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Judged by Its Cover
Dragon's-Eye View
Jon Schindehette

F or nearly twenty weeks (wow!), I've been chatting about all kinds of stuff that we're considering or thinking about as it relates to the art for the next iteration of Dungeons & Dragons. Today, I want to do something a little different and talk about some happenings in the book industry. Recently, I've had a number of discussions about the state of publishing. In fact, I have lots of conversations about this subject . . . go figure.

This past week, the discussions have focused on the idea of the book cover, or more accurately, the lack of a cover. You see, I've been watching a large number of our novels go into the e-book realm, and although I'm a traditionalist when it comes to books, I've recently begun reading novels on my iPad just to appreciate the experience. While using my iPad to read will never replace my tactical experience with a book, it does satisfy the urge to sneak in some reading time when my crowded life allows me five minutes of downtime. There's something really nice about being able to snag five minutes before a meeting and reading a few paragraphs in my latest novel. Better yet, the book fits nicely on my virtual bookshelf in my office iPad. Not only does my iPad allow me to do almost everything I need to do for my job, with the exception of using my Adobe software, now I can read my D&D novels on the same productivity device. Sweet!

Don't let my enthusiasm throw you, though. I still miss a lot of the book reading experience when I'm reading on my iPad.

Aside from the feel and smell of paper, what I really miss is the cover. Sure, if you are willing to work real hard, you can get to the cover of your book. I can see it on my virtual bookshelf, but it's really small! I can get to my table of contents and then work my way to the cover. Sometimes that is just a flick or two, and sometimes I've had to flip through up to six pages. Although the cover is bigger than the thumbnail on the bookshelf when I get to it, I still can't zoom in and check out the details. I feel a bit lost without my covers.

What does it mean as we move toward more and more books being released digitally only? Are we simply fulfilling a need in the market? Are we sounding the death knell for print publishing? (I don't think so, but that's a different article.) Is the book experience going to be forever altered? I'm not going to claim to know the answer. My crystal ball is cloudy, and my Magic 8 Ball keeps telling me to ask again later. What I do know is that things in the publishing industry are changing—in some cases slowly, and in others quickly.

Cover Design

Cover design has always been an elusive and shifty little subject. Jump into a bookstore and look at the covers there. You are looking at work that was accomplished anywhere between twelve to eighteen months ago. While you are looking at covers, I'm off dreaming up new ideas to try to keep the bookshelves fresh a year or more from now. If you spend a few years working in the book industry, you'll find that it can be tough trying to come up with something interesting and new in a 5-inch by 7-inch space. With the advent of digital books, the space has gotten even smaller in a lot of regards. Now the covers are often being viewed in dimensions as small 85 pixels by 135 pixels. Subtlety and finesse seem to have flown out the window. So designers and publishing professionals all over the world are asking this question: "What now?"

As an inquisitive person, I'm taking this line of thought even further and asking where we should go next. For me, it's less about what to do now. If I knew that the digital standard was going to stick to this size of virtual bookcase presentation, I could easily develop an identity program that dealt with the differences of print and digital presentation. For me, I'm more concerned about where the digital world will be in six months, one year, three years, and five years. Remember, I told you that I'm typically working on products that won't be seen for a year or more. I want to know what is going to be happening in twelve to eighteen months from now so that I can be riding the edge rather than falling off a cliff.

Will the virtual bookcase use larger images? Will animated images come into play? (Egad, I hope not! Can you imagine a browser page full of animated covers?) Will the presentation radically change such that the standard cover thumbnail becomes a dinosaur?

In the world of print, the cover plays a major part in the buying process. The cover is one of the prime reasons a person walks over to pick up a book, flip it over, and read the sales text on the back. Whether you are a long-time player (in the case of the D&D RPG) and are looking for the latest release, a huge fan of a particular author/game designer, or just browsing the bookshelves, the cover is the thing that informs and engages you. The cover tells you that there is something new by the author you love, or it shows you something that resonates with your sensibilities and calls you to investigate further.

As I'm looking at the world of digital books, I'm seeing that the purpose of the cover is beginning to operate in a very different manner. You don't normally walk through an online store glancing at titles the way you do in a bookstore. You don't see tables of books placed in the aisles that catch your eyes. You don't have a wall of shelves filled with books that focus on a genre/author/content type/universe that you love. The best you can hope for is a tailored home page or getting lucky with the "other purchasers of this book also liked . . ." links. The whole experience of finding a book online is turned on its ear compared to what we expect when we walk into a brick-and-mortar store. So the purpose of the cover has changed . . . a lot!

In my world, the change of purpose for covers raises all kinds of questions:

  • Should the cover design have different versions for brick-and-mortar stores and for digital presentation?
  • Should the use of art change depending upon the sales channel?
  • Does a change of cover treatment cause confusion with the buyers?
  • Do they notice or care about the differences in a cover from one version of the book to the next?
  • Does the role of the cover have a different purpose to the consumer in the different mediums, or it simply a business issue?
  • Should a digital cover try to look like a book cover on the virtual bookshelf, or is that an antiquated concept?

I'm just looking for your thoughts and feelings on the subject. There is no right answer. There is no wrong answer. I've got my thoughts on the matter, but I'm looking for folks to poke holes in my opinions—so all thoughts are welcome! Please share them in the comments section.

Jon Schindehette
Jon Schindehette joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the website art director. In the intervening years he has worked as the marketing art director, novels art director, and creative manager. In January of 2009 he moved into the role of senior creative director for D&D. Jon is a long time D&D player (started in 1978), and currently plays in a Tuesday night game and DMs a random pick-up game for younger players. He can be found on Twitter (@ArtOrder) and at theartorder.com.

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