RIT grad student judges books by their covers

His finding: publishers want to convey a feeling rather than the plot

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Daniel Gallagher

A Rochester Institute of Technology graduate student recently analyzed the front covers of The New York Times fiction bestsellers over two years and found that an overwhelming majority of the book covers did not depict anything about the plot. Instead, they were created to convey a feeling one might have after reading the book.

Daniel Gallagher, of Raleigh, N.C., presented his thesis to complete his Master of Science degree in communication and media technologies. He reviewed the covers of nearly 500 books from the weekly Top 10 “young adult” and “adult fiction” categories going back to November 2012.

“The aim was to examine covers to identify trends in the images or recurring themes and visual forms,” Gallagher said.

He reviewed how signs, symbols and images convey meaning as well as how images persuade and affect those who view them.

“Modern covers employ visual conventions that aim to create a feeling or sense of the book’s elements, a recreation of the experience of reading the book without presenting any actual scenes or moments in the book,” he said.

Using the Game of Thrones cover as an example, a sword is depicted on a field of blue and gives a “medieval feeling,” Gallagher said. “The sword is a recognizable symbol both of violence and the Middle Ages, a map is vaguely visible in the background and is Tolkein-esque in nature, the texture of the blue is that of stone, all of which combine to give the book its medieval feeling while communicating nothing of the actual plot. With digital technology, it’s easier to create a sense of something.”

He said even a decade ago, books in the Harry Potter series had covers that depicted a scene in the book. “But now, in the Twilight series or Hunger Games, there’s all kinds of objects,” he said.

Jonathan Schroeder, the William A. Kern Professor in Communications in RIT’s School of Communication, who was thesis adviser along with Juilee Decker, an associate professor in the Department of Performing Arts & Visual Culture, said Gallagher’s work “poses compelling questions about the relationships between the visual aspect of book covers and the verbal and text-based qualities of the book itself.

“The covers he studies create a visual experience tied to the book content and do not generally illustrate any particular event or plot line in the book,” Schroeder said. “Thus, the covers present their own little story that is instrumental in marketing the books. The covers remain important even in the digital marketplace, as book covers appear online, on Amazon and on digital editions of the books.”