When I think of The Catcher in the Rye, I think of its iconic cover: the yellow font overlaying the merry-go-round horse, the way the red drapes itself over the white background and seems to continue off the page. Similarly, when I think of The Great Gatsby, a face sculpted out of a dark blue sky comes to mind, fireworks lighting up the bottom of the cover, a symbol of the raucous roaring twenties. I cannot think of either of these novels, along with a handful of other famous works, without also thinking of their covers.
But the importance of the book cover is drawn into question with the rise of the e-reader. Do we really judge a book by its cover? And if so, what does that mean for the future of book cover art?
Ashley Fetters, writer for The Atlantic, notes a new trend in the aesthetics of book covers. J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, Jonathon Safron Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated and Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot are just three novels among many that share a common aesthetic: Their dust jackets display a hand-scripted title plopped down on a relatively simple background. This is hardly the first and only trend in cover art; partially obscured women’s faces have been popular for a long time, as have children’s forms with the head and neck areas cropped out of the frame. Apparently, readers are drawn to images that offer just the right amount of clarity and ambiguity. But this new trend, this simplistic back-to-basics art, may be routed in the new way we are beginning to read.
Nowadays, book browsers tend to scroll through web pages instead of perusing physical copies in actual bookstores. This means that book covers must be legible even as thumbnails, having been reduced to much smaller images. This, Fetters argues, is the main reason for the new trend. Simple designs can more easily fit different formats.
Early ebooks used to begin by delving straight into chapter one, skipping the title and a cover page altogether. Even today, the majority of ebooks require you to backtrack in order to view the cover page. Still, that isn’t to say the book cover is going away anytime soon. Bill McCoy, the director of International Digital Publishing Forums suggests that being thrown right into the text leads readers to feel confused or unsettled. He compares the book cover to a DVD menu or video game introduction, saying, “You expect to get some choices and a menu of options,” and the omission of a cover page has a destabilizing effect (a complaint that many ebook users have about their Kindle or Nook for other reasons as well).
There’s been talk in the last year of doing even more with the book cover. Not being bound by the same formatting rules that apply to physical books, ebooks can therefore offer more multimedia opportunities. It’s very possible that, while I used to be drawn to a book because of its font size or bold color palette, I might now be interested in it because of the cover’s moving images or blinking designs.
Why haven’t we seen this trend in multimedia book covers blossom yet? Paul Buckley, vice president and executive creative director at Penguin, remarks that “Benefits have not yet caught up to the costs of this extra content,” and that publishing companies do not have the resources to explore this avenue. But nobody knows what the future will hold with respect to book covers, and I have a feeling technology will catch up and, rather than disappear, book covers will merely take on a different display. I think future generations will continue to associate famous works of literature with their respective book covers, however different those covers may be.
Did You Know?
Sales of ebooks have taken a dip in recent years. In 2010 sales were skyrocketing—up 252 percent from the year before. But between 2012 and 2013, we saw an increase in sales of only 5 percent. Why should this be the case?
Nicholas Carr offers a few suggestions. It may be that ebooks are good for certain types of literature and certain kinds of situations. For instance, they may be better suited for reading genre-fiction on vacation than literary or non-fiction at home. Similarly, it could be that the novelty of the new technology has worn off, and the public has lost interest. Or that those who were interested in having an e-reader have bought one already and there will be no second wave in sales (as those who are not interested in owning one are not likely to run out to the store anytime soon).
Whatever the reason, the numbers will have an interesting effect on print books—as well as ebook—projections.