John Green is one of the biggest young-adult authors in the world.
Now he wants to get small.
Four of his best-selling novels — including “The Fault in Our Stars” — will be released this October in a radically new miniature format. All the original words will be there, but the pages will be squeezed down to something about the size of a cellphone.
But that’s just the start of this real-life episode of “Honey, I Shrunk the Books.” 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 maneuver, like swiping a screen.
For anyone accustomed to holding a book — that is, anyone older than 2 — the first reaction is likely to be delight and then bewilderment. As Umberto Eco once said: “The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved.”
Green would beg to disagree. “It really only takes a second to get used to,” he says. “I’m shocked by how readable they are.”
Green first saw these mini-books in the Netherlands, where they’re called Flipbacks or Dwarsliggers (dwars crossways; liggen to lie). “I thought the quality of the bookmaking was really magnificent,” he says. When his U.S. publisher asked whether he wanted to be a guinea pig for Flipbacks in the United States, he readily agreed.
“I haven’t seen a new book format that I thought was at all interesting,” Green says, “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-shaped experience 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?’ ”
Indeed, it’s taken a surprisingly long time for Flipbacks to make a splash in the United States. Dutch printer Royal Jongbloed, which started as a Bible publisher, debuted 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 miniaturization. And the special paper — long used for Bibles — is miraculously thin without being see-through.
When Strauss-Gabel decided to work with Jongbloed to bring Flipback versions of Green’s titles to the United States, 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 math equations. Those elements require extra design work even in a normal-size book. Making them look effective on a page three inches high was a puzzle. “We eventually got the alchemy just right,” Strauss-Gabel says.
Penguin Young Readers is working with bookstores to design ways to market Penguin Minis when they’re released Oct. 23. “Looking for Alaska,” “An Abundance of Katherines,” “Paper Towns” and “The Fault in Our Stars” will sell for $12 each ($48 for a boxed set). More titles by Green and other best-selling authors, as well as classics, will follow in 2019.
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 3 million subscribers on YouTube and more than 5 million followers on Twitter.) “We’re going to strive to have waves of new titles” over the next few years, Strauss-Gabel says.
It’s unlikely American teens will switch en masse from iPhones to Flipbacks, but Green, whose works have sold more than 50 million copies, doesn’t subscribe to the much-ballyhooed death of reading among young people. “I remember when I was a teenager,” he says, “and adults were asking, ‘Why aren’t kids reading more?’ Well, kids are still reading!”
But he acknowledges what books are up against 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 these diminutive books will help — a little.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.