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Would I look cute on a book cover? … yes, according to the fluffy kitten theory. Photograph: Nevena Uzurov/Getty Images/Flickr RF

Do you judge a book by its cover? Designers Jon Gray and Jamie Keenan shared their theories on attracting readers – from cute cats to alluring perfume – at the Edinburgh book festival.

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Guardian

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Animal figure in carved limestone found in the Judean desert and dated at 10,500-8,300 bce. From the Natufian culture which ranged from Southern Turkey to Sinai.

Why do humans make art? It can be lovely. It can be stimulating. It absorbs some of the finest minds in any society. It can change hands for ridiculous sums of money. And dizzying edifices of commentary have been built around it since the time of the Greeks. But all those aspects of art beg a fundamental question: why do we do it?

In his new book, The Art Instinct, Dennis Dutton looks to the man of the moment, Charles Darwin, for an answer.

Dutton suggests that because all humans make art, and people from many different cultures appreciate similar subjects in art, art is an evolutionary adaptation, helping humans survive as individuals and as a species. Eventually, over the millennia, art-making traits have been absorbed into the repertoire of human instinct.

“Show me something pleasurable and I’ll show you something which is very likely associated with Pleistocene adaptation,” Dutton says in conversation about the book…

His opinions of art are full of surprises. He is scathing of “postmodern” art which, descending to irony and kitsch, tells us nothing about ourselves and ignores our hankering for the sublime. Then he writes of the modernists with admiration: even Malevich, the Soviet suprematist, whose famous black square must be as far from Pleistocene tastes as one could imagine, and Duchamp’s “ready-mades”, including Fountain, the infamous urinal, which he can parse at length.

“I have an answer to that!” he says when asked why some people get so het up when faced with art they don’t like.

“When you see that reaction from the conservative, from the naive, or people on the street who say ‘That’s not a work of art’, they are harking back to the older sense of art as an honorific,” he says. “Those of us who are deeply into the art world stop making these kinds of assessments.

“But who knows? Maybe the guy in the street has a point, too. If art is a display of skill, if it is designed to reveal some kind of human spirit, then of course we might feel there is something missing in Jeff Koons’s jokes, or Damien Hirst’s pickled sharks.”

Dutton draws a clear distinction between kitsch and great art. His discussion of them in the book is more nuanced than his explorations of neo-Darwinianism — and a long way from the preferences of the Pleistocene.

“Much the greatest art of human history comes not as an expression of religion, or even of individuality, but of a human mind trying to overcome a technical problem,” he says. “The foremost example of this is Beethoven, who flourished as a composer just at the time when tonality was breaking up and romanticism was opening. He could produce these incredible quartets, these phenomenal symphonies, because he was obsessed by the problems of his craft and his art.”

The Australian

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Damien Hirst

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European libraries have joined to produce Europeana, an online database of two million books and other cultural items.

Long after other media joined the digital revolution, book publishers clung to the reassuringly low-tech tools of printing press, paper and ink.

But now the world of books is starting to go digital, too.

Late last month, American authors and publishers reached an agreement with Google to settle lawsuits over Google’s Book Search program, which scans millions of books and makes their contents available on the Internet. The deal lets Google sell electronic versions of copyrighted works that have gone out of print.

“Almost overnight, not only has the largest publishing deal been struck, but the largest bookshop in the world has been built, even if it is not quite open for business yet,” wrote Neill Denny, editor of The Bookseller, a trade publication based in London, on his blog.

The settlement remains subject to court approval, and the bookshop would operate only in the United States for now. But the agreement is only one of many initiatives under which books are making what may be the biggest technological leap since Gutenberg invented moveable type.

This month, a group of European national libraries and archives plans to open Europeana, an online database of two million books and other cultural and historical items, including films, paintings, newspapers and sound recordings. Letters from Mozart to his friends, from the Austrian National Library in Vienna are there, along with early printings of his work, from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Meanwhile, publishers are moving ahead with a flurry of digital initiatives, sometimes in a race against Internet start-ups.

