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Have E-readers Killed the Bookcover?

2012 July 24
by Dena Little
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Last year, during a teen book club meeting at the local high school, the subject of e-readers came up … who has one, who wants one, what do teens think, etc. But one of the teens shared something interesting: having an e-reader has changed what she reads. Why? Not because of the anonymity an e-reader lends, and only a bit because of the limited availability of digital downloads through the library. Instead, her reading choices have changed mainly due to (the lack of) browsability. Instead of being able to peruse the stacks, physically handle books, and look at their covers, she was stuck trying to determine her choices from itty-bitty thumbnail shots of book covers and too-laborious-to-access descriptions. To avoid all the trouble, this particular student began to read digitized classics because their titles, and covers, were recognizable. Her points made sense because — let’s face it — thumbnail shots of book covers leave much to be desired, especially if that is all one sees when “browsing” digital materials online.

Sure, there is a slew of research out there about how e-readers have begun to influence literacy in general, but what about book choice? How else have teens’ reading choices changed once getting an e-reader? So I hunted around online, inquired with some of my teen patrons, and this is what I found:

First, there is the growing theory that book covers as we know them are dead — and e-readers have killed them. For many of us, cover illustrations are part of our reading experience and, because we do often judge a book by its cover, book choice. How many of you have repeatedly closed the book you were reading in order to check out the cover and match the image in your head with the cover model? To check out the architecture or the setting or to gauge the atmosphere the illustration lends to the story? What happens when that experience is gone, as when using an e-reader? Sure, you can go online to find the cover, or link-link-link back to the first page on your device to see a pixelated (and possibly black and white) image, but that just isn’t the same.

Another thing to think about is how a cover becomes a memorable link to a book. Think of your recent favorite books right now: do their covers come to mind? Can you think of A Fault in our Stars without imagining a bright blue cover with clouds and black and white lettering scribbled across the front? Or think about Twilight … you imagine a dark background with a pair of cupped hands cradling an apple, right? The Hunger Games? Yeah. Are we risking the loss of the iconic cover?

Our teens patrons at the library provided me with even more insight. They tell me that seeking digital titles for their e-reader makes them feel out of touch with the materials, as if they are missing out on finding a book that really suits their preferences. To avoid this, one teen actually comes to the library to browse the shelves and jot down titles, which she then adds to her Goodreads to-read list; then she uses that list to create her digital e-reader wish-list. Most often from teens I hear that they use their e-reader only occasionally, but that they prefer coming to the library to find a book to read because they can handle the books and see their covers, rather than read something they aren’t familiar with.

So, what do you think? Will readers learn to judge a book without its cover? Are we losing an integral element of our reading experience? Have e-readers killed the bookcover?

– Dena Little, currently reading City of Bones by Cassandra Clare

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11 Responses
  1. Jess Pryde permalink
    July 24, 2012

    I think to some extent they have, but on other levels they’ve made cover geeks like me even more crazy. I have an e-reader, and like reading on it, but I think publishers are trying even HARDER to make book covers–especially hardcovers–even more attractive. I’m a sucker for paper art, or raised lettering, or something that’s just REALLY PRETTY. Take the Mortal Instruments series. I bought those in paperback just because I wanted to look at them. Even now, those bright, glittery covers outshine the rest of my bookshelf. There are plenty of books that I will by in eformat if they’re not that attractive or if they’re plain or boring. But the publishers are trying hard to keep our interest in paper.

    • Dena Little permalink
      July 24, 2012

      Jess, good point! When researching this I also came across mention of publishers/artists creating more interactive covers to bridge the gap a bit…
      http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/interactive-digital-book-cover-changes-at-your-touch_b41861
      I am with you–I looooove an awesome cover!

      • August 8, 2012

        I NEVER select a book because of its cover. I’m sure there are others out there like me. I hated the Twilight covers, and only the latest two Charlene Harris “Dead–” covers appealed to me.

        I believe I must be more word than art oriented, because I buy a book because of the synopsis.

  2. Suzanne Neumann permalink
    July 24, 2012

    Hadn’t thought about ebooks and their effects on book covers before, except in the context of people being less embarrassed to be reading porn without having to display the cover to everyone! This article from the NY Times (“In E-Book Era, You Can’t Even Judge a Cover:” http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/31/books/31covers.html) discusses another angle of the great points that you raise: you can’t get ideas for great reads from other people’s reading materials if you can’t view the covers! Publishers recognize the marketing power of book covers and are grappling with how to exploit their power in a digital age. Thanks for putting this on my radar.

  3. July 24, 2012

    I agree with Jess. It’s making publishers try harder. The covers over the last few years seem less lazy than they were. Cover art was getting pretty dull. Now it’s beautiful!

