Monday, April 5, 2010

The cover-up: How do we judge a book by its cover when there's no need for a cover?

Motoko Rich wrote a very interesting essay in the New York Times last week in which she made the point that book covers, and the whole sub-industry of book cover design, risk becoming collateral damage in the ebook revolution.

Rich is a New Yorker, and she alludes frequently to the urban experience of unobtrusively checking out the cover of a book that a fellow subway rider might be reading – a book she then might decide to seek out for herself. She opens her essay with a sketch of a woman who does a micro-version of niche market profiling by noticing that the woman across from her on the subway, who is immersed in a novel, not only looks her age and has clothes and accessories similar to those she might wear but is also carrying a yoga mat. The observer is indeed a yoga enthusiast herself, and before the day is over she has purchased the same book in which the subway rider was engrossed.

The issue of e-books lacking the transparency of hard-copy books with which avid readers assess what other people are reading has been bandied about a fair amount since the advent of e-books. I read an essay last year about a woman who always judges new acquaintances, upon being invited to their homes, by what books they have on their shelves. Asking to look at the directory on someone’s Kindle isn’t exactly the same as glancing at the bookshelves as you walk to the powder room, she pointed out.

I agree that there’s a great deal to be learned from having visibility into what other people are reading. We make assessments of them, even if they are strangers; we also get passive book recommendations, like the woman on the subway. Once my college roommate and I were taking a walk on the beach just beyond the front yard of her summer house. “See that woman on the lawn chair over there?” she asked me. “I’ve been trying to get a peek at the title of her book all day. She’s been sitting there reading for hours, and I really want to know what it is.”

It’s potentially a loss for book cover designers, too. For artists and illustrators, book cover design is a profitable arena. Though many of the published authors I know have professed not to like the covers of their books, I think it would be fascinating to see how a visual artist interpreted my work with a design statement. Not being a published author, I’ve never had the opportunity, but I do have some familiarity with what it’s like to work as a writer in tandem with a design professional because I’m a journalist who writes feature stories, and I’m all too aware of how the photo that runs with my story can make or break its visibility in terms of how big and how high up on the page the editor chooses to place it based on how enticing the photo is.

There are so many ways in which it will be interesting to see how the literary world changes in response to ebooks; the question of cover design is just one of many to ask about this emerging technology. For now, while I’m still reading hard copies of books, I think I’ll develop even more appreciation for their cover designs, knowing it might eventually become a lost art. And I’ll scrutinize what other people are reading in airports and cafes more than ever. If they’re brave enough to let the world see what they’re reading, I’m more than willing to take advantage of that opportunity.

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