The words "large-print publishing" may never conjure visions of high-profile auctions with houses battling over million-dollar deals that set the heart pounding and the eyes gleaming, but most publishers in the category say that's just fine. In fact, the relative stability of the large-print format has traditionally been a major selling point in a tumultuous industry.
I wouldn't want to say that it's recession proof, but it's a popular niche," says Jamie Knobloch, publisher of category heavyweight Thorndike Press. The publisher releases more than 1,100 books a year in the large-print format, focusing on bestsellers and genre fiction, and also distributes large-print titles for Hachette Book Group, HarperLuxe, and Mills & Boon (sister company of Harlequin), among others.
HarperCollins couldn't have predicted the economic downturn when it launched the HarperLuxe line five years ago, planning to capitalize on the growing baby boomer audience. The imprint offers editions that discreetly feature the HarperLuxe name and logo, along with wide margins and 14-point type—easier on the eyes than standard 11-point type, yet smaller than the 16-point industry standard for large print.
Despite the difficult climate, the line has weathered the recession without a hitch. "Large print is a moneymaker," says Liate Stehlik, HarperLuxe publisher. "We haven't seen sales in the category fall off at all."
The picture isn't quite so rosy everywhere. The publisher/director of large print for Hachette, Anthony Goff, says the publisher's large-print business dipped 9% in fiscal 2010, after posting a gain of 16% the year before. Despite that hiccup, Goff says he's "feeling very optimistic about 2011, as we are already up 47% in quarter one over quarter one in 2010."
Most publishers emphasize that libraries play the largest role in determining the category's overall health, since they continue to form the core of large-print business. Particularly important are standing-order series, grouped around selections like mystery, romance, African-American interest, Christian fiction, or top-reviewed titles.
The Australian-owned Read How You Want launched in 2004 after the cofounder's sister developed trouble reading following an MS diagnosis. RHYW works with a host of publishers to make books available via POD in six different sizes of its trademark Easy Read large print, as well as in Braille and DAISY editions, and has more than 10,000 titles on offer. As a relatively new player still building library contacts, this period has been more difficult for RHYW than for companies with large numbers of standing orders from libraries, acknowledges publisher representative Bradi Grebien-Samkow.
"Sometimes it's difficult for libraries to add books not purchased through standing orders. Maybe in the next few years they will be able to add our titles," Grebien-Samkow says. "We are focusing more on direct marketing to libraries."
Severn House chairman Edwin Buckhalter is less optimistic, given a significant drop in the publisher's large-print sales in the past six months at the same time regular print numbers have improved. While Severn House has continued to do well with mysteries in both the U.S. and England, it has struggled recently with romance and other women's fiction titles, causing Buckhalter to question the viability of continuing to invest in the small print runs necessary for this market. He holds that large print's "traditional print format is threatened by decreasing library budgets and the necessary advance of e-books."
But publishers that have been able to maintain library subscriptions have fared better. Thorndike, for instance, has more than 40 standing order series. Knobloch cites this as a reason its sales haven't fluctuated greatly, despite a drop in trade business. "Librarians are protecting the large- print budget as much as possible," she says.
Check It Out
In January 2010 the American Library Association released "The Condition of Libraries: 1999–2009," a report demonstrating how libraries are "feeling the pinch of the economic downturn while managing sky-high use." The findings came as little surprise. The ALA has long predicted increased demand during tough economic times, and libraries across the country have seen budgets remain flat or be slashed due to state and local funding crises.
"Sadly, library budgets have tended not to reflect increased library patronage," says Diane Hull, editorial director of Center Point Large Print Publishing in Thorndike, Maine. The company, which launched in 2000 with 48 books on its initial list, has seen that grow to 336 books this year. The publisher has 12 standing-order plans available, and offers significant discounts for library subscribers.
Funding at the St. Charles City-County Library District in Missouri has been flat in recent years, but the district's large-print budget remains healthy. According to collection development manager Lucy M. Lockley, more library patrons are choosing large print titles.
