Thursday, April 2, 2020

The Importance of Pockets

Not mine. I don't own this book.

Aesthetics are important and you should judge books by their covers. That is a simple truth.

I realize this goes against conventional wisdom, but physical formats exist because customers want to hold and own objects. As much triumphalism as independent artists muster about their glorious digital future there is a reason their audience still ask for physical editions of everything they make. They always will. It is as inevitable as taxes and death. A part of us need the physical touch as well as the emotional surge of holding a product.

It is the full package that counts. Tangibility is underrated: you have all five senses for a reason!

Now, I'm not much of a collector. I don't go out of my way for special editions, or limited run boxsets, or those quirky boxes that include weird things like key-chains or statues and the like. That's too excessive for my like.

But I do have a physical copy of most every video game, movie, and TV show I have ever purchased, when available. It isn't the extra trinkets or shiny packaging I care about; I care about being able to hold it in my hands. It's about touch.

For instance, I own every issue of Cirsova and StoryHack (even the ones I'm not in) and even with my own work I try to make the physical edition look as good as possible. It's important to me that readers would want to pick up and read what I've written. If they wish to add my works to their own library? Well, few things are more flattering as that.

The only things I don't own physically are those that don't offer the option or overcharge on a physical version. I don't suspect it'll change anytime soon. I'd sooner stop buying if it meant I had no option to hold it.

Not my picture, but I wish I was there!

As for the reason I care? That is a bit harder to go into aside from saying that touch is probably the most neglected of the five (or is it six?) senses when it comes to art and entertainment.

Food needs to be tasted, music needs to be heard, visual mediums need to be looked at, smell has a whole set of uses in real life, but touch and tactile feeling are not quite as well focused upon.  Especially not in the arts. There are not very many arts that require touching to experience. Usually the audience is meant to sit back and enjoy what the artists has already touched. There isn't much in the way of physical participation to be had--it is about absorbing.

This means I am a big proponent of physical copies of art. It isn't about being a Luddite, but about offering just that little bit extra, that one sensation, to give the customer more than they might otherwise hope for. And since I'm a writer that means I am on the side of physical editions of every book that's ever been written.

If you have ever been in a used book store then you know what it's like to dig. The feel of the pages between your fingers as you flip to see that page quality, the familiar smell of paper, the yellow coloring to show just how long this copy has been passed around . . . there is a whole host of interesting experiences when holding a book in your hands. It is not the same as looking at lines on a screen. In fact, I would say searching through used video games, movies, and music, is much the same experience. It is part of the appeal. You feel as if you are part of a bigger whole, and not as disconnected as simply downloading copies of files.

However, when it comes to books I am a bit of a fanatic of one style in particular. I am speaking of the mass market paperback format, also known as the pocket paperback.

It took the newest kickstarter by Cirsova for me to realize I never properly spoke about it here, so let me correct that with this post. The best format for carrying fiction is the mass market (or "pocket") paperback both for ease and for aesthetic. I realize that sounds odd to enjoy such a "cheap" format so much that others look down on, so allow me to expand on why it is the superior format over clunky hardcovers and awkward trade paperbacks.

Cirsova has me pinned just right. Just as Paperbacks From Hell lamented the loss of these quirky covers and contents since replaced by boring thrillers, so to did the adventure story suffer from the loss of this format. This is what I wish to go into.

Check out Cirsova's kickstarter for Jim Breyfogle's Mongoose and Meerkat sword & sorcery stories for yourself, but I wanted to highlight one part of the campaign page. No, it isn't just because I was mentioned, but because I want to use this to spring off of.

Yes, I was the first backer of the pocket paperback edition.

This allows us to quite easily go over each format in the publishing world.

Digital is self-explanatory. It's a digital file that works with digital readers such as Amazon's Kindle. There is a large audience for digital. It's not my preferred format, but every author needs to offer it regardless. You want to reach as many readers as possible, after all. But there isn't anything to it other than choosing between epub, mobi, and/or pdf files. It depends on what the customer prefers. But there is no way to stand out with digital files. They all blur together.

