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A Book By Its Cover: What Is The Book Cover’s Place In The 21st Century?

by Maxwell Tielman


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

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  • I’m a bit of a technophile, but as a book lover, I won’t be purchasing any type of e-reader to read books. Part and parcel of the reading experience is feeling the paper, relishing the font type and viewing the book cover and any illustrations. The simple art of a fine press book is just so in the present. Nothing can compare to the experience of reading a “real” book.

  • Books will be commodities one day as they grow increasingly rare in terms of new publication.

    I’m musing on how this article relates to your articles on “stuff” and environmentalism and, more recently, technology and consumerism. Could e-readers be a proliferation of technology and consumerism? What are the environmental effects of e-readers verses paper? E-readers seem to be the more responsible environmental choice, however, what happens when they become obsolete? Will paper copies come into vogue again?

    Also, I’ve been thinking about the longevity of books in relation to e-readers. I have an amazing library acquired from my parents and grandparents. What are people going to pass down in fifty years? A fully stocked Kindle?

    Much like other technological “advances” in history, I’m not sure this has been thought through.

  • I have a mac, an ipad and an iphone but at the end of the day I curl up with a paper book. Paper offers a more pleasing experience, at least for me.

  • This is such a well-written article, awesome job Max! I love seeing you guys really expand what you write about and encompass the issues and societal trends within the design world.

    To add to Emily’s comment… Research has been done that says e-readers, computers, tablets, etc. are actually significantly more environmentally damaging than their paper counterparts, even when that paper isn’t recycled. The gap in impact becomes even wider when you assume that the paper products are made from recycled pulp.

    I will forever be a real book reader, and have no plans of sacrificing the overall experience of reading a book with the screen of a device. Long live paper <3

  • I love that this blog is becoming a home for longer-format pieces like this. Style and substance? Yes please!
    I’m a complete minimalist when it comes to most things, but books I can never part with. My grandchildren will have an attic full of musty (but beautiful) tomes to contend with.
    Thanks for this, Max!

  • I have bookcases FULL of books. I love the experience of a paper and ink book. I love the art on the covers. I will buy a book for the beauty of it (as long as the story is decent). The book is its own art form. I often go back and re-read my favorites. That being said, I have a Kindle but reserve it for “fluff” books – books I will likely never read again. I often mourn our descent into ebooks. I joke I’ll never run out of reading material after the zombie apocalypse destroys our technology. So there you go.

  • I will be the first dissenting opinion here, but I feel like the Kindle needs defense. There is tremendous potential for more graphics, more visual appeal than is currently being harnessed. To say that people need a physical book cover to enjoy that book cover is nonsense. I see it on my virtual “bookshelf” every time I pick out a tome to read. I have a Kindle Fire, so it’s IS in fact like other tablets, with the added benefit of housing my books: books I buy, books I borrow from the library (and never have to pay any fees because I’m not late in returning them!).

    I became a convert after my child was born, and I was awake many nights tending to her. It’s much easier to hold a Kindle and “flip” the pages. I didn’t have to turn on any additional lights. And I don’t read books to advertise them to the world. I read them for me. If I want to tell people what I think about a book, I do it on my blog or on Goodreads. There are plenty of ways to stay abreast of the latest bestsellers outside of spying them in bookstores and the train: Twitter, Facebook, NYT, Goodreads, book blogs, good old-fashioned word of mouth, just to name a few.

    I love good design, and I’m a sucker for the well-designed book cover. The problem here isn’t that people are changing to an electronic reader; it’s that perceived notion that digital isn’t worth spending money on. I see it all the time in my dealings with the publishing world. There is a major disconnect between value and what people are willing to pay, and this will not change until there is a complete re-think by the populace at large.

    I am most enraged by the fact that Anna says their budgets for e-books are so miniscule. Why? It’s because digital is seen as fleeting, as something unworthy of spending money on, be it advertising, design or content. We need to demand better, because digital is the way of the future, and we need to start paying our content creators in accordance.

