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All the O'reilly titles, and numerous other programming books usually have a typified icon for their covert art. Sometimes it's minstrels, or medieval figures, and sometimes its camels and strange animals.

This is, however, a consistent phenomenon. Why do you think programming books have such weird (interesting) motifs for cover art?

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closed as not constructive by ChrisF Mar 28 '12 at 9:28

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Programmers are bad at art? :-) – Brian Knoblauch Jan 26 '11 at 21:17
Cause its awesome – acidzombie24 Jan 26 '11 at 21:22
@Brian: speak for yourself, I can draw a mean AND gate ;D – sova Jan 26 '11 at 21:22
Because if the publishers decided to put what programmers really enjoy as cover art, you could only buy these books in 'adult' shops. – Mchl Jan 26 '11 at 21:35
Is it my imagination but did O'Reilly use cats/dogs for Apple and Fish/Birds for MS. Which book had the Dodo on it? – Loki Astari Jan 26 '11 at 21:42

11 Answers 11

up vote 27 down vote accepted

So that you can tell them apart.

What else are they going to put? A bunch of 1s and 0s or some nonsensical code sample?

People like pretty pictures.

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Neo could make out the 1s & 0s... – DevSolo Jan 26 '11 at 21:20
1s and 0s, code samples, pictures of guys getting screen tans and drinking black coffee. – Adam Crossland Jan 26 '11 at 21:20
I had to think about what a "screen tan" was for a while. – sova Jan 26 '11 at 22:18
@DevSolo - Neo and Jon Skeet – AndrewKS Jan 26 '11 at 23:22
large mugs of black coffee would be accurate at least – LRE Jan 26 '11 at 23:56

Edie Freedman, the designer of the O'Reilly animal covers that started the trend in the late 80s, explains why she used animals:

When I was first approached by O'Reilly to propose new covers for their books, I was immersed in the VAX/VMS world of Digital Equipment Corporation. I had heard of UNIX, but I had a very hazy idea of what it was. I had never met a UNIX programmer or tried to edit a document using vi. All of the terms associated with vi, sed and awk, uucp, lex, yacc, curses, to name just a few, sounded to me like words that might come out of a popular game called "Dungeons and Dragons." I developed a mental picture of the UNIX programmer as a "Dungeons and Dragons" player. As I started to look for imagery for the book covers, I came across some wonderful wood engravings from the 19th century. The strange animals I found seemed to be a perfect match for all those strange-sounding UNIX terms, and were esoteric enough to appeal to what I believed the UNIX programmer type to be.

When I presented the first animal covers to the people at O'Reilly, they were a bit taken aback.

"But they're so ugly!" said one.

"No one will want to pick these up!" said another.

"They're scary!"

Tim liked the quirkiness of the animals, and thought it would help to make the books stand out from other publishers' offerings. Today, the O'Reilly animal brand is well known all over the world.

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That's sure better than all those other artwork on other books. – jokoon Jan 27 '11 at 9:41
That's actually a rather involved answer. How fascinating! – sova Jan 27 '11 at 20:35

Probably the biggest reason is that unlike other disciplines such as architecture or mechanical engineering, there isn't anything "iconic" that really represents the discipline. For architecture you can place a sketch of the Sydney Opera House or some other well-recognized building, you could stick a complex mechanical assembly on a mechanical engineering book, but for software?

Software books have more interesting motifs than other areas because there's no "obvious" profession-based cover options.

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I got my degree in Mechanical Engineering and probably 2/3 of my textbooks just had a landscape or some animal or something only vaguely related. – whatsisname Jan 26 '11 at 21:22
+1 This is undoubtedly the main reason. (The lack of a real 'icon'.) – Noldorin Jan 26 '11 at 23:58

Everybody knows the books they use a lot by the animal on the cover:

Perl: Everybody knows the camel book. If you are flashy you have the panther book.

Compilers: Everybody has the dragon book on their shelves.

Look at Design Patterns. It got reduced down to GOF. I bet they wish they went with an animal on the cover.

This is a publisher thing that is linked to marketing.
Series of books will usually have a theme just to allow them to stand out on bookshelves. There is no magical (hidden) meaning behind any of it.

