If you’ve ever wondered why the same images appear on book covers over and over, there’s a fairly simple explanation. (I should specify, by the way, that I mean academic press books. The pockets of trade publishers are apparently bottomless.) For many in the humanities the choices come to the same set of classical paintings that are out of copyright. Now, in a capitalist system, copyright is a necessary idea. It protects those who create intellectual property from being taken advantage of. Their work is treated like a physical object, so an accurate image of a painting is the same as the painting itself. But if you’ve ever been to an art gallery you know that’s not exactly true. Art galleries show us that being in the presence of the real thing is different than seeing a reproduction. But I digress.
Books are not only recognized by their covers, but sold by them. It’s a strange industry and part of the reason why goes back to one of those eye-glazing-over court cases involving (yawn) taxes. In 1979 the Supreme Court ruled that companies could no longer devalue old stock for tax purposes. This was the Thor Power Tool Company v Commissioner case. The court ruled old stock had to be assessed at value. While this was about manufacturing, it deeply impacted books. Publishers now had to destroy old stock (and books are printed in quantity) or face heavy tax consequences. This led to books being pulped much more quickly than usual (they could then be written off as losses) and directly impacted the book cover.
Despite the old adage, every publisher knows people do judge books by their covers. Since 1979, extra care has been given to covers to make books sell quickly, and in significant numbers. Now granted, your nuts and bolts will still be useful in future power tools, but books sell differently. A typical book has a three-year lifespan. Sure, there will be those (like yours truly) who’ll buy a book that’s been out for a while, but most books are considered dead after year three. That old stock is a liability and pulping is common. It seems an inglorious end for such a noble product. Not to mention wasteful. Academic books have similar covers because copyright images are often too expensive to license for covers. Constantly publishers have to guess as best they can how many copies will sell because old stock is too expensive too keep. Print on demand has changed a lot of things as well, but that’s a different story. Covers still do count.