A good jacket is unlikely to save a bad book, of course. But in a crowded market, a striking cover is one advantage all authors and publishers want. To get a sense of the odds, in a random analysis of 1,000 business books released last year, Codex Group, a publishing consultant, found that only 62 sold more than 5,000 copies.
The music industry went through a similar transition when digital music devices arrived, but it has pushed back by finding fresh ways to display CD cover art on the Web sites where the songs are bought and the iPod screens where they are played. Publishers have already had some experience tailoring book jackets for the digital world, since so many people now buy even their print copies online.
As publishers explore targeted advertising on Google and other search engines or social networking sites, they figure that a digital cover remains the best way to represent a book
Some readers expect makers of electronic devices to add functions that allow users to broadcast what they’re reading. “People like to show off what they’re doing and what they like,” said Maud Newton, a popular book blogger. “So eventually there will be a way for people to do that with e-readers.”
For now, many publishers are counting on the Facebook effect. “Before, you might see three people reading ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ on the subway,” said Clare Ferraro, president of Viking and Plume, imprints of Penguin Group USA. “Now you’re going to log onto Facebook and see that three of your friends are reading ‘Eat, Pray, Love.’ ”
Even avid online networkers rely on physical book covers in the real world. Heather E. Johnson, 32, who writes reviews on her blog, “Age 30+…A Lifetime of Books,” was recently at one of her son’s hockey games in Glen Burnie, a suburb of Baltimore, when she noticed a copy of Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” lying open on the bleachers.
When a friend returned to claim it, Ms. Johnson asked for an opinion. “She said it was fabulous,” Ms. Johnson recalled. As soon as Ms. Johnson got home, she moved the title up her “to be read” list.
“I don’t know that I would start a conversation with someone about something they were reading on an e-reader,” Ms. Johnson added. “It might not be something that they want anyone to know that they’re reading.”
Some digital publishers suspect that one of the reasons romance and erotica titles are so popular in electronic editions is because e-readers are discreet.
Book jackets, though, still matter.
Holly Schmidt, president of Ravenous Romance, an e-book publisher of romance and erotica, said that in one case the publisher was offering an anthology of stories about older women and younger men. The first version featured a digital cover image of a winsome woman. It barely sold any copies. The publisher put a new cover up online — this time showing the bare, muscular torsos of three young men — and sales took off.
The new cover “took a book that was pretty much a loser,” Ms. Schmidt said, “and made it into a pretty strong seller.”