Which are the books with the smallest print?

Editions of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy often have excessively small print.  Why?  The major works by those authors are long.  Larger print will make the volumes too long and thus too expensive.  Perhaps more importantly the volumes will appear too forbidding to the average buyer.

But isn’t miniscule type for Raskolnikov hard to read?  Ah…most of the people who buy the book don’t read it.  If miniscule type gets them to stop reading sooner rather than later, you might even call it a Pareto improvement.

Self-help books almost always have reasonably large print or even ridiculously large print.  The author doesn’t have much to say and the publisher wishes to pad the book so it looks real.  Furthermore most self-help books are read (at least in part), so to keep the reader happy the print should be large.

Can you think of other generalizations?

Which books are most likely to go into "Large Print" editions? 


"Which books are most likely to go into "Large Print" editions?"

Some obvious answers: Children's books, books aimed at an elderly audience, books the text of which is short. As an example for the latter, my edition of "Twelve" has 244 pages, but could easily have been printed on 150. (It's not only the large print; it has very short chapters and each new chapter begins with almost half of the page left blank)

In my impression, publishing houses have a notion along the lines of an "ideal page count" which is somewhere between 250 and 400 pages. Who knows, it might be based on market research, too.

>> the volumes will appear too forbidding to the average buyer

That's my guess too..

"My Thoughts", by G.W.Bush

Is there some sort of publishing rule that the smaller the text, the thinner the paper?

It seems like the small-print stuff I've had to endure was made even worse by being printed on tissue paper.

In France, I think the multi-volume style is more common. I wonder why? It is good for people like me who aren't sure they'll ever get to the second volume of a book in French. But it is a bit of a bother keeping track of where the various volumes are in one's house.

The Communist Manifesto

The Tolstoy theory seems to hold true of the Bible as well.

In France, I think the multi-volume style is more common. I wonder why?

Wild speculation: maybe because they like to travel with books and it is easier to take a small volume than a large one? I wish they did that with college / highschool textbooks -- what's the point in lugging around so much weight when you only need to go over a couple of dozen pages?

Well that's my wishful thinking. Maybe their printing presses aren't setup to handle huge books. Maybe their bookcases are smaller. Maybe the French are more keen to writing serials for newspapers and that translated into the book world.

Who cares if my tone is pompous? It was unintentional, so perhaps it reveals a defect in my personality. I'm just trying to contribute to the collective attempt to construct the best models of apparent reality. If Dr. Cowen left out “Interestingly there seem to be only benefits to printing self help books in large print" for purposes of efficient communication with a sufficiently sophisticated audience, great. My intuitive sense reading his post was that it was more of a kitchen sink approach: throwing out multiple unconnected explanations for phenomenon and framing the explanations as definitive rather than highly speculative. I'm unconvinced by your explanation of the thought process that went into his post, but I do hope you're right.

... those that people with bad eyesight would like to read? Or do we have to get complicated and say that it's the books that the publishers "think" those with bad eyesight would like to read?

Yes we do, at least from my household's sample of one.

If it ain't a pot boiler or a romance or historical fiction, it ain't in large print. Looking at the LP shelves of the library (and even more at the single shelf of the book store), it seems like publishers (or buyers) have a view that a Large Print reader is a lady of a certain age who likes cozy fiction.

Maybe changing demographics will alter the pattern. Bring on the e-Readers (and books on them) with variable font size so we can make this issue go away.

I think there certainly are areas where the 'padding it to make it look like a real book' is prevalent. Consider Harry Frankfurt's "On Bullsh*t." (it's a family blog!) Published in the journal Raritan in 1986, and then included in his volume of essays 'The Importance of What We Care About' (Cambridge, 1988). This is a 17 page essay in 12ish point font. Clearly not enough to make its own stand-alone volume. Princeton UP used really small pages, made the print a little bigger, didn't put many words on each page, and brought the essay out as an 80 page hardback in 2005. The Princeton hardback goes for $10, while the 1988 Cambridge paperback, with 12 essays in addition to OB, goes for $13 (I just checked amazon, the prices are $9.99 and $10.39 today).

