Death of the Book Cover: Do Covers Really Matter?

Category: Reading
Tagged: book covers

It’s been a while since I felt real excitement about a book cover; a feeling of anticipation about owning a particular book because it’s so beautiful, but it happened this week with Kirsty Logan’s new book The Gracekeepers. I don’t know what it is about the cover but it makes me desperately want to read it. Which is great, but shouldn’t I want to read an exciting new release by an up-and-coming author regardless of the cover?

Everyone knows the saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover” – but does anyone actually live by this? We’re all guilty of walking into a bookshop and picking up the biggest, brightest, shiniest book that catches our eye.

Amidst a sea of titles with elbows out jostling for shelf space, the cover is a book’s best chance of being picked up and read. It is a savvy marketing tool; covers are designed to appeal to the mass market and put pounds in pockets. But just think how many great books we’re missing out on because we glanced over a dingy cover.

The book and its cover have come on a long journey. In medieval times books were treasured and handmade, with covers of embossed leather and gold to reflect the importance of the book as a symbol of knowledge, power and the divine.

The modern dust-jacket wasn’t born until the 19th century, where the primary function was to protect the book en route to its owner; these were usually plain paper covers that were thrown away.

Publishers realised the scope of the jacket for advertising by the 1920s/30s and ever since the cover has regained importance. Functioning as a marketing tool, it has evolved year on year, allowing the book to come full circle and regain its status as art object. Covers are now recognised as powerful pieces of design and many gain iconic status. Universities offer courses to study this specific art and there are awards for cover design.

Having said this, is the book cover actually in decline?

In our digital age of self-publishing and e-books, the original function of the cover - to protect the contents – is redundant. Much digital publishing now completely bypasses the designer and shows a trend of not caring so much about the appearance of the book. As a digital file, the book is no longer a piece of art to be designed and perfected, and covers - if they have one - leave much to be desired.

Our reading habits are changing. Things that could give a reader pleasure - the shape and size of the book, the feel of paper, and the design of the jacket – don’t seem so important to the digital reader. Books – digital and paperback – have suffered by becoming part of our ‘disposable culture’. Who cares about a cover when you’ll read the book once before giving it to Oxfam?

On the other hand, for every e-book reader there is another hardback cover-loving reader who can’t get enough of paper and wouldn’t touch an e-book even if they were given an e-book reader for Christmas (which is the case with me).

I hadn’t considered that switching to becoming a digital reader might make me a more open-minded reader; that without the luxury of choosing by cover I’d have to make my reading decisions based on other information. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing...

Covers have recently had some negative press as being responsible for genderising books and labelling them specifically ‘for girls’ or ‘for boys’ and narrowing children’s reading habits, but covers both have the power to restrict or expand our reading habits.

Whether we like it or not (or are even aware of it) they influence our reading choices, communicating information about the book that tells us whether it is 'for us' or not. But for all the times I’ve been put off by a cover design, I’ve been duped into reading something I wouldn’t normally because of a nice cover.

A world without covers would be rather boring, not to mention make negotiating the vast amounts of reading material available rather tricky. I love falling in love with a cover, but I’m trying to take them with a bigger pinch of salt.

I’m not saying they shouldn’t be important -- they should be designed with care and be works of art in themselves, because they contain some very valuable material -- words, stories, your next escape -- and the cover owes it to the book to reflect this.

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