You stroll through your local bookstore, perusing the shelves of the hard-to-find book you’re looking for, and your aesthetic sensibilities are offended by the drastically different book sizes, also called cut sizes, in front of you. Believe it or not, there is a system for these sizes and historical reasons for some of them.
What drives different book sizes? The simplest answer is money. Hardcover books and other large books cost more to print and are more expensive. Many (but not all) beginning and literary authors see their books go straight to paperback because the publisher is unwilling to take that kind of risk. Like Edward Wyatt of The New York Times said, “Even critically acclaimed literary novels often have short hardcover lives, with half to three-quarters of the books shipped to stores often being returned to the publisher, unsold.”
If you see a hardcover book, you know the publisher is confident the book will sell well. It is only after good print coverage that these books will be published in pocket format, reaching a new audience.
A brief history of book sizes
This history of the printed page goes back almost as far as we’ve had the written word. For the sake of brevity, let’s go back to 1455 and the Gutenberg Bible. This masterpiece was printed as a sheet, that is, a single large piece of paper folded once. Each page measures 12″ by 17.5″, with four pages printed on each large piece of paper. There was no standard size at that time, however, and since each small publisher played by its own rules, not all folios were the same size. You do not believe me ? Check out the rather comprehensive list that Harrington Rare Books has compiled.
These folios were rather voluminous books, often illuminated, and only the very wealthy could own them. How to sell more books? Make them smaller and cheaper. Take this folio size and fold it in half, printing eight pages on each paper. You now have a quarto with each page measuring approximately 9″ by 12″. Fold that one more time and you have an octavo. At 6″ by 9″, the octavo is a size that has become commonplace on our shelves today.
But it’s far from the only size that exists.
Sizes of fiction books
Being the largest book market, fiction also has the widest size range. Here are the standard sizes.
hardcover books are mostly 6″ x 9″. Sound familiar? Yes, it’s that common octavo size, still in use today.
Trade paperbacks have a few different sizes, ranging from 5″ by 8″ to 6″ x 9″. You might call them the “beautiful paperbacks” when you see them.
Consumer Paperbacks are also known as paperbacks and are only 4.25″ by 6.87″. You can find them not only in bookstores, but also in supermarkets and grocery stores.
Sizes of non-fiction and memoir books
Going from fiction to non-fiction, you will see a lot of overlap in sizes. However, the mainstream paperback is exclusively the territory of fiction. On the other end, some non-fiction books have even larger sizes than fiction.
Brooch briefs can be as small as 5.25″ by 8″. Other non-fiction and memoirs can be 5.5″ x 8.5″ and 6″ by 9″.
hardcover fiction shares the 6″ by 9″ octavo size with fiction, but there is also a 7″ x 10″ size, but not very often.
Formats of children’s books
Children’s books are a whole different thing, catering to younger eyes and clumsy fingers. These books therefore tend to be large and not all are taller than they are wide. The three standard sizes are 7.5″ by 7.5″, 7″ by 10″, and 10″ by 8″. Again, these are just the standard sizes, although you can certainly find books that fall outside of these.
Other book formats
Some books, like manuals, tend to be large. The standard sizes here are the older 6″ by 9″, 7″ by 10″, and 8.5″ by 11″ octavo. Graphic novels mostly come in 6.625″ by 10.25″, like comics, though hardcovers add extra size without increasing the actual page size. Then, of course, there is photography bookswho basically choose whatever size they want and maintain coffee tables around the world because you want to see every detail in the pictures.
Really, any type of book can be just about any size. They may be miniature because an editor wants a challenge or because Abraham Lincoln wanted Union soldiers to carry the Emancipation Proclamation in their pockets. Especially for art and nature books, they can get so huge that they even require their own furniture. From massive collector’s editions to tiny pocket guides, it’s what’s printed on the page that matters most.