Dead Programmer's Cafe

O’Reilly Book Covers

Joel Spolsky wrote about an interesting limitation that he encountered when choosing a cover design for his book:

“And although they would not put a doggie on the cover of my book as I requested, because a certain other book publisher threatens to sue his competitors when they put anything animal like within 90 feet of their covers, their graphic designer worked overtime to create underground cover art called “User Interface Design for Doggies” complete with three golden retrievers, which they framed and sent to me. All in all a classy operation and highly recommended if you’re thinking of writing a computer book.”

The publisher is, of course, O’Reilly Media. The are famous for publishing computer programming books with engravings of animals on the covers. Like any programmer’s, my bookshelf holds a pretty sizable zoo of these critters. The question that always comes to mind is what guides the selection – how the publisher decides which animal to match with which technology. Here’s what O’Reilly editors say:

“Our look is the result of reader comments, our own experimentation, and feedback from distribution channels. Distinctive covers complement our distinctive approach to technical topics, breathing personality and life into potentially dry subjects.”

Well, with some books it’s clear – a spider for a webmaster book and a python for a Python book, for instance. But why does the Perl book have a camel? Wouldn’t an oyster make a lot more sense?

Update: Joe Grossberg commented that camel was chosen “because Perl uses camelCase for capitalizing variables”. John (website or last name not included) said that “camel was picked for Perl because of the quip that it was a ‘horse designed by a committee'”. I like John’s version much better :)

Joe also started a Wikipedia article on the subject.

One of the more understandable conventions is using Javan animals on Java-related books. For instance, the Java book has a Javan tiger and the JavaScript book has a Javan rhino.

O’Reilly colophons rarely give too much insight into why that particular animal was chosen for the cover, but sometimes you might read between the lines:

“Like the crustaceans after which they are named, crab spiders walk sideways or backwards. They feed on bees and other pollenizing insects, often laying in wait for them by hiding on flowers.”

“Both male and female pythons retain vestiges of their ancestral hind legs. The male python uses these vestiges, or spurs, when courting a female”

“Folklore has long held that the horn of the rhinoceros possesses magical and aphrodisiacal powers, and that humans who gain possession of the horns will gain those powers, also.”

“Tigers are the largest of all cats, weighing up to 660 pounds and with a body length of up to 9 feet. They are solitary animals, and, unlike lions, hunt alone.

There are some tigers, however, who have developed a taste for human flesh. This is a particularly bad problem in an area of India and Bangladesh called the Sunderbans.”

The ironic thing is, Javan tigers are extinct and there are only about 100 Javan rhinos remaining. Is that a dig at these languages?

One of the most ironic, yet clearly unintentional choices was that of a stingray for the cover of ASP.NET in a Nutshell.