A little over a year ago, Saturday Night Live ran a digital short poking fun at the much-hyped erotica novel, Fifty Shades of Grey. The sketch, which masqueraded as an advertisement for Amazon.com, featured an assortment of fathers and their children readying presents for Mother’s Day. Upon opening the door to present Mom with her gifts however, each family was taken quite by surprise— in the form of Mom caught in “the act” with a copy of the infamous book.
“Is that Fifty Shades of Grey?” a husband asks his startled wife.
“No… It’s a cookbook!” she says before directing her husband and son to put the presents on the floor and get out.
“So this mother’s day,” the faux-mercial’s narrator says, “go to Amazon.com and get mom what she really wants. Fifty Shades of Grey—on kindle!” Although this 2012 sketch’s primary target was E. L. James’ chart-topping novel, the sketch (intentionally or not) brings light to a fascinating development in literary culture—namely, the sudden irrelevance of the book cover as a communicative tool.
The Kindle, the e-reader referenced in SNL’s Fifty Shades critique, has been the subject of ire to both publishers and book designers in recent years. It’s not really any surprise why. The face of book marketing has changed completely in the six years since Amazon introduced its Kindle ebook reader. As of last year, ebooks accounted for roughly 31.1% of all book sales, a number that is expected to only rise as time goes on.
Although the publishing business, which has always seemed to be a breath away from total collapse, has reaped many benefits from this newfangled way of reading, electronic literature has also had numerous debilitating effects. Independent booksellers have all but disappeared over the last few years, and big-box stores (remember Borders?) aren’t faring that much better. As cloud-based bookstores rake in the cash, the need for brick-and-mortar versions becomes less and less pressing.
This, however, is not the only issue worth addressing. From conversations I’ve had with various acquaintances in the publishing industry, it seems that the book world’s dire situation has forced many publishing houses to buckle down and stop taking risks on new or potentially controversial authors. As with the film industry, the publishing industry has always relied on “tentpole” features (big-name releases that are sure to take in lots of money) in order to fund smaller, more risky projects. Today, though, it seems that publishing houses both large and small are choosing to run almost exclusively with tentpoles. It’s not just Nora Roberts and John Grisham novels that have seen a surge since electronic publishing became mainstream. With the ability to publish now without the trouble of going through middlemen like editors and publishing houses, amateur writers have found fame and even fortune by selling in the electronic marketplace. Fifty Shades of Grey, for example, started as a self-published ebook before being picked up by Doubleday—and now a major motion picture based on the book is in the works.
In addition to favoring salacious writing with mass-market appeal, the ebook market has totally reformatted the way that books are found and purchased. In a typical brick-and-mortar store, customer interest is won through a combination of casual browsing and visual merchandising. Even though age-old wisdom instructs readers to “not judge a book by its cover,” the publishing industry has, until recently, depended on this impulse to sell books. Now, with books being found through a combination of word-of-mouth and purchase-history algorithms, the book cover is having less and less cultural and monetary cache. As a result, the demand for book cover designers has taken a surprising and rather paradoxical turn. Although the ebook has allowed for an increase in the number of books published and, in turn, a demand for covers to function as visual signifiers for these digital titles, the monetary value ascribed to the book cover in general has gone in the opposite direction. “The cover art budget for eBooks tends to be lower than for print books,” notes Anna Dorfman, a senior designer at Simon & Schuster. “Commissioning illustrations or photography isn’t usually possible, so you have to get creative and very resourceful — and you have to do it quickly. Because the turnaround process on eBooks is typically much faster than printed editions, there’s not a lot of time to mull over ideas and do endless rounds of revisions. In some ways that’s a relief because the approval process is by default less rigorous, but it can get hectic.”
Business analyists tend to attribute this bizarre change of values to the decline of twentieth century, brick-and-mortar book marketing— a side effect of people not being able to make thoughtful purchasing decisions after time spent browsing a bookshop. This point of view, however, completely discounts half of the previous function of books and their covers— that of portable communicative objects. Objects that, whether the user liked it or not, displayed social status, taste, and class.
