The Importance of Book Design in the Age of E-books

Friday, October 11, 2013

Lately, I've been dabbling in graphic design and DIY/interior design since I've moved into a square dorm room. One of my favorite blogs to follow is Design*Sponge, a DIY/interior design blog. Recently, Max posted a lengthy, well-researched post about the importance of book covers, which I thought was interesting. He touches on several key points, such as the decline of book cover design as e-readers rise to prominence, the idea of books as an object to covet, and more. 

The point that Max brings up is that people judge others based on what they read. However, this is slowly becoming impossible with the increased popularity of e-readers. He writes, “Replacing all of these titles are identical grey rectangles which bear little or no resemblance to the content held within. “ Max bemoans the decreased budget for e-book covers, as the turnaround process is faster than printed editions, leaving less time to mull over various ideas and revisions. It doesn’t matter anymore what the cover of the book looks like since the book is no longer a symbol of individualism nor a social status marker. The cover then, becomes something for the reader, and the reader only. What others see is merely a gray rectangular device.

For me, I rarely buy e-books because I prefer physical books to e-books so I don’t mind the cover as much. But the flaw in this argument is that people still do judge books by their cover, regardless of format—physical or e-book. Who’s going to be motivated by a cover that looks like it came out of Microsoft Paint?  But the sadness of this new rise of e-books and decreased budget is that the cover only serves as a marketing device, no more as a topic of discussion between strangers (“Oh, you’re reading Gone Girl?) and no more as a decoration on the shelf when it’s not being read.

I appreciate books, the written words as well as the visual aspects of it as well. I love a great book design, especially the Penguin Classics series (so, so cute!). It makes me happy, especially in my sparse dorm room that there’s a good collection of books on my desk shelf. The proliferation of e-books removes this experience and books somehow become more disposable in the process.

However, with that all said, I can’t imagine that e-books will ever replace physical books.  They compliment each other and as Coralie Bickford-Smith, a book cover designer for Penguin says in the Design*Sponge article, “maybe the flip side of ebooks being widely available is that when people do choose to buy a physical book, they want something that enhances the reading experience, something well thought through and well produced.” Indeed, there’s a compliment for a designer to see people go out and buy physical novels when they already own the e-book versions. Similarly, from a purely reading point of view, physical books are just so much easier to read/skim through.

But if e-books do replace physical books, I’ll forever miss the different textures, gloss and more of physical covers as well as the paper and edge type. I remember quite poignantly the delight in touching the rough pages of The Series of Unfortunate Events books, an experience that just isn’t possible with e-books, unless of course, someone invents some kind of screen that mimics paper.

Whether or not e-books will replace physical books, I do appreciate what e-books have done for people, who now seem to read more prolifically when they’re on the go as well as the rise of Netgalley. It’s a little disheartening to see the importance of book cover design decline, though. For now though, I’m going to pick up some books that I ordered from the library.


  1. I still think covers are important. If an e-book cover looks like a fourth-grader's art class project, I'm probably not going to pick up the book. I look at physical book covers and e-book covers the same way. It has to be appealing and professional... or I'm going to pass.

  2. I definitely agree with you. While I think book cover design is important regardless of format, it's disheartening to know that less time and effort is put into the ebook cover designs than before. The details that are in physical covers such as embossing, different papers and other things just aren't present in e-book cover design due to the nature of the format.

    Since the deadlines for ebook covers tend to be tighter than that of physical books, I do feel like there's less time for creativity and originality.

  3. I read primarily ebooks and before I started blogging, covers for those didn't mean much to me. I only saw them two or three times: once when I went to Amazon to buy the book, once when I started the book on my Kindle, and sometimes when I would go to Goodreads to check reviews (which I didn't always do). A bad cover was easy to ignore. Now that I have a blog and that I'm reading other blogs, I see covers all the time and a bad cover is more likely to turn me off.

    I think ebooks will eventually replace physical books, but I think it will probably be a long, long time, like after we're both gone.

  4. Hm, that's definitely interesting! I started blogging before e-books became a "thing" so I've always looked at the cover.

  5. Jasmine @ Flip That PageOctober 14, 2013 at 1:54 AM

    Agreed! I personally prefer physical books to e-books, because I like the feeling of holding an actual copy-- but of course, this isn't to say that I don't find e-books extremely convenient. After all, many people, blogger or otherwise, would totally go for portable library, or a book you can read without worries, even without the lights on! But yeah, I think the design is key when it comes to a book, because that's how a lot of readers judge them buy (I know that's how I do it, sometimes) So yeah, I do think that design's important not only in terms of your house or your clothing, and all the other generic uses of aesthetics. It's pretty key for books too :D I'm glad though that a lot of the books with pretty covers have pretty content.

    P.S. I LOVE reading interior design articles and mags. I mean, I have ZERO experience when it comes to the actual designing, but I love looking at pretty spaces XD

  6. I know, right? Looking at pretty spaces and other people's interiors always makes me happy for some reason.

    I definitely agree with you! Design of anything is important and more so for books. I love how portable e-books are but it's saddening that the designs for them are becoming less important.

  7. I think books covers are still very important and people still judge books by their covers...even for ebooks. When you visit an ebook store, the first thing you see usually is the book cover. It is only when you click on a book cover that you can get more information such as the synopsis. So if the the cover is ugly, would it not be less likely clicked on?

    As for "the book is no longer a symbol of individualism nor a social status marker" because all others see is a reader holding a gadget to read...I don't think this is really true. Some readers tweet or update their facebook about the books they are currently reading sometimes including images of the book covers. And with hundreds of facebook friends or twitter followers, in a way, more people become aware of what book the reader is reading rather than if someone happen to physically see the reader at a particular time holding and reading a physical book.

  8. I agree that ebooks covers are still judged, however publishers are putting less of an effort into designing them. E-book sales account for 20% of publisher revenue however, it rose a significant 42% over the the previous year, when looking at 2012 data (NYT "E-book Sales a Boon to Publishers"article).

    The book itself isn't necessarily the symbol anymore, as much as the e-reader itself is. The fact that someone's reading an e-book, in my opinion, remains more of a memory than what book they're reading when I see them. With a book, I remember the color scheme of the cover, certain motifs that were in the cover etc. With an e-book, I just remember snippets of the title. While I do see many people tweeting/Facebook-ing what they're reading, it's still in the minority.

  9. Oh yes, I agree that covers are still very important. I do think in a way ebooks are removing some pressure in that area, but it's still a huge part. Until physical books are gone completely, they'll always be around. For me, I even think that eventually ebooks will come to adapt covers into their work with virtual shelves. Personally, I would love to have an ereader case that actually shows the cover on the outside of whatever book you're currently reading. That would then allow for discussion! I mean, sure have an off button for those embarrassed by their reading, but some of us book nerds still love to show off our taste! ;)

  10. Oohh, I like your e-reader case idea! That'll be so neat!


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