The mystery that is format

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Bookshops and libraries are required to accommodate new titles in a plethora of sizes, A, B and C paperbacks, small format and &pound;10 hardbacks. But does format mean anything? Nick Webb, formerly of Penguin, Granada, Pan, NEL, Arrow, Macdonald and Simon &amp; Schuster UK, explains all</p><p>
Mike Petty, a shrewd editor, uttered the memorable remark, "Vietnam is a B-format war" about Mark Baker's Nam when we worked together at Sphere in the balmy days before "Internet anxiety". We chortled cynically, but we knew what he meant.</p><p>
Format decisions are not an initiation ceremony for young publishers that, if bravely endured, gives them a free pass to Area 51 or Soho House. The truth is both more straightforward and more rococo. Straightforward because there is a surprising consensus among publishers about the rules: despite some arguments about offside, they are all more or less playing market footie, there would not be a lot of point in fielding something that will not fit on the pitch. Rococo because the price/format equation is a complex one with many contributing factors, and publishers reserve the right to anomaly. After all, the books themselves could not be more varied. Even if a policy about something this woolly could be fudged, publishers as a group are as fractious as pop stars. No consensus endures for long. The brain-bruising visual clutter and inconsistency out there on the shelves is therefore not such a wonder.</p><p>
Although the principles of format are generally agreed, the decisions are by no means automatic. After a judicious assessment of the margins, the projected sales, the cover price, the positioning of the book in the market, the advance to be recovered, the effect on subsequent incarnations of the work, the editorial nature of the beast, the target readership, the visual code that formats to some extent still represent to the trade and public, and other subtleties, there are a few cases when the issue of what size to print the damned thing is still far from clear cut.</p><p>
In these instances, the final choice comes back to an intangible, a gut feeling or instinct. Publishing is no more democratic than any other business, and the decision is often precipitated by the publisher deciding that he or she cannot bear one more nanosecond of management time to be spent on the question.</p><p>
Until that moment, the key voices tend to be those of the commissioning editor and the sales director. But if those people are then not as together as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie on a good day, the book is in deep custard. Disagreement reveals a fundamental problem about how the work is perceived by the house, something that should have been clear when it was acquired.</p><p>
The book trade has to cope with the most amazing product range of any retail industry. The stock range of supermarkets with their 18,000 lines is piffling compared to that of a big Waterstone's or a Borders superstore. The world's most conscientious bookseller cannot be intimately acquainted with every title published by an industry that still overproduces like there is no tomorrow. The format and the cover are the first things the bookseller sees, and, although the two are inseparable, the physical size of the book has become in itself a complex message about the nature of the contents.</p><p>
Small is digestible</p><p>
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Working up in scale, the smallest format is generally reserved for the cutesie-pie gift book, impulse purchases of a vaguely inspirational nature, humour and gimmicks. The Little Book of Calm (Penguin) and the delicious parody, The Little Book of Complete Bollocks (Pocket), are nifty examples of the micro-book genre. Penguin's successful Quit, packaged like a packet of cigarettes, cleverly exploited the size. There are some exceptions, but by and large you would not expect to find monographs on Wittgenstein in this format. The size code says: digestible opuscule; maybe a bit frivolous.</p><p>
Slightly bigger are the Collins Pocket reference titles, an interesting example of a format being so successfully mined by one publisher that the market is opened up for others. This size emphasises handiness and affordability with a good range of information in condensed form. Like the gift format above, it suffers from a lack of appropriate racking in many outlets; the publisher usually has to provide a spinner or a counter-pack. Booksellers, please take pity on the poor publisher: do not throw away the counter-pack when the stock has sold through.</p><p>
A format is otherwise known as mass market rack-sized. These cheerful paperbacks occupy the space dominated by the supermarkets and W H Smith. Because of changes in the patterns of buying, rumours of the demise of the mass market have been circulating in the industry for a good decade. However, A formats still command a huge share of the shelf space and of sales. The packaging is lively and no-nonsense: sporting foil (often embossed), in-your-face typography and, for some genres, amazing low-gravity cleavage, the artwork cries "buy me, buy me" amid a welter of commercial and visual competition. The format is affordable and handy, and the visual code speaks of unpretentious pleasure.</p><p>
