caused by their main readership getting older and finding it increasingly hard to read the small print. Penguin and Simon & Schuster began a trend for increasing the font, the margin size, and the gaps between lines. The result: larger paperbacks. Simon & Schuster’s chief executive is reported as saying, “We’ve been losing the foundation of our customer base because their eyesight is getting worse and the books are getting harder to read.”

They experimented by publishing some of their best selling authors in larger sized paperbacks and the positive feedback they received prompted them to add thriller writers Clive Cussler and Robin Cook to the new format. Their clear success caused Harlequin to join the transition shortly after.

For a while, a whole variety of sizes were being used, but in the last few years, the chaos seems to have subsided, and mass market fiction from mainstream publishers seems to have finally settled on a common size of 5” x 7⅜” in the UK. At last, my bookshelf is starting to look ordered once again, although the thicker spines mean far fewer books per shelf than my older collection.

A Book’s Size Shows its Genre

The A-format size was used for mass-market genre fiction. However, publishers felt that “more prestigious” works of fiction should have a similar size to hardbacks in order to be taken seriously; a book’s size became a way for retailers and customers to understand what type of work they were holding. Literary fiction standardised on what’s called the B-format (5⅛” x 7¾”; 129 mm x 198 mm) and is referred to as a “Trade Paperback” instead of “Mass Market”.

I hadn’t realised the subtle link between size and genre until my publisher asked me if I had any preference on what size my next book was printed in. Digging into the topic further, I found that size is significant. Novellas and memoirs both have set sizes that are different to both genre fiction and literary fiction. Text books are different again, and are different to general non-fiction; and children’s books are larger.  Originally, each of those styles of paperback had its own size, but that original clear distinction has become blurred in recent years, particularly with the birth of self-publishing and print-on-demand. Suddenly there’s an explosion of available sizes, and the subtle link between size and genre looks set to become blurred.

The Future of Paperback Book Sizes

There seems no doubt that self-publishing and print-on-demand will have a major impact on the size of books over the next decade. Independent authors and small publishers who rely on the likes of Amazon KDP or IngramSpark to produce their books have a whole wealth of sizes to choose from. Confusion abounds. When I wrote this article, Amazon was offering sixteen different paperback trim sizes from 5” x 8” upwards; IngramSpark offered twenty-nine, starting at 4” x 6”. With publishing now open to almost everyone, the hope of keeping to standard sizes for different types of book now seems impossible.

I like supporting smaller publishers, so it looks like my bookshelves in the future will never be neatly ordered again. Sad.

Ian Coates is the author of a thriller, Eavesdrop, first published by Bad Day Books, the suspense and thriller imprint of Assent Publishing.  He worked in the high tech electronics industry for 30 years, where he specialised in the design of radio communication equipment. His intimate knowledge of that environment always triggered his imagination to think about the mysterious world of spies, and allowed him to bring a unique authenticity to his thriller. Ian is proud to support the British Science Association and donates a proportion of his book proceeds to that charity.  He lives and writes in Worcestershire, England, and is a member of the Society of Authors and the International Thriller Writers Association.

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