    *Stepping off my soapbox.

  • Great article, Max. It’s obvious that you’ve put a lot of thought and thorough effort, into this one. While I really enjoyed the connection you made between the evolving transition in the publishing industry and the film/television industry (you had me at “faux-mercial” and SNL), I’d like to expand on this a little bit more.

    Just as visual identities are becoming obsolete for books, the same can be said in regards to the beautiful and theatrical visual effects that were once employed in motion pictures. Gone are the days when VFX were executed, by means of “smoke and mirrors”; as computer-generated effects now dominate filmmaking. (Think “Raiders of the Lost Ark” vs. “The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”.) Also, this surge of digital VFX and SFX has also impacted the quality of “storytelling”, in cinema! A digitally VFX-heavy movie like “Ironman” has become the standard for a box-office heavy-hitter; when the gold standard used to be something like “Titanic”.

    Now – when Francis Ford Coppola produced “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” in the early 90’s, he insisted on using old-fashioned FX techniques, which he felt would be more appropriate towards the film’s setting. All of the VFX seen in the film were achieved without the aid of digital resources; and, instead, were created using on set and in-camera methods. I think that, even if print literature does eventually move into extinction (GASP!), there will continue to be an interest in print – but on a different sort of level. In the future, while the digital form may take precedent, special editions may take the form of print.

    As a great contemporary example, take Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis’s “Wildwood” series. They have their customary print (and digital) edition of their books. They also put out a deluxe edition, that is cloth-bound, is foil-embossed on the cover, color illustrations (the regular edition has illustrations that are only in b&w), and all kinds of other bells and whistles. http://ow.ly/pHHZ4

  • I am most definitely a real book girl, and have quite a collection of vintage books, as well as more current ones. I’m looking around my tiny apartment now, and there are truly books everywhere. I was just thinking I need to edit & donate (maybe I need Amy’s help for that, I hate to part with them). I know I will never be an e-reader, but I have contemplated it. Traveling is the down side to books that take up space and weigh a lot. It’s always the books that make my baggage overweight nightmare.

    I’m sure people have compared this to the music industry and its evolution. I certainly didn’t have a problem downloading all of my cds and donating them (minus the few signed copies I kept). I know I will never feel this about my books though.

    Thanks Max! It’s a great article.

  • An experience I find interesting, though I’m not sure of its significance in this context, is that I was the standard bibliophile – until I worked in a bookstore for seven years. I left before e-readers were really a ‘thing.’ There, books became commodities. It was apparent that they aren’t ‘precious’ – there is always another, or a reprint. Not that I don’t still love the things, but it’s the content rather than the format I now value. I’ve actually became a little wary of the fetishisation of the print object. Many people I know who would turn up their noses at wearing clothes with logos will instead display their *excellent taste* through books instead… I’m not sure they’re that different from one another. In that respect I quite like the anonymity/ equalisation through ebooks.

  • A few thoughts on this article from a historian of the book/avid reader:

    1. Kindle has privatized the act of reading? Umm..have you heard of the highlight and annotation features? You can share your thoughts on books with the entire world now!

    2. You say, “In addition to favoring salacious writing with mass-market appeal, the ebook market has totally reformatted the way that books are found and purchased.” Where is your evidence that ebooks favor salacious writing? Look at the top Kindle books on Amazon right now. They cover a wide variety of genres.

    3. I hate to tell you this, but people have always read illicit books, and they will continue to, no matter what the format. See this recent NYT piece for example: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/04/books/review/the-first-illicit-thing-you-read.html?pagewanted=all

    4. Considering this is Design Sponge, I’m surprised that you bring up Coralie Bickford-Smith without mentioning how popular her covers for the Penguin Classics series have been. You can get all of those books for free (they’re out of copyright), but people pay $13 just to get her beautiful covers! I think that this is actually a really exciting time for book covers. Publishers need to make them cool in order to convince people to buy the book in print. “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” is a great example of this. The cover of the print book glows in the dark!

