Of course, the recent film Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer isn’t about an increasingly hot demographic, but by virtue of its subtitle, it could be. Not “silver” surfers, exactly, but certain “gray” ones are an attractive market for many retailers. And “gray surfers” is the term Web merchants use to refer to the aging—yet still spending—baby boomers. It’s a demographic that the publishing industry has long known is worth its attention.

However, gray hair isn’t the only physical characteristic that defines the Me Generation: they are also stubborn. Weakening eyesight, like all other reminders of mortality, is something people tend to ignore—one reason, evidently, that sales of large-print books at the retail level are less than spectacular. “Large print has always been the smallest part of our business,” says Madeline McIntosh, publisher of the Random House Audio and Large Print Group. “Every time we look at large print anew, we kind of scratch our heads and think it should be bigger, because of aging boomers and the other potential markets out there. But it’s not.”

McIntosh believes that for many boomers, there’s a stigma around large print: “They think it’s something for old people, and they don’t want to think that they’re old.” After all, boomers have given us (or at least made popular) everything from Botox to Viagra—but they’ll never admit they use, need or want any of the above. Marian Haugh at the Large Print Bookshop (www.thelargeprintbookshop.com) in Englewood, Colo., confirms that customers seeking large-print books will skirt the real issue, saying the books are easier to read “in bed” or “on the treadmill” rather than admitting that aging eyes need larger type. Because aging eyes lose elasticity, presbyopia (the inability to focus on objects close up) affects nearly 20% of the more than 78 million boomers.

Part of the challenge in selling large-print books is that they’re seen as signs of old age, and the alternatives (magnifying sheets, reading glasses) are as close as the local drugstore. How can publishers convince readers that large-print books are as sexy as Sean Connery?

Hard to Find

Haugh and her small group of colleagues know that finding large-print products in bookstores is tough. As McIntosh puts it, “There’s not enough retailer interest in this product. It’s extremely hard to find these books at most stores, and so it remains a nice part of the business—and since Random House [Large Print] sells directly to consumers, we wind up with a disproportionate number of customers buying from our Web site.”

Of course, one of the most reliable markets for large-print books has been and will continue to be libraries—where the category has kept up with the times. Allan Kleiman, assistant director and programs director at the Old Bridge Public Library in Old Bridge, N.J., says: “In my 20-plus years as a librarian, I’ve seen large-print books go from quarto-sized tomes that barely fit on the shelves to neat, attractive books that more people than you expect would want. And they also expect, believe it or not, that every book they see published will be available in large print—not just bestsellers.”

While a few people might defend the bestsellers-only large-print focus, most industry players have begun to consider how the bestsellers bias began, and how it needs to change. Liate Stehlik, publisher of HC’s Harper Luxe, says, “Addressing the type as well as number of titles we publish each year is important as we try to reach the crucial baby boomer demographic. We want to publish other types of books, more literary books—not just the obvious titles. We feel we can expand the audience, and in preparing for that, have quadrupled our title count from the past’s 25—30 per year up to 100-plus.”

Wagging the Long Tail

According to Bowker Books in Print, approximately 4,600 books were published last year in large print—less than 2% of the 290,000 books printed every year. “That’s pitiful,” says David Taylor, global senior v-p of Lightning Source. Lightning Source is a print-on-demand (POD) operation that many consumers mistakenly associate solely with self-published books from sites such as iUniverse and AuthorHouse. While Lightning Source does offer services through those sites, its primary business is what Taylor refers to as “backlist maintenance.” He explains that the POD model can actually in theory make every book available in large-print format, because once the file has been digitized (the expensive part of the process), it can be printed in large print or traditional format, allowing a publisher to have a “virtual inventory.”

That makes sense for books with niche audiences, but also for authors with extensive lists. Jill Lectka, senior v-p of circulating and trade publishing for Gale Publishing (Thorndike Press), says, “Readers of large-print books, many of whom are devoted public library patrons, are very loyal to their favorite authors. When the new Nora Roberts, Stuart Woods or Mary Higgins Clark novel comes out, they want to read it right away.”

Publishers are responding, and one of the biggest reasons behind their ability to respond is efforts to publish books simultaneously. Or nearly so: “simultaneous” release in terms of bestsellers and large-print versions involves, in fact, weeks. At least it no longer means months, and the decreasing gap in publication time has also meant that there is no longer as prohibitive an expense in putting out a large-print book—now most of the large-print hardcovers are only a few dollars more than standard-print versions.

