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Large-Print Books Have a Big Future

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Sunday Age (Melbourne), January 19, 2003.

You'll never guess the next big niche market for publishing. Apparently we're all sick of staring at computer screens. Our eyesight is getting worse as we age--an American study says that the number of people with age-related eye diseases that will result in vision impairment will double in the next three decades. So sooner or later, we'll be wanting large-print books.

What--those daggy old things at the local library, colour-coded pink for romance, with embarrassingly bad covers?

According to an article in the U.S. Publishers Weekly magazine, a huge market for large-print books seems inevitable. And if you think they're daggy, you obviously haven't seen the latest titles or designs.

Apart from specialist publishers such as Large Print Press and Thorndike Press (which produces an astonishing 100 large-print titles a month in the U.S.), several big international publishers have entered the field in the past few years, bringing out some of their most popular titles in large-print editions.

HarperCollins does about 25 large-print books a year, released simultaneously with the hardcover editions for the same price. It already has a backlist of about 100 titles. The strongest of these is Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, and the biggest print run so far is for Michael Crichton's new thriller,

Prey.

The readers aren't all elderly: the core audience is 45 and up, including people who don't have failing eyesight but simply prefer large print. The old stigma against large-print books is fading, Publishers Weekly says. Some readers are young adults who have grown up with large print. There's even a market among people who want to read a book while they are exercising.

What sells best is fiction and biography, with a strong market in health and religious titles (perhaps reflecting the older readership). Most readers borrow large-print books from libraries, though they are also beginning to sell in larger numbers in bookshops, through mail order and the internet.

The demand for large print in Australia is definitely increasing, says Richard Churn, a director of large-print company Southern Scene. Rebecca Walshe, publisher and managing director of Bolinda Publishing, which publishes and distributes large-print books in Australia, expects there will be "major growth".

They have both noticed that readers are getting younger and demanding different kinds of books. The typical large-print customer used to like an old-fashioned genre book--a western, a romance or a murder mystery. While these are still popular, there is more interest in non-fiction and literary fiction.

There are now quite a few titles by Australian authors: Number Five on the Bolinda bestseller list is Amy Witting's I for Isobel. Other popular Bolinda titles are Doris Pilkington's Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence, Ruth Cracknell's Journey from Venice and Looking for Alibrandi, by Melina Marchetta.

One dramatic change is the look of the large-print book. In the past I've seen awful editions, with amateurish cover artwork and plenty of literals inside, as if vision-impaired readers aren't worth the same effort and quality control as other readers. The new books are often indistinguishable from the standard-print editions, except for a discreet "Large Print" label on the spine or a sticker that can be peeled off after purchase. Publishers pay a premium for this. Walshe says replicating the striking tree photograph on the front of Tim Winton's Dirt Music cost Bolinda $4000, but it was worth it to have the same cover.

Price is one of the factors that stop large-print books from taking off in a big way. The print runs in Australia are small (between 300 and 2000 copies) and Walshe says that a $16.95 paperback sells for $24.95 in large print. So you wouldn't buy it unless you had to.

But then people are prepared to pay more than the cost of a paperback to buy an audio book, which is sometimes only an abridged version of the original.

Some of the people who buy or borrow audio books are visually impaired but many more turn to them as a lifestyle choice. You can take in an audio book at the same time as you're driving, washing, cooking or ironing.

Indeed, audio books are so popular, you wonder why they haven't just taken over from large-print books altogether. The answer, it appears, is that many people still prefer the physical experience of reading--the book in the hand, the eyes scanning the lines, the turning of pages--to a disembodied voice on a tape or a CD. They will read for as many years as they can, and only seriously failing eyesight will drive them into the audio market.

I like audio books but on the whole I'm with the readers. There's something about the intimacy, the concentration and the silence required to devote yourself to words on paper that makes me an undying book fan. Large print or small, I'll be reading for as long as my eyes will let me.

jsullivan@theage.com.au

Bolinda Publishing: www.bolinda.com/largeprint/

Photo: Cartoon drawing of a magnifier.

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