So, I’ve been doing some research into printing and bookbinding recently. (It’s changed a bit since my mom worked in a bookbinding factory before I was born.) And I discovered something. For a case-bound book (read: hardcover) it’s actually a little bit cheaper to produce a full-color cover than it is to produce the cloth-covered style that we usually associate with hardcovers. That means that the artwork could be on the book itself, like we do with paperbacks, and there would be no need for a dust jacket. So why do we still have dust jackets?

Obviously, one answer is “convention.” Hardcovers are the high-end books, and high-end books are supposed to have dust jackets. But, of course, I’ve also been researching the history of the dust jacket recently. Up until probably the early 20th century, the dust jacket was disposable. You were meant to tear it off, like gift wrap, and throw it away. It was there to protect the expensive color printing — you guessed it — on the cover of the book itself. The transition of dustcover from disposable shipping paper to the primary medium for the cover art came about because publishers were looking for ways to cut costs, and printing on a piece of paper was cheaper than printing on the cover itself. So what we associate with convention and quality was, in fact, itself a cost-saving measure.

I’m fascinated with how we cling to convention as the “right” way to do things without taking into account how it became “right” in the first place. It’s the mindset that led to enormous steamships like the Titanic being built with masts. Or the expectation that men in dress shirts should wear a tie (which is an article of clothing originally intended to protect the more expensive dress shirt, not as a flashy piece of useless apparel). How many things are we doing inefficiently today because we’ve never thought about why we started doing it that way, and whether or not that’s still the best approach?

I do, in fact, have several hardcover books that came with the artwork printed on the cover and without a dust jacket. Barnes & Noble in fact has a whole line that is produced this way. And they look beautiful. Truly. And they’re generally less expensive than books with dust jackets. Heretofore, I had assumed this was because Barnes & Noble was both publisher and distributor, but now I’m not so sure.

So, seriously, folks. Why do we still expect hardcover novels to come with a dust jacket? Does it serve any purpose other than to get torn and tattered before the book does?

Enquiring minds want to know.

One thought on “Convention

  1. And on the subject of cover art, I’ve always wondered why there has to be a different cover in different countries? Sometimes the European covers are so much more beautiful than US ones. And wouldn’t it have been more cost effective to have kept the same cover? Or is it because different publishing companies handle distribution in different countries? And why oh why did they have to Americanize Harry Potter and other books by British writers? Does pavement really need to be edited and turned into sidewalk? I’m sure most readers would love to see the differences in vocabulary (or is that just me?). And the US would get the books sooner!!