Large Print for Dummies

They may only cost a little more—but large-print books are still an avid reader’s best-kept secret. In a PW Soapbox column last year, “Enough with the Fine Print” (Mar. 20), author Robert Masello spoke of his “clandestine love affair” with large-print books and expressed glee at discovering that by combing his local library’s large-print shelves, he could check out bestsellers that everyone else had to wait weeks to read.

For 20 years, says Kleiman, “We were told to hide large-print books. Now they’re directly on the path most traveled. When you really mainstream large print, people take the bestsellers. Mainstreaming has done more, in many ways, to market the material than anything else we’ve tried, or been forced to do.”

It used to be that the typical reader of large print was a 78-year-old woman; that’s no longer true—although Kleiman says that Arthritis for Dummies is very popular. “Even if boomers want to listen to books on MP3 players or CDs while they’re commuting, my feeling is that when they come home, they still want to read a book,” says Kleiman. “There’s something about a book and the physical act of turning the pages that is empowering.”

Talking with publishers, librarians and authors about large-print books produces an interesting commonality: all of them have at some point seen someone pick up a large-print book and say, “But this is so much easier to read!” Harlequin Enterprises v-p Christina Clifford notes that this is why six of their series are available in what they call not large print, but “larger print.” “While we started publishing in a larger-print format for our older readers who buy from our direct-to-consumer business, we found that it’s not just the oldest members who are interested. There are a variety of reasons that people prefer these books: people who work with computers, people whose eyesight is changing, people who commute—in other words, people are looking for a comfortable read.”

Reticence Meets Elegance

Large print has had other problems, of course, but knowing that the audience was strong convinced HarperCollins that the publisher could be part of the solution. Stehlik says, “We started last year looking at what the issues were and what we could do differently to tap into this market.” HC CEO Jane Friedman, long an advocate of large print, reached out to everyone in the company to extend and emphasize this initiative. “Large print hasn’t really reached its potential yet, and we’ve taken this research and completely redesigned Harper Luxe books to be more reader-friendly.”

Reader-friendly, yes, but with certain restrictions. As Stehlik explains, “First, we have to remain, like all large-print publishers, within the guidelines established by the National Association for Visually Handicapped. Second, we didn’t want to alienate our core audience; we want to open up the market and make reading more pleasurable.”

Harper Luxe has a few significant differences from other large-print books. The front covers and spines have no references to large print (the back cover includes the imprint’s tag line “Seeing Is Believing... Larger Print”). The font has been reduced from 16-point to 14-point type, and the leading between lines has been increased. These changes remain subtle enough that a reader coming from a traditional large-print format will not be jarred. Stehlik notes that the first title, Michael Crichton’s Next, got a great response from company employees—“once you see the format, you really embrace it.”

The challenge, she adds, is “to reach this audience, to target baby boomers—and that requires getting to retailers.” Harper Luxe titles by such HC authors as Jodi Picoult and Michael Crichton are of obvious interest to boomers, but without sales, even the most embraceable format will remain a wallflower.

Imprinting Younger Minds

Thorndike’s Lectka says, “We find people at a younger and younger age—students and young adults—are reading large print. Thorndike has a promising list of adolescent books, including Harry Potter titles, because this is an effective accommodation for students who are reading below grade level.” As Lectka points out, this isn’t because larger type is easier for the eyes; there’s new scientific research indicating that the larger type triggers cognitive change in the brain and boosts reading comprehension.

Thorndike has, for the past five years, implemented 400 large-print books for young readers and supports 30 different pilot programs across the country.Taylor at Lightning Source also believes that large-print books could make a big difference for younger readers: “There’s obviously a clear market for older readers, but there are so few choices for children with learning disabilities. One of the things that drives us is making more and more books available to those with all kinds of challenges.”

Any Font You Want?

Readers who discover the “comfortable read” are also excited by the new choices in large-print books. McIntosh says, “After all, you can get any font you want on an electronic book reader, and consumers who realize that they’re pumping up the font size all the time may think, 'Maybe I want to have that option in paper form, too.’ ”

No publisher wants to return to the days of huge, bulky, “quarto-sized” volumes, and McIntosh says Random House is looking into issuing its frontlist in paperback format: “We can’t compete with trade paperbacks or frontlist hardcovers,” she says. “Doing this, the way Harper already is, would make it easier to maintain strong interest in these titles.”

The one thing that remains unchanged in large-print publishing: which titles are chosen. Since publishers must wait until the “regular” edition of a book is finished before beginning their production process, large-print publishing has to run on a very compressed schedule. Anything with an involved index, footnotes or an extensive bibliography is simply off the table—meaning that baby boomers will have to content themselves with reading, say, Dave Eggers or Joy of Cooking in “regular” editions. Maybe that cheap plastic magnifying sheet will come in handy, after all.