Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Confusing the Wrapper with the Product

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

There was a peculiar confluence of events in my life today. First was the weekly Mysteristas chat, which I missed because I was working. But today's topic was "how do you find books," and the topic of being drawn to a cover came up.

Then, I saw this video on book design by Chip Kidd.

He says that he appreciates eBooks, but ends by holding up the book and saying, "To me, the story looks like this."

Now, is he talking about the cover art or the physical book? Maybe it's a combination of both. Some describe reading as a sensory experience. I agree, because a well-written book makes you see, smell, hear and feel the story.

But here's the thing: Never once was the primary sensation one of paper in my hand.

Before you get up in arms, let me tell you: I'm a book person. I've got three sets of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in my den, filled with books. I've got four more full bookshelves in my living room, and two giant plastic storage containers full of paperbacks in my basement. I love seeing a row of leather-bound tomes, feeling the imprints of the covers.

But that's not the story. That's the wrapping.
I'll draw an analogy to chocolate. I love good chocolate: the smell, the way it melts in my mouth, the silky taste. I might be drawn to a bar of chocolate in the store by a cute wrapper. I might even buy it. But the product is not the wrapper. It's the chocolate inside. I'd buy a box of Lindor truffles if they were in shiny blue wrappers or plain paper. Why? Because it's damn good chocolate.

For me, it's the same with books. I wouldn't buy a copy of Moby Dick if it had the most beautiful cover in the world - because I don't like the story and no cover is going to convince me that it's a great book. But I'd buy a copy of Pride and Prejudice if it were wrapped in brown paper.

And yes, I'll admit it - if looking for a book I might pick up a book because of the cover. But I don't need the physical book. Authors tweet and share their cover art all the time. I bought a book because the author tweeted the cover art. I liked the art, so I learned more about the book and bought it.

There are challenges to cover art in a digital age, no doubt. The covers need to shrink to that small thumbnail picture. But it can be done. Digital is a way to reinvent the purpose of a cover, to define how a cover works for the author and reader in a digital age.

But don't ever confuse a beautiful cover with a beautiful story. There's a saying in technical writing that "content is king." You have to have good content first to have good documentation.

Fiction is no different. The story is king. The cover is just the guy with the big stick who introduces you to the room.


  1. Excellent blog! VERY good points!

  2. Although I'm a "real book" person, you're right on target about the cover. I may pick up a book because of the wrapping, but I'll usually sample what's inside before I buy.

    1. What I don't understand is why people feel the need to make an "ebook or physical book" argument. Why can't there be both? Honestly.

    2. Mary - I'm cool with having both. It just bothers me a bit when people tell me I'm out of step with the times if I happen to prefer paper. Each to their own.

    3. Hey, I have both. Both fill a need. And I'm sure the eBook people also get their noses out of joint when the paper folks tell them they aren't reading "real" books. Can't we all just get along? LOL I'd rather just focus on people *reading* and ignore the delivery mechanism.