Friday, June 29, 2007

Inviolate Album Cover Designs And Mutable Book Cover Designs

Comparing the way that the perennially-selling media products of books and music are marketed, it is curious how the graphic design of music seems to be set in stone and rarely repackaged, while books in contrast often take the opportunity to refresh and update their cover designs for new editions.

If I went out today and bought a copy of The Beatle’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or U2’s The Joshua Tree, they would have the same cover designs they have had since their original release dates in the sixties and the eighties, even though at some point they made the transition from twelve inch vinyl to the smaller CD-sized format. However, if I went to buy some books that I read in the eighties today, it would be most unlikely that they are still bearing the same cover designs. Ultimately, this dichotomy must have to do with the differing economics driving these two media industries.

It does seem to be a lost opportunity that the collected output of one musical artist rarely, if ever, gets a global redesign. In contrast, look at the way author’s books are periodically given a consistent make-over every couple of years. While linked series of novels forming one narrative sequence have always used a shared cover design scheme, it is also common for an author’s complete output to be similarly visually unified. There is a marketing advantage to building brand awareness in this manner: ‘if you liked this book, then perhaps you will also like these other books by the same author’. The publishing industry’s unified product approach resonates with the corporate identity systems geek in me.

To apply that principle to music: what if all of an artist’s album covers were redesigned and unified to coincide with the release of their latest album? Given that older albums must see some increase in sales whenever their latest album is being most heavily marketed. Wouldn’t a unified appearance across their career output further help their back-catalogue sales?

Why could it be that customers would be less inclined to buy Nirvana’s album Nevermind if it did not have the same swimming baby it has always had on the cover, while they would happily pay for Iain Bank’s novel The Crow Road with the redesigned sepia-tone cover it is being sold with today?

Examples from the redesigned sepia-tone covers introduced in 2007,
consistent across all of Banks’ titles.

Examples from the previous monotone covers that all of Bank’s books
had since his debut novel ‘The Wasp Factory’.

At the macro level, does the book publishing industry value the utility of design more by reinvesting in it to constantly repackage its products? Or does the music industry value design in a different way by respecting the integrity of the original cover design and its relationship to the time and context in which the music was first released? Why do book sales benefit from redesigned covers whereas music does not?

Examples of Paul Auster's books which have now also been unified
under a consistent design aesthetic.

There is also the related fact that the same book can be published with completely different cover designs on the translated editions for sale in different countries.

Examples of variant cover for Harry Potter novels in different languages.

Finally, another design opportunity that publishing has which music lacks is the change in format when a book moves from its hardback edition into paperback. This allows for a focusing of the sales message and a subtle or indeed not-so-subtle repositioning. Taking an example to hand, the original hardback edition of John Simmons’s book The Invisible Grail sitting on my shelf uses the subtitle ‘In search of the true languages of brands’ while the later paperback edition available on Amazon uses the subtitle ‘How brands can use words to engage with audiences’. The messaging, the design and the wording on the cover can be finessed based on feedback from the initial hardback sales. In this instance moving from a more oblique passive statement to a more active, strident declaration.