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Is the Book Cover Dead?

It sure doesn’t look good. Thanks, technology.
April 20, 2012

I am something of a book cover art enthusiast, a man geeky enough to have once bragged about having met Chip Kidd in an elevator. (Who? My point exactly.)

And so it’s with great interest that I read, over at the Atlantic, Betsy Morais’s take on the promise and peril the Kindle holds for the art of the book cover. I often lament the loss of the feeling of a book’s heft in your hands, the way it folds open over your knee, the smell of paper, and all those other fusty, visceral attachments my kids will one day laugh at me for. For some reason, though, it’s taken me this long to realize how very much I’m worried about the fate of the book cover.

“A digital book has no cover,” writes Morais. “There’s no paper to be bound up with a spine and protected inside a sturdy jacket. Browsers no longer roam around Borders scanning the shelves for the right title to pluck. Increasingly, instead, they scroll through Amazon’s postage stamp-sized pictures, which don’t actually cover anything, and instead operate as visual portals into an entire webpage of data.”

One thing we learn from Morais’s reporting is that our technological age was already gumming up the works of book cover design even before e-books came along. “Book covers have been in crisis for some time now,” says one of her sources. When Amazon’s webpages become the modern-day equivalent of a Borders bookshelf, there’s pressure to design book covers so that they “scan” better as thumbnails. There’s a reason why Michelangelo preferred chapel ceilings to postage stamps. When it comes to a canvas, size matters.

But when God, or Jeff Bezos, closes a graphic design door, does he open a graphic design window? That’s the hope: that e-books will usher in a new era of multimedia book cover creativity. Morais holds up as her heroine longstanding book designer Carin Goldberg, who is offering for the first time a “digital editorial design class using the iPad.” Her students produced animated book covers, for instance.

But publishing is a business, and a floundering, conservative one at that. Publishers simply don’t have the resources to create experimental Googly blue-sky labs whose sole purpose is to play around with new possible futures for book covers. They’re busy trying to make sure books themselves have much of a future to begin with. “Benefits have not yet caught up to the costs of this extra content,” Penguin’s Paul Buckley told Morais. “Because the viewer’s not going to pay for it.”

My inner Luddite has trouble seeing an upside here. I’ll close with a quote from Chip Kidd. As he said recently at TED2012 (in a wonderfully catty talk, whose full 17 minutes are worth watching), “Much is to be gained by eBooks: ease, convenience, portability. But something is definitely lost: tradition, a sensual experience, the comfort of thingy-ness — a little bit of humanity.”

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