On Telling/Selling a Book by Its Cover

Essay Excerpt

"Photographs in themselves do not narrate. Photographs preserve instant appearances" (Berger 1980:55). But of course, those appearances are selectively preserved, just as photographs are used and interpreted selectively. This essay considers one particular use of photographs - on book covers. There, as elsewhere, a picture is worth a thousand words. But who produces them, whom do they address, what do they say, and what discursive form do these "words" take? Different readings, conventions of representation, and institutional settings intersect in a book cover; a cover is a marketing device, an aesthetic production, and a representation that may relate to a book's content. What picture can help sell a thousand books?

That question is appropriate to and indicative of the late-20th-century context of American book publishing, when book merchandising has multiple intersections with that of magazines, films, and other media representations. Tracing changes in various book conventions - from titles, to topics, to tables of contents - could tell particular histories of reading, writing, design, and publishing, but in this paper I simply consider contemporary book covers. Written when my first book was a month from final page proofs (before I had seen its cover design), I was caught in that moment when years of work and experience become objectified in a densely commodified form. Despite the text-oriented nature of most academic writing, the tensions of that moment often crystalize in the question of the book's cover (179).

Kratz, C. A. "On Telling/Selling a Book by Its Cover." Cultural Anthropology 9.2(1994): 179–200.

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