Book taxonomy 101

BookRiot breaks down the types of books out there, for the uninitiated. At the first poetry reading I ever went to (bill bissett! Holy shit, was that a strange night for a young yokel from rural Ontario), a guy walked up to me and asked if I wanted to buy his new book. Trying to appear cosmopolitan while actually being just poor, I said, “Sure, let’s see it.” What he produced from his bag was a stack of irregularly cut shards of photocopied paper with a staple right through the middle. It looked like a short-order cook’s little spike with order chits on it. I said something like, “I thought you said this was a book?” to which he replied, “It is, man…” and 23 year old me was all like, “Whoa.” So I bought the damn “book.” Then the maracas came out and I was like, WHERE THE FUCK AM I? But it all worked out.

Why are they shaped the way they are? Why are there so many different book formats? How can you fit all of these different sizes of books on your bookshelf?

For that last question, I have no answer. Though that hasn’t stopped others from trying to make sense of all of these mismatched sizes.

“It is, admittedly, all too easy to take the existence of physical books for granted,” writes Keith Houston in The Book. “The sheer weight of them that surrounds us at all times, in bookcases, libraries, and bookshops, leads to a kind of bibliographic snow blindness.”

Recent news, though, has us thinking more deeply about book formats. In March, Harlequin discreetly made some changes to its mass market paperbacks; it made them bigger, dubbing the new format “mass market paperback max.” And in April, Kensington Publishing announced plans to switch its mass market to titles to the “mass max” size in September 2020.

What does all this mean? What’s a mass market paperback, and how’s it different from any other paperback? Why are books different sizes anyway? Let’s revisit the different types of book formats and why each exists.

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