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« Teaching Company Update 1 | Main | Facts for the Day »

October 12, 2005

Large-Picture Books

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I like to browse remainder tables at bookstores. And if I'm at an outlet mall that has a store specializing in remaindered books, why I'm happy to browse it too.

(Background notes for non-bibliophiles: The book business has charmingly antiquated distribution practices. One is that the publisher -- not the bookseller -- is stuck with the unsold merchandise. So, after having been returned, the publisher has the option of cutting the books' prices and sending them back to stores as "remaindered" -- otherwise, returned books are simply destroyed. Sometimes hardcover books are remaindered because the title has gone to trade-paperback and they are priced somewhat in line with the new, cheaper edition. More often, remaindered books are both hardcovers and trade paperbacks that failed to sell the first time they hit the shelves.

A "trade" paperback, for readers who don't know the industry lingo, is a larger-format paperback that closely resembles a hardcover book; it's more of a "quality" item than the more pocket-size paperbacks found in drugstores and news stands. As best I can recall, this latter class of book is distributed differently; news stands used to rip off covers of unsold books and returned these to the publishers for credit, the books being disposed of as trash -- which many of them were.)

For as long as I can remember, I've had a soft spot for car and plane books. And I often have an empty spot in my wallet following purchasing same.

Over the years, I've accumulated so many car and plane books that I know a fair amount about the subjects and I can be fussy when I see new books dealing with them. My tendency is to buy books that use a comparatively large number of medium-to-small illustrations as opposed to books featuring illustrations that are full-page, two-page spreads, or even spreads with a fold-out.

One theory of extra-large photo illustrations is that the reader is "drawn into" the subject and can savor the detail presented in the picture. For cars and planes, at least, I'd rather have a large variety of illustrations -- different planes, say, or several views of the same or similar aircraft. Big, showy photos strike me as a waste of resources when it's information that I want.

I don't totally reject books with big pictures. Books about painters, for example, need some full-page reproductions. This is because large pictures can give the viewer a better idea of how the actual painting appears plus provide more information about its painting technique than smaller pictures can.

I also like the "Above Dogpatch" sort of books with their horizontal page format and huge photos taken from planes or helicopters. For places I've visited, I find it fun to try to spot that hotel or restaurant I patronized.

Anyway, recently I was bookstore browsing in Gilroy, California (of all places) and noticed that the remaindered car-and-plane books seemed to be of the vacuous, big-picture format. This easily could have been circumstantial, but I like to think that the market was putting such books where they belonged. Yet that same market seems keeps whispering to publishers that they should keep producing that kind of merchandise.

What's your take on big-pic books?



posted by Donald at October 12, 2005


Dover Books, for which I once worked, are the most fun in this regard. They are often, sad to say, remaindered, and tend to be reprints in large-scale paperback format of bygone classics of design, pattern, architecture, etc.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on October 12, 2005 11:11 PM

What I cannot figure out is whether anyone ever pays full price for the big-pic (aka "coffee table") books. Somehow I don't imagine that many people do :)

Posted by: Peter on October 13, 2005 12:30 AM

I'd love to know more about the economics of picture books for adults.

There's a move to make books more visual in a variety of ways, with graphics, colors, fun with fonts, pix, etc. We're moving into a more poppy, visual universe, etc. And I'm all for evening the field between visuals and words, although god knows it can be done badly, and fond though I am of words.

I know what you mean about the size of the pix, though. Editors and publishers are getting into the "impact" thing, evidently thinking (perhaps shrewdly) that they have to compete with TV and pop music. And so magazines and books are marketing more and more impact, which often means more out-there visuals. Gorgeous though the big photos and pix can be, I'm not the impact junkie many younger people are. I'm not agin' it, but I don't feel abandoned either if I'm not being slapped around.

So, I guess for me it all depends on how it's used. I do love the DK books, and I often love the very-visual books published by Chronicle. And god knows it's fun to observe how books are evolving these days ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 13, 2005 09:39 AM

I have a fairly large collection of the big picture books; primarily photography and art. The remaindered table at the big chain book stores usually have something new and eye catching. I'm not sure if I'm in that rut of buying something just because it's on sale, but if you looked at my shelves you might say I am. As for the question of whether anyone actually pays new price on these books, I do when Christmas gift giving time rolls around. Its not that I fear the recipients will feel the cover looking for remainder sticker residue, its just that I would feel so guilty.

Posted by: marcus on October 13, 2005 09:41 AM

I know of one exception to the argument against the hefty coffee-table variety tome - everyone knows that picture books about Texas must be gigantic and larger than life, sí?

I thought so.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on October 13, 2005 09:55 AM

" stands used to rip off covers of unsold books and returned these to the publishers for credit, the books being disposed of as trash...."

They still are. I occasionally see pages at the front of mass-market paperback books (the industry name for this format) admonishing me that if the cover is stripped, then the book is stolen. When I worked for a major chain of bookstores some years ago, the covers would be stripped and the books taken to the dumpster. Employees would occasionally raid the trash for some of these (most of which were as bad as you suggest.)

I don't have a moral problem with rescuing books from the trash, even if (especially if) the publisher decides to get all Mrs. Grundy on me.

Peter: "What I cannot figure out is whether anyone ever pays full price for the big-pic (aka "coffee table") books."

I think these are (as marcus suggests) often bought by people who read as presents for people who mostly don't. I know that describes my pattern, at any rate.

Donald mentioned the remainder tables. I've found Barnes and Noble's decision to issue reprint versions of many out-of-print books very useful. Yet another reason to support the big chains; smaller stores don't have the capital and desire to do this (in the main).

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on October 13, 2005 04:46 PM

Winifer -- Dover Books prices are so low that one wonders why they need ever lower remaindered prices. Yet from time to time I see a number of Dover scientific books on the remainder tables an an academic bookstore in Seattle.

BTW, I like and purchased some of their very nice B&W picture books on historic ocean liners. No coffee table stuff here -- just neat visual info.

Peter -- I almost never do unless it's a reference book I need ASAP.

Michael -- Interesting point about younger readers. I hear enough about their purported habits that I almost have to concede that they're real. My son was never much of a reader. But neither was my father. Hmm.

Marcus -- When possible, I too will go for the remaindered book.

Pattie -- Ulp. Ya mean my long-cherished plan for a book titled "A Watchpocket Guide to the Lone Star State" ain't gonna fly?

Doug -- Uh oh, you raised the matter of corporate vs. Ma-Pa bookstores. If any comments come in on THAT matter, I'll be tempted to slink away and let you field them.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 13, 2005 07:51 PM

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