This is not a fairytale, though it begins like one. Once upon a time publishing houses sold books to booksellers, and they in turn sold books to readers. To some extent this is still very true, but the ominous glow of amazon.com, of Kindles and Nooks, has stricken publishing’s traditional business models to near paralysis. 2010’s publishing industry is one of trepidation. While overall adult trade sales were, according to the most favorable studies, down only about 5.2% in 2009 the adult trade paperback decline was as much as 13%. In addition, the price wars between major distributors like Amazon and Walmart, deep discounting, and the myriad effects that electronic books have had on the royalty rates of new publishing contracts have industry professionals and authors fearful, if not over loss of income than at least over general instability. But, within that muddled panic is not just the opportunity to reinvent book marketing, but the necessity to redefine the physical book.
Certainly, nothing has refashioned books in the 21st century more so than the development of electronic reading. Devices like Kindle, the Sony E-Reader, and Barnes & Noble’s Nook have changed the way that consumers buy and read by estranging the book from its narrative and/or its content. So, for the (now) old fashioned hard-copy books, whose content and packaging remain integrated, competition is steep and publishers are developing new ways to make these physical books stand-out from their physical and electronic counterparts.
Not surprisingly then, this fall and winter saw the release of four books in particular that mark a small but valuable renaissance in not only book packaging and marketing, but in the reinvention of the book. Colin Beavan’s No Impact Man (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), former Talking Head, David Byrnes’ The Bicycle Diaries (Viking), Stephen Elliott’s The Adderall Diaries (Graywolf Press), and Jebediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection (Penguin) stand naked on shelves, conspicuously hard-covered yet missing dust jackets. They are not the first of their kind. McSweeney’s, the independent press founded by literary wunderkind Dave Eggers, has flourished while (or perhaps by) producing jacketless hardcover books for years, such as 2009’s Zeitoun by Eggers himself. However, this marks the first time that corporate houses like Farrar, Straus & Giroux and Viking have used book packaging that has been traditionally, or rather untraditionally, utilized by small independent presses.
Initially the missing dust jackets seem unimportant. They can be chocked up to a simple aesthetic decision designed to lure readers with the same intellectual and anti-traditional appeal that lured rock lovers to post rock. However, like most aesthetic choices, jacketless-ness reflects a specific attitude about the function and purpose of the book. So exactly what does a missing dust jacket mean for “the book”?
Dust jackets, or in this case their absence, educate would-be readers. An author has hundreds of pages to reveal his or her themes while dust jackets have only their own singular image to do the same. Certainly flap copy and jacket blurbs from bestselling authors promote sales, and convince readers to take the plunge, but buyers are not likely to pick up the book if they don’t first find it attractive and appealing. It’s akin to picking up a man or woman at a bar; you might find after talking that you have a lot in common, but chances are you started to chat because you found that person attractive and because they looked, through their clothing, hair, behavior, etc—like they might get along with you.
Dust jackets provide the same sort of indications to readers. Dust jackets invite those of us lusting over stacks of tomes to experience the potential of the books’ narrative with only a glimpse: one artistic rendering to establish another. Paperback covers do the same certainly, but paperbacks are released after the hardcover, and the logic (not to mention the hope of the publisher) is that if the consumer really wants the book, they’ll buy the hardcover. Therefore, it is critical the hard cover dust jacket be perfect. So if a dust jacket relays a message to readers about the contents of a book, is this jacket-less book a symbol of scarcity, deficiency, or deprivation from an industry at a loss? Not necessarily.
Eli Horowitz, editor at the San Francisco-based McSweeney’s said in an interview with the Observer, that McSweeney’s decision to produce books without dust jackets “comes down to the question of what purpose the book is designed for: to be sold in a store, or to be a part of a reader’s life.” Mr. Horowitz’s statement reveals his belief that a book is not a commodity, but rather an artifact. Centuries in the future when anthropologists find remains of cities, homes, and books they will use what and how we read to understand the way we lived—not the other way around. Books are integral to individual identities and to the exploration and understanding of others’. A friend of mine was struggling to pack before a move to a new house, and she could not part with her books despite the logistical nightmare a 100-pound crate of books presents. “They’re a tangible history of [me],” she said, echoing Farrar, Straus & Giroux designer Charlotte Strick who said in that same Observer article. “Maybe there’s something permanent about it, that kind of makes it feel substantial and special and gives it a certain integrity.” Jacketless books reflect such a belief through their practicality and artistic uniqueness.