While book covers are certainly useful tools for advertising the feeling of their content, the time spent on a store shelf encompasses only a fraction of the typical printed book’s life. After they are purchased, printed books and their covers continue to “work”— on bookshelves, nightstands, desks, and, more importantly, in public. While many consumers indeed purchase books based on how much they think they will enjoy them, it seems naive to assume they are not also doing so based on how they feel others will perceive them.
Although many a scholar and book enthusiast would be loath to admit it, many of the same superficial impulses are at play when purchasing a book as with purchasing things like clothing— impulses like the desire to fit in, stand out, or project one’s personality to the public. This is because, until recently with the proliferation of ebook readers, the book and its cover functioned much in the same way that clothing or furniture did. In a home, printed books would line bookshelves and coffee tables, physical emblems of the owner’s intellectual and artistic tastes and values. Unlike the furniture that fills one’s home, though, books are also portable, making them not only potent symbolic furnishings, but fashion statements.
The argument that clothing can be used as a tool to communicate taste and social class has been around for some time. In her seminal work, The Language of Clothes, fashion historian Alison Lurie defines this idea as “legible clothing.” Paul Fussell, a sociologist whose work deals with American class structure, elaborates upon this notion in his on-point and humorous book, Class: A Guide Through The American Status System. Visual markers on clothing, he theorizes, are used by various social classes to align themselves with certain ideas and interests. “Brand names today possess a totemistic power to confer distinction on those who wear them,” he writes.
By donning legible clothing, you fuse your private identity with external commercial success, redeeming your insignificance and becoming, for a moment, somebody… Witness the T-shirts and carryalls stamped with the logo of The New York Review of Books, which convey the point “I read hard books,” or printed with portraits of Mozart and Haydn and Beethoven, which assure the world, “I am civilized.”
Like “legible clothing,” book covers and even books themselves can function as outward expressions of private identity. Unlike designer fashions, which can be prohibitively expensive, books are cost-effective ways of projecting social and intellectual prowess. Like the Mozart carryalls referenced in Fussell’s book, tattered copies of Steinbeck, Melville, and Twain function in much the same way.
The New York City subway system is a wonderful laboratory for testing this hypothesis. Each day, millions of commuters ride the MTA’s trains, many of whom bring along reading material. At home, the act of reading is more or less private— one can read whatever one pleases without worrying about the judgment of onlooking strangers. On the train, however, reading becomes incredibly public. With book covers turned outward for all to see, one’s choice of reading material becomes a strong personal symbol. In the past, one could tell a lot about a person based on the reading material they chose to bring on the train. Much can be inferred, for example, about a person who opts to read The National Enquirer instead of The New York Times. Similarly, a person who chooses to while away the commute with a heavy copy of Crime and Punishment is likely trying to say something different than, say, the person who flagrantly ignores suspicious glances at their copy of Why Men Love Bitches.
Although there has most definitely always been a market for pulp literature, one can easily assume that the public pressure to project one’s status through reading material increased the desirability for more critically acclaimed works. This seems to be less and less the case. Today, when one walks onto a train car, the number of people holding screens versus printed reading material has dramatically increased. Gone are bent copies of The Help, The Corrections, and The Hunger Games. Replacing all of these titles are identical grey rectangles which bear little or no resemblance to the content held within. “What are you reading, Mom?” the aforementioned SNL skit implores. Indeed, “we’ll never know.”
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spotted multiple people on the subway reading the same book and become curious about it as a result,” Ms. Dorfman notes, “or how often I’ve asked a friend or family member about a book on their coffee table or nightstand. The cover of a printed book becomes a physical advertisement in a reader’s hands, but a Kindle or iPad is anonymous and solitary.”