"Large print is circulating well no matter where it is in terms of branches," says Lockley. A March snapshot of the district's large-print holdings across 12 branches of various sizes showed that there were some 18,455 large-print titles in the collection that circulated 154,000 times in fiscal year 2010. That accounted for 2.1% of total 2010 circulation, and so far in fiscal year 2011 large print is running at about 2.24% of total circulation.
Patrons in discussion groups have requested large-print copies, and whenever large-print editions are available for a book group selection the library will order two or three copies in the format. Lockley says the number of large-print editions now being published simultaneously with the standard edition is also a factor in demand. No longer do patrons have to wait six months or a year for bestsellers like John Grisham or James Patterson. In fact, the earlier availability of popular books may help account for another trend she's seeing: younger readers.
Not Just for Seniors
"We've been hearing about younger people coming in and checking out large print. For the bestsellers, they may be able to get it faster," says Lockley. "Staff in the branches tell me younger patrons are also using large print when doing exercise. They can put the book on a machine and read it while walking."
While younger readers may not be the primary audience for large print, they have garnered more attention in recent years. Research has shown that large print is a good option for reluctant or less-confident readers and can be a boon for young readers with vision problems, dyslexia, or other disabilities that affect reading.
Librarian Elizabeth Burns serves as the youth services consultant for the New Jersey State Library Talking Book & Braille Center, which primarily offers Braille and audiobooks supplied by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. The library also purchases large-print titles when funds are available.
"Large print is very popular with children and teens who have low vision or dyslexia," says Burns. "It can be harder to find at local public libraries than adult large print, because many people think large print is for older folks who need reading glasses because they're older, not realizing that children and teens need it, also." The challenge, she says, is to find "reasonably priced books to meet the need," since relatively few books for the younger audience are made into commercial large-print editions.
Availability of titles aimed at younger readers should increase somewhat in coming years, since several publishers are developing programs in this area. Thorndike already has the small but significant Literacy Bridge line, with books designed to look like standard editions for YA and younger readers (reducing any large-print stigma) and marketed to schools. Meanwhile, RHYW is building a relationship with educational publisher Rosen, with an eye toward marketing more juvenile nonfiction to libraries. And Hachette routinely makes large-print editions available for some of its biggest YA and children's bestsellers like James Patterson and Stephenie Meyer, particularly when there is significant adult crossover potential.
The most common large-print reader remains quite a bit older than a teenager—though not necessarily the stereotypical "little old ladies with tiny glasses reading mysteries," according to RHYW's Grebien-Samkow. As the baby boomer population continues to age, she says, "publishers are providing more content in large print. People in their 50s and 60s are a more diverse audience."
How diverse? The publisher's partnership with Cleis Press on erotica has been very successful, as has its work with Christian publisher InterVarsity. RHYW's bestselling titles this year have ranged from fiction (Paul Harding's Tinkers) to education-focused nonfiction (Diane Ravitch's The Death and Life of the Great American School System) and cookbooks (Beth Hensperger's Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Recipes for Two).
Cookbooks, says Grebien-Samkow, "make perfect sense to have open on the counter. But we didn't know there was a market for large-print cookbooks until we saw how it went. Boomers will only be more diversified as an audience and we'll be surprised to see what happens."
RHYW hopes to tap into older readers' nostalgia for the science fiction titles of their youth through a new partnership with Galaxy Press to release L. Ron Hubbard's novels in large print, Braille, and DAISY, beginning later this month.
For HarperLuxe, what the audience wants is more predictable. "Books that sell best overall are the bestsellers in large print," says Stehlik. Harper has a slew of hot nonfiction titles coming soon in simultaneous release, including Mitchell Zuckoff's Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II (Apr.) and Steven Tyler's Does the Noise in My Head Bother You? A Rock 'n' Roll Memoir (May).
Hachette Book Group also expects a big spring, with a mix of fiction and nonfiction in standard and large-print editions. Tina Fey's Bossypants is due April 5, followed later in April by The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel by David Foster Wallace; 20 Years Younger: Look Younger, Feel Younger, Be Younger! by Bob Greene; and The Fifth Witness by Michael Connelly. Coming in May are 10th Anniversary by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro and Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales.
