Judging Books by Their Covers

The art of selling books
The art of selling books book cover dust jacket

The COVER STORY we have for you this morning is quite literally THAT . . . a story about book covers, and their future. It's reported by Erin Moriarty of "48 Hours":

They're part of our visual landscape - easy to take for granted.

Sometimes the cover of a book (like "The Godfather," "Catch-22" or "Jaws") can be as memorable as the book itself.

"Book covers are important," said publisher Jamie Raab. "You go into a bookstore and what do you see? You see covers. The bookstore experience is about the design, the color, the shape, the feel. I mean when you walk into a bookstore, sometimes you're overwhelmed. But aren't you stimulated by the art? And it is art.

Gallery: Book Covers

Art in which publishers like Raab invest a great deal of time and money.

Months before a book is released, Raab grapples with editors and designers at Grand Central Publishing to come up with just the right cover.

A good cover tells you what kind of book it is - without giving too much away.

. . . Which is why a romance novel often has the clinch.

Books aimed at women (Chick Lit) may feature some article of clothing, a shoe, a dress . . . while jackets on crime novels are usually dark, with a shadowy character or weapon as part of the design.

Tastes differ around the world - and so do book covers. There are variations in the cover of Stephenie Meyer's vampire novel, "Twilight."

But ultimately, says Raab, it comes down to what sort of statement the book makes.

"I have what I call the subway test," Raab said, "'Will a man be comfortable carrying that book?' And it can go the other way. People are conscious of what they're reading and what people see them reading."

In other words - dare we say it? - we DO judge a book by its cover.

And in a changing industry like publishing, a memorable one just might make the difference.

Peter Mendelsund, once a concert pianist, now designs book jackets for the publisher Knopf.

He refers to a book jackets as a "billboard."

"They're like carnival barkers," Mendelsund said. "Someone comes into a bookstore and all the books are shouting, you know, 'READ ME!' 'READ ME!'

"And you hope that yours either shouts the loudest or entices in the most intriguing way!"

That explains the convention-breaking, high-decibel covers that Mendelsund created for the bestselling Swedish crime novel "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" and its two sequels.

"It's very colorful - it uses an illustration, which you almost never see on mystery novels," he said.

But in an online era, when more and more readers are downloading their titles . . . when more and more hardcover publishers are struggling to keep pace with technology . . . you have to wonder: What does the future hold for the book cover?

After all, we all remember LP album covers …

"You're designing covers so that someone is drawn to it will pick it up," said Mendelsund, "read it and then maybe buy it."

"With all the electronic readers, that's going to be gone," suggested Moriarty.

"I think 'gone' is overstating it," said Mendelsund.

"But it's going to change - it's going to change everything," said Moriarty.


And it could change quickly. In just the last year, sales of e-books . . . electronic books . . . are up 193 PERCENT - representing 9% percent of the $3 billion consumer book market.

And even with the next generation of e-readers featuring color screens, it's still a far cry from what book covers were INTENDED to be.

Six hundred years ago, book covers weren't supposed to be pretty, just protective.

Michael Inman, curator of rare books at the New York Public Library, knocked on the cover of a book printed in 1459. "It's nearly bulletproof!" he laughed.

And there wasn't much that could get past the pigskin-over-wood covers of the 15th Century.

It wasn't until the mid-1800s that covers became ornamental. The cover of the collection of poetry "Leaves of Grass" happened to be designed by the poet himself, Walt Whitman.

"He helped in designing all the floral designs in 'Leaves of Grass,' with the leaves and the roots and the little tendrils coming down - very ornate," said Inman.

He said in the 1880s and 1890s dust jackets first appeared.

"To give you an idea of how important dust jackets have become, a book collector who wanted to buy a first edition of 'The Great Gatsby,' if he or she bought a copy that did not have the dust jacket, they could buy a nice copy for maybe around $10,000," said Inman. "If you buy a copy that has a dust jacket - even if it's rather tattered - you're looking at probably $80,000 and up."

"The covers are iconic because the books are iconic, I truly believe that's it," said designer Chip Kidd. "The covers go along for the ride."

Today, artists like Kidd - one of the best known in the publishing industry - work as hard as ever to come up with a distinctive cover, like the one he created 20 years ago for a book about dinosaurs.

"Our editor in chief kept saying to me, this was like a mantra, 'Remember what happened with "Jaws"? Remember what happened with "Jaws"?' " said Kidd.

"Meaning . . . ?" asked Moriarty.

"Meaning, make something they'd want to use for the movie," said Kidd. "So what I tried to do was represent a dinosaur without showing a dinosaur."

Kidd doesn't believe electronic books will put him out of work anytime soon . . . and old-school purists agree.

There are still plenty of readers like Toni Boyette, whom we found browsing book covers inside Politics and Prose, a popular (and actually profitable) bookstore in Washington, D.C.

"I open a book, smell it. I just can't imagine these are going go away. I just can't," said Boyette.

"How often do you think you buy a book that you just see on a shelf and has a great cover?" asked Moriarty.

"Oh gosh, I'd have to say 50 percent of the time I am drawn, yeah," said Boyette. "Fifty percent of the time, I come in looking for something specific, and the other 50 percent of the time, I am just hanging out in bookstores and seeing what catches my eye, what title speaks to me."

And for many of us, buying a book isn't just about reading it, it's about owning it. What's on our shelves is as telling as what we put on our walls.

"I think real readers will always buy books," said Raab. "Books are as important to art as decoration, as whatever you want to call it, to real book people as the art on our walls. It speaks about who we are. So I don't really believe that will change."

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