Digital Reading: Judging Books by Their Covers

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Is digital publishing so focused on maximizing its metadata that it neglects a crucial component of digital bookselling—the cover?
Nathan Maharaj Rakuten headshot 2 (2)

While talking with Nathan Maharaj, Kobo’s Director of Merchandising and the newest member of the Digital Book Awards panel of judges, I discovered his poorly concealed passion for book cover design. Since the DBAs include a new award category for digital cover design I was eager to hear more, from the selling side, about how and why digital book covers are important.

NM: It all started back when I was a bookseller at [Canadian bookstore chain] Chapters, actually handling the books, arranging them on tables, handing them to customers, and witnessing the nose-wrinkle or the widening eyes, often based just on the cover image.

AK: Did you ever feel that the cover sold the book in a way you could point to and say, “This book is moving out because people look at the cover and want it”?

NM: I wouldn’t say the cover alone sells the book, but the cover can be a gateway to engaging with a book. In the bookstore, the cover can get people to pick up the book; the stack on the table you’re rearranging most frequently is usually something with an attractive or compelling cover. In the digital area, we know that the most clicked-on area of the item page is usually the cover. People want to interact with it, even if the image doesn’t get any bigger when you click on it, even when it’s already quite large. So, it’s the furthest thing from irrelevant.

AK: But the digital cover is so small!

NM: It is, right? And it’s still standard practice to issue the same cover for digital and print, Hardly anyone is doing separate cover treatments for digital, which is weird because the blurbs don’t show up. The only people who can read the blurbs have blown it up or have already bought it. In a bookstore, a jacket blurb is a thing to engage with as you pick up the book. Online, even before e-readers, the blurb was just a smudge.

AK: Can you think of why publishers aren’t doing that? Is it a false economy or lack of information, or is it taste?

NM: If the print cover is good enough—well designed, good color scheme, a discernable, central image—then it’s doing the job as a visual signifier. It’s not like big commercial publishers don’t notice the difference—they do notice. The designs that really work in digital are the same treatments they give to mass-market paperbacks.

AK: You mean, they already went small, once before.

NM: Right. For example, typefaces are blown up and clarified in some way. It can be a bit monotonous—it can seem like there’s no room for design, it’s almost perfunctory, but nobody has ever accused a mass-market cover of having an illegible author or title.

AK: You see everything that’s coming in, so you must be able to sort through them and tell if each one works or doesn’t work at a glance, right?

NM: Yes. And when you turn on the stream of self-publishing, the range just broadens. You can get covers comparable to anything turned out by big commercial houses, or even innovative covers, in that space. There are often no blurbs, because self-publishers tend not to do blurbs; they don’t have a team of publicists and agents on the phone to get those blurbs, which may be a blessing if it streamlines their design process.
As an example of something good, I’m looking at an omnibus edition of a series that’s nicely done—the covers are really attractive, they pulled together all the design elements from the component pieces; they even got away from the forced vertical rectangle.

love-dishonor-marry-die-cherish-perishOr take covers like the new David Rakoff book—you can’t read the title in thumbnail, but it doesn’t matter because the image is so arresting. You want to go further, and so you click. Designers may throw up their hands and say, the hell with it, all any book cover needs is just title and author. But there can be layers of appreciation built in, if the designer asks, what would it look like at this scale? Is it visually compelling at this scale, and what do I gain when it gets larger? So the well is not dry, by any stretch.

AK: You’re in in charge of merchandising digital books—do the covers play a part in your decision making when you’re doing categories or other kinds of arrangements? We used to say that the jacket was the only advertising some books would ever get. Now we might say the metadata is the only advertising, if people only use search. But then there’s a third way, which is your job.

NM: Merchandising is about setting context, trying to nudge the decision by the reader, from Do I want to read something? to Which of these must I read? Trying to get the reader to engage with the choice of all there is to read. The cover is important in front of a consumer for whom everything is new. So, Lee Child books must look like thrillers. YA fantasy must look like fantasy for younger readers.

AK: Kobo is famous for what it knows about its customers. Do publishers ask you about digital covers—do they know to ask? Can they get some feedback from you that is grounded in data?

NM: There was a literary debut in Canada last year that everyone was excited about. We wanted it to do well, but it just didn’t. The cover treatment didn’t seem to match the book. The story had so many elements that could have been used, but the cover was abstract and nonspecific, in contrast to the book itself, which was highly specific. We had that conversation with the publisher; probably too late for the book, unfortunately.

AK: Never too late for the digital edition.

NM: That’s exactly what we were thinking.

AK: Obviously you’re still a book cover enthusiast. You were not discouraged when you transferred to digital and saw what kind of covers people were throwing up there; you’re seeing a certain amount of improvement just from a functional/business standpoint, if not an aesthetic one. What do you hope to see, down the road, in the evolution of digital book covers?

NM: Among other things, we have a problem of communicating, in a non-semantic way, what’s in the package. As publishers release digital works that are not quite books—short-form content, rapid-fire stuff—how should they package the work so people don’t think they’re buying a full book and then give it bad ratings based on disappointment? Is it time for shorter covers for short works? Does it have to be a rectangle? Can we try squares? The rectangle isn’t a necessity anymore. When the page becomes an abstract thing, the cover doesn’t need to be the same shape as the device I’m reading on. The shape itself could convey something, the way landscape orientation in print conveys the kind of material inside. That’s a low-tech solution, but I’m sure there are more innovative solutions to come.

One thought on “Digital Reading: Judging Books by Their Covers

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