You can’t tell an e-book by its cover

On The Bookseller, Damian Horner notes that the rise of e-books means a fall in the prominence of the book cover, and ponders what that will mean for the industry. (We’ve covered this ourselves a time or two.) He points out that, until the e-book era, we were able to see what our fellow passengers in public transportation were reading, and perhaps be moved to investigate the book for ourselves. With so many covered books being replaced by e-readers, that curiosity-satisfying opportunity for passengers—and marketing opportunity for publishers—is vanishing.

In the past, the book cover has been instrumental in the way books have been positioned, sold and remembered. Indeed, the book cover provides publishers with millions and millions of pounds-worth of promotion each year. It is so potent that even paid-for book marketing still has barely evolved past the point of presenting a cover with a punning headline.

Without the daily visual prompts that book covers provide, the industry will be forced to fundamentally change the way it markets to consumers.

The thing is, Horner devotes the entire post to noting that covers are going away and publishers are going to have to change their strategy, but he doesn’t really say much about how they will have to change that strategy. The one example he brings up, Seth Godin’s decision to remove the title from the cover of his latest book since it will be shown prominently in the Amazon listings anyway, might be helpful for the on-line sales aspect, but doesn’t do anything to make up for passengers no longer being able to see it on an e-book.

I wonder if at some point in the future, when displays have gotten really cheap, e-readers might start being made with a screen on the back (like some cell phones have) that will display the cover image of whatever is being read at the moment? If the e-book device maker is also a content publisher (like Amazon), it could be in their best interest to sell more books that way.

But displays getting that cheap is probably at least ten years away, if it happens at all, and that doesn’t help publishers now. They’re just going to have to take advantage of some of the benefits Internet advertising has over traditional print to make up for those things it lacks.

5 Comments on You can’t tell an e-book by its cover

  1. Chris Collins // May 23, 2011 at 5:08 pm //

    One of the things I miss about pbooks, really, about the only thing, is folks coming up and mentioning they’d read the book I was currently reading and really enjoyed it or wanted to know about the book I was currently reading because they were thinking about picking it up. Then, of course, there are the occasional looks of disgust based on the book I was currently reading. Which I have to admit, I enjoy as well. Now, I mostly explain that my Sony isn’t a Kindle and what makes it different than a Kindle. I do like covers, however, so I hope they don’t go the way of the dodo.

  2. We’ve heard this before, and I suppose there is a validity to the idea that seeing someone else reading a book might prompt you to go out and buy it yourself. But with the rise of web and social media, the amount of promotion books get through online sources probably more than makes up for the lack of book covers on the subway.

    And since I’ve never, in my 50 years of reading, ever had someone approach me to comment on a book I was reading, I daresay maybe the web and social media exposure is greater…

  3. I don’t see the cover importance disappearing at all. It just changes. When I browse Amazon or the other online eBook eRetailers I see the cover as I go and I respond to them the same as I do when browsing in bookshops.

    In my lifetime I have never ever interacted with anyone, ever, concerning the book they or I have been reading.

    One thing I hope for is that covers become more relevant and/or decorative, I have always hated book covers that are completely and totally misleading about the actual content of the stories.

  4. ..hmmmmm
    who cares?

  5. I find this interesting as one of my personal pet peeves is how Amazon browsing is cover dependant. I think one of the reasons it only shows you a few at a time is because it shows the cover. I don’t care about the cover, I care about the author, the title and the price.

    This is actually one reason that I started my new blog, because I missed the old Fictionwise interface.

    For a contrasting viewpoint, check http://www.jimchines.com/2011/05/cover-art-right/ where Jim Hines (a good fantasy writer) says that a cover is an essential marketing tool for ebooks, and to make sure your cover is professional .

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