Long live the cover

In the past, you could sit on a train, and make an assessment of the character of your fellow passengers—solely by looking at the book covers around you. The same could be said of entering someone’s home. When casting your eye over personal bookshelves, peoples’ personalities reveal themselves.

This is all disappearing. We are witnessing the end of an era. If you look around a train nowadays, you won’t find too many book covers. Increasingly, all you will see are Kindles and iPads. In the home, books could soon become like digital photographs—people may have lots of them, but they will all stored on a computer. In fact, it is not difficult to imagine that very soon people’s bookshelves will be filled only with books that were published before 2012.

E-reading is not just killing printed books, it is also killing book covers, and this is going to have huge implications for the industry. For example, trashy romance sales in the USA are suddenly going through the roof (it seems there is no shame any more in reading these novels in public). But on a more serious note, the death of the book cover means that publishers will lose their most powerful marketing tool.

In the past, the book cover has been instrumental in the way books have been positioned, sold and remembered. Indeed, the book cover provides publishers with millions and millions of pounds-worth of promotion each year. It is so potent that even paid-for book marketing still has barely evolved past the point of presenting a cover with a punning headline.

Without the daily visual prompts that book covers provide, the industry will be forced to fundamentally change the way it markets to consumers.

At the most basic level, publishers have to start recognising that it is almost impossible for a cover to add anything to the purchasing process when one browses Amazon on the Kindle. Very few designs leap out when they are just 2cm-by-3cm and displayed in low resolution mono.

This means the industry will lose many thousands of random and spontaneous purchases triggered by nothing more than an eye-catching design. Unless of course, publishers start to get braver. Seth Godin has already paved the way with his cover for Poke the Box (an e-book that is part of his Amazon-powered Domino Project).

His decision to drop the title of the book from the cover on the grounds that no one could read it (and anyway, it is always on screen in the accompanying Amazon blurb) was a stroke of genius. One suspects that this may be the first audacious step in what will surely become a rapid divergence between print and e-book cover designs.

The cover is dead. Long live the cover.