What was the last book you read on your Kindle? And the one before that?
Now, without looking at either your Kindle or Amazon, what do you remember about the covers? Did you even look at the cover again once you’d downloaded it?
On a train the other day, two friends were overheard discussing what they had read during Christmas. One could not remember the title or the author of one particular novel, though they gave a very compelling description of it which made both the other friend and this eavesdropper want to read it.
“Are you sure you can’t remember what it’s called?” the friend asked. “Tell me what the cover looks like and then I can look on the tables at Waterstones.”
“Oh,” replied the reader. “I don’t think I even saw the cover. I downloaded it to my Kindle.”
Those advising indie authors in the blogosphere frequently stress the importance of ‘professionally designed’ covers in marketing a book, suggesting indie authors compare theirs with those of high-selling print-published books in their genre, and there are both awards for good covers in the online indie community. Yet while it is very common that as readers we use the way a book looks to assess its genre, content, style and potential for quality, the conversation above implies that while this is true for print books, it is very unlikely to be as true for indie published books on e-readers. Because you don’t see the cover every time you pick up the book to read.
The visibility of the cover does depend on the device you are reading from: the Kindle app on the iPad or the Kindle Fire, for example, display the covers as a way of selecting the book, while at the other end of the scale the Kindle Keyboard 3G model does nothing but list the books by title, only showing the cover if you select it manually from the inside the book’s sub-menu or wish to buy it from a sample, and then only in greyscale. But even then, once you have started reading, the book exists as if permanently open until you close it, words on a screen rather than bound by the tangibility of their cover. A friend of allonymbooks observed recently that he had been starting books on his Kindle but then finishing them in paper form, which he observed was both wasteful and expensive, but after several months he still couldn’t get his head around the lack of tactile satisfaction the electronic form offers him.
Yet the cover question is not merely about the sensation of touch but about the extent to which the cover really is that important in marketing an e-book. Why bother with a good cover at all? The argument goes that a fabulous cover will help your book stand out in the congested experience of surfing the Amazon waves, but this blog argues that not only do thumbnail-sized covers substantially minimise the possibility of any cover standing out, let alone a good one, but that the electronic reading experience almost completely disengages the cover from the text. With the Kindle store on Amazon set up to enable searching by genre, sales rank, price and editorial recommendation, the potential for a cover to ‘catch the eye’ is of far less significance because it is not the first way a reader is going to come into contact with an e-book. A cover then might substantiate impressions of genre, quality and so on, but its function as a marketing tool is by then very different.
Is it that essential difference between electronic and print publishing, that same difference that has blasted open the possibilities of indie writing, that makes it possible for us to revisit and redefine what the cover can now offer? It would require some levelling of the technological playing field across all e-readers, and it would certainly require e-reader designers to allow the cover to become a more integrated part of the reading experience – such as being used as a virtual bookmark and thus more readily visible. But the latest developments in animated book covers, for example, only hint at what is possible, by animating otherwise rather conventional covers. With the graphics possibilities of the iPad and Kindle Fire, there is genuine potential to do as much to revolutionise the way e-books look as the way we experience them as readers.
For while the written word retains its same appeal as a place for imagination and escape, there is no reason for its packaging not to embrace those same realms of imagination and escape from the norm.