    Also, I read a lot of book reviews before I pick a book. I don’t need to use the thumbnail on Amazon to judge a book because I’ve usually seen the full cover on a blog before I’ve chosen it. I don’t know why the book descriptions are hard to access.” Generally they are right on that same Amazon page. If scrolling down is too hard for you, maybe you aren’t a real reader.

    But it is true that I can’t constantly look at the cover while reading. That’s good. It makes me use my brain and picture what the writer is saying, instead of what a graphic designer imagined. AND it allows me to read my fantasy novels without some large woman in Alabama telling me I’m going to hell for it.

  4. Casey Chwiecko permalink
    July 24, 2012

    I understand exactly what they’re saying. I have a hard time browsing on my Kindle as well for just the same reasons. I’d much prefer to at least make it to Amazon’s main site and look there because it’s much easier to browse than on the Kindle proper.

    I hadn’t thought quite as much as cover art but that’s completely an element of it! Very interesting, thanks for sharing :)

  5. Some Guy permalink
    July 31, 2012

    I think you might be suffering from sampling bias. The people who actually, physically come in to a library to look at/read/check out books are more likely to say things like, “I use my ereader rarely,” or, “I prefer coming to the library to find a book.” Of course they would say that. They’re coming to the library to find a book. To get a real pulse, you’d need to poll at least your library’s digital patrons, if not random non-library folks. For example, the last time I set foot inside a physical library was to get my library card. Why did I get my library card? So that I could check out digital books from my library’s website.

    I read exclusively digital books, and have done so for the past 2.5 years. That doesn’t mean I don’t value my library, I just value it more for its digital content than its physical media and presence.

    • Dena Little permalink
      July 31, 2012

      Hi Some Guy–
      Totally valid point–there are definitely a slew of folks I don’t see everyday who are using digital titles available online, who don’t care what their reading choice looks like, and who don’t feel the need to see a book in its physical format in order to appreciate it.

      The idea for this post was actually inspired by a discussion I had with teens (and adults) outside of the library, not teens as patrons–so, sure, those teens I spoke with in the library would be more biased, but that doesn’t cover the whole pool of teens (or adults) whose opinions I sought.

      Either way, the whole situation is interesting–I am curious to see how covers will morph and develop as publishers scramble to keep up with the challenge of satisfying readers who do appreciate their e-reading but still love a cover…

  6. August 9, 2012

    Interesting post, but I’m not sure I agree. The idea that thumbnail browsing makes covers obsolete is odd to me for a couple of reasons. First, even when I am at a bookstore or library, aside from a couple of display tables, I mostly browse based on even less than a thumbnail because all I can see of the shelved books is the spine. Second, these days a lot of people go online to buy physical books, so if the thumbnail is in fact having such a deleterious effect on book covers, it’s not solely the fault of e-books.

    Either way, I spend a lot of time in bookstores and I haven’t noticed an appreciable decline in the quality of book covers. I think, overall, over the past decade, I’d argue that they’ve actually improved as graphic design software has gotten better and designers/publishers have become more adept at using it tastefully (as opposed to the late 90s early 00s, when it felt like book covers were a tacky collage of all the new graphic effects available in their early, lower quality incarnations).

    I’m working on an e-book project with a couple of friends and, because of our limited resources, I did the cover of our first issue. I’m not a designer by any stretch of the imagination, but I put a lot of effort into our cover and spent a lot of time looking at the incredible 50watts blog (http://50watts.com/) for inspiration. Hopefully someday our project will grow enough that we can pay a designer, but my point is that with the resources at hand we are putting as much effort and thought into our e-book cover as we would for a print version.

    Anyway, I do agree that it’s a valid concern as people’s taste in formats evolve. Even though I don’t think book covers are getting worse (yet?), I think album artwork definitely has in the move from records to CDs to MP3s.

  7. Becky ONeil permalink
    August 14, 2012

    I already know that I’m a visual person, so this idea rings completely true to me. I have one of the first Kindles — black-and-white, difficult to browse. As someone who always flips back to the cover, loves the feel of embossing, and remembers books by color (yep, I’m your favorite patron), I feel more disconnected from my books when they are e-books. I feel sad that e-reading people can’t strike up a conversation over an observed book cover — there will be no “meet cute” over e-readers.

    My booktalks, too, seem to go the best when I have both pictures of the covers on a handout, and the actual books in hand to show. Students invariably ask to hold and inspect the books, which would not be possible if I ever start booktalking with an e-reader.

    It also makes me think of the evolution of album artwork — vinyl album covers large enough to be displayed as art unto themselves, shrunk down to tapes and CDs, and now to thumbnails on a screen — a mobile screen, in many cases. As a teen, I used to love poring over CD artwork because I knew it was created or chosen by the singer I loved — it added to what I already knew about them through their music. Now, I choose music based on sound alone — an interesting change.

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