Books written by Ray Sullivan

Thursday, 20 December 2012

How To Judge An Industry By Its Cover

I caught a segment on the BBC programme 'The One Show' on Tuesday about book covers - you may be able to watch the segment on the BBC iPlayer if you are interested.  Like most of the segments on this programme the subject matter was presented well but was ultimately shallow, such is the nature of a magazine style TV programme.

Inevitably the focus was on the conventional book industry and discussed how publishers make us choose their books over others - of course I'm interested as I realise the well entrenched belief that we tend to judge books initially by their covers is essentially true.  And it also reflects how people browse eBooks, I would suggest.  So that made the segment worth the time investment even if ultimately I don't think they actually said anything earth shattering or revealing.

Just as the segment was grinding to a halt the interviewer slipped in a sneaky question to an unsuspecting representative of, I seem to recall, Bloomsbury. The question was about whether all the skill needed to produce a good book cover is going to die off with the advent of eBooks.  Or something like that, it slipped in without any warning and I think it caught the publisher's rep off guard because there wasn't any natural reason for the question to slip in other than curiosity.

Anyway, said representative was duly defensive about the industry that feeds and clothes his family, for some unexplained reason.  After nearly choking on a creme de menthe he spluttered that there will always be books and, after recovering he added that 'they said TV would spell the end of Cinema'.  At that point the interview moved into wrap up and the programme moved on.

I thought he'd made a valid point for a while - to be fair there was some validity in what he'd said - but then I rationalised a bit more.  TV was touted to destroy cinema and in fact it very nearly did - there are whole swathes of the cinema industry that no longer exist.  After a period of decline cinema did reinvent itself - it produced fewer, bigger productions, the like that TV couldn't afford to produce.  So it survived, but it had to change to do so.

So it will be with books.  If we take the unreasonable view that eBook reading technology, effectively tablet computing, stands still then on current trends there will be a few books that will never work well electronically.  But most books are as good in electronic format as in print.  I know there is a sentimentality about books that transcends all the logic about cutting down perfectly healthy trees, logging, pulping, bleaching, printing, binding, shipping and finally remaindering and repulping them, a sentimentality helped by the eBook industry trying to price eBooks as if all the costs associated with real books needed to be applied to eBooks.  Some books, though, benefit from the print format - generally the large format coffee table books that actually few people own many of and even fewer read. However, the technology won't stand still, so even those books will, in time, be good candidates for converting to eBooks.

The other issue with the industry rep's comparison is that TV is arguably a poorer medium compared to film - or at least it was until high definition large screen TVs became affordable.  There still does appear to be an immersive quality to cinema that TV doesn't cut yet, but that differential is being eroded all the time.  There isn't really a comparable differential between print and eBooks - many eReaders and tablets have similar tactile qualities to books and generally those who complain that eReaders and tablets are inferior reading media are not generally found to have tried eReaders.  Once they do, the conversion rate is staggering.

So, do try to catch the segment using iPlayer but don't expect to learn a great deal about book cover design. But if you catch the programme you may learn quite a bit about the print industry fears.


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