Are Books As Sexy Without Their Covers?

Ebooks sales spiked more than 145 percent last July. And that’s despite that fact that many of the titles don’t even have covers—or, at most, feature generic images with little pain taken with design.

Are “naked” books the new design trend? Is it about budget? Technology? Or will book covers go the way of album covers of yore, a small afterthought rather than a means of expression?

Think about it: Would Tina Fey’s book “BossyPants” have done so well without the mashup cover of female celebrity headshot and big-man arm muscles? Or how about the runway bestseller, “Go the F*ck to Sleep”? Would it have had the same impact without its charming cover and well-placed full moon?

With ebooks, the shift is not away from packaging design; it’s the change of what constitutes the actual packaging. Where there used to be graphic artwork or gorgeous fonts, now there’s a Kindle, a Nook or an iPad. But is it enough?

It might be. Currently design dominates much of product development. According to Arash Amel, a digital-research director at IHS Screen Digest, in a recent article in Time magazine, “Apple decided early on that devices drive consumption. That mantra evolved into an entire ecosystem reliant on Apple devices.” So the iPad looks fabulous so your book cover doesn’t have to.

Opinion about how ebooks without covers could impact sales and influence is mixed. Donna Miller, a renaissance figure when it comes to the book industry, conducted a random sample of about 100 teens regarding cover and what she found surprised her. Only 18 percent considered the cover the most important factor in selecting a book to read. What had more weight were the book summary and recommendations of friends and librarians.

This feedback tracks with what Alan Lange, Editor of and co-author of “Kings of Tort,” observes. “In my experience, the covers mean something, but in the end analysis, not that much. Books are sold by word of mouth or via influencers (reviewers). It is still very much hand-to-hand combat. It’s like a restaurant. It may look neat, but you are much more likely to patronize it if you (1) know someone who has been there and said it was good or (2) read a review from someone you trust.”

Among those titles—presumably because of the speed of output and the smaller dollar commitment required—are a large number of indie books ( in 2009 nearly 765,000 titles were self-published in the U.S., an increase of 181 percent over the previous year). Those who self-publish using one of the larger, no-frills indie publishers tend to end up with a standard cover template. But that presumably isn’t slowing down sales since for the past several months an indie title (or three) have been showing up on both The New York Times and USA bestseller lists.

So does being put out there without a cover or a lackluster one matter to the book’s sales and influence? Mistina Piccano, President of Market It Write and member of the Mystery Writers of America, is among those who view the cover as value-added. “Even in the age of Kindle and Nook, we still judge books by their cover. Whether we’re walking past Barnes & Noble or browsing Amazon’s new releases, the cover art grabs our attention. An attractive cover persuades us to buy a public domain book because it looks great on the iBooks shelf. With the simultaneous proliferation of self-publishing, cover art work often provides prospective buyers with important clues about the content quality.” Auhor of “Digital Handshake,” Paul Chaney agrees with Piccano when it comes to hard- bound books. When purchasing books via Kindle, though, Chaney rarely even looks at the cover page.

The reality is that what the cover may have provided is disappearing. In THE BOOKSELLER, marketing consultant Damian Horner explains how multi-purpose covers had been. Out there, be it on the subway or in doctor’s waiting room, covers were “daily visual prompts” worth billions of dollars in promotion. Those graphic images became embedded in a generation’s memory bank. A compelling design could lead to impulse buys. In wisdom-of-the-crowd fashion, seeing others with a book could stimulate a purchase, conversation, and months of word-of-mouth. At the office and at home, professionals could shape their image by what they put on their book shelves.

Books without covers force the players in the book industry, ranging from copywriters to authors, to experiment with other promotional approaches. One way has been to learn about and leverage the best practices of ecommerce. In some cases that has been as difficult an adjustment as it had been for print journalists to adapt to the web.

For example, a fundamental in ecommerce is to construct web content for search-engine optimization [SEO]. SEO best practices are geared for high rankings on search engines. The objective is to be on the first page or two on a search engine such as Google. A useful background and how-to source is “The Truth About Search Engine Optimization” by Rebecca Leib.


Lee Harrison, Reader in Ohio

“Book covers are like wrapping paper on a gift or packaging on food. They make a soul giddy in anticipating what treasures lie within. A good cover, like good packaging, makes one eager to unwrap; break in; explore. Covers sell magazines; front pages sell newspapers; packaging sell cake mixes. The same is true of a book, even when the reader merely sees a photograph of the cover on,, or in THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW.

“Recently I suggested to that the corporation devise a way to include the covers of the books contained on Kindle in the ‘sleep rotation.’ I tend to forget the exact title of a book or author of what I’m reading if I don’t see the book laying around for a few days. When I admitted this to friends, they all agreed. It’s the major drawback to using a Kindle – we never see the book cover.”

