Judging a Book by its Cover

by Michelle Gagnon

There was an interesting piece in last week’s New York Times on the transition back to so-called “gilded covers.” It confirmed a theory that I’ve had for a few years now. Despite the gloomy predictions of prognosticators, I don’t believe that hardcover novels are facing extinction. For one thing, libraries will always need hardier books to loan out. However, I do think that as eReaders become increasingly prevalent, hardcovers print runs will be dramatically reduced. Not phased out entirely, but the vast majority of books will be released in trade paperback form. The hardcovers that are produced will predominantly be special limited editions. More care will go into cover design and production, from the paper quality to the font to the dust jackets. And chances are that the price will increase as a result, since you’ll be paying for something a bit more special.

Currently, hardcover novel sales are being hit hard. As of September, hardcover sales had declined 25% for the year. Meanwhile, eBook sales rose 161%. Total eBook sales are forecast to reach $10 billion dollars by 2016, and thus far Kindle sales have outpaced Amazon’s rosiest predictions for the Christmas season. Mass Market paperbacks are being phased out more rapidly than anticipated, and many publishers are switching even consistently bestselling novelists to trade paperback rather than hardcover releases.

And let’s be honest– hardcover book sales should be dwindling. Now, before all you fans of “real” books, who extol, “the weight of it in my hands, the smell of ink on paper” jump all over me, hear me out.

Recently I was standing in my father’s library, poring over his collection. He’s always been an avid reader, and he has a stunning collection of leather bound books. Books that are truly works of art, and an experience to read. Books with soft vellum paper and calfskin bindings; books that really do have a special smell and feel to them.

Compare that to my collection of hardcovers. The vast majority of them don’t merit the same level of adulation. The truth is, most are just as mass-produced as MMPs. They’re heavy, cumbersome, printed on relatively cheap paper with cardboard covers and a dust jacket. Honestly, few are dramatically nicer than a trade paperback. By and large, those books don’t look stunning lined up on my shelf.
So given a choice, why would I spent $20-30 for a book that, content-wise, I can enjoy on my Kindle for half that price?
I would, however, pay a bit more for something that was special.

Publishers are finally coming around to that realization. The NY Times piece discusses recent hardcover releases that included special touches. Haruki Murakami’s latest novel 1Q84 features a “translucent jacket with the arresting gaze of a woman peering through.” Based on the book’s impressive sales so far, which has been the reverse of most books, (95,000 hardcover as opposed to a mere 28,000 in eBooks), investing in exquisite covers can help print sales.

The irony of this for me is that for the first time next year, my books will start appearing in hardcover form. Given the current sales climate, I’m nervous about shifting formats at this stage. However, I do think that we have an amazing cover, and hopefully the rest of the production quality will match up to it.


15 thoughts on “Judging a Book by its Cover

  1. Really interesting post, Michelle. Congratulations on your venture into hardcover. Wishing you all the best & I can’t wait to see your cover & read the series. Is this your new YA series?

    A stunning cover with “special effects” on a book with great writing and a compelling plot could be an interesting draw for readers who shop in retail stores. Something shiny & new to hold in their hands. Even online the cover art can attract & intrigue readers. I’ve seen this especially in YA. It’ll be interesting to see how this works.

    When a publisher puts more effort into the art & production of a book, I would hope that marketing & promo will follow. With digital on the rise, they need to figure out an effective way to market a book online. Maybe they believe a snazzy cover will entice retail stores to order more, but it will still come down to promotion, buzz about the book & word of mouth, I think. I have faith in your writing that you’ll deliver the quality. The rest is up to the publisher to back & support the project with an effective marketing strategy.

    Thanks for the intriguing post, Michelle.

  2. When I LOVE a book, and that’s rare, I want it in HARDBACK.

    Sure, I read lots on my Kindle for PC, and even my iPhone4, but…
    I’ll always find room for my hardbacks. They’re special.

    Great post, Michelle.

  3. Michelle, congrats on the hardcover. Where’s my autographed copy? 🙂

    I’m colorblind, so a lot of cover artwork is lost on me. The exception would be the covers that grace the Hard Case Crime releases, but otherwise I don’t much care. Interestingly enough, one of my favorite authors (not a Hard Case Crime book) is publishing a book in January with a cover I can’t stand. IT won’t stop me from reading the book.

    The advantage of an e-reader is the same as an iPod for me. When I’m away from home, I’ll always have the book or music that I want, instead of having it sitting on my desk at home.

  4. Congrats on the HC deal, Michelle. Best of luck with it. I’m curious; given the shifting sands of the publishing beach, who made the call to put you out in HC and what was the compelling reason?

  5. Congrats, Michelle.

    The problem is this from my perspective: A premium hard cover costs $30.00 give or take. Some people read a lot. It takes a few hours to read a book, and then you give it away or tuck it into a shelf. (I collect first editions, all hard covers).

    There are plenty of people with the money to spend without worrying about the costs. But for more and more people, thirty bucks buys a lot of necessities. Times are hard, kids.

    An artsy cover is great, but after you’ve seen it, is it more valuable to the viewer than say a stunning image in National Geographic. You slip it into the shelves and it is just a spine among spines.
    By the way I bought a Kindle book this week that had FIRST EDITION on the lead-in page.

    As authors we love hard covers and the value they have showing others the house thinks we are worth the additional expense. I’m thinking we are becoming alone in this thinking, on a mass scale.

  6. My hardcover will be the first release in my YA trilogy, DON’T TURN AROUND. It will come out next September (and you’re on the list for an ARC as always, Joe!)

