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In The E-Book World, Are Book Covers A Dying Art?

Aug 5, 2012
Originally published on August 6, 2012 5:01 pm

In the olden days, a reader might pick up a book because the cover was exciting, intriguing, maybe even beautiful. But in the brave new world of e-books and e-readers, the days when an artist named Chip Kidd could make us reach for a book may be gone.

Kidd, an associate art director at publisher Alfred A. Knopf, has designed book covers for the past 25 years for authors like Cormac McCarthy, John Updike, David Sedaris and Michael Crichton. Remember the menacing Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton on movie posters for Jurassic Park? The original version was Kidd's cover design for the novel.

Earlier this year, Kidd gave a TED talk on the art of designing books. He told the audience that while e-books offer convenience, the growing digital publishing world risks losing "tradition, a sensual experience, the comfort of thingy-ness, [and] a little bit of humanity."

Still, as Kidd tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer, all books — electronic, hardcover or paperback — need covers.

"They need some kind of visual representation, whether you're going to be seeing them the size of a postage stamp on a computer screen or a smartphone, or sitting on a table, or on a shelf, or in a bookstore," he says.

A veteran of the book publishing industry, Kidd understands that his book designs ultimately must help serve the bottom line. His designs can be effective in helping new titles stand out in a bookstore display, but on the online marketplace, a beautifully designed cover can only get you so far.

"People don't buy a book on the Web because of the cover," Kidd says. "They'll buy a book on the Web because they've read a review or it's word of mouth or some combination of the two."

But he's not worried about sticking to old-fashioned ways.

"Hardcover books are, frankly, luxury items, and they sort of always have been," he says. "And I think there will be a market for them."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

In the olden days, we might pick up a book because the cover was exciting, intriguing, maybe even beautiful. But it may be that those days are gone when an artist named Chip Kidd could make us reach for a book.

CHIP KIDD: Ladies and gentlemen, I have devoted the past 25 years of my life to designing books.

WERTHEIMER: For authors like Cormac McCarthy, John Updike, David Sedaris, and Michael Crichton. Remember the menacing T-Rex skeleton on movie posters for "Jurassic Park"? The original version was Chip Kidd's cover design for the novel. Earlier this year, Kidd gave a TED talk on the art of designing books. He told the audience he takes his job as an associate art director for the publisher Alfred A. Knopf very seriously.

KIDD: I want you to look at the author's book and say, wow, I need to read that.

WERTHEIMER: But now, we live in the world of e-books and e-readers. Are beautifully designed book covers over? We asked Chip Kidd to make his case for the future of book design. He joins us now from our studios in New York. Mr. Kidd, welcome to our program.

KIDD: Thank you. Glad to be here.

WERTHEIMER: Why are book covers important?

KIDD: Book covers are important because books, regardless of their form, need a face. They need some kind of visual representation, whether you're going to see them the size of a postage stamp on a computer screen or a smartphone or sitting on a table or on a shelf or in a bookstore.

WERTHEIMER: Now, I have a hard cover copy of one of your most recent book covers here with me. It's Haruki Murakami's new novel "1Q84." It's a picture of a beautiful woman who is sort of peering through semi-translucent paper. It says 1Q84," great big numbers, the author's name is right across the middle of it. And if I move the book jacket out of the way, then I see her face and 1Q84 and no misty transparent-y paper. What am I missing if I go online to find the e-book version, see the same cover - am I missing something?

KIDD: Well, I think you're missing the experience that you just described, and it's one that engages you and it engages your involvement with the book, perhaps in a way that you weren't expecting, which for Murakami is perfect.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think that you, I mean, are you at all worried that you may have to reimagine book as the publishing industry becomes more digitized?

KIDD: I really don't think so. I mean, one of the lessons I learned in school is, you know, the whole point of a thumbnail drawing, a tiny little sketch, is that if something looks good small, if it's effective small, it's going to look great when it's bigger. And the one thing I had to deal with - and this was way before e-books frankly - was the argument I don't think this is going to look good when it's tiny and on Amazon. People don't buy a book on the web because of the cover. They'll buy a book on the Web because they read a review or it's word-of-mouth or, you know, some combination of the two, or they saw it on "Good Morning America" or what have you.

WERTHEIMER: So, you think that one of the things that the Web would do to people like you is there would be no more of that, you know, I saw it across a crowded room and I just went over and picked it up and then I bought it.

(LAUGHTER)

KIDD: Right. Book jackets in general are sort of like name tags at singles parties. And, you know, you go over and you say, ooh, that looks nice and who is that? Oh, hello, you. Well, then after that, you know, you're not going to continue a conversation because of the tag that they have on. You're going to actually talk to them. And the point being that a book cover can attract you to a book, but then the book itself has to take over and engage you and make you want to buy it and take it home.

WERTHEIMER: So, you don't think this is tragic?

KIDD: Most of what I work in anyway is hardcovers. And, you know, hardcover books are, frankly, luxury items and they sort of always have been. And I think there will be a market for them. And I hear it. I hear it all the time.

WERTHEIMER: Chip Kidd is associate art director for the book publisher Alfred A. Knopf. He joined us from our studios in New York City. Mr. Kidd, thank you so much.

KIDD: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Chip Kidd's most recent book is his own graphic novel, "Batman: Death by Design." And you can see some of his favorite book cover designs at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.