There's a line that goes around in the publishing industry: "You can't tell a book by its cover, but you can sure sell it."
In the book world, nobody takes cover art lightly. Publishers pile time, money and talent into cover art. They recruit top artists, run market tests and hold focus groups. And they count on covers to make old books new again, and attract attention in bookstores where half the purchases are made on the whimsy of browsing.
But as the publishing world lurches into the e-book age, covers aren't coming along for the ride - at least, not as we know them. When books have screens instead of covers, will publishers still be able to lean on them as advertising tools? As more and more books lose the physical form, will cover art follow album art into a land of faded greatness? As cheap Kindles proliferate, the cover seems to be on the verge of obsolescence. But the golden age of graphic design in books might just be beginning.
Where it comes to selling books, packaging matters. Not only does a book's cover serve as its plumage in the bookstore, it's especially critical to promoting what publishers call the "backlist," their ever-growing library of books that are still in print, but no longer a heavily promoted new must-read. (These, in turn, are called "frontlist" books.)
"Cover design is a way of making something fresh, of bringing it back to life," says Adam Freudenheim, the publisher of Penguin Classics in London. "That's the challenge with backlists generally: How do you make backlists into frontlists, or make people look at them again with new eyes?"
It's no small consideration. Backlists can make up a huge proportion of a publishers' sales - in some cases, more than 80 per cent of them. A bold design can attract attention to an old book, and impress upon purchasers the notion that a book isn't just old - it has been designated a "classic."
For instance, on its 75th anniversary, Penguin is reprinting a line of modern classics, from Ian Fleming's From Russia With Love to Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary, each with new cover art - from a prominent tattoo artist.
The artists (who worked in ink and, to their editor's faint surprise, watercolours) yielded striking, intricate designs that not only draw attention to themselves, but identify the books as part of a series - one tactic that can help to drive backlist sales.
In the near term, the accelerating pace of change in the book industry is putting pressure on publishers to accentuate the physical design of their books, says Joel Silver, president of Indigo Books & Music.
"The value of putting [a book]on a bookshelf or a coffee table becomes that much more important," Silver says. "The physical objects will become that much more beautiful."
The physical sensation of holding and displaying a print book, after all, is one of its competitive advantages.
But these are options that just aren't there for e-books. Not only do they lack covers in the traditional sense, but some - like Amazon's Kindle - are grey-scale devices that won't even display cover images on their screens.
"What we have available to us right now is like 1950s black-and-white television," says Sarah MacLachlan, president and publisher of House of Anansi Press.
Even full-colour tablets that can do a cover image justice, like Apple's iPad, can't replicate the social functions of a dust jacket. Cover art, MacLachlan says, does more than sell a book in the store: It's an advertisement for the publication as its reader carries it across town. It's a social networking tool in the oldest sense of the term, letting people notice what others are reading as they sit on the subway or in the waiting room.
"As long as devices are coverless, which they are, the cover has almost no part to play," MacLachlan says.
But the flip side of the argument says that art is becoming more important than ever - if perhaps in new and unforeseen ways. Cover art has long been a staple of online bookstores, such as Amazon.com, which associate every book with its cover image.
Some publishers, such as Oxford University Press, are optimizing their cover art to work within digital constraints, in some cases eschewing understated designs in favour of bold, visible designs that will stay readable when the cover is the size of a postage stamp.
And as search engines consolidate their grasp on the knowledge economy, it seems likely that cover art will hand off its responsibility for marketing the backlist to other, higher technologies. In traditional bookstores, Silver says, about half of the customers arrive to browse, making eye-catching covers vital. But, he adds, 80 per cent of visitors to his website already know what they're looking for, and use the search box to find it.
That means that suggested-purchase technologies, like Amazon's extensive lists of what other customers bought and Apple's "Genius" feature, will be the ones to guide readers to other, older titles.
Cover art has traditionally been especially important in marketing older classics, the words of which are in the public domain, meaning that any publisher can print them. As covers' influence declines online - where free (if unsightly) copies of public-domain texts have been available for decades - publishers will rely more on proprietary features such introductions, appendices and the actual translations (of which publishers are often quite proud) to distinguish themselves.
"Even if you can get a ropey old translation of something over the Internet, you still might be better off buying the Penguin Classic," Freudenheim says.
But if covers are losing their place as books' best advertisements, their graphic design will become more important than ever, if in slightly different ways.
Apps are one arena publishers are eyeing with some interest. Instead of shunting their text into relatively staid e-books, full-bore mobile applications allow involved multimedia design, like the recently released iPad edition of Alice in Wonderland, where Alice can be grown and shrunk by tilting the device.
(This approach might be better suited to the children's genre than to others. As Penguin's Freudenheim wryly notes, "A Middlemarch app might not be as attractive.")
And the principles of cover design are going to insinuate themselves into the digital world in prosaic ways too.
"Not only are they going to be designing a dictionary, they're going to be designing the dictionary app," Silver says. "And what's the icon for that app?"
That, he says, means that there's a future both for graphic designers, and for the backlist they've long promoted.
"Backlist to me means good content. If the market somehow eradicates the bookstore, it'll be a problem. I think the bookstore right now plays a critical role for the backlist in general, to merchandise it and romanticize it."
"But in general," he says of the e-book age, "I think it's a huge opportunity."
Ivor Tossell writes a column about technology and culture for The Globe and Mail.