A 2010 survey revealed book covers played a ‘decisive role’ in 79% of participants’ purchasing habits. In today’s publishing climate, book cover design remains a marketing imperative that underpins commercial success.
Recently a friend of mine was enthusing about a fantasy e-book. But when I asked her, she couldn’t recall the title or author. She had never even seen its cover, all because the e-book format prioritises text over paratext.
When e-book buyers browse titles, they see covers represented by small thumbnails. These lead to webpages about the book, but this moment is often readers’ only contact with this information.
When we lose regular visual contact with a book’s cover (and other paratextual features, like author and title) we lose considered, coded information about that book: a crucial aesthetic signifier of genre and what to expect.
Could this disconnect between content and paratext be a fatal flaw of e-books, and the salvation of their print counterparts?
The rise (and fall?) of e-books
When Amazon founder Jeff Bezos launched Kindle in 2007, he compared e-book technology to Guttenberg’s printing press. His vision: a reading and publishing revolution that would catapult change-resistant books into the digital era.
Within a day of Kindle’s launch, trigger-happy commentators began to pronounce the print book dead. But anyone with eyes and ears in the publishing sector knows the Death of the Book is a time-honoured industry tradition. Previous would-be culprits have included: newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and even paperbacks.
E-books come as the youngest red herring, with sales peaking in 2014 and dwindling ever since. Now industry observers say e-books have officially lost their shine, and printed books are the victors of the format wars.
Digital book covers
The physical, illustrated book cover itself has also been declared a casualty of digitisation. Web 2.0 made fonts, stock photos, photoshop and other tools suddenly cheap and inviting for amateurs to try their hand at designing and publishing their own works. E. L. James and Adam Croft are two of many authors to turn self-published e-books into cultural phenomena and lucrative careers.
But self-publishing is a double-edged sword. While it’s true that e-book sales increase by 268 per cent when they have a cover image, photoshop does not a book designer make, as covers like this hippopotamus debacle prove.
In a digital scape where aesthetic is king and everyone sees everything, shoddy DIY cover designs are mocked publicly and without mercy. Blogs like Kindle Cover Disasters and countless scathing (but hilarious) listicles exist purely for this purpose.
Book covers today
Book covers today look very different to how they did a decade ago, when new digital competition, the 2008 financial crisis, and Amazon’s growth first rattled publishers’confidence. An industry in turmoil compromised production values to make regrettable and forgettable book covers, compared with the artistry of book design today.
A Google search of ‘popular books 2016’ brings up a list of books with strikingly different covers to ‘popular books 2008’. New covers feature compelling typography, colour and pattern, where older covers relied heavily on photographic clichés.
So how have paper books adapted to digitisation?
Current industry emphasis on attractive book design echoes Web 2.0 values.
Aestheticism reigns in our networked online world, and users perform lifestyle values through what they publish on social media (e.g. Instagram). Printed books become carriers of these values, and important accessories for tastemakers and regular users alike to perform online identities.
Publishers harness the internet to tout new titles through visuals, and to share the creative narrative behind their books. For example, footage of Dominique Falla’s art-making process behind the cover of The Sun is also a Star entices online audiences of potential readers, playing on the sensory delight of books as artistic objects.
A cursory scroll of Instagram’s #bookstagram tag reveals the scope of physical books as value-laden aesthetic symbols; whereas visual elements of of e-books are relatively unimportant compared to the reading experience itself, by design.
Media personalities like Emma Watson post images of print books to convey social beliefs, lifestyle and aesthetic values in a way that tangibly connects with their audience.
Book design has now entered a golden age of gorgeous covers and high-quality assembly, adapting to digitisation by celebrating the tactile and visual pleasure of printed books.
Books are beautiful and their covers have cultural agency, and this is their salvation in the face of digitisation.