Trade paperback is standard for places like amazon. It goes between 5 x 8 and 6 x 9, needing quite a bit of shelf space. It's also my least favorite format.

They are over-sized and not easy to carry. This is why I tend to go with 5 x 8 with my books on amazon. It is the smallest size possible without losing expanded distribution options. Being over-sized also means they aren't very portable, and without a hardback cover they flop around in your grip. To me, this is the worst of both worlds, but I will put up with it if it is my only option to publish a book. I'm not convinced amazon only offers this format in order to give physical readers the finger. They're not comics--you don't need that much space in a physical edition. Words don't need that much breathing room and empty real estate on the page.

Hardcovers are self-explanatory, being that they have always been the most recognizable form for books. Their over-sized nature matters less because the cover is sturdy and allows for an easy grip. Hardbacks also feel good to the touch and allows a bit of sturdy weight. They almost always look great, too. For me, this is the second best format, and the most useful for collections or longer works. It's also the best for non-fiction as it allows the reader to sit back and concentrate without having to awkwardly manage the over-sized pages. Were it not for the next format, this would be the best. Though it still is the best if you want a format that will last the longest outside of digital. These bad boys can weather any storm.

Now we come to my favorite format, the one J.R.R. Tolkien hated the most. It is the pocket paperback format. Tolkien declared pocket paperbacks stodgy, low class, and trashy, not worthy of holding the stories printed to them. It is a shabby form is a sign of publishers too cheap to offer readers more. They are a shabby format that degrade stories. They get beaten down, bent, and warped, which make them disrespectful to the art of storytelling.

In other words, the form doesn't do literature justice.

However, just because I disagree with his assessment does not mean I misunderstand why he wouldn't like them. The fact that they are so easy to hold, read, and store, makes them my preferred book format. What he sees as negatives are positives, to me.

From Black Gate. Not mine!

Pocket paperbacks are so good because they give stories to anyone to read anywhere at anytime. You can carry them on a break in the office. You can take them out while painting a house. You can pass it around to your pals during recess. You can put them anywhere, and they can be found anywhere just as easily. Pocket paperbacks are like having a whole universe of imagination with you that you can dive into at any time. Anyone can have them and they can fit in anything. They are the most universal form of book.

They were sold everywhere from drug stores to racks in magazine shops. They could get beaten, weather-worn, and bent, but they would take much to break. They were the ultimate form for books, and in many ways, still are. They could be again.

Spinner racks of pocket paperbacks were everywhere, even in stores that didn't specialize in books. This allowed them to be everywhere they wouldn't otherwise be. Comic books used to do this, too. This is what allowed these industries a reach they have since abandoned for a smaller number of fanatics who would sell a kidney in order to get glossier paper from their beloved megacorps instead. In other words, the common Joe was abandoned for fandom.

Unfortunately for them, pocket paperbacks is the key to reaching the largest possible audience. This was part of the secret to the form's success. Pocket paperbacks were meant for normal people who needed a quick and dirty read in the middle of their daily grind. Anyone could find them, anyone could carry them, and anyone could read them.

That said, they work better for shorter works. This is why pulp writing was so important to the success of the book industry, even after the magazines disappeared. Pocket paperbacks are essentially the modern pulps.

Part of the reason they have fallen so far out of favor (and why fewer read these days) is because pulp-length works were abandoned by Oldpub. Once again, this loss was an unequivocal disaster for big publishing, limiting customer options. Mass market paperbacks still exist, but barely, and they are never sold outside dying chain bookstores anymore. They might as well be trades. It was just one change among many that was yet another self-inflicted wound from Oldpub. Abandoning the masses is never a smart idea.

But that is what happened.

And it's a shame. No more imaginative painted covers, no more exciting title fonts and book descriptions, and no more ease of availability. Pocket paperbacks were built on all these things. They are the closest thing to mass appeal since the pulps, and losing them meant losing mass appeal. Nothing can replace them.

Now all that is left are the bland trade formats, tepid book descriptions, and nonsense post-modern covers on the shelves of dying bookstores. They have been neutered and abandoned by those who were supposed to take care of them.

Don't see these too much anymore.