Part of SEO is researching the keywords which are getting the most attention. That starts with understanding how prospects and influencers are thinking. It’s from their point of view that keywords are chosen. Perhaps their mindset is “activism,” not “revolution.” That will be one of the terms consciously used in the copy. The copywriters and author might find the idea of revolution closer to the book’s message. However, that wouldn’t maximize the possibility of attracting search engines.

The second part is to analyze competitor sites which are successful. What terms are they using about similar subjects and, just as importantly, how are they using them? SEO is more an art than a science. Rather than just dumped in, keywords can be positioned creatively.

The third part is to research the term with free tools such as Google AdWords. The web is full of free articles on other tools. But, the business of search has become very complex. So, if the book represents a significant investment by the book industry, then a SEO specialist might be hired.

Fourth, use common sense. For example, it’s now conventional SEO wisdom to piggyback on breaking news. What’s topical peaks the interest of search engines. Another smart tactic is to put in subject head and pepper copy with recognizable names of people, places, products/services, and sources such as Pew Research.

Here there could be an added bonus. Organizations and individuals cited are probably tracking mentions. At the very least they are using Google Alerts. If they like what is being said about them, they might connect, including buying the book or going beyond that to building a relationship. What bloggers have learned the hard way is that smart-aleck negative commenting, that is snark, boomeranged when they applied for jobs or assignments at that organization.

SEO, though, is more than keywords. Because of formulaic keyword stuffing, especially by content farms, Google changed its algorithm to recognize quality content. What’s in the text has to add to the conversation, not just paraphrase or reinforce it. That’s why posts by the knowledgeable at are so popular. Increasingly, well-crafted posts are going viral.

Design as a tactic is not dead. It just moved off the cover to the web. In this era of interest in design, how a website, blog post, webseminar, video on YouTube, Facebook wall, and Twitter site is arranged graphically can have a big impact. That could be anything from motivating sales to establishing a brand.

The design elements range from layout and use of devices such as sliders to color and fonts. While the payoff can be high, the field is filled with uncertainty, much disappointment, and outright failure. The common mistake is to bet the ranch on a design which hasn’t been tested out in actual ecommerce. All the best practices may be followed and still what’s there doesn’t convert browsers to buyers or media visitors into positive reviewers. Therefore, it’s wise to enter this uncertain zone cost-effectively.

Another tactic is investing the energy in identifying and reaching out to potential buyers and influencers. That means research. Those involved in promoting a book on parenting would research on the web parenting organizations, media both mainstream like PARENTS MAGAZINE and digital such as Mommy bloggers, juvenile services ranging from healthcare to clothing, and educational institutions. The next step is to approach the contact people in a value-added manner. This entails explicitly but briefly explaining how the book could benefit them and what services such as proprietary information will be provided.

In ecommerce there are also proven techniques such as sponsoring contests, establishing digital communities, making fun videos for YouTube, and inviting photos of how readers applied information or lessons from the book. Online-done-well also creates a position of strength for going offline. A compelling web presence can generate speaking engagements, interviews with brand name media, and invitations to do workshops. In addition, provocative special events, with high visual content, can resonate and attract media attention. That kind of performance art has a long history of effectiveness. The American colonists staged, for example, the first version of the Tea Party. Currently, much of activism is framed as entertainment.

Mobile gives the book industry one-on-one connection with readers and influencers. This outreach is targeted and personal. For Campaign 2012, ecommerce expert Sherrie Madia predicts the reliance on mobile. Her just-published book “The Social Media Survival Guide for Political Campaigns” describes how mobile is used for introducing and reinforcing a message, organizing those contacted for special events and fundraising, and breaking news. If authors are giving a talk in City X, invitations can be delivered on mobile.

For books associated with services such as investment advice or coaching, authors could create a profit center on mobile by distributing instruction or affirmations. That could be for a fee or a freebie which comes with the book purchase.

The bad and good news is that technology is continually changing ecommerce. And that, in turn, can change how consumers and influencers prefer to be approached online and offline. Consequently, the book industry can’t settle in and assume that what are best practices today will continue to be effective. For example, there are questions if Google+ trumps Facebook as a social network, at least for some kinds of business.

The good news in this volatility is that the book industry can become as innovative as ecommerce itself. Creative approaches could wind up selling more books and having more impact on society than what any cover could have achieved in the past. Remember too, WIRED editor Chris Anderson’s concept of the long tail. Because of technology, products like books can keep generating revenue over an extended period, even though they might not ever have blockbuster sales. This long tail is a reasonable expectation for authors, that is, as long as the book continues to be promoted and talked about by influencers.

Which is something they will hopefully do, even if said book doesn’t even have a proper cover.

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