there is 1 post from November 1996

November 21, 1996

Size Matters

Consumer marketing (and media punditry) tends to feed off itself. Marketers and writers read the same trades, follow the same trends, and, in an attempt to fry new fish daily, cannibalize each other’s ideas. And those ideas keep getting smaller all the time. The ’90s mantra “less is more” has led to ever-shrinking marginal physical products of capitalism. Food is smaller. Toys are smaller. Dishwashing detergents are smaller. Even books are smaller. And since people spend most of their time in front of some version of a cathode ray tube, publishers of pulp are looking for new ways to get into the pocketbooks of consumers. Literally and figuratively.

While some might express surprise that canon-fodder feeder Penguin Books would squeeze themselves into this shrinking ring of literal downsizing, it’s only fitting that they lead the way into the land of tiny imprints with their “60s Classics” line - they invented the paperback 60 years ago. And with these diminutive documents, they’ve entered the content repurposing hall of fame. The strategy is so obvious it hurts: use the small format (and cheap price) to market the classics to people who probably never read them when they were assigned in high school. Dostoyevsky may have been too difficult to wade through back in 11th grade, but now that’s he’s dressed down in a little palm-sized package, he’s just too damn cute to pass up. Just like Ritz Bits, miniature Oreos, and bite-sized Chips Ahoy, the Penguin 60s series is a marketer’s dreamsicle: “Since they’re smaller, they’ll buy more of them.”

The small size seems to make even the most forbidding literature palatable. Most readers don’t have the time or patience to wade through all nine circles of Dante’s Inferno. With the 60s version, they can limit their apprehension of the unknown to the first three circles. Then again, maybe Penguin is practicing some sort of twisted “upgrade” strategy: The unbaptized, the virtuous pagans, the lustful, and the gluttonous will learn their hellish fate for under a buck, but the hoarders, the spendthrifts, the wrathful, and the violent will have to buy the complete version to find out what in store for them after the big sleep.

It’s surprising that the Inferno made it on the title list in the first place. Most of the titles in the 60s series lend themselves to light commuter reading. Who needs to be bogged down by the entire text of Beyond Good and Evil when you can plow your way through a few of Zarasthustra’s Discourses on the train ride home? Is Heart of Darkness too challenging? Well, then get your dose of Conrad with a copy of Secret Sharer you can stash in your shirt-pocket. The 60s Classics become the quick and easy way for your average office temp to be able to namedrop at cocktail parties: “Reading Nietzsche on the train the other day, I realized that it’s time for me to dye my hair blonde and work on my upper body strength…”

Penguin’s point-of-sale displays for their little nuggets of canon have prompted a few retailers to rethink the way they sell books in the first place. A recently noticed handwritten sign next to one of the cardboard racks at a green-carpeted, espresso-hawking airport bookstore suggests that you “send a book instead of a card.” At 95 cents a pop, a title in the 60s series is half the price of your average Hallmark missive, and the possibilities for creative message management are endless. Substitute the usual holiday card to your parents with Balzac’s The Atheist’s Mass, your spouse’s traditional Valentine’s Day card with Rimbaud’s A Season In Hell, and your boss’s customary get well card with De Quincey’s The Pleasures and Pains of Opium - you’re bound to at least raise a few eyebrows. But why stop at greeting cards? Anonymous mailings of Benjamin Franklin’s The Means and Manner of Obtaining Virtue could be used to subtly alert friends or coworkers that their behavior has been a little less than Ivory pure.

Speaking of virtue, how many classics are bought in a fit of either self-flagellation (“I need to read something other than Danielle Steele”) or self-improvement (“I need to read something other than Danielle Steele”) and then merely left on the shelf to gather dust? If the 60s line catches on, people could read through a couple abbreviated classics a week, without ever having to shoulder the guilt of not making it all the way through The Temptation of St. Anthony. Not only that, but a healthy library of classic literature could be shelved in the space it takes to hold the average household’s collection of Madonna discs.

The 60s line is a triumph of sizzle over steak, especially since the meat in question is not only bite-sized, but “free-range.” Penguin has filled the 60s line with literature that’s in the public domain, eliminating from the value chain those pesky living authors. Why go through the trouble of slaughtering, butchering and packaging fresh beef when you can get it off the shelves, perfectly preserved in a pale yellow package? The dead ones aren’t screaming for a new dust-jacket photo every few years, either. That faux-Rembrandt painting does just fine, thank you very much.

For Penguin, small books will translate to big bucks, and not a moment too soon. Because just when everyone seems to be yammering on about the “death of the book,” along comes the perfect collectible. The 60s line with its “Own Every Title!” aesthetic, appeals to the segment of the population that accumulates pop artifacts like Pez dispensers and Mini M&M tubes. The only difference is that instead of doling out little gobs of sugar, the palm-sized pale-yellow tomes dispense pebbles of thought.

If we ever did kick our nugget habit, throw away the dispenser of choice, actually read the entire Inferno, we’re afraid that we’d find a circle of hell custom-designed by Carol Pogash. A nightmarish place where media pundits, consumer marketers, and other idea cannibals stand in a circle, holding up mirrors to one another.

On second thought, pass that Pleasures and Pains of Opium, please.

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