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November 14, 2009

Do E-books Dream of Rectangular Cover Art?

Jim Hanas

I've been working on preparing an e-book for publication for the last couple of weeks, and so I have e-book matters on the brain. For example: "Why do e-books have little rectangular covers that make them look like tiny paper books?" Almost all e-book sites represent titles this way. The literary world is adorable in its attachment to old forms, which is why (I think) the digital crisis took so long to fully arrive at publishing's door. These little rectangles make a certain amount of sense from a marketing perspective, I suppose, as publishers assure wary customers (and themselves) that it's just like a book, only digital. Still, native digital publishers will want to abandon this convention as soon as possible. The digital switch might have come late to publishing, but it is proceeding very, very quickly. What's on the way is what the advertising business has for years now been calling "platform agnosticism."

Lit snobs will turn their noses up at the mention of the ad racket--even as they bask in the sexy, retro cool of Mad Men--but the advertising business's strengths and weakness are instructive mirror images of publishing's. The good thing about the advertising business? It would jettison grandma in a second if her business model started to flag. The bad part? It thinks grandma (and everything else, for that matter) needs a business model to be worthwhile. Publishing, meanwhile, loves grandma maybe a little too much and is unwilling to let conventions change--thus these rectangular arrangements of pixels. But I could be biased.


I made the cover of my first e-book, Single, in the form of a 7" record because I thought it was funny. The music business was dying, so grafting something analog onto a digital product seemed right. I also liked how it evoked the DIY ethos that bands have always had, but which writers have often lacked. It was about hitting the road to find readers, and Single was the product I was giving away out of the back of the van.

So, for my new e-book--which I'm officially releasing on Monday--I'm continuing the metaphor.


I am a little concerned that this road I've gone down will cause people to think that my stories are more music-related than they actually are--they aren't, really--but I'm willing to take the risk. For me, it still points to the fact that packaging in a platform agnostic world can be completely flexible--freed from physical constraints and conventional expectations. And I'm glad I can provide at least a little relief from those tiny little rectangles.


I'm all for gratuitous Dick references in post headlines. (I like the covers, too.)


If analogue packaging is dependent on physical issues (round discs=square covers, rectangular books=rectangular covers, etc.) what shape would be appropriate for digital items if their packaging were chosen to reflect something about the item?

I realize there are very few physical attributes of digital information (and this is a liberation) but it might be fun to think of a shape which metaphorically captures what they are/mean/etc.

Snakes? Azathoth? Rainbows?

I come from the future. Your next e-book, "Eight Track", is my favorite.

Actually, I was thinking "Laserdisc" or maybe "HD DVD" -- you know, to keep it contemporary.

Great concept. A story, perhaps an historical novella, about the brainwashing of the US hoi polloi into accepting without question that billions should go every year to fund Israel's apartheid/genocide of the Palestinians, could be packaged in the severed, mangled arm of a Gaza infant.

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