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I remember having the Wrox Ruby on Rails book. I think I would have preferred a pencil sketched animal.… – Cyrena Jan 26 '11 at 22:13
Programming Perl is almost as well known by "The Camel Book", and as for Compilers (Aho et al.), well people know it as the "Dragon Book" so much so, that I would not be surprised if a lot of people who have it do not know the actual title. – Orbling Jan 26 '11 at 22:16
@Cyrena: that image is borderline absurd -- kinda dying of laughter over here – sova Jan 26 '11 at 23:04
and don't forget the "goat" book - the autotools collection. – Will Jan 26 '11 at 23:28
@Orbling: Here be dragons! You're right, I had to go and look what the real title was. – Piskvor Jan 27 '11 at 7:25

I figure that O'Reilly started it with the animals on the covers. If your books are good (which theirs were), it's nice to have them easily recognised so you get repeat customers, yet individually and clearly unqiue with each animal. It's easier to remember an animal than a boring title.

Since O'Reilly was successful and had a high standard of books other publishers knocked off the idea, and in the case where they look similar perhaps in the hope that customers confused them with O'Reilly books.

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so do you think other programming books follow this motif in efforts to capitalize off of the O'reilly wave? (Like Livescript becoming JavaScript) ? – sova Jan 26 '11 at 23:08
Nah, O'Reilly didn't start it. Check out the 1977 edition of Aho and Ullman's classic Dragon Book, "Principles of Compiler Design". It looks like something Napoleon Dynamite drew with crayons.… – Bob Murphy Jan 27 '11 at 4:48
The Dragon book is different. The O'Reilly books seems to only show odd but existing animals. I like the colophon which describes these animals. – nkassis Feb 7 '11 at 1:41
I am writing a book for O'Reilly and I have to say when they first send me the cover art It was a HUGE thrill! I got an animal (A stormy petrel in my case) – Zachary K May 3 '11 at 6:56

It makes you feel like if you learn this, you will acquire the power of the animal on the cover. I am a panther Yea!!!!

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"Land of Lisp" has a 7-eyed green monster elephant on it, with a trunk that has 3 fingers on the end, waving a lisp banner as he drives his rocket car... – sova Jan 26 '11 at 22:20
"I am Jack's 7-eyed green monster elephant. I help Jack write Lisp." – Will Jan 26 '11 at 23:31
+ 1 @ Will for the awesome Fight Club Ref. – Terrance Jan 27 '11 at 13:40

Possibly because people who are not Donald Knuth do not feel they have any business having serious book covers.

It could also be that programmers are not the kind of boring idiots who would look at an engraving of a loris and think, "Hey, this book has a monkey or something on the front... It must be about monkeys." It's hard to say how many bad programmers we don't have to deal with because programming books don't seem to look like programming books.

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Actually, Knuth books are quite nicely illustrated: – SK-logic Jan 27 '11 at 11:26
I have the more staid hardbound edition of that, but point taken. I was thinking of TAOCP. – Jesse Millikan Jan 27 '11 at 15:24

Having been involved in publishing of technical books that are sold everywhere, I can tell you that every element that goes into a book is based on one thing -- driving sales. The relative size of the book, the width of the binding, the shininess of the cover, the font....there is NOTHING that is not considered by publishers when putting a book on the shelf or online and making it available for sale.

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interesting. do you think anyone ever considered making pop-up programming books? Might be a great intro to OOP – sova Jan 27 '11 at 20:38
Hmm, for some programming languages I think scratch-n-sniff would be more appropriate. – Donal Fellows Jan 27 '11 at 21:34

Wacky Animals, A Splash Motif, Yellow cover with a self deprecating title, these are all indications of a brand identity. O'Reilly is famous for the animal books, so much so that other books on some of their subjects just don't sell well. When everyone says: "Get the Bat Book", you win.

Building a brand identity is a way for people to feel comfortable with you as a company, which makes people trust you, which gives you an edge.

And hey, it's fun. At least the animals.

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It has to do with culture of programming books.

The well-known programming books are "The X Book"

X = {Purple, Dragon, Camel, Dinosaur, etc}.

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About the animals on the covers. Its not really that programming books have them, its just how O'Reilly brands their books. Google Advertising Tools is a business book yet has an animal on their cover.

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Seems like the animal motif might make people think the book is more technical though: the one review that that book has says "Don't waste your money on this book, the book feels like it's written by a used car salesmen with very little technical understanding of how code works, or any kind of proven strategy to capitalize off of advertising. The book contains no content that is not easily available through simple google searches. I wish I could give this book lower than one star." – sova Jan 26 '11 at 23:07
@sova: lol, and i forgot "Their distinctive brand features a woodcut of an animal on many of their book covers" – acidzombie24 Jan 27 '11 at 1:07
maybe it is just coincidence, but the tarsier'Reilly_logo.png and fox news bill o'reilly look strikingly similar – sova Jan 27 '11 at 5:53

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