Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Essay: Book Covers and the Internet

Every Wednesday, I'll have an essay or a feature on any topic that catches my fancy!

Last Monday, I was uploading my book reviews to my blog and I thought of Grasping for the Wind's Book Reviewers Linkup Meme. These days there's a proliferation of book review blogs (not necessarily limited to the science fiction/fantasy genre) and in retrospect, that's only possible thanks to online infrastructures that are now present. For example, when blogs first came about, many of the free online blogging sites didn't offer commenting features. You had to subscribe (and some still do) to commenting services like Enetation or Haloscan. These days, any blogging host worth their salt includes commenting as the least of their features. While not a lot of people really comment on my book reviews, I'd like to think that the ability to comment and engage in a dialogue with the book reviewer is part of the charm of online book reviews (that and the author occasionally drops by and thanks--or clarifies some points with--the blogger).

In my opinion however, perhaps the single biggest innovation as far as online book reviews are concerned are book images. Let's face it, a website full of text can be dull. Book covers breaks that monotony and have an impact on the reader (whether positive or negative). Right now, the impact of book covers is evolving. It used to be you were either plugging a book (i.e. you're the author/agent/publicist/publisher) or doing a book review. Nowadays, there's this phenomena of photographing or mentioning the books that you received in the mail. Here are some examples: SF Signal (standard image + links), OF Blog of the Fallen (photographs), Ecstatic Days (photographs), John Joseph Adams (standard image).

Wouldn't a simple list have sufficed? Yes but the pretty pictures are more appealing. Larry (OF Blog of the Fallen) and Jeff Vandermeer (Ecstatic Days) are examples of a trend, using actual photos of the book instead of the standard-issue images the promotions department makes available. Of course this comes with several variations, from lumping several books together to showing the interiors of the book. There's a personal touch with these kinds of images as it comes with the personality of the book reviewer/photographer (i.e. "Is that your bookshelf?").

Posting book covers is one way of promoting the book (although there should be further studies which is more effective: this new book cover showcase phenomenon or an actual book review) and there are several reasons why a book reviewer might do so. On one end of the spectrum, it could be simple bragging rights ("Look at what I got in the mail!"). On the other end, it's one way of easing your guilt, especially when you receive more books than you could ever review ("I don't have time to write a review but hopefully me posting this image will boost interest in your book").

Going back to book reviews, while free image hosting is partly responsible for this new feature, a bigger impact in my opinion is Amazon. While the rest of the publishing industry has a love-hate relationship with this online store, let's give credit where it's due: Amazon gave us access to book covers. Personally, probably 90% of the book covers I use come from that website. You might take that fact for granted now, especially with the popularity of the Internet, but back in the 90's, that was a big deal. For example, not many publishers back then had websites of their own, complete with book catalogs (or heck, I love Prime Books but if you wanted the latest news and book covers of the company's current titles, you had better luck visiting the publisher's blog). Or websites that freely shared their images with you. Or simply put, there was no single site that had a repository of book covers as much as Amazon. Perhaps the newer "social cataloguing" sites like Shelfari, LibraryThing, and GoodReads come close but as far as my experience is concerned, most of the images I see on blogs usually link to bookstores (and more commonly enough, Amazon more than Barnes & Noble). (Having said that, a site like Fantastic Fiction is great because of its repository of bibliographies and book images.)

Of course one could arguably scan a book and upload it as a book cover. But why bother when linking to other images is so much easier? I also think that the proliferation of book covers is partly responsible for gaining online book reviewers some legitimacy (whether warranted or not) to the public's eye. Book reviews in broadsheets and magazines are appealing because, guess what, they came with book covers (that's not to say that's their only appeal but when was the last time you saw a book review publication that didn't have book covers?). Book review blogs now have that kind of appeal too, without the financial investment of purchasing a scanner (or in some cases, the actual book).

The proliferation of book covers also make it possible to talk about them online. I mean in the past year, we've had discussions on the subject from authors like Jane Lindskold and Charles Stross with regards to the cover of their own books, in addition to the commentary and ridicule we book aficionados make. If anything, this entire essay only shows that hey, we fans do care about book covers (and possibly it's true that we judge a book by its cover). Book covers have always been a marketing tool (they get you to actually buy the book) but lately, thanks to can of worms that is the Internet, its role in that sense is expanding (for example, can you ever imagine a Shelfari site without book covers?).

Last but not least is the fact that authors get giddy when it comes to their own book covers. "Look at this new shiny!"


Kelmar said...

An excellent blog! Luckily for me, I read Paul S. Kemp's blog and followed the link.

I am starting to do the same type of blog somewhat even though mine originally started as a World of Warcraft blog.

I changed to a new name and have started writing my book reviews interspersed with various other subjects. Any pitfalls I should avoid?

I look forward to reading your blog more.

Charles said...

Since you're still early at it, I recommend just starting over. (One separate blog for WoW posts, another blog for the reviews.)

In terms of blogging, I do think it's important to specialize. Like something I'd do over if I could with my blog is to separate my tabletop RPG posts (every Thursday) from these genre fiction blog entries. There's obviously some overlap between those two audiences but not much.

And the best advice I have with regards to book reviews is to be consistent in your blogging schedule. If it's every Tuesday once a week, then stick to it. If it's every Tuesday once every two weeks, stick to it. It's not the frequency that matters as much as setting expectations for your readers on how often you update and the like.