    One final note: my quick read found several inconsistant capitalizations and wrong word choices (“electronic e-reader,” “popular ephemera,” etc.). I think if Design Sponge wants to start doing more of this kind of writing, they need to put more effort into proof-reading.

    • Hi, Kate!

      Thanks for your thoughts! Here are a few follow-ups:

      1. You definitely have a valid point regarding the highlight and annotation features. However, when I referred to public/private displays of reading, I was primarily referring to the book as an object and its cover’s function as a communicative tool, both as an advertisement and a form of self expression. The highlight functionality on Kindles seems, to me at least, more in-line with electronic forms of communication like Twitter—they are still valid forms of interaction, but they lack the physical, material aspect that communicative objects have.

      2. I’m certainly aware that the Kindle marketplace (and its best-seller list) is filled with a variety of genres. My justification for the claim in question, however, is based on the fact that such types of writing seem to have experienced heights of popularity not previously possible through print publication. Perhaps “salacious” was not the best word choice, but there have indeed been surges in such categories as Young Adult Romance, Erotic Thrillers, and Paranormal Romances (one example: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/19/magazine/amanda-hocking-storyseller.html).

      3. I do not deny that illicit books have been around forever, and I am all for that! However, I think there is something to be said for the fact that we are seeing more and more pulpy romances climbing the best-seller lists (especially ones that might have, in previous years, been deemed YA lit).

      4. I think that Coralie Bickford-Smith actually touched on this very point in her statement for this piece. She says that the flip-side to this whole e-book situation is that people might actually make the conscious decision to purchase a printed book *because* of its design.

      5. I wil certainly go have a look-see to make sure everything is as tight as it should be. That said, “popular ephemera,” in reference to ephemeral pieces of popular culture, is not what I would categorize as a “wrong word choice.”

      Again, I really appreciate your feedback. I have and will take what you’ve said into consideration.

      Happy reading!

  • As a reader, I love real books. I read a lot and I do read e-books as well as print, because I borrow a lot of both sort from the library. Only buy print books though. I’m going to be one of “those people” and add that I like how they smell.

    I will admit that an e-book is a whole lot easier to read while nursing a baby one handed in the dark. Also, if you read a lot, it’s a lot easier to bring more than one e-book on trips :)

    As an illustrator who’s starting to get into book covers, it’s just insane. The market shifts daily and while some big publishers are paying good money for good art (Tor is still doing fantastic covers) it’s hard to get. However, there are a lot more opportunities with all the small publishers popping up. So I think there might be more work, or at least more accessible work for illustrators. But it’s valued less, which sucks.

  • I must say that I still highly value cover art in determining whether or not to click on a book to see the synopsis…also, for myself, I have a Kobo ereader and can/do choose to have the cover of the book I am currently reading displayed while the device is off and on sleep mode. So I can always see the cover of the book I am reading, and that always makes me smile. So, I see the point of the article (and it makes me sad) but I still like pretty covers that the print books get over solely ebook-released books. [All just my opinions.]

  • I think maybe Kate meant that ephemera was the wrong word choice because books are not ephemeral; whereas “ephemera” refers to everyday objects that are meant to be thrown away after a short amount of time, I think we all agree that printed books are meant to be kept? It was a word choice that stuck out to me as I read the essay as well.

    I also couldn’t help but notice how many times the word “however” popped up. This was an interesting and thoughtful essay, but please don’t underestimate the power of a bona fide copy editor! Especially if you intend to do more long-format writing, a good editor can not only clean up the grammar, but help organize and strengthen your argument as well.

    (I used to design for a magazine publishing company, and I LOVED working with editors!)

  • Great article – I can’t imagine a world without books. I despise Kindle. Everyone in book club has one – hideous. I have my little home library and my books are so comforting. I wonder…my 3 year old grandson probably won’t have any school books, handwriting is not needed or taught anymore – I don’t like it but it is happening. So weird. Maybe I’ve become old fashioned. That is weird, too.

