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On Covers

I’ve been thinking about covers for a while now. One of the many great debates around the ephemeralisation of music has been the lamentations for the loss of cover art: now, we are reaching the same point with books.

I say ephemeralisation rather than digitisation because it’s not just a physical transformation we’re going through, it’s a cognitive one. I’ve been repeating Walter Pater’s famous quote in my head a lot: “all art aspires to the condition of music”. Pater argued that “For while in all other works of art it is possible to distinguish the matter from the form, and the understanding can always make this distinction, yet it is the constant effort of art to obliterate it.” One way of seeing this ‘condition’ of music is that it is abstract, it is all around us, it is ever-present and always available, but intangible. Literature, cloud-based or electronically present, accessible on this or that device, encountered in differing forms and extractions, quoted and misquoted, has been separated from the physical book, with all the dissonance this implies.

Anyway. Covers.

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” has never been more true. This is not good:


But this is the way most of us see covers now: as blurred little icons; nothing like the designer / art director / marketing dept. envisaged, and no use for their intended purpose.

This particularly sprung to mind this week with the arrival of Andrew Wylie’s Odyssey Editions, an ebook-only classics imprint designed and built by my old employer Enhanced Editions. The covers are, of course, beautiful:


The covers are typographic, and hark back in particular to the famous Pelican cover for John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, where the text starts on the front cover. But it struck me that they are not covers in any traditional sense: they have nothing to cover. They are icons. Signifiers. And more crucially, they’re not there to sell the book directly; they are marketing material separated from the point-of-sale.

Cover art only sells physical books. In an ideal world we would get rid of cover art altogether. This is probably what JD Salinger desired, in his refusal to countenance any imagery at all on his book covers (a request that continues to be honoured, notably in Hamish Hamilton and Seb Lester’s beautiful new editions).

If we’re going to continue to use “covers” as marketing material, which presumably we will as long as digital texts have physical counterparts, we need to recognise that their reproduction is out of our control: they will be copied, linked, and reposted, at different resolutions and sizes (there’s long been a muttering desire from publishers for the ability to supply Amazon with different covers for different size displays: this is one option, but not one Amazon seems happy with). We might also recognise that there are potentially many different jobs for the cover to do.

What do covers do now? They appeal aesthetically (something hard to do at 120 pixels high). They give space to blurbs and plaudits (it’s OK, we’re not space-limited any more). And they recommend (this is why all thriller covers look the same; why there is a blood-spattered crime vernacular; why every historical novel features a bodice and ruched velvet).

Text-based covers are one approach. Alongside Odyssey’s, I’ve long been a fan of Melville House’s novella series, and Reclam‘s uncompromising non-fiction:



This is recommendation through publisher branding: possibly the strongest icon-based approached.

But could we represent this recommendation somehow? Is there a better way? I’m not sure, but I like, for example, Stefanie Posavec‘s “representations” of OK Go’s album “Of the Blue Colour of the Sky”, which formed that record’s cover art:


I know I’ve been talking a lot about visualisation lately, and perhaps it’s a passing thing. But it feels like we’re missing an opportunity here, before book jackets go the way of album covers. To encode some of our knowledge of books in a way that’s both attractive and useful to readers. To remake the cover in the service of the digital book. Representation and recommendation are two possible approaches. What others are there?

james-bridle.jpgAbout James Bridle
James Bridle does things with books, mostly. With a background in both computing and traditional publishing, he attempts to bridge the gaps between technology and literature, whether that takes the form of writing about the publishing industry, consulting to leading international publishers, or actually being a publisher.

James created Bookkake, a small publisher using new technologies to bring new life to independent publishing, and Bkkeepr, an attention data service for bibliophiles. He writes about books and the publishing industry at booktwo.org and runs a series of websites including Quietube, an accidental anti-censorship proxy for the Middle East. In 2009 he helped launch Enhanced Editions, the first ereading application with integrated audiobooks.

James Bridle will be speaking on “Representations of the Book at the Moment” at the Tools of Change Frankfurt Book Fair conference, Tuesday October 5, 2010. For more information, visit the TOC Frankfurt site.


(Note: this article originally appeared at booktwo.org)

Comments: 11

  1. A well-penned piece and thought-provoking, to say the least. Your words recalled to my mind my first copy of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ which sported a plain hardbound cover of gray linen-like fabric; the title and author were printed only on the spine in a lovely, simple font I have yet to track down.

    While the idiom of ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ retains its truth, consumers nonetheless appear to be buying books mostly with their eyes.
    My husband and I write eBooks and in designing our tiny ‘cover’ images–for advertisement purposes–we learned that eBooks with image-riddled covers sold in far greater numbers than those of a plain color with Times New Roman slapped on it or, heaven forbid, Papyrus. ‘Classic’ literature appears to be the exception, or titles penned by writers not lacking in fame.

    Most eBooks today are sold with a complete advertisement package, including a book-relevant image which pleases the eye; some go a step further with a review or sample for the appeasement of the mind or even a Flash YouTube video set to music. These rather transcend the physical cover but eBooks are simply a different animal than printed prose and thus their image representations strive for something equally different.

    I enjoyed reading your piece, especially in seeing the words ephemeralisation and dissonance present. *Retweet*

  2. I also believe in beautiful design for ebooks. i’m lauching my publishing company (French) and I pay a lot of attention to design. I think that reading on a screen could be a much more pleasant experience if a little effort was made on covers and illustrations. I also think that if the books are beautiful, people may want to buy them physically and keep them on their shelf which could be a great second life for an ebook!