    I agree, Paula. There are times that I’ve actually read a Kindle book, and loved it so much that I went out and bought the hardcover because I wanted it on my shelves. Rare, but it happens. But as I currently clear out my library while preparing for a move, I’ve really been struck by how many hardcover books simply weren’t worth keeping, IMHO.

  7. Interesting article in the NYT. I’m not sure what to make of contrast between “convenience reading” and “book ownership and reading” with the latter emphasized by Julian Barnes urging of publishers to pay attention to the aesthetic of the “object”. It came across as a subtle cut down of “convenience” readers or as a last gasp attempt at saving the “object” of books.

    As one of the 28000 I would probably not have purchased 1Q84 in hardcover at this point were it not for e-readers. I don’t like hardcovers. They’re bulky, they’re a pain to hold, they don’t fit in my purse, and prior to e-readers and the Wal-Mart/Amazon war they were expensive and rarely discounted. I wouldn’t have spent the money. I would have waited for softcover as I did with every other Murakami novel. The availability of the “convenient” e-reader and the reasonable price for an e-edition prompted my purchase of 1Q84 (and a number of other new releases) much sooner in the release cycle than would have been possible for me in the past.

    I get that hardcover editions and sales mean a lot to authors. However, what matters most to me as a reader is the content, not the package. I don’t need a pretty book on my tables or shelves to impress my friends. I need the words to impress me.

  8. I typically only buy a hardback after having already read a book in digital or paperback or listened via audiobook. That way all of the hardbacks in my collection are books I knew I liked enough to want to keep around for a lifetime.

  9. Reading this post, I thought of some old editions of Lord of the Rings with beautiful, fold out maps. In the near future, perhaps hard backs with extras like maps and color plates and such will present a unique option for readers.
    Ereaders like the Kindle are great for reading, but not for color pictures or maps. Tablets like the Fire and iPad are good for color, but not as good for reading without the smart ink. So a hard back with a lot of extras may appeal to some readers. But it will probably be a much smaller group than it is now.

  10. Congratulations, Michelle, on your news!

    I inherited a gorgeous library of 19th-century, leather-bound books from a relative. I had the den lined with built-in book shelves to accommodate them. They look so wonderful that I don’t let the shelves get “spoiled” with any newer books! I do think there will be market for “built-to-last” books in the future. It’ll be a smaller market, similar to the old days, when not many people had libraries. Books back then were treasured more.

  11. I’m not a collector of books-as-objects. I buy almost exclusively paperbacks for the convenience factor — I do most of my reading while in transit, and hardcovers are just too heavy. (I’ve only just acquired an e-reader and am curious as to how much this will change my buying habits.)

    BUT. Last Christmas my brother gave me a beautiful hardcover edition of Poe’s collected works. It’s not leather, but the pages have gilded edges, there’s an attached fabric bookmark, and there are line drawings (granted, they’re B&W so might work fine on an e-reader). My first thought when I opened it? “Now here’s a real book.” (On the other hand, I still haven’t read it, partly because of my TBR backlog and partly for the reasons mentioned above…)

    Not sure what conclusions one can draw from that…just another data point, I guess!

  12. I think the idea that graphic artists are publishers’ only hope smacks of clutching at straws. Can they make every book cover work a work of art? Will the publishers blame artists and not authors when their books don’t meet projections? Will the big advances now go to the cover artists? Do you need a great book, or will a majestic cover do? Will people even open the books. or fear crimping the flats?

    Interesting album covers were once given a huge portion of sales credit. I think it’s great that publishers think they can marry great books to great covers. I hope they can. But does a great book even need a cover?

    “Pretty baubles” that fool the reader into trying the words after arriving home thirty bucks lighter won’t fool anyone (but once or twice). The efforts that count are marketing and promotions related. Sure a great cover helps, but a great cover on a bad book or two and the ploy is over.

    I’m thinking covers won’t do what words don’t. I think a $30.00 book should have a great cover. I’ve thought cover art was something that already carried its weight most of the time. There are only so many manipulations possible for a single space that size.

    Maybe try working neon.

  13. I think I’ve commented before that I saw the future of hardbacks as more of a collector item.

    Just like buying the DVD of a movie and getting all the special features you don’t get when you rent, a hardcover can have the fab cover art, illustrations, author interview, deleted scenes, bonus short story, random autographed copies, etc. to deliver added value. Or like The Stand, a “director’s cut” version.

    If you are just about the story, this won’t interest you and you’ll go for the MMP or ebook.

    However, some (desperately) want to know what the writer had for breakfast and what their original concept for the second-string villain was. I’d be all over this for my icons like Stephen King.

    But an attempt to dress up a mundane run-of-the-mill book? Meh . . .

    I deal in the secondary market. Everything from used small appliances to high end antiques. I’ve scored some amazing first editions at garage sales and, even when I can’t identify exactly why, they are special. In the 10-for-a-buck box I found a cookbook with a spectacular autograph. I did a little reasearch and he was a former White House chef who had opened a fabulous restaurant in SF and had passed that year. He was well known as a flamboyany eccentric. It was special to find that hardcover book. It was also special to sell it . . .

    But in my experience, mass-market hardbacks are no more “special” than MMPs. Just a lot heavier to haul away from the auction.


  14. Michelle—apologies for chiming in so late to your blog. This is an excellent topic. I, for one, would happily spend large amounts of $$ on gilded books for my library vs. the MM hard covers—which I do buy, but mostly to support my author friends, more than want for my library.

    If the industry is deciding to return to that Renaissance-like production of books as works of art, they get my vote and my hard-earned money. There’s nothing like a beautiful book to grace a shelf.

    And, congratulations Michele for your hard cover print releases for 2012. I’ll buy them!!

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