A few years ago, you would have been forgiven for thinking that printed books were dying a slow death. The Kindle, and other e-readers like it, had just been released and everyone and their Grandma was embracing the new tech and buying e-books like there was no tomorrow.
Even I jumped on the e-reader bandwagon and bought myself a shiny new Kindle, for weeks it barely left my side.
The e-reader bubble...
The idea of a Kindle was brilliant; being able to carry an entire library around with you in
a small slip of plastic was, and still is, an incredible concept. But there’s no denying that despite the amazing possibilities, e-readers have lost their shiny appeal somewhat.
My own Kindle now sits in my bedside cabinet having not been charged for the best part of two years, while a pile of good old-fashioned paperbacks has slowly but steadily started to overtake my living room.
And I’m not the only one; sales of e-readers have slowed in recent years and in some cases started to decline. Meanwhile, hardback book sales have had a huge upswing over the last few years... but why is print coming back now?
What's driving this renewed interest?
Now, as amazing as a Kindle is for convenience and accessibility, there are some things that it just can’t do. You can't interact with an e-reader as you would a printed book.
You can’t turn down a page's corner or underline your favourite passages. You can't scribble in the margins or feel the tactile weight as you progress through the story.
You can’t leave things between the pages for the next reader, and you can't thrust it into the hands of a friend because you know this book might change their life (without lending the whole device, and just forwarding an epub or mobi file just isn't as satisfying!)
Last but not least, the wonderful book smell is also missing! Now these are all deal breakers for the most stringent of bookworms out there but none of the above is the main reason print is making such a comeback.
The real reason?
Judging a book by its cover…
We all know the old adage, “Never judge a book by its cover”…
Well, I’m here to tell you that you most definitely can and probably should. Go on! I dare you! Judge away!
Now, before you cry foul and tell me that I’m a terrible snob, hear me out and let me explain myself a little.
First off, we already secretly do, whether we want to admit it or not. We all carry around conclusions and biases that we’ve drawn from our experience of the world and these filter our worldview and perception. This is what the entire design industry is based around.
We use these unconscious biases to make assumptions based on visual design every time we book a restaurant, walk around a supermarket, or choose a movie to watch at the cinema. Bookshops are no exception.
Subtle visual clues can trigger our expectations of a book's content, and these expectations can be the difference between a sale or ignoring the book entirely.
A good cover design can tell a person instantly what genre or type of story is contained within the pages. That way you can know at a glance if you’re holding a crime thriller, a YA (young adult) romance or a fantasy epic.
However, great cover design can give the prefect, first impression and convey subtle visual information about a book to hook just the right type of person to pick it up.
In fact, a huge amount of consideration, time, effort and stringent market research goes into every cover design precisely to ensure that it attracts, not only the right type of reader, but that it gets that reader excited and thinking; "I need to read this book now!".
Every good book designer worth their salt will use their expert skills to take an author's manuscript and distil their interpretations of the text into the most concentrated, visual form it can take for it's desired audience.
We adhere to the same basic principle with our design and marketing work for our clients here at Katapult.
Investment in design
In the early 2000’s, thanks to publishers funnelling all of their energy and resources into creating digital products, physical books had become almost an afterthought and cheaply made.
Thin and flimsy paper stock, cheap printing and binding methods and bland cover art lead to books being seen as throwaway items, something to be consumed quietly, quickly and disposed of. As design and aesthetic were pushed to the back of the queue, sales began to plummet.
But times are, thankfully, changing.
Now publishers are embracing the physical, tactile nature of books again. They’re investing heavily into working with talented illustrators and designers and incorporating cutting-edge printing techniques to create books that are covetable objects.
Instead of bland paperbacks bookshelves are now lined with brilliant artwork, deckled edges, French flaps, bold typography, fearless uses of colour, intricate illustrations, elegant endpapers, interesting textures and even the odd spot of foiling.
Thanks to this fantastic increase in production quality, books are now seen as fashionable and desirable objects. They're now something to show off, to display proudly; something to collect and keep.
We’re in an age of beautiful books, and I’m loving it.
Creating inviting spaces
It’s not just cover design that’s been re-energised; certain street book retailers have overhauled their entire user experience and customer journey around this idea of books being desirable objects.
In shops like Waterstones, every little detail has been carefully considered, from the colour of the shelving to the pattern and height that books are laid out in. Many stores have even taken to presenting their books facing outwards to display their covers properly, rather than just the spine showing.
Many lay out tactile displays that encourage customers to pick up and examine the books and even provide cosy nooks and seating to inspire people to linger, get comfy and pick up more items.
High-street bookshops have become beautiful, relaxing places where people can go to unwind and lose themselves. By implementing personal touches like handwritten staff recommendations and fostering a cozy atmosphere, high street retailers like Waterstones have been able to create a much deeper connection with their customers.
As a result, these ‘boutique’ style stores can offer customers experiences they simply cannot get when they just order a book online.
It's a whole new world
Now a return to publishing’s more traditional roots does not mean that the book industry is not embracing the digital era. Far from it!
For those of you not yet initiated, may I present the wonders of ‘BookTube’.
BookTube is a niche area of YouTube dedicated to.. you guessed it… books! Now a niche collection of content creators may not sound that impressive, but the influence of BookTubers has been shown to be incredibly impactful on sales as they often have large amounts of incredibly dedicated followers
These subscribers, have grown to deeply trust the opinions of their preferred BookTubers and they highly value their recommendations, as is the case with many social media influencers.
This is something that many publishing houses have warmly welcomed into their marketing strategies. Big names in the industry such as Penguin Random House and Pan Macmillan have taken several BookTube influencers under their wings. Many have offered in-house marketing and content creation roles to these niche influencers.
Many popular booktubers sit on literary prize judging pannels and speak at literary festivals and events. Even smaller channels are acknowledged by the industry as they are often offered incentives such as proof copies of their latest releases and sponsorship for content.
The visual nature of YouTube has also aided the rise of beautifully designed covers. In many cases, book hauls (that’s showing what you’ve recently bought for the uninitiated) have become almost as popular as actual book reviews.
Buying and reading books have become a lifestyle choice in recent years, with more and more of us being drawn to their beautifully designed aesthetic thanks to the likes of BookTube. Not forgetting the thousands of dreamily styled images of books alongside flowers, pets, fairy lights and coffee cups on Instagram. Check out #Bookstagram, you won’t be disappointed!
The closing chapter
Yes, of course, books are so much more than just their pretty wrapper.
Also, a beautiful cover does not always mean that the contents within will be to your liking. Even now, in this highly design aware market, there are still some unfortunate books sporting covers that do their inner manuscripts a serious disservice.
However, if it weren’t for the publishing industry fearlessly investing in great design, conducting in-depth market research, prioritising guest experience and embracing social sharing, they may not have emerged quite so unscathed from the times of Kindle supremacy.
As a designer and self-confessed bookworm myself, I can safely say that I am loving the direction that the publishing industry is taking. It’s combining my love of reading and my passion for creative design and combining them into glorious book-shaped packages.
So next time someone turns their nose up at you for judging a book by its cover, hold your head up high and say...
"Don't worry, we're supposed to!"