Do digital books need covers?

(More notes of some of the editing/design work for  The New Work of Composing.)

As I’ve been doing my research on the history of the book (Finkelstein and McCleery, Febvre and Martin, Eisenstein, Duguid, etc.), I’ve tried to parse out different elements of physical, printed, machine-bound books (covers, table of contents, bindings, titles, indices, bibliographies, author credit, afterwards, etc.). I’m still doing a lot of reading for this stuff, but one of the most interesting threads I’ve been working through is the idea of a cover. Initially, the nature of a cover was for the sake of protecting the contents inside from wear and tear, then for purposes of organized storage, then for marketing, etc. Tied up in these discussions are the evolution of titles, attribution, publishing house credit, and the-book-as-a-unity. In other words, more and more I’ve come to realize the specific work that covers do for books, and this is especially evident when thinking through “unification” strategies for something like an edited collection. In terms of a digital collection of scholarship, I see this topic as especially important because there seems to be a convention with digital texts that most begin with either a TOC or primary navigation elements on the initial page. The old “splash page” (usually programmed in flash) has become a thing of the past.

For these reasons I want to begin thinking through the work that a “digital” cover might do that a digital TOC doesn’t. I’m working on an image for the cover of The New Work of Composing, and it is something that I actually like.

From left to write, an image of handwriting morphs into typewriting and then into binary code. Sort of a nod to the lineage of writing technologies. The text is from the section of Plato’s Pheadrus where Socrates is explaining to Phaedrus about the dangers of written language as a technology. So the choice of text seems appropriate, too. Taking the gesture even further, the image responds, also, to a passage I’ve run across in Fabvre and Martin’s The Coming of the Book:

“Printing encouraged the growth of the paper trade and this increased the number of waste sheets; so began the habit of using ‘cardboard’ for covers in place of wooden board. It was cheaper and not as heavy, made by pasting several sheets together which toughened them. Paper of all kinds was used-old proof sheets, old books used as scrap, letters, business files, archives. The dismantling of old bindings often brings interesting finds to light” (106)

I love this passage. I love the image of a cover being fashioned out of old manuscripts. The drafts, mistakes, cuttings, proofs… all this material that didn’t make it into the book itself makes ends up as the book’s protection and the book’s face. Identity and defense. Like an old medieval crest on a shield. But for the sake our this image I’ve created, digital detritus wouldn’t really work, as there is effectively no material waste. I suppose I could have layered earlier drafts of the cover or TOC interface as the background image for the cover, but that would’ve only served a single symbolic channel. In this way, We still get the layering of old manuscripts, but manuscripts that started the discussion to which this collection is attempting to contribute.

But then, of course, it’s got to work visually with the rest of the elements of the cover. And it’s also got to be appropriate and functional for what’s “inside” the collection itself.

I’d love any feedback I can get on the image. Compliments and suggestions are welcome. My co-editors are also giving it a closer look right now, too. I look forward to any reactions you might have.

Here’s a copy of that image:

nwc-cover-demo

This article has 5 Comments

  1. dear troll man, as someone with a background in design and art, i feel somewhat qualified to give feedback on your cover design. first of all know that, as a book lover and as a lover of the written word i find the concept for your book fascinating. i think that the idea behind your cover design- the evolution of information display if you wish- is brilliant. in your first draft of the design for the cover, the image is dominated by the handwriting: perhaps the typewritten text and binary code should have more prominence. this could be done by extending the ‘real estate’ or areas covered by the two, or by increasing the contrast of the images containing the type written text and binary code. another idea: why not express the shift or transition diagonally? i.e turning the layout of your image 30 degrees clockwise. diagonal layouts for book/ manifesto covers were done by the bauhaus designers ( also present in russian deconstructionist publications). the bauhaus contribut ed to the development of the printed media- and graphic design- as provocation and a means of visual seduction. a diagonal layout would mimic the act of reading or writing, imply movement and perhaps attract the eye more. thank you for bringing up the very important question of digital covers in a digital book age.

  2. What a great reply, Miti (and I’m gonna email you off-post, to do some catching up!) Thanks so much for taking the time.

    I think you’re right on with some of your comments. I agree that the handwriting dominates the other two types. For some reason, the line-weight is much heavier with that section of the text, and it ends up being much more prominent. I’m definitely look into adjusting that element.

    And the part about altering the orientation of the text is a good idea. I’ll mess with that a bit more, too. The trouble, though, is that there will be text (the book title) over this image, and I’m not sure if diagonal text will compete with that title, or if the horizontal text (as-is) is already too competitive with it.

    And about those Bauhaus manifesto covers. Can you recommend anywhere that I might get access to them? Can you post the name of a book or two? Maybe a site? I’m really interested in their designs. (I’ve loved Gropius since I was an architecture major in college back at NDSU.)

    Again, thanks for the generous comment. Look for a personal message from me soon. I just found your site. Can’t wait to look around. Best,

    Trauman

  3. heya T, just getting around to RSSing your site. Did you know that sometimes covers were made from non-printing-related materials, jsut for the sake of protection? A friend/teacher/colleague of mine told me recently that a researcher convinced some rare mss library in Boston to let him cut open the cover because he thought that it contained another important, lost manuscript. Turns out — after they actually let him destroy the thing by cutting it open — that the author had made the cover out of one of his wife’s old corsets!@!@

  4. That’s awesome. I once hand-bound a book in graduate school with Heavy wire mesh. It was incredibly sharp and dangerous to open and read. I thought the same thing about the content. Of course, in hindsight, the content was pretty standard fare for a 24 year old. I’m cool with that. I think now, if I were to bind a book, I’d like to use a matching pair of laptop screens. See you soon.
    t

  5. That’s awesome. I once hand-bound a book in graduate school with Heavy wire mesh. It was incredibly sharp and dangerous to open and read. I thought the same thing about the content. Of course, in hindsight, the content was pretty standard fare for a 24 year old. I’m cool with that. I think now, if I were to bind a book, I’d like to use a matching pair of laptop screens. See you soon.
    t

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