John Green is one of the biggest young adult authors in the world. Now he wants to get small.
Four of his bestselling novels – including The Fault in Our Stars – will be released this October in a new, miniature format. All the original words will be there, but the pages will be squeezed down to something about the size of a mobile phone.
But that’s just the start. These Penguin Minis from Penguin Young Readers are not only smaller than you’re used to, they’re also horizontal. You read these little books by flipping the pages up rather than turning them across. It’s meant to be a one-handed move, like swiping a screen.
For anyone used to holding a book, the first reaction is likely to be delight and then confusion. As Italian novelist Umberto Eco once said: “The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved.”
Green would disagree. “It really only takes a second to get used to,” he said. “I’m shocked by how readable they are.”
Green first saw these mini-books in the Netherlands, where they’re called Flipbacks or Dwarsliggers. “I thought the quality of the bookmaking was really magnificent,” he said. When his US publisher asked if he wanted to be a guinea pig, an experiment, for Flipbacks in America, he readily agreed.
“I haven’t seen a new book format that I thought was at all interesting,” Green said, “But I find this format really usable and super-portable.” And young people may be the perfect audience for a new way to read: “They probably aren’t as set in their ways in how they interact with books. And in some ways, these books are more similar to a phone-shaped experience.”
But creating that phone-shaped experience on paper was a headache for the publisher.
Julie Strauss-Gabel, president of Dutton Books for Young Readers, a division of Penguin Young Readers, discovered the Dwarsliggers almost by accident when a Dutch copy of one of Green’s novels came into her office. “The minute I picked it up, I thought, ‘How do we not have these in this country?’”
It’s taken a surprisingly long time for Flipbacks to make a splash in the US. Dutch printer Royal Jongbloed, which started as a Bible publisher, introduced the format in 2009. Since then, Jongbloed has helped publish more than 1,000 titles – including works by Dan Brown, John le Carré, and Agatha Christie – in Flipback format in several European countries.
The spine, a unique hinge that allows the chunky little book to remain open, is the heart of this feat of miniaturisation. And the special paper – long used for Bibles – is super thin without being see-through.
When Strauss-Gabel decided to work with Jongbloed to bring Flipback versions of Green’s titles to the US, everything about the appearance of his books had to be rethought, from how big the font should be to how many lines could fit on the pages. Strauss-Gabel says her team didn’t just want “something that looked nice, but something you really could hold open and read. It’s all extraordinarily complicated”.
And one title posed an extra-large challenge. Green’s 2006 novel, An Abundance of Katherines, contains footnotes, graphs, and maths equations. Those elements require extra design work even in a normal-size book. Making them look effective on a page around eight centimetres high was a puzzle. “We eventually got the alchemy just right,” Strauss-Gabel says.
Now, Penguin Young Readers is working with bookstores to design ways to market Penguin Minis when they’re released on October 23. Looking for Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines, Paper Towns and The Fault in Our Stars will sell for US$12 each (US$48 for a boxed set). Additional titles by Green, other bestselling authors and classics will follow next year.
The novelty element should be enough to draw attention to the first batch, but the publisher hopes the petite format is bigger than Green’s popularity. (He has more than three million subscribers on YouTube, and more than five million followers on Twitter.)
It’s unlikely that all American teens will switch from iPhones to Flipbacks, but Green, whose works have sold more than 50 million copies, doesn’t believe that reading is dead among young people. “I remember when I was a teenager,” he said, “And adults were asking, ‘Why aren’t kids reading more?’ Well, kids are still reading!”
But he admits that books are up against it in our age of distraction. “Books demand quiet and attention, and they demand attention for long periods of time. In today’s world, that can be challenging to find, not just for teenagers but for adults.”
Maybe the Flipbacks will help – in a small way, at least.