When a book becomes an ebook, the function of the cover/jacket changes. Originally a protective barrier, the cover/jacket has evolved into a protective barrier which is primarily a marketing tool. You want a jacket with lots of oomph, so that people seeing it in a book shop will be unable to resist picking up the book. Of course once they’ve picked up your book they are, we hope, well on the way to being hooked. Ebooks don’t depend on this visual come-on. Discoverability is the main thing — we want keywords and classificatory terms in the metadata which will enable searching successfully to land on your book. Whether the cover is brilliant or awful is unimportant until such time as the customer has discovered the book, and even then may not be amount to too much. When we get on line the book cover is reduced to the status of an icon.

Amazon does wants a cover image, and publishers strive to comply, but the thumbnail you see on Amazon’s site is not very striking. Sure you can enlarge it a bit, but even so, it remains rather unimpressive. If you do have a cover image up there, it had better be right, otherwise Amazon will cancel the sell button till the image has been “corrected”. Just last week we had one taken down because the old cover image mentioned a CD which was no longer available in the book. The book itself now carries no mention of the CD on the cover, and includes a note explaining it is no longer available. This take-down is fair enough of course: conflicting information shouldn’t be allowed to get out there. The craziest cover images are these of books which don’t in fact have a jacket — just foil stamping on the spine. In other words the front cover is blank: check out 0521210437 on Amazon. I’ve had trouble with one of these when we switched the book to a preprinted cover, with type and an image on it. Amazon didn’t like the fact that it was no longer the simple wordless dark blue rectangle which the world had seemingly learned to love. Things have to match.

These examples apply to the physical books of course, being sold in an on-line environment, but the same thumbnail jpeg image will attach to the ebook manifestation of the book. When I look at my library in my iPad Kindle app, or in iBooks, I see an array of these small images. Of course, if you have a black & white reading device, all cover images will naturally be black and white only. When you open the book you are generally taken straight to page 1 of the text. You can go backwards through the front matter (prelims) and eventually arrive at this same cover image, but who does? I think this neatly indicates the importance of the cover in the whole package.

This piece by Craig Mod provides a thoughtful discussion of designing covers for a digital world. Large type, clearly and strikingly presented, seems to be the key. We are just at the start of figuring all this out though.