Large print keeps the pages turning. This is satisfying. And, if the pages are also thicker, I can hold between my fingers the chunk I just read and feel like I've accomplished something.

Specialists (or serious amateurs) are going to buy the volume of essays (which has Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person, Alternate Possibilities & Moral Responsibility, and some other famous essays), while laypersons go for the snappy titled essay-masquerading-as-book, and feel really good about themselves for reading a whole book of philosophy. (Which, on balance, is probably a good thing if now those who read OB are also reading Frankfurt's 'On Truth' [published in a really similar way] and may even read some more philosophy past that.) This probably holds for those who really just want to read War & Peace - they don't need the false sense of accomplishment, so smaller print and thin pages (which are cheaper) work just fine.

Large print for less serious (or less specialized) works aimed at less specialized audiences.

Tyler may be on to something with the small-print vanity purchases, but the rational vanity purchase is the well-loved copy in the used bookstore. It's cheaper, and sitting on your shelf, it looks like you've read it.


Tyler earlier made the point that it doesn't matter much if classics editions are printed in a small font because nobody reads them anyway. Not so with self-help books.

Reference books and technical manuals are an obvious place for small print -- they are meant to provide comprehensive detail, not to be read in full. I've seen unabridged dictionaries installed with magnifying glasses.

IMHO self helf books are more influenced by their powerpoint origins than any other factor. most of these books originate as motivational speeches. Powerpoint has a way of influencing how your writing style in other contexts, for the worse.

I think the print size is selected to get the number of pages closer to the size considered ideal for a book. I just checked my Penguin classics and shorter ones use larger print. The audience for Flaubert's "three tales" will likely be similar to the audience for "sentimental education", but the print size for "three tales" is significantly larger.

In terms of other generalizations, I think there was an interesting one over at Gelman's blog on how drivers rationalize their driving abilities. One chooses to emphasize the dimension along which one is better than average and then judge all drivers along that dimension. The two axes in the discussion were technical ability versus attentiveness, to paraphrase. The extension of this generalization would be that most drivers must be better than average along at least one of these axes, otherwise they would be very dangerous drivers. The result would be the oft cited statistic that a very large fraction of drivers consider themselves above average drivers.

This could be generalized a little by saying that for activities in which multiple skills are used and there is at least some substitutibility across skills, most people would consider themselves above average. This is reminiscent of the discussion of feeling versus skill in playing piano from "The Importance of Being Earnest". So, once again, Oscar Wilde was first with the pithy and delightful observation. Unfortunately, I can not do him justice.

I think Tyler was referring to large print meaning something like "large print, but not labeled a 'large print' edition." Those are specialty items, which usually command their own section in bookstores and are clearly intended for the visually impaired. In my experience (several years selling books), Mass Market Paperbacks usually have small print (presumably to save costs on the publisher's part). I don't think that anyone particularly likes small print (10pt or smaller), but it is presumably cheaper for the publisher. Thus it makes sense that small print would predominate in markets in which other titles are inferior goods--technical and academic books, literary classics, and manuals. It would also tend to predominate in books where large-type publishing costs are high enough that many fewer people would buy such books. For example, many technical references and encyclopedias are thousands of pages long and already cost $150+.

According to the minuscule type in my photo-reduced copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, it's "minuscule", not "miniscule".

Who buys the books? If the target market is college students (cf. Penguin Classics), you have buyers with good eyes and weak wallets. When I was 20, I would settle for 8pt type to save $20 on a set of books. Today.... well, I'm glad I inherited my grandfather's magnifying glass.

All I know is that the copy of Atlas shrugged I bought at an airport, is a 1080 page eye torture device. I am only on page 260 so I have a healthy distance to go. I cant read long because the small print gives me a headache. Thoroughly enjoy the book though.

Comments for this post are closed