As design objects, ebook readers like the Amazon Kindle are pointedly sparse. Even without their covers, printed books are lush with visual symbolism. Things like paper quality and page count, just to name a few, present onlookers with rich visual information to make inferences. Ebook readers, on the other hand, are positively bereft of any of these markers. The Amazon Kindle, for example, is a slim grey plastic slab, only a fraction of an inch thick. The front side of the device contains a simple, light grey screen above a single square button. The back of the device is equally bare, a long expanse of faux-metallic plastic with only the word “Kindle” to give it any commercial significance. As Domus magazine rightly pointed out in a 2012 article, the Kindle doesn’t even function as a material status symbol in the way that iPods and iPhones did in the previous decade. “The Kindle is,” Domus states, “physically, a modest product. Its e-ink screen lacks the flashiness of its tablet rivals. It is white, grey or, at a push, grey-black, and definitely plastic.”
Whereas the book’s last iteration (print) conformed much more to the language and social sway of capitalist fashion, the Kindle’s design aligns it much more with the “proletariate” garb crafted by socialist designers like Vladimir Tatlin in the early days of the Twentieth Century. The Kindle functions not as a status marker or a projection of individualism, but as a democratizer— an object that has no visual significance, it merely does its job. Because of this, the Kindle has become a sort of boon for authors and publishers of pulp fiction. Before the arrival of the ebook, consumers faced the notion of peer rejection when purchasing reading material. When readers previously entered a bookshop, the same thought processes as those associated with the purchase of clothing came into play. The consumer might, for example, envision themselves holding a certain book cover on the train or in a café. What would their peers think of their reading choices? Today, this intermediary thought process has more or less evaporated, along with the printed book. Now, people are able to read whatever they please (even if that means pulse-quickening novels like Fifty Shades of Grey), without the need to defend or apologize for their choices. Much in the way that Amazon.com originally privatized the act of shopping, allowing one to “go to the mall in your underwear,” the company’s Kindle device has privatized the act of reading. Now, when one whips out reading material on the subway or bus, it no longer functions to label them as an avant-garde intellectual or mainstream boor, it simply signifies that one is a reader.
In the introduction to his text, Understanding Material Culture, historian Ian Woodward notes, “people require objects to understand and perform aspects of selfhood, and to navigate the terrain of culture more broadly.” As design objects themselves, printed books and their covers hold similar power over their users. With their intellectual and cultural associations, books have been used for centuries to “perform” such “aspects of selfhood.” Similarly, books have, like clothing and other visible objects, allowed people to “navigate terrain of culture” by projecting visual information about their users. The Amazon Kindle and ereaders like it are powerful in their own right, but for an entirely different reason. Like the television or the internet, which have allowed people to stay inside and, one could argue, “defy” the social pressures of dress and self-maintenance, the ebook has given consumers another way to free themselves from the shackles of social pressure.
As for whether or not the cultural consequences of this newfound “freedom,” are good or bad, the jury still seems to be deciding. Coralie Bickford-Smith, a book cover designer for Penguin notes that “maybe the flip side of ebooks being widely available is that when people do choose to buy a physical book, they want something that enhances the reading experience, something well thought through and well produced.”
Ms. Dorfman at Simon & Schuster also concedes, somewhat reluctantly, that this seems to be where things are headed. “I understand all of the positive points and I accept that this is the direction we’re moving in, but it’s heartbreaking to know that we’re losing the visual identities of books along the way,” she says. “As someone who loves the art of the book and the tactile aspects of reading, it’s a bit sad for me to see the proliferation of eBooks happening so rapidly.”
As with many cultural or technological upheavals, it may be years (or even decades) before we can see the full scope of what these changes to the book market mean. Despite the arguments on both sides of the issue, ebooks have clearly been a hit among consumers, if book sales and best seller lists are any indication. Although it might be too early to say whether or not the ebook industry will have a detrimental impact on “high” literature and our general appreciation for book design, it will be interesting to see how this trend progresses. In the meantime, I’ve got a copy of Taken by The Pterodactyl on my kindle that I need to get back to. —Max