Garry Prior, sales and marketing director of Transworld, says that there are many ways for the publisher to deliver the product and that the format crucially depends on the content of the book and the market it is trying to reach. He points out that when an author has achieved a certain commercial momentum the issue of format becomes less sensitive. The book will be found by the fans and supported by the trade regardless. For instance, Ben Elton was A format for Pocket and B format for Black Swan. "Generally A format is about entertainment at an affordable price," he says, "though there are imprints such as Penguin and Faber that publish some quite literary stuff in A format, but they are beneficiaries of many decades of branding."</p><p>
Some believe there is a certain age factor too. Eddie Bell, former executive chairman of HarperCollins UK and one of the industry's astutest commentators, suggests that younger readers, particularly the 20-somethings, tend to prefer A formats for their portability and price (still typically not more than &pound;5.99).</p><p>
Life gets more complicated with B format, trade paperbacks. (The "trade" in "trade paperback" keeps alive an old and irrelevant distinction, but it is a term in such widespread use that only a daft linguistic policeman would try to arrest it.) Thirty years ago B formats were rare creatures. Although there are antecedents, it is probably true to say that Sonny Mehta started the revolution when he published the Paladin list for what was then Granada. Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch was on the launch list. Trade paperbacks acquired instant chic.</p><p>
As the marketplace changed, with the frivolous end defecting to other forms of entertainment and the disappearance of channels of supply such as Bookwise, the importance of trade paperbacks grew. Pretty soon everybody wanted a trade paperback list, and it became vital to have a B-sized imprint as a vehicle for fashionable up-market fiction and non-fiction. All the major publishing houses now have at least one imprint, Abacus, Sceptre, Black Swan, Flamingo, Vintage, Virago, Scribner and Picador.</p><p>
Each imprint is informed by the personality and tastes of its commissioning editors and by its access to cool copyrights; to this extent the trade paperback explosion has mirrored the upheavals in the industry at large. Once upon a time, when the hardback houses ruled, editors were able to buy paperback reprint rights from indie hardcover houses and build a paperback list from sources other than their own groups. Such a practice is impossible now.</p><p>
So what are the visual signals emitted by B format? Eddie Bell confirms the general view: "B format is the imprint for books that are a little bit more upmarket. The format is reserved for something with literary aspirations, aimed at a sophisticated metropolitan market likely to be in their 20s, 30s and 40s, the all-important repeat buyer. The price will typically be a pound or two more than a mass market paperback, and the packaging has to have a great degree of polish. But the nuances of format are less important when a title has broken out. Angela's Ashes, for example, sold brilliantly for HarperCollins in both A and B format editions.</p><p>
"Publishers take enormous trouble to give brand value to their B format lists in the hope that eventually the cachet of the list, the smartness of the packaging and the public's association of the imprint with quality will enable the brand to act as a vehicle for the good but perhaps more speculative titles the publisher wants to establish."</p><p>
Great expectations</p><p>
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There are other influences. Readers have a B format expectation for certain genres. Fantasy, for example, is often launched in B for the serious fans and republished in A format so as to exploit the work in two incarnations. And, of course there are anomalies. What happens, for instance, when a publisher has a book that will sustain the B format treatment, but the editor of the B format imprint feels that it does not fit the personality of the list? Goodness knows, the house needs the extra quid and B just feels right. The resulting untidy compromise is often a B in an imprint that is normally rack-sized.</p><p>
Marianne Velmans, publishing director of Doubleday, points out other complexities: "The publisher must publish in the format that the market wants, and occasionally this produces tension between the expectations of the author and agent and the publisher's feedback from the market. There's also an export dimension to all this. Some important markets, the Far East, Canada and Australia for example, do not want hardcovers unless they are by bankable brand names. They greatly favour large format paperbacks, and these can also be published airside and in the open market. Splitting the run for a book with a strong export sale can make the economics difficult."</p><p>
