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Small Books Are a Big Deal

July 29, 2002|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nobody we spoke with would admit it, but we're pretty sure that miniature books are made from chopped-down bonsai trees. If so, the world's dwarf forests are in danger of being wiped out because itty-bitty books have become a big business.

Running Press, which launched the Lilliputian literature craze 13 years ago, has published almost 40 million of the tiny tomes, and competitors have cranked out millions more--on such burning topics as poodles, margaritas, vampires, tornadoes, Leonardo DiCaprio, Portuguese sonnets and the wisdom of Nancy Drew ("Don't force your date to go to a ballet or another activity that may not be to his liking if he was knocked unconscious earlier in the day").

Although modeled after the midget books of past centuries, today's shrunken volumes are more a novelty item than serious literary form. Basically, they're just glorified greeting cards, says Evelyn Beilenson of Peter Pauper Press, which joined the micro-book bandwagon in 1991. "If there's too much text in the books, they don't sell," she says. "Aphorisms do better."

Some come with trinkets, such as tiny voodoo dolls, wind chimes, fondue pots or Slinkys. Stationed near cash registers as an impulse buy, the books are sold in coffeehouses, liquor stores, florists and even carwash shops, as well as traditional bookstores. Barnes & Noble keeps a separate bestseller list for the category.

Miniature books have a storied past. During World War I, Lawrence of Arabia gave lockets containing inch-high Korans and magnifying glasses to the Muslim soldiers who fought alongside him, says Anne Bromer, whose Boston bookshop specializes in antique miniature volumes.

In 1969, NASA sent a mini-book to the moon aboard Apollo 11. More recently, a Ukrainian artist constructed a microscopic volume of poetry bound with a spider web and small enough to slip through the eye of a needle.

Mini-books date back to Gutenberg. "At first, they were made to test the skills of apprentice printers, who had to set the tiny type on very small pages," Bromer says.

But their minuscule size also made them popular with travelers. The earliest titles were Bibles and other religious works. But by the 17th and 18th centuries, the list of topics ranged from hunting guides and almanacs to poetry and lovemaking, according to Bookman's Weekly magazine.

Napoleon carried a portable library of the books into battle, says Msgr. Francis J. Weber, chief archivist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and an authority on miniature bookdom. Over the years, Weber has collected some 3,600 tiny volumes (which he donated to the Huntington Library a few years ago) and has written 104.

Among collectors, antique miniatures can fetch up to $40,000. Modern miniatures are also highly prized--if they're painstakingly crafted by hand. According to the Miniature Book Society, the volumes must be no more than 3 inches tall, wide or thick (except in foreign nations, where 4 inches is the limit). By that yardstick, today's mass-produced editions, which sell for $5 to $6 and are usually slightly larger, don't qualify.

"They're junk," sniffs Weber.

Yes, but they're popular junk. Running Press' top title, "The Quotable Woman," has sold more than a million copies. Other hot topics include celebrity bios, surfer wisdom, pop-up children's books, Thomas Kinkade artwork, Barbie, pets, inspirational titles ("A Little Sip of Chicken Soup for the Soul"), dieting and a miniature "Dating for Dummies."

Regarding the "Dummies" edition, a Running Press executive once told Entertainment Weekly: "You can take our 'Dating for Dummies' mini, slip it into your pocket and refer to it while you're on your date. It's almost like having a breath mint."

The latest fad is the mini-kit, a book that includes some sort of gadget, such as a Tom Thumb-size Zen garden or a tiny waterfall that operates by hand pump. "There's been an upsurge [in sales] of mini-kits," says Jenie Carlen, a spokeswoman for Borders Books. "We've increased our inventory of the kits while maintaining or decreasing the others."

Publishers are competing to find new gimmicks. This fall, Andrews-McMeel Publishing will release mini-books with stereoscopic covers and sound chips (a book on kissing makes a smooching sound; a cookbook says "Delicious" when a button is pressed). Andrews-McMeel also has a volume about friendship that includes a pint-sized blank CD on which to burn a message or song for the recipient. Peter Pauper, which already attaches charms to most of its books, plans to add an incense burner to its hot-selling feng shui volume and a tiny Native American dream-catcher to its book on that subject.

Meanwhile, Running Press just launched specialfavors.com, a Web site that lets people order customized dust jackets for mini-books that are handed out as keepsakes at weddings and showers. The books cover such topics as wedding toasts, love and step-by-step instructions for ballroom dances. The cost: $5.95 each, with a minimum order of 20 books.

"All of us are always trying new things," says Peter Pauper's Beilenson. "You have to."

Not everyone appreciates the effort. After examining hundreds of miniature titles, a Baltimore Sun critic concluded that "good things don't come in small packages. Stupid, banal, boring, unnecessary books come in small packages."

In a last-ditch effort to find some redeeming value to the format, the writer tried using a mini-book as a coaster for a margarita. But even that bombed, she wrote: "It was too small."

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