I love the look, feel and smell of a book. This physicality, however, is still not entirely transferable in today's digital offerings. Author and cover designer Chip Kidd said it best in his most recent TED talk:
Much is to be gained by eBooks: ease, convenience, portability. But something is definitely lost: tradition, a sensual experience, the comfort of thingy-ness — a little bit of humanity... I am all for the iPad but trust me, smelling it will get you nowhere.
Maybe scent hasn't been successfully integrated into e-books yet, but the look truly has and is going beyond what a traditional book can offer.
In his latest essay, independent publisher, author and designer Craig Mod explores the role of covers and illustration in digital publishing. To begin with, he recalls an early experience of walking into a Tokyo bookstore that was stocked with austere book covers:
Expanses of whitespace splashed with well considered marks of ink. One color. Restrained photography. Pretty books. Lots of 'em... The impact of this experience has stuck with me this past decade and deeply informed all of my design work.
Craig goes on to proclaim how bookstores in the west are chaotically littered with loud cover designs shouting, "buy me, I'm prettier" - a fair call. Any remaining bookstores hang promotional banners from the ceiling, advertising "2 for 1" deals on coffee-table books (sometimes big enough to be a table) right beside pocket travel guides and classic literature.
But there are less bookstores on the street and more online, right? Craig ponders:
Which begs the question — if so much of what book cover design has evolved into is largely a brick-and-mortar marketing tool, then what place does a ‘cover’ hold in digital books? Especially after you purchase it? But, more tellingly, even before you purchase it?
Shopping on Amazon
Amazon displays many books on one page, showing the book's author, price and a thumbnail image of the cover. Customers get to that page by searching a keyword or choosing from a list of categories. How a book is initially found and ultimately bought, now has less to do with the allure of the cover and more to do with data and metrics. Craig explains:
The cover image may help quickly ground us, but our eyes are drawn by habit to number and quality of reviews. We’re looking for metrics other than images — real metrics — not artificial marketing signifiers. Blurbs from humans. Perhaps even humans we know! And within the jumble of the Amazon.com interface, the cover feels all but an afterthought.
Amazon and Apple falter
The Kindle device takes the reader straight to chapter one after clicking on the book's title. The book's cover can only be seen if the reader bothers to go back a few pages. Craig Mod also criticises iBooks and the Kindle for iPad app for having illegible typography and reducing covers to tiny thumbnails.
While there are archaic lack of advancements, innovations in cover design to further e-books have come about. Seth Godin, founder of The Domino Project, suggested offering readers a variety of covers for one book. Books published by The Domino Project also take full advantage of online bookstores - their covers have no words because of the accompanying text that appears on Amazon's sale page. This allows the cover-art to stand out and visually stimulate.
When text is included in covers, however, Craig Mod identifies successful cover designs which are transferable to digital platforms are Iconographic, Bold and containing Large Typography. Other qualities he praises include imbedding typographic, illustrative, or layout choices that string a common thread between the cover and the interior.
In the future, books may not be as readily available in ink, glue and paper. However, it is nice to see steady advancements that benefit print and digital formats for now.
Image courtesy of Craig Mod CC BY-NC-SA 3.0