Picture a reader of a large-print book. Many associations would be perfectly reasonable based on the category's historical customer base. Perhaps the reader is a person with a disability who is reading a specially formatted text version of the latest Dan Brown novel, or a senior at a retirement community racing through a cozy mystery or fast-paced thriller checked out from the library.
Certainly these readers remain staples of the large-print readership, and a major reason for the category's stability during a time of upheaval in publishing. But as baby boomers continue to age, the makeup of the audience for books with larger, easier-to-read type is diversifying, and so are its tastes. You might even need to start picturing a new reader of large print who can be described in an unexpected word: hip.
"We have been picking up a lot of debut works and more literary offerings," says Jamie Knobloch, publisher at Thorndike Press, which does its own large-print editions as well as distributing those from such publishers as HarperLuxe, Simon & Schuster, and Harlequin. "As our readership gets younger and younger, their taste does, too."
The U.S. Census Bureau released its first profile of the baby boomer generation in 13 years last November, revealing some interesting findings. In 2006, the first of the boomers began turning 60, at an estimated rate of 330 per hour. And the generation accounts for just over 78 million people, more than a fourth of the country's total population. As these readers enter the large-print category, says Knobloch, they are more likely to pass up the traditional large-print bestsellers to choose books like Kathryn Stockett's The Help, which Thorndike released last May and now is in its 12th printing.
One thing is certain. The ranks of baby boomers achieving senior status will continue to swell in the decades ahead, and large-print publishers are poised to help provide a literary fix for many more aging eyes.
Four years ago—the same year Bill Clinton and a host of his fellow boomers turned 60—Harper launched its large-print imprint, Luxe, specifically designed to appeal to the new large-print reader. The HarperLuxe format focuses on lightweight paperback editions that don't scream large print, instead providing a banner at the bottom with the HarperLuxe name and logo, and specifying large print on the back banner. The imprint also uses 14-point type, easier to read than standard 11-point type, but not as large as the 16-point type recognized as the industry standard for most large-print titles.
Adrienne Di Pietro, marketing director for HarperLuxe and several other Harper imprints, says these decisions were calculated to woo younger boomers. "Traditional large-print books do look different," she says. "Because there are so many baby boomers, we asked, how do we make large print profitable again?"
Di Pietro says the imprint has lived up to the publisher's expectations and has had a good year issuing editions of such bestsellers as Sarah Palin's Going Rogue, Michael Crichton's Pirate Latitudes, and Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna, with high expectations for upcoming titles like Steve Harvey's Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man (June), Elizabeth Lowell's Death Echo (June), and J.A. Jance's Queen of the Night. Technology-driven lower production costs and the capability for short-run printings, Di Pietro says, are "making us project even higher profits this year over the last three fiscal years, even with similar title counts."
Celebrating its 30th anniversary of publishing large-print books, Thorndike Press has seen its yearly output go from 38 titles in its first year to around 100 per year in the '80s, accelerated growth in the '90s, and the 1,100 titles per year it now issues. Knobloch attributes the increase—and the category's steadiness—largely to public libraries, which have seen growing demand during the recession. Every book the publisher releases belongs to a standing order series, to enable public libraries to budget their large-print orders with more precision. While the publisher's genre subscriptions are still extremely popular, younger large-print readers are driving the growth of a subscription called "Reviewer's Choice."
To select books for that subscription, the publisher sifts carefully through industry reviews, paying particular attention to titles that receive starred reviews or debuts that generate early attention. "Some of these books may generate more buzz than bestsellers," Knobloch says, pointing to recent and upcoming large-print releases of titles like Beth Hoffman's Saving CeeCee Honeycutt (Jan.) and Helen Simonson's Major Pettigrew's Last Stand (July). "They're very popular with reader's groups—more literary works for us now."
Still, large-print publishers across the board agree that the biggest sellers in the category remain the biggest sellers overall, with the average large-print title traditionally doing approximately 1%–3% of hardcover sales. At Random House's large-print group, for example, the year's hottest titles have been Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol, John Grisham's The Associate, and Janet Evanovich's Finger Lickin' Fifteen. Hachette anticipates its major large-print sellers for spring to include the likes of David Baldacci's Deliver Us from Evil (Apr.) and Sebastian Junger's War (May). And British publisher Severn House, where mystery and crime titles remain a major focus for its large-print program, expects to see strong sales from Susan Rogers Cooper's Shotgun Wedding (June) and Stephen Solomita's Cracker Bling (July).
Technology to the Fore
Advances in technology are making it far easier for publishers to do more titles in the large-print format while remaining economically viable. And these advances have also enabled more large-print releases to be offered simultaneously with initial publication dates.
Australian-based ReadHowYouWant works with 100 publishers—including Hay House, Wiley, Perseus Books Group, and New World Library—to release books in the five sizes of its trademark EasyRead large print, partnering with the publishers to promote the titles and splitting net revenues 50–50. The model seems to be working well, with more than 4,500 titles now available in RHYW's range of formats, allowing customers to choose the best fit for individual needs and preferences.
"We are seeing more and more publishers—in particular the larger ones, but likely the smaller ones will follow—bringing out more large-print editions simultaneously with the standard editions upon publication," says RHYW's public relations director, Maureen Watts. "As well, with print on demand, bringing out a large-print edition no longer has to be for the select few or an afterthought, but can easily be built into the publishing plan for any title."
It used to routinely take three to six months—and in some cases still does—for large-print editions to hit the marketplace, says Watts. But increasingly, readers can purchase books in the type size they want as soon as they become available in any edition. In March, RHYW did a simultaneous release of Raquel: Beyond the Cleavage by Raquel Welch, who appeared with Oprah on the book's pub date. The simultaneous release meant that in addition to the standard edition, readers could get the title from RHYW in 16-point, 16-point bold, 18-point, 20-point, or 24-point formats.
