Saturday 10 July 2010

The Longest Journey

We've just sent to the printers DON QUIXOTE, the longest classics book we've published. Its spine width will be around 52mm, 5mm longer than our ANNA KARENINA, and 9mm longer than our DECAMERON.

But this isn't the longest book we've published – the prize must go to William T. Vollmann's IMPERIAL – a title that could also be applied to its size, which was a real challenge to printers. We intended to print 1,500 copies to begin with, but the printers run out of paper just over half-way through, and we were left with a little more than 1,000 copies. Its spine width is 67mm, and it's 1344 pages long. Vollmann's previous book, published by us in 2006, EUROPE CENTRAL, was a mere 42mm-er.

I must say I love short books. I remember that the initial idea behind our Hesperus series was to only have books which were exactly 100 pages long. We even experimented with a few 100-PAGE logos, but in the end decided against it because it would have limited our choice and diluted the series' branding. I think that was for the best, but the majority of the books we published were just over or under 100 pages, and I remember I was able to edit or proofread most of them personally. The same, alas, I cannot do with our Oneworld classics: the last three books we published total more than 2,000 pages.

In Europe, novella-length books are generally – if not more popular – at least as popular as long ones. In this country there's an 'Eat as much as You Like for £7.99' attitude to books. Enrico Brizzi's JACK FRUSCIANTE È USCITO DAL GRUPPO (1994) sold millions of copies in Italy, although it was only 176 pages long. Susanna Tamaro's VA' DOVE TI PORTA IL CUORE (1994), which sold 14 million copies worldwide, was well under 200 pages long. More recently, Milena Agus's MAL DI PIETRE (2008) became an international bestseller, although it's a novella barely 120 pages long. The first two books were published in the UK a few years ago, but sunk without trace, the last one was not even translated into English.

There is a big problem in this country – maybe it's a prejudice dating back to Victorian times and never shaken off (production - production - production - quantity - quantity - quantity). If you have a new-fiction book that is less than 80,000 words, you'll have an almighty struggle ahead of you to market it effectively in the English language countries. And if the book is, say, 80,000 words, you'll have to show as if it's 120,000 or 140,000 words long using a bigger typeface or bulking up the paper.

The recent winner of the Orange Prize, THE LACUNA, has been described as a "saga" by many commentators and critics, but a quick look at its bulky 688-page format will reveal that it is, more than anything else, a typesetting saga: it could have been set less generously and easily lose between 100 and 150 pages.

But size does matter over here, so on we go, publishers, wasting even more paper than we need!


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