Those itty-bitty books you see at checkout counters started as novelty items but are fast becoming a serious business.

Finger Balancing Stack of Minibooks

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Finger Balancing Stack of Minibooks

troll into a bookstore looking for a hardcover—something meaty to keep you occupied for a few weeks—and chances are that almost immediately you’ll be assaulted by carefully positioned displays of Hobbit dolls, Duck Dynasty flashlights, and Conehead Zombie vinyl figures. (Is there nowhere in America to escape our zany culture?) A nanosecond later, if things go according to plan, your attention will be commandeered by tables stacked high with scores of adorably teensy books. So…amusing.

Bam! The store has got you for an additional purchase.

Itty-bitty books are big. Retailers love them because they sell, well, like snacks. Shoppers devour them because they are clever, inexpensive (around nine bucks), and make great gifts. Which is why you can spot them practically everywhere, in venues as improbable as furniture showrooms and art galleries.

Likely the first of these bantam-size books to throw a heavyweight punch was The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook, published in 1999. Since then, scores of companies have delivered an endless li’l library—everything from The Artistic Cat to Useless Information to 50 Things You’re Not Supposed to Know (as in Carl Sagan was an avid pot-smoker). Most of these are under four inches square. Many are barely half that size, veritable teacup pups compared to the Great Danes of traditional literature.

“It’s so hard to sell real books that bookstores are trying to find things that will be impulse buys,” says Bronwen Hruska, publisher of Soho Press, which is in the business of delivering full-size fiction. “The problem with these little books is that you can sometimes read everything in them before you reach the cash register.” Well, sure, there is that.

Still, there’s no getting round the fact that pipsqueak guides, lists, jokes, and devotionals play a useful role in our lives. The world is basically inscrutable today, and so anything that either distills or clarifies its essence seems priceless. Small wonder that a hit in this category can mean sales of more than 500,000 copies, which is a remarkable number in the publishing business.

And despite their often whimsical nature, some of the titles are weighty, at least by content. Bo Press, whose works are truly miniature (and thus more pricey), has published serious short fiction by an author in Tasmania. One might ask, what about the writers, who labor over works they know will never be reviewed? Melissa Heckscher, a California freelancer who specializes in minibooks (the one that got her started was Be Safe! Simple Strategies for Death-Free Living), points to one redeeming factor: “This could be a primary income if you wrote two books a year—and if you don’t need to own a house on the beach.”

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