Jun 12, 2007

Size Matters

(suck.com, november 21 1996)

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