June 3, 2016

Look at the books, look how they shine for you; or, why more and more books are yellow


Yeah, they're all yellow

Yeah, they’re all yellow

You, Reader, are a regular bookstore-goer. You are wont to traipse into strange rooms and begin caressing books you don’t yet own. You flip through physical pages, read some words here and some words there. Sometimes you see a cover and just gasp. Now that’s a cover, you say. That’s a damn book cover. It is thoughtful, it is striking. You must know more about the words for which it serves as a jacket.

Other times, you see a cover and it doesn’t catch your eye—but you’ve caught the bookseller’s. And the bookseller says, I saw you looking at that book, it’s one of my favorites. What do you do now, Reader? You buy the book. The book becomes one of your favorites. You love the book forever. You’re welcome, says the bookseller.

Friends, there is a name for this delicate ecosystem of exploration, persuasion, and acquisition.  We call it bliss. Brick-and-mortar ecstasy.

Your actions and decisions, of course, are subtle. Nuanced. Deliberate, even. But not everyone is a regular bookstore-goer, Reader, and it comes as no surprise that an increasing number of people do most of their book shopping online (Amazon accounts for 45% of book sales according to Peter Hildick-Smith, president of industry researcher Codex-Group, LLC), where they cannot see much detail in a book cover or peruse the book’s physical pages or interact with a bookseller prior to purchasing it.

And this is why all books are yellow now.

As Peter Mendelsund, associate art director at Knopf and author of What We See When We Read and Cover, recently told the Wall Street Journal’s Lucy Feldman, “There’s a kind of maximalist attitude toward color, I think mainly because we operate from the fearful assumption that no one’s going to look at the book unless it’s screaming at you.”

This maximalist tendency appears to be getting ramped up as more and more people are shopping for books online. Covers are seen displayed not in vibrant community spaces like bookstores and libraries, but on drab, sterile websites like Amazon. These digital retailers often display books against plain white backgrounds. As a result, a lot of the books there — those whose covers are plain white, or too simple, or too detailed — look pallid and boring. In the fight for our precious attention, in a venue where only limited engagement is possible, these books lose out.

In an attempt to solve this problem, publishers have been clothing more and ever more of their books in retina-cracking yellow.

But yellow isn’t the only eye-catching color out there. I’ve seen red pop, and orange pop, too. So why yellow? Feldman and Schiff speculate that it may be a matter of convenience:

Yellow jumps off online pages and it can support both dark and bright type and graphics. Also, it carries no gender association and can signify anything from sunshine and optimism to a danger warning, making it a strong choice for a variety of genres and topics. “A designer will do what they think works, and then we’ll present it, and if it happens to be on white they’ll say, ‘Oh, can we see it on a color?’ Rather than change the whole design, it’s simpler to go ‘OK: yellow,’” Ms. Schiff said.

Fair enough.


Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.