  • I imagine that, as mentioned above, books are entering the realm of luxury purchases. Sales will be driven by the aesthetic of the printed editions. The loss in volume of sales will be made up in beautiful, desirous details (different illustrators, leather binding, embossing… illuminations?). Libraries will become even more a mark of someone’s personal relationship with the volume selected, as they are able to pick and choose between editions.

    In a perfect world I imagine that the consumer’s ability to eschew hard-copy would drive publishers back towards the practice of hiring talented illustrators to tart up tomes. Who really wants a book with a slap-dash stock image in their physical library?

    I imagine E-readers will represent something equally as magical as people become less wary of them as library-killers. Free and instantaneous lending, the ability to own a treasure trove of literature (even if you have a humble cupboard of an apartment), reduced costs, instant gratification, and (for some) the lure of book-anonymity.

  • Great article, it touched on a lot of things I think about when I use my very convenient Kindle! The thing I miss most is the cover, the artwork,which is the presentation of the introduction to a new book. I find myself missing the real thing more and will save my Kindle for traveling. Great thoughts, thank you!

  • Just came home from work and this is exactly the topic my colleague and I were talking about! What a coincidence – and a great article!!! Thanks Max

  • I think e-readers are good for the book world. I see them as replacing paperbacks and turning book stores into havens of well made hardcover books. Sewn with actual signatures and maybe signed by the Author. Unfortunately most hardcovers now are made very cheaply and glued on just like paperbacks it’s why all my Harry Potter books are falling apart.

    Also I have to say unless a book is beautifully well made, I think it’s the stories that make us fall in love with the tool on which we read them. I love my e-reader I carry it everywhere. It’s not shiny or new and has a ton scuffs from traveling about and instead of one book, it has my history on it.

  • I wish you interviewed more people in the industry. I enjoyed hearing what Anna Dorfman thinks, but as a book designer myself, I feel there are many more points and opinions that could have been addressed.

  • As an avid book reader, I have a few thoughts on this subject. Firstly, to me, book covers are still very relevant whether I’m purchasing online for my Kindle app for my iPhone or if I’m browsing a bricks and mortar store. The cover is still what draws me in to investigate it, whether that means picking it up or clicking through.

    I was definitely a hold out on switching away from paper books. However I had a few reasons to do so. One was that it simply wasn’t feasible for me to carry around the extra weight on my walks to and from work (up to 4miles a day), and I especially didn’t want to miss out on reading thicker/heavier books because of this. Secondly, switching to Kindle for the iPhone meant I could have book with me anywhere, anytime (and fortunately my eyesight is still good enough to allow me to use my phone for this).

    Lastly, and admittedly more of a bonus feature rather than a conscious driver of my decision to make the switch, books are made from trees, even if just partially, and at two to three books a month/year that I’m reading, it’s a lot of paper, and a lot of trees. It’s fine if the book was so good that I want to hold onto it forever, but not so good when I don’t like the book and never finish it or care enough to keep it. The truth is not every book no matter how good, will become a classic that people will hold onto and treasure forever, and if you’ve ever been to a library book sale (like the huge one held yearly here in SF at Fort Mason), you see just how much waste all of those books create. It’s not such a bad thing to say goodbye to all that paper.

  • Wow, what a wonderful (and well-written) article!
    I know some people had some criticism about it, and some of it valid, but I want to give you some serious props, because I feel like it is SUCH a huge growing step for you, Max. It restored my faith in journalism a little.
    Definitely raised a lot of points about our culture and the way book covers are another way that can serve as points of connection between people.
    I can see the appeal of e-readers, especially for those novels that you read and recycle (or donate), because I always felt bad about paper being wasted on them, but I do feel so very sad that the art of book covers has become so much less ornate and more type-treatment and logo-design oriented. I think that’s part of why people gravitate toward decorating with old books.

