Has Kindle Killed the Book Cover?

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How designers are responding to e-readers

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Daylight Saving came out in the U.K. in February, and in the months leading up to its release, the publisher used a novel strategy to generate interest in the teen novel: It placed a ticker at the bottom of the digital cover, counting down to the launch date. (It's still counting, now into a negative number.) In addition to the digital jacket's embedded clock, an underwater design ripples with the drag of a cursor, as if your finger could make waves through the screen. The interactive blue splashes (gimmicky, maybe) are nonetheless entrancing for the few minutes spent toying with the cover. And with that, the book has caught the eye of a potential buyer. Once purchased, of course, the water transforms into a static image, its graceful motion unsupported by the media formats in which it is ultimately consumed (print or the standard digital forms). The cover is seductive, but its spell is broken. Which brings to mind the tagline of Daylight Saving: "Can you save someone from something that's already happened?"

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That question comes to bear on the book publishing industry. Digital reading is already happening, but electronic books have only barely begun to adapt to current habits and devices—not to mention forge new standards for either. The various constraints—technological, financial, and cultural—allow hardly any clarity in seeing what books will be, or how they will be. Especially if we are to judge them by their covers.

In November, at the Build 2011 conference in Belfast, Northern Ireland, a publisher-designer named Craig Mod told the crowd, "We're trying to bring order and form and boundaries to what is otherwise a boundless space" and went on to describe the "generalized marginalization of the cover that's happening in digital books."

A digital book has no cover. There's no paper to be bound up with a spine and protected inside a sturdy jacket. Browsers no longer roam around Borders scanning the shelves for the right title to pluck. Increasingly, instead, they scroll through Amazon's postage stamp-sized pictures, which don't actually cover anything, and instead operate as visual portals into an entire webpage of data (publication date, reader reviews, price) some of which can also be found on a physical cover and some of which cannot.

The abstract idea of the cover remains, though, as it does for album covers. Book designer Carin Goldberg remembers when she would sit in her room as a teenage girl listening to Joni Mitchell, holding the record in her arms. Since then she has designed hundreds of covers—among them are the 1986 edition of James Joyce's Ulysses, books by Kurt Vonnegut, and Madonna's first record. The cover "functions as an emotional visual touchstone," Goldberg says. "It's still something that we will always visualize in our heads as what that book looked like. It definitely becomes part of the experience."

For three decades, Goldberg has also been teaching design. This year, for the first time, she is offering a digital editorial design class using the iPad. To explain the technology side of things, she teamed up with two pros from Conde Nast. Goldberg launched her career without a computer, and hasn't designed any covers for ebooks herself. These days, she says, "I'm more sort of, I guess, the guru."

Or, as she added later, "I'm just somebody who gives a shit but I don't really know how to do it." In late January, Goldberg tried her hand by presenting at an event on the future of design in digital book publishing, sponsored by AIGA, the professional association for design. She showed off her students' work with animated book covers, and declared that the Kindle experience is like "reading through a tub full of dirty dishwater." Eric Himmel, the editor in chief of Abrams publishing, took notice. After the talk, he called her up and said, "I'm not waiting for the world to shift."

Himmel has been in publishing for 30 years, and at the art-focused ABRAMS, it is his job to care about design. "Book covers have been in crisis for some time now," he told me. Pressure comes from the shrunken images on Amazon, a need for covers to be more multifunctional, and, on the other hand, a renewed desire to reclaim the tactile qualities of textured, gorgeous print. The idea of a book cover as a singular form has vanished some time ago, and he says, "I don't have a clear view of the future."

Then he saw how Goldberg's students incorporated the vocabulary of bookmaking into multimedia cover layouts. Rather than borrow techniques from documentary film, they used typography in more sophisticated ways that seemed to be digitally-native expressions of book design. Her students also used moving images, video, and audio.

The digital book can be a complete piece of art, Goldberg explained, though "we're doing it by the seat of our pants. There is no technology that is uniform yet." And publishers haven't embraced it, she says, because "they don't have resources."

"I don't think anybody's figured out how to create a whole creative environment that's able to fit well into every publishing house right now," Goldberg told me, adding, "I'm sure there are companies that are talking about it all the time. But I haven't seen anybody go about it."

Himmel's call after her talk came as a sign of hope. He asked Goldberg for her students' phone numbers. He isn't quite sure how he wants to put them to work, but he described "a kind of laboratory" to develop some prototypes using the most accessible software. There's the ubiquitous program, Adobe—which Goldberg and others say can be hard to use for digital book design—and Himmel pointed to Apple's iBook platform as an alternative option. Still, Himmel says, this is all very new.

And costly. Paul Buckley, Vice President, Executive Creative Director at Penguin—who oversees the development of 800 book covers each year—noted the expense of adding digital features: "Benefits have not yet caught up to the costs of this extra content. Because the viewer's not going to pay for it." Publishers' art departments haven't traditionally come equipped with highly tech-savvy illustrators and typographers. And even as more digitally-capable designers arrive, so too will their demand for new tools to support their talents.

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Betsy Morais is an editorial assistant at The New Yorker.

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