Bank Holiday Essay: Formats

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Small is beautiful, or so my wife and I tell each other, she because she’s short and I, uh….

Moving swiftly along, the publishing industry certainly seems to agree with me. My evidence? Glamour magazine, The Independent newspaper, two Marvel Age digests and a copy of Brief Lives: Chaucer by Peter Ackroyd. What do these three things have in common? They’re smaller than their normal publishing formats.

Glamour was launched a couple of years ago in a blaze of publicity, most of which focused on its A5 size – about half that of a normal magazine. “It fits in your handbag!” screamed the adverts, and it did. In fact, it fitted into enough handbags to make it rise rapidly to the position of one of the best-selling magazines in the women’s marketplace in the UK, a place of vigourously fought circulation wars. Several other titles have follow suit, as has a single male title, Jack.

Is this an isolated example? No. The Independent dropped from a traditional broadsheet to a tabloid format last year. This was a brave move, as the perception is that serious newspapers come in broadsheet and more trashy ones in tabloid. The intial experiment, focused around London and the M25, was successful enough that it has been extended to the whole country, and The Times has also launched a tabloid version. The other broadsheets are believed to be preparing plans to do the same.

And then there’s the Marvel Age digests from Marvel comics. There are paperbacks collecting between six and eight copies of their regular monthly comics. Rather than the traditional comic book size of around 17cm x 26cm, they’re a compact 13cm x 20cm. Those familiar with the comics market will recognise this as the traditional size for Manga compilations – about that of a normal paperback book. They’re more compact in size and price than traditional trade paperback compilations of comics, and Marvel is no doubt hoping that they’ll sell as well as their Japanese import rivals. The gamble is that the format is the major issue, rather than the variance in content and style. It’ll be interesting to see if the gamble works.

Last on my list is the Chaucer biography. I bought this in hardback, as is my preference for book, but unlike most hardbacks, it’s roughly the size of a paperback book, very similar to the Marvel Age digests. And, also unlike most of the hardbacks I buy, I take it to work with me most days. When Ackroyd publishes the next in his Brief Lives series, I’ll snap up up for that reason: its portability and price makes it a great value buy for me. Interestingly, the publishing phenomenons of the last couple of years have been Eats Shoots and Leaves and Schott’s Original Miscellany, both of which have been published in a similar format.

So, what’s the lesson here? It’s a simple one: bigger isn’t always better. Sometimes smaller, for the same price has a value of its own. Glamour and The Independent have gained circulation boosts out of being smaller, not cheaper, than the opposition. Smaller and cheaper can be incredibly powerful, as the market for Manga demonstrates. The simple truth that underlines this market is that we travel far more than we used to. The average, one-way commute in London is 58 minutes. A sizeable chunk of that is in-train reading time. Something portable that’s easy to read in the cramped confines of mass transport systems has an obvious advantage. Even for those not travelling on trains, portability is an obvious benefit, in an age where we’re lugging more than our pack lunches and a daily paper around with us. Laptops, Walkmans or MP3 players, filofaxes or PDAs, gym kit and the like see people’s daily carrying load grow and grow. Smaller publishing sizes are a natural outgrowth of that.

Here’s to the future, however small it might be.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.