There’s a common complaint among readers including myself: dust jackets are a nuisance. They are slippery, cumbersome, wrinkly and crinkly and I often remove them to ease the physical handling of a book. I enjoy the physical experience of reading. I relish the combination of auditory, tactile, and mental sensations of flipping paper as I read. And, of course, I enjoy the visual pleasure of illustration—it’s why I don’t use e-readers.
Dust jackets similar to the ones used on hardcover books today first appeared in England at the end of the 19th century. They were designed to protect the books’ binding as well as promote the sale of the book. Most of them simply reproduced whatever decoration appeared on the binding, and they were meant to be thrown away. In an article in 2005, Jessica Mulley wrote that “[then] keeping a dust jacket would be like keeping the box that perfume comes in.” By around 1920, a surge in the fashions and economics of publishing made it cheaper and easier to print on jackets with multiple colors, fonts, and blurbs. As dust jackets became more attractive in design, more people began to keep them on the book. However, the same advances that allowed for higher quality design and production allowed for the increased presence of blurbs and other advertising copy. Now, many lovers of cover art are often done a disservice by the thousands of titles each year whose dust jackets are composed of stock photos on cheap glossy paper.
With publishing houses operating under very real financial constraints it becomes easy, cost efficient, and then clichéd to design glossy magazine jackets that attempt to advertise a book rather than illuminate it through art. The result is often not only artistically boring and under-stimulating, but counter-intuitive to the intial objective of enticing the reader to a unique story. For example, the Spanish edition of Haruki Murakami’s After Dark and Lauren Barnholdt’s One Night that Changes Everything feature identical stock photo cover images, as do The Secret Life of Prince Charming by Deb Caletti and Flirting With Boys by Hailey Abbott. Granted, one might say that these books are commercial schlock, but it’s like those who say this do so because of the covers. It is nearly impossible to make a book stand out if it resembles or in many cases (above) is identical to the image we associate with another book. Such books fall back into the mental midlist only identifiable by basic colors and stock photos.
Jacketless books necessitate sharp graphic and linear designs because there is no effective (or inexpensive) way to apply color to the boards of a book in the same way as it is applied to traditional dust jacket paper. The texture, durability, and flexibility of boards make this impossible. It is a success for readers and publishers, then, that jacketless book art requires skill beyond Photoshop. “With e-readers making up almost 10% of net purchases, it is more important than ever that design be appealing,” Paul Slovak at Viking said in that same Observer article.
Penguin classics like The Picture of Dorian Gray and Wuthering Heights have been re-issued as stamped hardcovers designed by senior designer Coralie Bickford-Smith who studied typography at the University of Reading, and Paul Buckley, the artistic director of Viking, spearheaded a paperback redesigning of the contemporary penguin classics that have been illustrated by renowned graphic artists. Not only is the jacketless book practical, but “Being distinctive and unusual makes a book more of an object and ultimately more desirable,” Paul Buckley said.
The jacketless book reflects corporate publishing’s bourgeoning reprioritizing of the ways readers integrate books into their lives and what it means to market to readers. If books are an expression of identity then keeping them keeps us; to treat a book as an immutable object gives permanence to our histories. Jacketed books, paperbacks, mass market paperbacks can all be treated as works of art and there is always an aesthetic element considered in designing them, but it is so much more likely to find a well crafted stand out jacketless book. The very nature of their novelty creates an artistic draw because it has not been done before, and while the novelty wears off, the time, skill, and careful consideration in making jacketless book objects of desire won’t—an essential combination in a digital age where the book is no longer essential to books.