  • I really truly love seeing content like this on Design*Sponge. I’ve always considered DS mostly fluff (fluff that I like to browse through for knick knacks and design ideas, which I enjoy, to be sure), but this really raises the bar! It’s thoughtful articles like this one that make me really stop to read through and admire DS for the work its staff does. Well done!

    • kristy

      i hope you’ll check out more of the content here that isn’t about products. i personally feel the weekly biz ladies column, the recipes and the city guides (although not just those columns) are incredibly rich content that goes well beyond fluff.


  • Interesting read! I’ve dabbled in reading books with my iPad, and find that the experience is just fine…but it’s definitely different. For books that I don’t really want to invest the time or thought into (like a good Chelsea Handler novel), the ereader experience is just fine. However, when I want to invest in a book I know I want to spend some time with, I will usually go for the physical copy.

    Our last move also prompted me to think long and hard about the weight of all these books I owned. I rarely re-read books, and while they look nice on a shelf, they are also taking up valuable space in my already cramped life.

    It’s a messy problem without an easy answer, but hopefully people who want to read books on paper will be able to do so for many years to come. Otherwise, it’s going to be tough to get me into reading War and Peace. I kinda like knowing I plowed through a book heavy enough to kill a man. ;-)

  • I am a bit surprised by the resistance to ebooks when it is clear that this is going to be the future of publishing and is already widely adopted. The act of reading is, at the end of the day, about the content, whether it is on a scroll, in a book, or digital.

    I love the physical book, too, since I have about 5,000 of them. I understand and need the visual and tactile sense of the physical book, I love the history of the book and its readers — the WWII soldier with a Penguin in his hip pocket — and I love that seeing people with a book has meant a fellow reader. So much essential signposting negated by the neutral Kindle. I remember a scene from “What’s Up, Doc,” where Barbara Streisand pulls open a small overnight case and a bunch of thick books tumble out. To see a scene where a person has sacrificed suitcase space to bring a batch of books is both revealing and rewarding to us readers.

    I really feel at sea in gauging what a book is going to require of me by the quality of its cover, the heft of it, and I often miss the ability of stick my fingers in a few sections and flip back and forth. It’s possible in ebooks, but it’s not as easy. However, it is easier in an ebook to find that elusive passage you want to reread.

    But I suspect that things will shortly reach a state of equilibrium. Digital texts will allow for more creative, interactive texts — the 21st century version of popup books, perhaps. Look at how the digital NY Times ran with wonderful columns by Maira Kalman and Jeff Scher and Errol Morris that really need to be online, not on paper. I have friends who love to read but don’t care to accumulate books – they are building ebook libraries. People who read voraciously will have to look to libraries and used book stores for books that aren’t, and won’t, become digitized. Print books will become more beautiful and more valued — look at all the special editions coming out now from publishers ranging from Penguin to Persephone. Dedicated readers like me will buy hard copies of important texts and keep fluff on e-readers. I often sample a Kindle book. If I think this is for my permanent library, I buy a hard copy. If not, an ebook. Now when I go to Europe in the summer, with all those airline weight restrictions, I can carry a whole vacation’s worth of books AND have room for all the books that I get a Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street in London. I think Publishers will start bundling the digital text rights with the hard copy purchase. And there will be less waste and more opportunity.

    What to me is hanging in the balance is not the future of the print book, but the future of bookstores — a concern many of us share. Digital browsing is not going to be as good as browsing a display in a bookstore. It’s not going to be as good as the classic bookseller who says, when I ask about any copy to be found of “The Girl in Winter” by Philip Larkin — “Oh, it’s just being reprinted. My jobber comes by tomorrow. I’ll get a copy from him for you. It’ll be here behind the desk when you come back.” A bookseller who had so many quirky books, treasures to be found by spending time in this nook or that cranny. Where I discovered Gwen Raverat’s memoir, a copy issued by a small university press but which the bookseller knew was a terrific book. Ah, I so miss Burlington Books on Madison Avenue in New York where all these things and many others happened. Burlington Books came with wonderful booksellers and a giant dog in their tiny doorway. Sadly missed, always remembered.