How Book Covers Have to Evolve in the Digital Age


As publishing adapts to changes in the technology of books, one area that still remains to adapt is the all-important cover art. Two unrelated articles today highlighted the serious considerations that authors and publishers need to make when designing the face that will ultimately help or hinder consumer purchases.

The first post, a piece for The New Yorker by Tim Kreider, looked at the evolution of book covers from their days as jewel-toned illustrations to the current minimalist approach of formulaic designs. Kreider’s piece took a stab at what seems like a requirement in book cover design on a genre-by-genre basis.

“The main principles of design—-in books, appliances, cars, clothing, everything-—are: 1. Your product must be bold and eye-catching and conspicuously different from everyone else’s, but 2. Not too much!” Kreider wrote of the often frustrating experience of traditional publishing’s cover concepts.

Apart from Kreider’s explanation, Alex Ingram wrote a more technologically-minded look at book covers for The Bookseller. In his explanation, the entire purpose of a book cover has changed, in accordance with the rise of digital publishing. Now, as consumers no longer have to rely on pacing the aisles of a physical bookstore and having a cover catch their eyes from a few shelves over, the artistic considerations of thumbnail-sized covers have to evolve as well.

“Looking at the cover of an e-book, it is usually just that of the paperback or hardback, though audiobooks have long had covers tweaked to their packaging,” wrote Ingram. “Good cover design both front and back is surely about fitting a strong set of information into a template both to encourage purchase and to encourage people to read a book. Yet publishers are making little or no adjustment to the cover and copy they are feeding into the digital retailers.”

Interestingly, as more authors begin to exert their control over their work by turning to self-publishing, cover design remains one of the areas where traditionally published authors often have little to no input. Author Polly Courtney actually cited her book covers as one of the reasons she returned to self-publishing, admitting that her traditional book covers that had been created by the publisher’s marketing team were “embarrassing.”

“I had what we’ll call a constructive dialogue with my publisher’s editorial, design, and marketing teams, finding a balance between my personal vision and something people might possibly want to buy,” Kreider wrote. “For months we went back and forth: I’d send them several illustration options and they’d pick whichever one I liked least; they’d send me some design options, I’d pick the one that made me least unhappy, and they’d veto it. Book covers are an important sales tool, and the marketing department felt, quite reasonably, that the cover was very much their business. I also had a paranoid sense of shadowy, Olympian forces weighing in from farther above; I’ve been told that the most powerful figures in the current literary world, the buyers for the major national bookstore chains, have been known to offer to increase their orders for a book if its cover is changed.”

Mercy Pilkington (1982 Posts)

is a Senior Editor for Good e-Reader. She is also the CEO and founder of a hybrid publishing and consulting company.