PrintCraig Mod, a writer and designer who was part of the original Flipboard app design team, has written a very interesting discussion of what book covers were originally meant to do, and what to do with “covers” in the age of the e-book. It’s a very long and thoughtful piece (with footnotes), and points out that covers came to be as they are because of function dictating form.

Physical book covers exist for a reason, Mod writes, and that reason is to protect the book’s interior, but also to attract the reader’s attention and also to set expectations and frame of mind for what will be found inside.

But what can be done with covers in the world of e-books, where they are often limited to black and white by e-ink technology, and are almost never seen at all since the Kindle and a number of other e-book readers and apps open automatically to the first chapter? And what can e-book designers do to duplicate the more esoteric functions of the cover—the setting of expectations and frame of mind?

Mod looks at the way e-book covers are frequently shrunk into icons for screen display, or can vanish amid the text of individual item listings on Amazon. He points to examples of some covers, such as O’Reilly’s, that manage to work pretty well when shrunk to icon size (because large design elements remain visible). And he talks about ways of “hacking” the cover art, such as updating covers of already-published books to “ping” readers that new related books have just been published.

He also suggests that designers should design the interior of e-books with a cover design sensibility—design as if every page is the cover. Mod uses four books he’s designed as examples, noting of them:

If you open any of these books without looking at the cover, you’ll notice they each have a unique and confident visual identity. Through typographic, illustrative, or layout choices I attempted to string a common thread between the cover and the interior. In doing so, the cover, as it were, is everywhere.

The essay is long and fascinating, well worth reading in its entirety. It provides a lot of food for thought, and reminds us that the cover has a lot deeper function and meaning than being just the picture on the front of a book. I think it’s great to see someone thinking seriously about the implications of these things. Perhaps we e-book fans don’t generally pay a lot of attention to covers, but essays like this show that there might just be more to them than we realize.

(Found via Gizmodo.)


  1. Bookbinders refer to the cover-to-text attachment. A whole taxonomy of such structures is provided from the history of the book. There are laced, cased, laced-case, and even double cover laced-laced and laced-cased designs. But the tutorial is not the point. This legacy of structures manages manipulative leverages of reading actions. In an exemplary laced structure of 16th century bookbinding motion of the cover directly conveys to the text producing graceful openings and closings of the fan of the leaves.

    But even this is not the point. As Craig asserts, the function of the cover must convey through the content. Here we encounter the primitive state of the integration of hardware and software in ebooks. This is a very large issue, especially if there is consideration of the deep refinement of the integration of hardware and software, codex and content, in physical books.

  2. Years ago, pre-ebook, a survey of readers showed that the cover is the biggest promotional tool the publisher and the author has, and more recent surveys say the same thing. The cover is the marketing tool that makes the reader pick up the book to look at it in the bookstore or click for more information at online venues.

    Beyond that point, its value is debatable.

    In the Nineties when ebooks were just starting, most buyers had dial-up connections so the books weren’t sold with their covers included with the text. Some complained and were given links to download the covers, and others chose to buy a diskette or CD version of the book so they’d have the cover on the diskette and in the contents of the diskette. Most buyers had no interest in the cover.

    What did change for covers is that they had to be created with the Internet in mind. If you couldn’t easily see the title and the author’s name as well as get a sense of the type of book it was when the cover was thumbnail size or just a little bigger, then the cover had to be redesigned.

    Covers won’t go away even if they aren’t a part of a bound book.

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