Pocket paperbacks epitomize what reading is all about. Reading offers imagination to take you to a whole new world of excitement and wonder. That only sands to reason that the best way to offer that to readers is by giving them a format where they can do that in anyway they please and as often as they want. You don't need anything but a pocket and a hand to flip through it. This is why the pocket paperback is the best format.

We have pockets to carry the little things. Change, pens, phones, keys, wallets, and the little things we keep on hand for when we need them. These books allow us to add whole universes and worlds to that list. This is how the Game Boy became as big as it did, and it is why phones are so popular. Having a useful source of escapism on hand is invaluable. Pockets were made to carry, and these books were made for pockets.

Reading exists to employ the imagination and to take readers on journeys to whole other worlds. There is a reason the form has survived beyond the death of radio and television, and will last long after we are gone. It's how simple it is to use. There is no barrier to entry aside from your own imagination. That is how it should be.

There is a simplicity and straightforwardness to books that other entertainment mediums don't have. You don't need a console or PC like video games. You don't need a music player. You don't need a radio. You don't need a TV. You don't need a monitor. You don't need actors or a stage. It's just you and the book you hold in your hands. That's it. Making them so that they can be put into as many hands and into as many places as possible? That is how it should be.

As I said, aesthetics are important. They are the selling point of all books. The cover needs to attract eyes, the description needs to connect with potential readers, and the form needs to be as accessible as possible so anyone can pick it up. The content is a whole other story, but it won't matter if you cannot get eyes on said book to begin with. In this age of the new where standing out is harder than ever it is a non-negotiable. Aiming for the right audience is more important than it's ever been, which makes aesthetic invaluable.

You were sold on pulp being bad for you, mass market books being shabby junk, and imagination as a distant second in importance to social engineering. This isn't what makes kids want to read; it's what chases teenagers away from ever reading again.

You were taught an anti-pulp, anti-reader thought process that is currently killing the companies that were once the big dogs in this field. Eventually their backwards approach will have them put down. Turning an industry into a boutique solely for high-rollers at the expense of the common Joe is always a bad idea. It never ends well for anyone, and we can see it happening right now. The anti-pulp attitude is what is killing entire industries today.

That isn't for normal people, though. The spinner rack might have been abolished for dusty bookshelves in shuttering megacorps book chains, but the spirit is still alive.

That pulp spirit of wonder and imagination is still here. It is everything reading is meant to be. No form represents this spark better than the pocket paperback format, and that is why it is the best form for fiction. That is why it should be looked upon better than it currently is.

One day it will return to its rightful place as king. That day will be glorious, and will be more than due.

Now, if you can convince amazon into offering the pocket paperback format for writers, I will be forever indebted to you.

My pockets deserve more books to carry.


  1. Great post!

    I think what makes mass market paperbacks great is that they're designed with most of us in mind. The books I have in this format are affordable, dense, and highly recommended (since they came out a year after the hardback).

    1. I agree. I'm always more liable to give a book a chance it it's in this format. It's just more inviting.

  2. My preferred format is digital these days, but I grew up on pocket paperbacks. They are a magical world all their own. Very accessable and very easy to use. For a kid, the two or three dollar price tag was a week's allowance, so quite affordable. They are also more durable than an ereader, pretty much child-proof.

  3. Very cool post. I love the old-school pocket book size, the old Dell Map-backs, the little old Ace, Avon, etc. DMR Books released a couple throwback sized paperback, a collection of Nictzin Dyalhis and another of Clifford Ball that were in a 6.5"x4.25" format. They look like they could have come off a spinner rack in the 60s.

    And you're right, there is a distinct lack of nice oil paintings like we used to see. I'd be curious in your opinion on a pulp-style story I just released where I actually did that however -- painted my own cover using oils.

    I haven't made it available in paperback format yet, but your article encourages me to do so. Thanks!


    1. That is a cool looking painting! Definitely gives me vibes of those old paperback covers you can only find in used book stores today. Great job.

    2. Thanks, man! Here's the unpolluted image, just the painting. If I decide to expand this series, it'll be fun painting another Pleistocene scene!