The Graveyard

The Lair Of Gary James

Some More Thoughts On Books

Posted by BigWords on January 14, 2011

I’ve touched on this before, but the subject of book design – and everything that a person can do to ensure the best product possible – refuses to go away. People keep coming up with new ideas, recycling old ones, and borrowing others from monthly publications, The nature of publishing is not too far from the attention starved kid in the back of the classroom desperate to have some validation of their existence, constantly pulling pranks and cracking jokes so notice will be paid of him (for it is nearly always a male), and this has been so for decades. The attempts to induce casual purchasers of titles to pick up a book has resulted in some very gauche gimmicks – from the hologram cover (notably used on Wes Craven’s Fountain Society, though better known as an aspect of the Dork Age of comics) to jewel-covered titles. Yes, it seems that there are people with too much money on their hands. The various attempts at attracting buyers has not been entirely successful over the years, and a handful of truly unattractive books have managed to make it to the shelves – none of which I will name here, in an attempt at retaining some degree of impartiality here.

A recent conversation turned my mind back to a notion which, initially, seemed as if it was a throwaway remark intended to get people thinking on the ways that the future was rapidly becoming the present. Adding digital content to hard copies isn’t a new concept, with CDs having been included with books since the nineties (there are a few great examples, a lot of fine uses, and a couple of pointless additions to the main text), but there hasn’t been a game-changing example in a while. One of the main problems with adding things to a book has been the manner in which the items were grafted to the basic design of a book. The cardboard CD sleeve design on inside covers is annoying (and nearly always a source of annoyance and interminable frustration in retrieving the disc), while the small foam stub has issues regarding the replacement of the CD or DVD-Rom. This is an important piece of the complete book if it is deemed worthy of inclusion, but too little attention is payed to the way in which it all hangs together. I’m more interested in a means of adding digital content which removes the need for such contrivances, and which steps neatly around new problems.

I can’t find the precise link to where I previously covered this, but I pointed out that hardback editions of popular titles were the best place to test-drive the fusion of the traditional and the digital. If you look at the spine of a big hardback title, you’ll notice that there is a gap between the binding and the actual spine of the book. By extending the edge of the book slightly there will be enough room to slip in a memory stick, and as memory sticks now have more than enough room in their memory, the concept of having the full text in a number of formats is not out of the question. This goes back to extended treatise on e-books I did as well, and I still insist there are much better e-book formats forthcoming.

Before anyone gets the idea that I’m somehow slighting e-books by referring to them in the same post as I go over “gimmicks” then I assure you that I am not maligning them. Far from it. Having stated before that eBooks are something which will slowly emerge as a full media separate from traditional publishing, there’s no need for me to further elaborate on their status. The current technology behind them is baby steps. That’s all getting me further away from the central idea I’m pondering, and the ways in which books can take advantage of their design.

When I started thinking about the gimmick-covers I immediately thought of books which tied in their content to the design of the cover. There are a few examples of DVD cases acting as showcases for the skills of the design team which prove that the packaging is sometimes more impressive than the contents – one of the Saw films (IV or V) has a circular saw mechanism in a little window on the box, which (after some words from John Kramer) starts churning away at flesh unseen… he clear plastic being already rendered to appear as if blood is spurting across the inside of the packaging. Yes, it’s a lame gimmick for a second-rate film, but it managed to attract my attention for a few moments. Had this been used on a film which I considered less childish in its’ theme, I may have actually bought the box instead of the regular packaging. Synthesis between cover and content is key, and with no thematic link, and cover effect is worthless.

Books, then. I like the idea of having something unique (or which at least attempts the illusion of individuality), so having something crafted on the cover is appealing. I was looking at samplers, and the conceit of having an actual sampler on the cover of a book about samplers hit me. It’s a neat idea, but my fledgling steps towards the art form have been less than successful, despite spending an ungodly amount of time coming up with a design which I thought was really funny – a zombie theme, naturally. Gauging how long I have spent unpicking the damn thing and attempting to make it look even halfway like something I would have hanging around a living space – never mind showing in public – means that the production of such things aren’t entirely without problems. Maybe having one on a cover isn’t the best idea I have ever come up with, as the production process would require an extended period of trial and error in the design stage.

The size of a book, in instances where adding things to the cover is concerned, really does matter. Would I buy a book which reproduced album covers at full size? Probably not, unless the reverse of each image had a substantial degree of contextual information. Would I buy it if it had an actual LP glued to the cover? Yeah. I really would. it’s a gimmick as much as anything else, but it appeals to my sense of the surreal, and has an unusual element. Unusual is good, because it immediately engages the reader in questions. There was a lot of talk about the first video advert in a magazine, and soon – when the kinks in the technology have been worked out – I can imagine a video cover on a book. Before the cries of “heresy” and “blasphemer” erupt, I am not claiming that such a move would be a step forward, nor a great advance in literary wealth, but it might shift a few more copies of a book which would otherwise not shift as many copies. Sales are damn important to both an author’s reputation and a book’s long-term status, so the first person to have such a cover would need to make sure that the title on which it is first implemented be damn good.

The proof of gimmick covers is not just in the world of comics (where the otherwise predictable and cliche-laden X-Men #1 sold a million or so copies), but also in the way that DVDs with multiple covers has become the norm. We are living in an age when the attention span of the consumer has to be taken into account, and any publicity which can be generated by something so seemingly simple as cover ornamentation must be looked into as an enhancement as much as it is a declaration of content. Content may be king, but the cover is the queen – that which people pay attention to, and which commands attention. I’ll refrain from the “just like a woman” comment, as I’ll only end up getting grief for that…


2 Responses to “Some More Thoughts On Books”

  1. Gary, interesting post. I’ve been thinking a lot about covers in the digital age, about how to make an electronic work stand out. When buying “real” books, covers are definitely important — a good one won’t necessarily compel me to buy a book, but a bad one can turn me off. With devices like the iPad, it will be interesting to see how covers are utilized going forward.


  2. bigwords88 said

    In all the rush to post this before I left from work, I forgot to add in the impetus for my frustrations with cross stitch – and the reason I have been so quiet lately:

    I’ll agree wholeheartedly with bad covers impacting impulse purchases, which is why I have been thinking on the subject for a painfully extended period of time. There is still nothing in the way of concrete plans for a cover for my non-fic part-work I’ll be concentrating on over the summer (again, and hopefully without distraction this time round), so it’s a bit alarming for me. There is something inherently panic-inducing about covers for a lot of writers, so it is a subject that seems to resonate.

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