  3. I think, or hope, that book covers will have a longer lifetime than record covers. This is because the end toward which music distribution is tending is the random-song selector, the hands-off unattended agent. But I don’t think (oh, how I hope!) we’ll ever degenerate to the point of “random chapter selectors.” The book of the moment will always be selected by hand and eye, the one-of-several in-progress reads will be resumed by conscious choice, and though agents already suggest at point of sale, and may soon suggest from within our personal libraries (or, who knows, the “personal library” may itself become extinct), we still will choose.

    I hope.

    Of course, I hoped that about albums, but the iPod evolution is rapidly taking that from me, too.

  4. I believe that browsing collections of content will always need some type of encapsulation — be it summarization, branding, categorization, or other metadata to help us find what we’re looking for, or look for more of what we like to find. Printed word or music, a strong visual association to the art form is crucial for visually-oriented consumers like myself. It was that way with me for album covers in record stores and remains on iTunes. The same holds true for brick and mortar libraries vs. online book portals.
    Perhaps a different metaphor is required, beyond rectangular “x by y pixel” representation of a book cover. Images, text, sure. But maybe even crowd-contributed markups indicating that this may be the content for you. Like a dog-eared, handed down copy of “On The Road” where notes, names of prior owners/readers, highlighted quotes/passages, and related info reinforce or repels interest.
    More practically, I currently look at book cover icons with the mindset that if they cover is just simple text and unimaginative, the eBook content will also be solely text — a straight port from typeset print — and lack any interactive content leveraging the power of the digital medium. Will the readers of tomorrow find this compelling enough?

  5. Interesting. I like the typographic covers, hadn’t seen them before.

    But what about the poor clerks in physical bookstores, who have to deal with “Can you find a book for me? I don’t know what it’s called, but it’s about rabbits and has a blue cover.”

    Is there a need to have a similar cover to help identify the physical book? Do people who look at covers online then buy in stores? Or are those sort of questions always relating to the physical book, and will that change as more people start using ebook readers (“my friend had this on her kindle and I want the physical copy”)?

  6. this type of design, though, is really only feasible on a small amount of titles out there. classics or beloved authors for instance are no-brainers. they sell themselves and you can get away from the clever design and boil it down to the essentials—title and author.
    for the most part this would never work for books that are not already within the fabric of public consciousness. can you imagine a publishing house releasing their entire new season of “books” with only one line on the cover? sadly not all books are written as well as lolita.
    the other difference between the digitization of books as opposed to music is that it is quite easy to be lazy and just slap some type over a head shot of a musician and call it a day. their face is inseparable from their art as so much of music today is the image of the artist (the pros and cons of that is a separate argument). i can’t imagine that someone even as popular as david sedaris is recognizable enough to go this route.
    the marketplace is becoming increasingly more crowded and “covers” are, almost, more important than ever. you are fighting for attention with more competition and limited space. as we’ve seen with the ipad which will most likely become the benchmark for e-readers the cover can and will still be front and center.

  7. You know, I can’t help but think that the idea that the future will hold only text, no design, no layout, no imagery on covers is just narrow thinking and short sighted. The allure that an image has, and the visual medium in general, is just too great and ubiquitous to ever be totally removed from literature. Thinned out for technical reasons, yes, but eliminated?

    author states: “Cover art only sells physical books. In an ideal world we would get rid of cover art altogether.” (insert inappropriate reactive swearing here)–sounds like a cold-hearted scientist talking about a lab rat.

    I seriously doubt that all book life will be reduced to thumbnails, except maybe in the online selling world. But that’s not the whole world. What about when the buyer receives the physical book? Do some really believe all books in the future will look like technical white papers? this all sounds so robotic and too logical for its own good, and bereft of any emotion. does not emotion sell?

    do we buy cars ONLY to go from A to B? Do we not also
    consider, to some degree or another, beauty as well?
    After all, we would just have all cars look exactly the same.
    wow, image no Porsche Speedster or Ferrari !!
    I know this is a car and not a book, but package does matter.

    sorry, this topic can get me flared up. Of course there will be many visual things to consider as we move forward. seems this topic will have plenty of debate happening from here on out.

  8. By using typographic covers Mr. Wylie makes the best from the lack of the publisher’s infrastructure that he gave up by selling the e-rights to Amazon directly.
    Granted, the covers look cool – but this isn’t a model for the future. Lacking the physical representation of the book as object, publishers or the authors themselves will have to use design – both external (cover) as well as internal (font, formatting, layout…) – to build their unique brand. There are only so many ways to create a typographic cover (even the much-lauded Reclam covers have been infested with illustrations lately) and if everything looks the same it gets boring real fast.

  9. As an ebook convert, I can say that the book cover still counts in terms of making the book look attractive. I buy a lot more ebooks via the Amazon site than through the Kindle itself, and a nice cover image is still a draw, although it has to work in a smaller size (and translate to gray scale for e-ink eReaders). Also, if I buy an ebook and then open it on the Kindle to find the cover art missing, I feel cheated (I’m talking to you, Ballentine Books!). Black and white/gray scale images are still art and should be included.

  10. Whilst I am a recent convert to ebooks, I believe that book covers are already headed along the path of being objects of design.

    Especially YA covers where girls are reduced to objects, body parts, disembodied signifiers of perfection, desire and imitation.

    However something else to notice (and perhaps lament) is the cultural differences between editions printed in the UK, US, Australia, Canada, Germany etc. I love looking at different versions of covers with an anthropologist’s eye (I am one) and asking what the covers tell us about the cultures in which they’re being sold.

  11. but think how gorgeous those odyssey editions would be letterpressed on nice thick white stock… i think it still works as a book cover, and it’s going to be difficult to find out what these new signifiers, these icons should be.