50booksHow should you judge a book by its cover? And by its interior design, for that matter? That’s the question that Design Observer’s panel of judges has to consider in picking the winners of 50 Books / 50 Covers, an annual book design competition that has been held continuously for 92 years now. (Paul covered their list of winners in 2012.)

Quartz has an article on the Kickstarter that Design Observer just ran to publish an art book and host a traveling exhibition featuring this year’s winners. It ended successfully with $49,000 in contributions. There’s also a video of the judge’s panel talking about how it picks the winners. They talk about things like “divorcing the content from the design from the printing.” One of the books shown during the video is Andy Weir’s The Martian, which was one of the 50 covers they chose from 2014.

The approach of the Quartz’s article is to talk about how a well-designed book can be an experience that e-reader users miss:

To fully enjoy a book, after all, is not just to chew on the protein of its content but also to admire its presentation on the plate—its size and shape, the thickness of the paper as you turn a page, the faint smell of ink, the texture of the cover and weight of it in your hands.

Ah, yes, the “smell of books” thing again. Yes, I don’t deny that paper books can be appreciated as objects d’art in and of themselves, but so often I think people let such appreciation get in the way of what it is that item is meant for—conveying information to you in a particular way.

Sometimes a physical book can be the best means for conveying that information to you, especially if it involves a lot of pictures and other graphic design. I imagine that kind of design is what the “50 books” they picked exemplify. E-books just don’t handle that as well—and they probably won’t for some time. There’s not so much incentive for Amazon to innovate a good format for graphic e-books as long as trade books are the ones that sell the best.

But if you’re talking about text only—such as, for example, Andy Weir’s The Martian—well, yes, you can have a great cover (which I’ll agree, that book really does!), and you might even have a nice font and kerning and so forth. But if you’re just there for the information—the story—why is it a requirement that you should have to spend time appreciating the design of the container it’s wrapped in?

Even the judges talk about divorcing the content from the design. If they’re there to appreciate the design, that’s fine. I’m all about the content.

It’s great that books can have great designs, and that there’s a competition to award the best ones, and that they were able to fund a book and exhibition to honor the best ones. But I don’t think that books being able to be well-designed artifacts should cast any pall over e-books doing what they’re designed to do as well.

Paper books are good at conveying information, while at the same time they can be objects of physical appreciation. E-books are great at conveying the information without letting physicality get in the way. They have different purposes, and they both fulfill them admirably.

So, really, can’t we all just get along?


  1. I don’t understand why any of those 50 covers could not be included in the e-book editions of those books.
    I always feel a bit cheated when I purchase an e-book that shows up on my tablet with a washed out, black-and-white version of the original cover, or, even worse, with a generic publisher’s graphic that they have elected to use for their entire line of e-books.

  2. Steve: Yeah, I hear that. The black-and-white art would be because they don’t feel like they need to go full-color if it’s just going to be read on e-ink anyway (and that way it costs them less to let people download it). I expect the reason for the generic publisher graphic, especially for older books, is cover-art contracts that pre-date the e-book market, and a lack of desire to go back and pay extra money to add on e-book rights.

    That’s one of the reasons I’m happy Calibre lets you recompile the book to change out the cover art. After all, the cover art is almost always downloadable in a nice suitable-for-e-book version. (Of course, DRM can get in the way there, if you don’t use Apprentice Alf…)

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