The C format hybrid, a large paperback like a hardcover in soft binding, adds yet another dimension. In the price/format equation the publisher tries to balance loss of margin in respect of a full-price hardcover against increased volume. The &pound;10 paperback, Maeve> Haran's Baby Come Home (Little, Brown) for example, is often an investment by the publisher in increasing the author's readership with an edition that is more affordable. This can work very well; John McLaren's Black Cabs (Simon &amp; Schuster) is a good case in point .</p><p>
But C format is a potential trap. An educated eye can spot those titles that reveal the publisher to be struggling to make the best of a dodgy prospect with no clear strategy. Cries of grief will be heard coming from sales directors' offices if this more accessible edition of the work has resulted in sales of just the same number as would have been the case in hardcover, but with even less revenue. In fairness to the sales directors, ours is an unforgiving market: a dog cannot be made to sell even at a bargain price.</p><p>
Hardback launch pad</p><p>
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Publishers generally agree about the role of the next size up: the hardcover, usually demy, retailing at &pound;10. It is the vehicle for launching a new author. "We hope to improve the sell-through by reducing the price," says Marianne Velmans. "It's driven by the readers."</p><p>
The truth is that the economics of the heavily promoted &pound;10 hardcover make no sense except in terms of marketing a new talent. It is a way of making a splash and achieving some volume, usually at imperceptible margins. The rationale is that this is a strategy for building the author and for achieving a perceived success as a platform for the paperback edition. Shelling out &pound;16 for an author of whom the reader has no previous experience is asking a lot of the public. In one sense this format is the price promotion component of a wider campaign designed to squeeze somebody new on to the groaning shelves.</p><p>
An interesting variant of the casebound 10 pounder is the smaller format hardcover, packaged so engagingly, often on the Zen principle that less is more, that the publisher hopes it will be regarded as a desirable object in itself. The extraordinary phenomenon of Longitude (Fourth Estate) was responsible indirectly for the entire industry compressing quirky but appealing bits of popular science or narrative history into this format. Cod (Cape) was one of the successes, but there have been many titles that have not found a public. Perhaps this is a salutary reminder that whatever the appeal of the format, content and execution are what give longevity to a title.</p><p>
Finally, there is the traditional full-price hardcover. For fear of sounding like an escapee from "Pseud's Corner", I will not go into the nuances of the different standard machine sizes, and will not mention the bastard sizes at all. Looking along the shelves the preference is for royal, especially for non-fiction, presumably on the grounds that the perceived value is higher. You get more book for your money.</p><p>
Many big-name bestsellers are published at full price. After all, why discount your winners? Behind the scenes this causes much poker playing by men and women in smart suits who want special terms for admittedly large orders, but ones that they should be placing in any event. In this ghastly process the bookseller's hand has been strengthened over the years by Epos, as, when working properly, this system ensures continuity of supply without a big inventory commitment.</p><p>
People outside the book business find it perverse that booksellers discount the winners. But, post-Net Book Agreement, it must be difficult not to compete if your rival across the street is using a cheap bestseller as a loss leader to get the traffic.</p><p>
To discount or not to discount?</p><p>
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Chris Weller, director of international publishing at the BBC, whose responsibilities embrace DVD and new media, points out that pricing is mostly a matter of confidence: "There is often only one pop at getting it right. If you've got a good book that will carry the price you must have the confidence to price it up. The trade has coalesced over the years into fewer outlets with increasing power, and it will pressure you to make a big book cheaper."</p><p>
Chris Weller famously has refused to do deals on the million copy Delia Smith for instance. "I watched slack-jawed last Christmas," he says, "while the trade discounted Delia and conspired against itself to put &pound;9m through its tills rather than &pound;17m."</p><p>
Variety is the joy and curse of our business. There are counter-examples, anomalies and just downright freaky exceptions to every attempt to codify formats. Some observers believe that the real format revolution snuck up on us when the downloadable content people agreed a standard software platform. Fiddling with what the Internet gurus call "dead trees media" is like adopting the brace position when your aeroplane is falling out the sky: it's so you can kiss your bottom goodbye. This is an apocalyptic view, but publishers and booksellers must wake up to some amazing changes p.d.q.
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