By Jake Davis

Craig Mod sings a funeral dirge for book covers, yet another beautiful casualty of the shift toward digital distribution of “books.” Because they have lost their purpose, covers must die: as bookstores finally succumb to the efficiencies of Internet distribution, book covers themselves will lose the emphasis they currently have in the publishing world. Instead, clever designers will continually tweak covers—or app icons?—to leverage the characteristics of whichever particular method of distribution—Kindle, Apple Store, whatever—to their favor. Or so it would seem.

I wonder about this. I'm not so sure that major publishers will be keen to give up the "branding" achieved by iconic cover design. While Mod is definitely correct that the cover image at an Amazon book page doesn’t dominate your impression the way physical covers do when you approach a table display, I think he trivializes its importance. When you search for a book, there is the momentary, all important recognition of a particular cover: I want this edition; I recognize that book. And I bet, as was shown with comprehension and retention of hypertext compared to linear text, that the much vaunted “data” presented to customers on a typical Amazon book page rarely enters memory or affects cognition or purchasing behavior—at least, not as much as the initial impression of recognizing the book’s cover does. Certainly someone at Amazon has metrics on that. [See note on metrics below.]

It is this snap of recognition that makes bestsellers. The industry knows this. Hence, the dextrous marketeers have worked to craft immediately recognizable bestsellers through standardizing distribution channels, optimizing displays, and studying consumers perceptual habits. Marketing departments will want to continue to have control over of each book’s brand, hoping to win the lottery by hitting on the next Fifty Shades of Grey,Harry PotterTwilight, etc. Covers will still get the most design attention, even if their function and role are in transition for some time.

Still, many of the observations Mod makes about the ghostly controls on electronic books are apt. For instance, the Kindle opens directly to the first page of text—I wonder if publishers make this choice or if it is an aspect of the product they’ve ceded to end retailers, along with price—tucking away the front matter and indicating that the information it contains is of little use to the usual reader. Who knows how to decipher that Library of Congress info, anyway?

Anyway, covers. We may mourn them. They’re doomed because they’re not essential to the non-object ebook. Virtual guts need no physical protection as they’re removed from a virtual shelf and “opened.” And it’s hard to see how methods of preventing remote deletion or emendation of your library would be integrated aesthetically into overall book design.

But fear not. You can still sticker your device.

[Note on metrics: There’s a difficulty in leveraging them as efficiently as possible. Publishers may well be interested doing so through the perpetual refinement of "customer experience" through things like A/B testing. Because of the constant accrual of data about customer behavior that is harvested, there is enormous potential to positively encourage sales. By having two versions of a cover and tracking if either seriously outperforms the other a retail site, marketing teams could, hypothetically, select the cover that performed better and make it, thereafter, the official cover for the book. Problem is, I doubt that Amazon or the other end retailers of ebooks would be enthusiastic about freely sharing the info they gather on customers. So there’d be less integration of data into decisions about which cover did best where. And I doubt publishers will be eager to cede ultimate control over their covers to Amazon, et al. Of course, this isn’t a problem for Amazon’s publishing wing. Then there’s the insidious side of A/B testing. It happens so fast now that marketeers rarely take the time to think about the why B outdoes A in this instance. This is because, essentially, why don't matter. Final causes aren’t as important as immediate effects—namely, money for the company—and so don’t need to be investigated. The danger of this is that marketeers tend lose sight of the fact that they have an impact on the results: you put meat and potatoes in front of a hungry person, they're going to eat it.]

Image: etsy user ilovedoodle