January 28, 2008

Things Magazine just pointed to the growing cult of book covers online – Flickr groups for good looking books, old paperbacks, graphics and more, and similar projects like their own, wonderful Pelican Project. There are also plenty of blogs dedicated to the subject, and Penguin have spent the last couple of year deliberately turning them into a fetish item.

But why? Only today we learn that books are the number one internet product, and the weighting of book covers on ecommerce sites has long mystified me. We’re still selling books by the cover, even though their original purpose was only ever to attract the eye in the physical bookshop; online, they become pixelated blurs, lacking any of the distinctions of colour and typography that obsess designers. The covers are no longer representative.

Even actual ebooks are still represented by “covers”. It’s not unique – this continued reliance on a visual signifier for a virtual product is paralleled in Apple’s iTunes store and, particularly, Coverflow, and you see it too in the ‘boxing’ of downloadable software.

We say, “don’t judge a book by its cover”, but we always do. The web, and particularly the rise of the ebook, should allow us to make better, more informed judgements about what we buy and read – or at least, that judgement should be based on the skill of the writer, and not the illustrator. You don’t buy shoes for the box, do you?

Is there a better way of communicating content?


  1. […] James Bridle always has interesting stuff to say and today’s point is as well made as ever. […]

    Pingback by Eoin Purcell — January 28, 2008 @ 7:22 pm

  2. Well, I guess as publishers move their content online they need to be a lot better at adding tools and functionality around the content that give readers the wherewithal to categorise and describe the content, through tags, commenting etc. At the moment retailers, like Amazon, have been better at thinking about this than publishers have. But aside from this, why not continue to have an image to depict what you will find once you open the electronic file, just as we have had for years to depict the contents of a printed book. Images are a very powerful, iconic way to say a lot of things. Of course, it’s all quite subjective stuff, but then words can be, too! I don’t think the shoe analogy works, because once you open the shoe box you can – in an instant – see everything there is to see about the shoes and you can make an instant judgement about whether you like them (and the shoe box usually therefore just carries a picture of the shoe). However, when you open up a book, be it a printed book or a digital file, you cannot *instantly* see what it’s all about and know whether you’ll enjoy it.

    Comment by Sara Lloyd — January 30, 2008 @ 4:16 pm

  3. Sarah – thanks for that. I think you’re quite right, the shoebox analogy isn’t quite right (although I still think product/packaging distinction holds).

    Icons is an interesting point – most book jackets on retail and publisher websites have been reduced to the size of desktop icons and it’s something I’ve heard increasingly in cover briefs: “this has to look good on the book shelf, and 100px high on Amazon.”

    Interesting too that many of the submissions to Coversourcing have been quite ‘iconic’.

    Perhaps we’ll see a visual language developed to do some of that instant communication which, as you say, is still necessary, but not so easy on the screen. I don’t think it will ever be able to convey the ‘mood’ of a book as well as a good, full-size, hardcopy jacket (or a gatefold LP, etc.), but it might be an improvement on the current situation.

    Comment by James Bridle — February 1, 2008 @ 11:52 am

  4. I think your notion that a “good, full-size, hardcopy jacket” is able to “convey the ‘mood’ of a book” gets to the heart of the problem with the shoebox analogy and points toward an answer to the question, why do we judge books by their covers? Book cover design as an industry has evolved in close discourse with printers and especially with publishers — who themselves make every effort to maintain a close discourse with the market. Even where book covers seem inappropriate or misleading to us as readers, they always reflect deliberate choices on behalf of the publishers and/or the designers, and they can always tell us something about the content and cultural position of a book. Like other forms of advertising, they can be read more or less intelligently — and they can be designed more or less intelligently — but I think it’s more a question of how to judge a book by its cover than why judge a book by its cover.

    Your larger question, about how covers translate with content into digital formats, is really interesting. Apple has made lots of room for “visual signifiers” in the interface designs of most of its products, and the idea of cover art accompanying an album or a book seems pretty reasonable for digitized versions of cultural products that were born in the physical analog world. But cover design does seem like a silly proposition for a product that never had and never will have a printed paper cover. It’ll be exciting to see what solutions people come up with in response to new reading/listening technology. There are clever systems and ideas-for-systems for displaying cover art for digital music, for example, but the conception and production of the art itself hasn’t really changed yet.

    Comment by Anne Callahan — February 5, 2008 @ 11:44 pm

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