Books vs. Bricks

Posted this morning to 4_Mystery_Addicts:

On Jun 9, 2007, at 8:34 PM, wrote:

Jim Huang of the Drood Review (and also a mystery bookseller) hates everything about the "new" size paperback. He calls it a "brick," (I love that characterization!) and claims that it has none of the "feel" of a normal book. It is generally too thick and heavy for those who like the weight and size of a normal paperback or even a traditional trade paperback. And its bulk makes it uncomfortable and unbalanced for those of us that like to read hardcovers. Jim says that his customers just don't buy them in his store. They don't like them (could it be that Jim has passed on his prejudice?).

As an independent bookseller, I get to pass on my prejudices all the time. I think that's the main virtue of independents -- agree or don't agree, at least you know where we stand! But in terms of the bricks, I'm only reacting to my customers' complaints. I don't volunteer an opinion on them until asked. (That's in contrast to the opportunity to talk about and recommend titles and authors; that we do all the time, without being prompted.) My customers are picking these books up off my new titles table, they're bringing them up to me and they're basically telling me two things: 1) $9.99 is too much to ask for a book that's packaged like this --- they'll spend $23.95 for a new hardcover but balk at $9.99 for a brick -- and 2) these books aren't comfortable to hold.

Both are legitimate complaints. Couple of things to remember:

1) The $9.99 price is essentially designed to give room for discounting. At $7.99, there aren't enough dollars there for the big box stores and online sites to do 20% or 40% or whatever off the suggested list price. Publishers are dealing with chain booksellers who've gone insane with discounting, and the way they're dealing with it is by trying to find way to raise suggested retail prices. I hate this system. (The chains don't like it much either. If you doubt that, take a look at the reporting on B&Ns and Borders' most recent quarterly reports.) I'd much rather see a business where books are $7.99 rather than $9.99 less 20%, mostly because of the way that 20% gets financed: through publisher promotions that are available to the big guys but not offered to smaller independents. I can't discount the way the big guys can because publishers don't want me to. (If they wanted me to, they'd offer more support.) It's even worse when something that should be published at $6.99 instead gets released at $13.95 less 30% at Amazon. Consumers are paying more for the book, but they're being coaxed into believing that they're getting a bargain because it's 30% off. It's more than just insulting to your intelligence: these practices are having a real effect not just on prices but on the nature of what's being published and retained in print.

2) It's the balance thing that's most disturbing about bricks. For decades -- literally for decades -- we've come to expect that the ratio of height to width of the books that we read has been more or less constant. Run the numbers for the four standard trim sizes and you'll see what I mean. The bricks fall outside of the "normal" range. What this represents is a total failing on the publishing industry's part to appreciate the visceral aspect of reading a book. We love books for a lot of reasons, mostly having to do with the words they contain. But I also believe that there's a tactile sensation at work here, that the experience of holding a book in your hands is in and of itself reassuring and restorative. (John Dunning writes about the healing qualities of books in Booked to Die, albeit a different aspect of this but one that's very real for his protagonist.) It's a learned behavior, but it's been learned over all our lives. When we pick up a book in the brick format, our subconscious doesn't even recognize that it's a book -- it's some weird alien thing masquerading as a book. It's going to take a long while before readers unlearn everything they know about what a book feels like. That's what has to happen before we're comfortable with bricks.

I certainly understand readers who want larger print in books. In my 40s, I do too. But the way to get there is for the big guys to publish standard-sized trade paperbacks and price them at $9.00, $10.00 or even $11.00, instead of the brick at $9.99. There's no production cost reason why they can't do this. (As a small book publisher, I have to price my trade paperbacks at $14 or $15, but there's no reason that Simon & Schuster -- with its economies of scale and marketplace muscle has to do so.)

Why do I hate the brick? Because it's evidence that book publishers don't respect books and their readers. It's pretty much as simple as that.