They are the little books that can. In a world of thick, high-priced bestsellers, these pint-sized books—for lack of a better term, let's call them vest-pocket books—all smaller than the standard cloth or trade paperback, have turned into a major success story for publishers and booksellers alike.

They cover anything and everything that's nonfiction. There are vest-pocket books on presidents, generals, writers, Jews, philosophers, terrorism, myths, music, even issues and ethics. They come in hardcover and paperback, are inexpensive (some cost less than $10 a pop) and average about 150 pages. Most are originals, and the repackaged ones from backlist (like Penguin's Great Ideas) come with a pedigree.

Readers reluctant to take on David McCullough's 752-page John Adamscan learn about our nation's early leaders in a 224-page portion with the American Presidents series published by Holt/Times. It would be unfair to call them the fast food of publishing because they are more like a delectable hors d'oeuvre.

Paul Golob, editorial director of Times Books, says these kind of series of "the 'modern' era probably began with the Penguin Lives series created by James Atlas in the late 1990s."

"I believe it's one of the few chances a traditional trade publisher can bond directly with the consumer," says Tad Floridis, associate publisher of Canongate, "by creating a recognizable brand with which the consumer might feel some sort of emotional connection."

And that is the key to the books' success, says Sarah McNally, owner of McNally-Robinson Bookstore in New York City's SoHo district. "I do know," she told PW, "that when I've broken up series and put them individually on the shelf, books that have been selling dozens of copies each week will slow to nothing. People seem to buy multiple titles out of a series because a series suggests a certain way of learning or experiencing, and it is the method that appeals more than any individual subject." McNally is also proud of her "spinner" for the Oxford Very Short Introductions titles and has done displays for other series.

"The wonderful thing about working in a bookstore," says McNally, "is that almost every book purchase is aspirational and hopeful. These series epitomize this for me."

Great Discoveries (Atlas/Norton)Books in series: 10Average first printing: 16,000 copiesTotal books: 195,000 copiesBiggest bestseller:Obsessive Genius:The Inner World of Marie Curie by Barbara Goldsmith (35,000 copies)Market: Students/generalSize/format: 5½"×8/" (hardcover); 5/"×8" (paper)Modern Library Chronicles
Books in series: 26
Average first printing: NA
Total books in print: NA
Biggest bestseller:Islam by Karen Armstrong (275,000 copies)
Market: Student/general
Size/format: 5½"×8/" hardcover/paper
Eminent Lives (Atlas/HarperCollins)
Books in series: 8
Average first printing: 43,750 copies
Total books: 147,348 copies
Biggest bestseller:Thomas Jefferson by Christopher Hitchens (29,649 copies)
Market: General/student/scholar
Size/format: 5"×7" hardcover
The Generals, edited by Gen. Wesley K. Clark (Palgrave)
Books in series: 3
Average first printing: 75,000 copies
Total books in print: 225,000 copies
Biggest bestseller:Patton by Alan Axelrod (75,000 copies)
Market: Military/historians/business
Size/format: 5½"×8/" hardcover
Great Ideas (Penguin)
Books in series: 24
Average first printing: 11,000 copies
Total books in print: 316,000 copies
Biggest bestseller:On the Shortness of Life by Seneca (36,543 copies)
Market: General
Size/format: 43/8"×71/8 " paper
Jewish Encounters (Schocken)
Books in series: 6
Average first printing: 10,500 copies
Total books in print: 100,000 copies
Biggest bestseller:Life of David by Robert Pinsky (25,000 copies)
Market: General/Jewish
Size/format: 5"×7½" hardcover
Illustrated Lives (Overlook)
Books in series: 9
Average first printing: 2,000—3,000 copies
Total books in print: 23,000 copies
Biggest bestseller:Ayn Rand by Jeff Britting (5,500 copies)
Market: General
Size/format: 4¾"×7" hardcover/paper
Enterprise (Atlas/Norton)
Books in series: 7
Average first printing: 12,000 copies
Total books in print: 76,000 copies
Biggest bestseller:Rome, Inc. by Stanley Bing (14,000 copies)
Market: Business/students/general
Size/format: 5½"×8/" (hardcover); 5/"×8" (paper)
Issues of Our Times, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Norton)
Books in series: 9
Average first printing: 12,500—20,000-copies
Total books in print: 75,000 copies
Biggest bestseller:Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers by Kwame Anthony Appiah (20,000 copies)
Market: General/college
Size/format: 5½"×8/" hardcover/paper
Very Short Introductions (Oxford University Press)
Books in series: 141
Average first printing: 8,000 copies
Total books in print: NA
Biggest bestseller:Literary Theory:A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan Culler (50,000 copies)
Market: General/academic
Size/format: 7"×4¾" paper
Great Writers in 90 Minutes (Ivan R. Dee)
Books in series: 12
Average first printing: 10,000 copies
Total books in print: 25,000 copies
Biggest bestseller:Hemingway in 90 Minutes by Paul Strathern (3,800 copies)
Market: General
Size/format: 5"×8" hardcover/paper
American Presidents, general editor, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (Holt/Times)
Books in series: 22
Average first printing: 12,500 copies
Total books in print: 275,000 copies
Biggest bestseller:James Madison by Garry Wills (35,000 copies)
Market: Historians/students/general
Size/format: 5½"×8/" hardcover
33 1/3 (Continuum)
Books in series: 36
Average first printing: 4,000 copies
Total books in print: 200,000 copies
Biggest bestseller:The Smiths: Meat Is Murder by Joe Pernice (9,000 copies)
Market: Music fans
Size/format: 4¾"×6½" paper
Myths (Canongate/Grove/Atlantic)
Books in series: 6
Average first printing: 15,000 copies
Total books in print: 125,000 copies
Biggest bestseller:The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood (55,000 copies)
Market: General
Size/format: 43/8"×7¾" (hardcover); 5"×7¾" (paper)
Philosophers in 90 Minutes (Ivan R. Dee)
Books in series: 28
Average first printing: 10,000 copies
Total books in print: 467,000 copies
Biggest bestseller:Nietzschein 90 Minutesby Paul Strathern (61,200 copies)
Market: General
Size/format: 5"×8" hardcover/paper