Thorndike's Knobloch agrees that bestsellers are usually also the large-print bestsellers: "Large-print readers want to read what everyone else is reading." But she has also seen a shift toward readers requesting different types of books than have historically been the core genre mainstays of the category.
"I've noticed requests for more literary fiction," she says. "Baby boomers are more interested in literary fiction. Libraries are more conscious of book groups and various formats."
Thorndike's upcoming slate still features core bestselling genre reads, as demonstrated by Amanda Quick's Quicksilver (May), Mary Higgins Clark's I'll Walk Alone (Apr.), Charlaine Harris's Dead Reckoning (May), and Robert B. Parker's Sixkill (May). But the roster also includes Geraldine Brooks's highly anticipated literary novel Caleb's Crossing (May). Knobloch points to the publisher's popular Reviewer's Choice program, which highlights books receiving critical acclaim; recent successes include Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists and Deborah Harkness's A Discovery of Witches.
Center Point has observed similar interest in literary titles, with its selections grouped in the Platinum Readers Circle series focusing on book group favorites. Cynthia Ozick's Foreign Bodies, Mark Childress's Georgia Bottoms, and Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns are just a few past selections. In addition to interest in material suitable for reading groups, the overall shift in genre preferences has also been true in Hull's experience. "For years, romance stood head and shoulders above all other genres as the large-print favorite. Now, mystery holds the #1 spot," Hull says. "Where once, fluffy movie star biographies and humor were the preferences for large print nonfiction, now history, memoirs, and serious biographies are more popular."
Bumping Up the Font Size
What may prove even harder to predict than the evolution of readers' tastes is how changes in the rest of the industry and the adoption of e-reading devices will play out for this niche. Large-print publishers have told PW in recent years that the impact of e-readers was not yet being felt on their bottom lines. Most hold that remains true.
Harper's Stehlik doesn't have enough information yet about the e-reader sales base to predict when—or if—that tipping point away from large print will occur. "It's not like with standard edition and e-books, where you see e-book sales increasing and overall sales lessening or flat. There's no erosion of large-print sales," she says. "I don't know enough about people buying e-readers, but I don't think it will change in the immediate future."
For Thorndike, the question revolves around library use, the company crediting downticks in trade sales to the economy instead of e-readers. Even as e-books become more common at libraries, the publisher sees them being simply another format option and not a replacement for large print.
There's still a question of how workable e-readers are as a solution for readers in need of larger font sizes. While Hachette's Goff says "the ability to effortlessly bump up font sizes" has been a new challenge, he thinks the large-print format will remain viable as the population of baby boomers and seniors continues to swell. That's a point worth making, as statistics from the Administration on Aging show that in 2009 there were 39.6 million people 65 or older in the U.S., a number that will jump to 72.1 million by 2030.
"If you enlarge the type on a Kindle to 16 point, you'll only get three to four words per line, which is certainly not conducive to an enjoyable reading experience," says Center Point's Hull. "Though it's true that seniors are purchasing digital readers, most still prefer to read the bound paper editions."
But Severn House's Buckhalter predicts that the computer literacy of younger boomers, along with advances in medical science that will help preserve vision, means that many will have "no problem adapting to an e-reader for their large-print needs and preferences." As a result, he worries that senior citizens unable to adapt to the new technology will face a market with fewer large-print titles available. He also questions how much longer there will be actual printed versions of large print.
"A very depressing three to five years, probably fewer, if my crystal ball is still accurate and does not need rebooting or upgrades installing," Buckhalter observes. Whether the situation proves that dire, publishers in this area will have to keep a close watch on e-reader developments. After all, that younger audience testing the large-print waters may be even quicker to adopt such solutions.
Youth services library consultant Burns has already seen this happen: "I've talked to some parents who, because of the difficulty in finding large-print books, are turning to e-readers for their children that allow the reader to increase the font."
Still, most large-print publishers don't forecast a bleak future. Perhaps unsurprising given its focus on multiple formats and reader empowerment, RHYW even puts the new digital options into a more positive context. Says Grebien-Samkow, "All formats have a place in the market and all can exist side by side."