It’s always interesting to see what books others read. As a reader yourself, I’m sure that, when you first walk into someone’s home, your eyes are drawn to their bookshelves. When you see someone reading on a train, or in a cafe, or on a park bench, it’s hard to resist turning your head to catch sight of the book cover.
But that’s only possible if they’re reading a print copy. If they’re using an app on a phone, or a dedicated e-reader, there is no visible cover. They could be reading anything.
Annoying in some ways, but from another angle it’s incredibly liberating. While some people might want to be seen with certain books, I would imagine most readers simply want to enjoy the book, without having the outside world intruding. And we don’t want strangers judging us on one book we happen to be reading at that particular moment.
E-books allow us to read anonymously.
And this, I believe, has been of benefit to certain genres of fiction.
Maybe the most obvious example is erotica (or, as I believe it is referred to on Kobo, ‘active romance’). While many people enjoy reading erotica, there has always been (and still is) a certain stigma attached to these books, and for a lot of readers it is (was?) something of a guilty pleasure. With covers that leave little to the imagination, reading erotica has long been something reserved for those quiet moments behind closed doors.
But without covers, this issue goes away.
You could argue that people openly read the Fifty Shades books, but the covers for these books (and other ‘mainstream erotica’) are far more subtle. And, with any popular book, a reader can always say they were simply trying to figure out what all the fuss was about. People feel safe reading popular books.
But erotica isn’t the only genre to have benefited from books with no cover. I’d say that genre fiction in general now has a wider ‘open’ readership.
This is (in part) down to how people want to be perceived, and can be illustrated by something supernatural thriller author and indie-publishing expert Joanna Penn has often said.
When she started writing, she believed that she should write something ‘proper’, citing Umberto Eco as an example. ‘Proper’ authors like Eco wrote serious literature, books that won prizes and were praised for their literary merit. But the books she enjoyed reading were things like Dan Brown thrillers.
I think this is a fairly common mindset—writing (and reading) is seen as an intellectual activity, and books should be literary art. Yet we are drawn to stories and interesting characters. Art-house cinema and ‘serious’ films win praise, but most of us would prefer a couple of hours of escapism, with snappy dialogue, chases and explosions (or whatever flavour of ‘popcorn entertainment’ is your bag). And this carried over to our reading. We’d rather be seen with a ‘serious’ book than something frivolous, even if we’d rather be reading some pulpy sci-fi.
But now, with e-readers and phones, we can read exactly what we want, without fear of judgment.
Of course, the opposite could also be true. Some years ago, I’d read on my lunch-break, and one of my co-workers, seeing the size of the book, asked in a derogatory fashion, “What’s that, War And Peace?”, like reading something serious should be looked down on. (When I replied with a simple, truthful, “Yes”, the conversation was over, and I could carry on reading). If I’d been reading on my phone, they never would have made that comment—they probably would have assumed I was on social media.
The lack of a visible cover also goes some way to explaining the popularity of YA (Young Adult, for those of you unfamiliar with the term). Ostensibly, these books are aimed at older teenagers, but the various subgenres are popular with all ages. Of course, Harry Potter and the Hunger Games books are YA that it is okay to read, but these books, like the Fifty Shades books, are available in more ‘mainstream’ covers.
None of this should really matter. We should be able to read what we want, when we want, without concerns over how others may see us. But we all judge. So reading e-books, where the only way someone else can know what we are reading is by either asking or by looking over our shoulder, is an ideal way to read whatever we want.