“The book business model is under siege, just as the music industry earlier came under siege,” said Eileen Gittins, chief executive of Blurb, a Silicon Valley company that helps people publish their own books, using the Internet. “The book publishing business has had a front-row seat to see what happened to the music industry.”

Until recently, while the music business was decimated by digital piracy, book sales rose, aided by the ability to browse and buy from online stores like Amazon.

But in the first nine months of this year, book sales in the United States fell 1.5 percent, according to the Association of American Publishers.

Among the few bright spots were sales of so-called e-books, read on devices like Amazon’s Kindle, on personal computers or on mobile phones. Wholesale sales of e-books were up 55 percent from a year earlier.

Questions remain over the best way to deliver digital books. In the United States, a surge in sales followed the introduction of the Kindle last year and upgrades in rival devices like the Sony Reader, which allow users to download books wirelessly or from an Internet-connected computer.

But in Europe, where such devices are only slowly becoming available, sales of e-books remain in their infancy. The price of these gadgets — the Kindle, for example, costs $359 — may put off readers.

In Japan, the mobile phone has been the most popular way to read e-books, according to the Digital Content Association of Japan. Sales of digital versions of manga comic books are leading the way. Penguin said it also had high hopes for selling e-books to mobile phone users in India.

About half a million people in more than 50 countries have downloaded Stanza, an application that lets them read e-books on the iPhone, said Michael Smith, executive director of the International Digital Publishing Forum in Toronto.

“The adoption is happening,” he said. “It’s not theory. It’s happening.”

A survey published in conjunction with the Frankfurt Book Fair last month showed that 40 percent of book publishing professionals thought digital sales would surpass sales of paper-and-ink books by 2018.

Now, though, revenue from e-books and other digital sources remains tiny — less than 1 percent of the worldwide sales of Penguin Group, for example, according to Genevieve Shore, digital director for Penguin in London.

But the Google deal with the Association of American Publishers and the Authors Guild could be a catalyst. Under the proposed settlement, Google would share online sales revenue with publishers and authors.

“We’re very excited about it,” Ms. Shore said. “What it means is that a very important player in our online lives, we’re not in conflict with anymore.”

Publishers are exploring other new ways to sell books in digital form. She said Penguin was considering subscription plans, where readers would pay a monthly fee for online access to best sellers. Another possibility would be free or reduced-price online versions of books, supported by advertising — an approach adopted by newspapers on the Internet.

“We will have some interesting new business models on the market in 2009,” she said.

Free electronic versions of some books have been available for years. Project Gutenberg, a volunteer archival effort, makes more than 25,000 books available for download. Feedbooks, a start-up company in Paris, is formatting many of them for use on mobile devices.

There are limits to what readers can find on Feedbooks. George Orwell’s “1984,” for example, is available; the latest best sellers are not. That is because Project Gutenberg focuses on books whose copyrights have expired.

The Google settlement largely concerned works that were still under copyright but no longer in print. Digitizing these books could allow publishers to offer readers vast numbers of additional volumes — the so-called long tail of the Internet.

Eric Pfanner
New York Times

When we look at a book, its cover tells us what to expect. A pink paperback featuring a smiling young woman is most likely a female-centric summer read, whereas a gun on a black background is probably a murder story. A few simple aesthetic rules narrow our options, make life easier and ensure none of us has to wander Waterstone’s for hours, wailing in confusion. And yet the rules seem to be changing.

Having cottoned on to the fact that chick lit books sell like cupcakes, publishers are now adding chick lit-style covers to any book written by a woman whether it fits the genre definition or not.

Fay Weldon has spoken out against the use of chick lit branding on her books as she feels it’s misleading to readers. And I’ve talked to several authors of contemporary fiction who hate the way their books have been similarly marketed: one pleaded with her publisher to change her covers, to no avail.

Instead, books aimed at women are becoming increasingly homogenised, girly and bland-looking.

Rosy Thornton’s Hearts and Minds has been described as a book which “tackles some very pertinent contemporary issues in education as well as [a] tangle of moral dilemmas” in a large scale, 19th century-style drama. It sounds positively Dickensian, and yet it would be hard to find a book that looked more like a light romantic comedy.