Anthony Goff, director of Hachette's Audio & Digital Media Group, agrees that simultaneous releases are becoming the category standard, noting that the publisher's large-print business was up 16% last year and is still on the upswing. He also cites the ability of print-on-demand technology to open up large-print possibilities for a handful of HBG titles that have the potential to be breakout hits, but which don't have the necessary author track record or sales to earn a specific large-print run. "If we see a book we feel will catch on, we may make it a POD title up front," says Goff. "Bookstores can special order requests, and some accounts may order copies up front to have on hand. Efficiency is the key to large print. The POD takes away the gamble."
Just as the category benefits from these technological advances, these publishers also get to share in the larger hopes and fears about the impact of the growing popularity of e-readers and e-books on the industry.
The newest entries on the e-books scene, Apple's iPad and the accompanying iBookstore, have already caught the attention of at least one 99-year-old lover of literature. Oregon's Virginia Campbell has become something of an Internet star, after a video of her enthusiastically using the iPad to read and write poetry was uploaded to YouTube by her son-in-law and went viral. Viewed half a million times, the video undoubtedly provides free advertising for the product—not least by depicting how easily the elderly woman takes to the device.
Like other e-readers such as the Kindle and the Sony Reader, the iPad offers users the ability to increase font size at the press of a button or manipulation of a setting. It also comes standard with Voiceover, a screen reader that will read the contents of any page, including e-books. With the baby boomer generation possessing more tech savvy than the one ahead, e-readers would seem to hold considerable potential for connecting with these newest large-print readers.
But HarperLuxe's Di Pietro says that discussions about the impact of the e-reader on publishing remind her of the fear of audiobooks when they first began to emerge as hot sellers: "Everyone is waiting for the day when the switch gets flipped and only 50% of sales are physical books, like with the audiobook and how people were going to listen to books and not read them anymore."
Although e-readers offer the ability to change font sizes, the publisher's business remains unaffected because the HarperLuxe consumer has generally not been an early adopter of the technology, says Di Pietro. She sees the desire for a comfortable read as a driving force for large-print readers, who are often using reading glasses as well. And many of those readers are frequent library visitors—cost is a major factor. "I don't want to lug a $500 device onto the beach," quips Di Pietro. "How long until it gets a beverage spilled on it? How much sand can it take?"
While large-print publishers are undoubtedly keeping a close eye on how the technology is adopted, none has yet experienced a significant impact on the bottom line. "Though being able to enlarge print size is a concern, I have not seen e-reader devices cannibalize large-print sales to this point," says Hachette's Goff, though he acknowledges, "Once e-readers saturate the marketplace, it's a major concern for large print."
Given ReadHowYouWant's focus on providing books to people with disabilities or visual impairments, founder Christopher Stephen believes there could be great potential in the e-reader to open up the availability of books to even more people. The sheer number of titles available and the competitive pricing of e-books are big advantages e-readers can offer, he says. But he would like to see publishers converting books into other accessible formats such as DAISY, synthesized audio MP3, and into e-book formats besides EPub and Kindle to provide a wider range of options to readers with accessibility issues. In addition to its print editions, RHYW is already working with publishers to convert works into a variety of popular e-book formats.
Knobloch at Thorndike admits that e-readers will change publishing to some extent, but believes there will always be a place for the tactile experience of reading, especially for people who read for pleasure. She doesn't see the collector mentality of keeping a treasured book on the shelf going away as e-readers are popularized. She also says she's heard from large-print readers disappointed by the experience of reading on the devices.
"There will be some migration, but the experience of reading when you bump up the font is not that good," Knobloch says. "Fewer words on the screen means a lot of flipping."
‘I Love Edward'
Even if most large-print readers haven't been early adopters of e-readers, that doesn't mean they're immune to trends. The overwhelming increase in the popularity of young adult books in recent years means that titles most publishers wouldn't have dreamed of issuing in large print a decade ago are increasingly finding their way into the hands of older readers in the format they prefer.
Goff says Hachette has had surprising success with large-print editions of works for younger readers by writers like James Patterson who also have huge adult followings. The older fans are definitely picking up large-print versions of titles in Patterson's Maximum Ride and Daniel X series, he says. "Young adult is not a natural fit for large print, but we're seeing a demand for it. And YA is skewing older—I saw a 55- or 60-year-old woman in the park yesterday sporting an ‘I Love Edward' T-shirt. It proves the point that people of all ages enjoy these books."
The publisher is banking that Stephenie Meyer's cross-generational fan base will mean significant sales for its large-print edition of her recently announced novella, The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner (June). While most HBG releases are simultaneous, the novella's large-print edition will run a few weeks behind the initial pub date because of its late addition to the schedule and the need to embargo the contents. Hachette also has an edition of Meyer's adult bestseller, The Host, available in large print.
Because the books in Meyer's Twilight series began coming out before Hachette brought its large-print business back in-house, Thorndike issues those large-print editions; Knobloch says they have performed exceptionally well. "There is a huge crossover to adult large-print readership for popular YA titles," she says. But Knobloch notes that Thorndike also sells a significant number of large-print YA and children's titles to schools through its Literacy Bridge Young Adult standing order series. The books are used primarily with younger readers who have special needs or are reluctant readers, with research showing that larger text sizes increase the ease and speed of reading for such kids. Upcoming large-print editions in the line include Kristin Cashore's Fire (June) and Rick Riordan's The Red Pyramid (May), the first in a new series. "Teachers are thrilled to have these books in the classroom," Knobloch says.