Except perhaps for Sue Hepworth’s Zuzu’s Petals. A warm, empathetic novel that poignantly portrays the pain of losing a parent and the anxieties of finding love later in life, its cover makes it look like it’s about garden parties and designer clothes.

When Emma Barnes of Snowbooks, which publishes Zuzu’s Petals, blogged here last year, she said that, “We need [a cover] to be reminiscent of all the things it’s like so that its potential readership can pick it out of a line-up.” While this attitude makes sense, I think publishers have taken it to extremes. Keen to make new books look like old favourites, the slightest similarities between authors have been over-emphasised, giving the impression that each book is the same as every other.

From the covers, Zuzu’s Petals looks strikingly similar to Petite Anglaise, which in turn looks like Emily Giffin’s latest, Love the One You’re With, and yet there is no link between these three books that I can think of, other than they were all written by women under 60. Which seems a pretty tenuous reason for their books to look so alike. If you’re a woman releasing a book, then, you should apparently expect pale colours, swirly writing and an insipid tag line – whether your story is a moving story about grief, a blog-turned-bestseller about life in Paris or a potential chick lit classic.

But this affliction doesn’t only blight women who write. Male authors who create sympathetic female characters are also at risk. Douglas Kennedy’s work is frequently lauded for its intelligence and vision, yet his novels all feature non-descript pictures of wistful-looking women and the ubiquitous flowing script that denotes a female-friendly beach book. (The women on his covers are even sitting on beaches, to really hammer the message home …)

I hope publishers will soon realise that their tactic isn’t working and could, in fact, backfire badly. If all book covers look the same, then none stand out. And if we know that how a book looks is no indication of its content, we might just become so dispirited that we bypass the bookstore and rent a DVD instead.

Diane Shipley
The Guardian

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Every now and then, someone who is brilliant says something stupid — often the result of spending too much time riding a jet stream of high praise. Steve Jobs, the co-founder and chief executive of Apple Inc., did such a thing last month when he all but declared the death of reading.

Asked about Kindle, the electronic book reader from Amazon.com, Jobs was dismissive. “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is,” he told John Markoff of The Times, “the fact is that people don’t read anymore. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year.”

This is nonsense on several levels…

Reading is something else, an engagement of the imagination with life experience. It’s fad-resistant, precisely because human beings are hard-wired for story, and intrinsically curious. Reading is not about product.

For most of my lifetime, I’ve heard that reading is dead. In that time, disco has died, drive-in movies have nearly died, and something called The Clapper has come and gone through bedrooms across the nation.

But reading? This year, about 400 million books will be sold in the United States. Overall, business is up 1 percent — not bad, in a rough economy, for a $15 billion industry still populated by people whose idea of how to sell books dates to Bartleby the Scrivener…

Last year, a survey for the Associated Press found that a much smaller number — 27 percent — had not read a book lately, which means nearly three-in-four have read a book. Steve Jobs may be many things – maestro, visionary, demi-god – but he apparently isn’t a careful reader of certain market reports.

The more compelling statistic was rarely mentioned in news accounts of the A.P. story: the survey found that another 27 percent of Americans had read 15 or more books a year. That report documents a national celebration.

Most companies would kill for a market like that – more than one-fourth of the world’s biggest consumer market buying 15 or more of its items a year. And half the population bought nearly 6 books a year. If only Apple were so lucky. The latest Harry Potter book sold 9 million copies in its first 24 hours – in English. “The DaVinci Code,” a story of ideas even with its wooden characters and absurd plotting, has sold more than 60 million copies.

By contrast, Apple reported selling a piddling 3.7 million of the much-hyped iPhones through 2007. Is the iPhone dead? Of course not. But what should be dead are foolish statements about how human nature itself has changed because of some new diversion for our thumbs.

Timothy Egan
New York Times

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Clockwise from left: Livrario Lello in Porto, Hatchards in London, El Ateneo in Buenos Aires

Every booklover has their favourite shop, and while it’s true that many independents have been driven out of business by online sales and supermarket bestsellers, you still don’t have to look too hard to find one that’s thriving.

The Guardian

To read the Guardian’s full list of the top ten bookstores in the world: Bookstores