Stories Behind Classic IT Book Covers

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When we think of IT books, we often have that futuristic image of keyboards and Matrix-like illustrations on the front cover. That or it will just be plain text on a solid color background. In short, we have come to see IT and technology books as bland, boring and predicable.

However, cover illustrations do help sell books. And for this reason, authors and publishers have been thinking out of the box to provide us with interesting and eye catching book covers. Sometimes, it depicts something totally related to the subject matter – like an image of a toolbox for a book that talks about programming tools.

However, if you are like us, you must have observed that some IT books have weird or unrelated cover illustrations. What gives? What is the story behind these illustrations? Why were these images chosen?

Lucky for you, we did not stop at being curious and dug deeper. Here are some answers to some questions you might have about famous IT books and their covers:

First, why does the sea otter appear on “Perl for System Administration: Managing multi-platform environments with Perl?”

The answer, actually, is quite simple.

It seems that the author, David N. Blank-Edelman, is an environmentalist and is a big fan of sea otters. Blank-Edelman is a member of the advocacy group Friends of the Sea Otter and encourages people to join the group. On his blog, he often writes about saving the sea otters and about how these little creatures help the earth, such as in combating global warming.

Other than this, Blank-Edelman also seems to liken sea otters to system administrators. In the book itself, he notes that sea otters are intelligent and agile. They are able to do more than one thing at a time. Sea otters, the author writes, are able to use tools ingeniously. Very much like the systems administrator who has to juggle a lot of things on his or her plate, has the intelligence to do all the tasks required of him or her, and knows which tools to use for every situation.

Additionally, O’Reilly Media, the book’s publisher, is also known for using animals for its book covers. Edie Freedman, who is now the creative director for the publishing firm, used animals on the first O’Reilly covers. It generated a lot of buzz and it made for great branding for the books, so O’Reilly continued putting animals on its book covers.

Just take a look at the book cover illustrations from other IT titles published by O’Reilly:

Maven: The Definitive Guide

Unix in a Nutshell, Fourth Edition

Learning the bash Shell: Unix Shell Programming

Bash Cookbook: Solutions and Examples for Bash Users

So it would be a given that an animal would be used for the cover illustration of Blank-Edelman’s book. Given the author’s love for the sea otter, it would follow that the otter would be used.

And what a great decision it was. Blank-Edelman’s books on the same topics have become collectively known as The Otter Books. The author has even used the moniker for his Web site URL at and he uses @otterbook as his Twitter handle.


Next, how about this crazy boat scene on the cover of UNIX and Linux System Administration Handbook?

Some people have suggested that the boat is a reference to main author Evi Nemeth’s love for boats. This was something written in the “about the author” blurb, as well as mentioned in not a few interviews about the book.

A closer look at the illustration, however, reveals a much simpler explanation. Some of the drawings are literal translations of Linux and Unix terms as well as computer-related words, such as perl, files, booting up, python, spam, spyware, core, cron and Apache.

Others are depictions of famous people, such as Linus Torvalds, who is influential in developing the Linux kernel and Ken Thompson, a computer science pioneer and designer of the original Unix system.

Others reference the illustrations used in the chapter cartoons inside the book, such as the Windows Gorilla.

And yes, Evi Nemeth is on the cover too, which is a throwback to the covers of previous editions.

So, it may look like a hodgepodge of unrelated cartoony characters at first glance, but it is actually a well-planned and carefully thought out cover illustration.

Lastly, why is a tribal man prominently featured on the cover of Unlocking Android: A Developer’s Guide?

Android books come out very often nowadays. Usually, you have the Android logo or the Android robot on the cover, along with the title on most of these books.

Not on this one.

Unlocking Android: A Developer’s Guide features a man without anything but a piece of cloth to cover his groin area, his naked body full of tattoo.

The illustration was taken from a French book published in 1796, the Encyclopedie des Voyages by JG St. Saveur. The travel guide was largely a book about dress customs.

The book shows that these dress codes were enough to tell apart different people and cultures, even if they have lived very near each other. It denoted uniqueness, inventiveness and initiative on their part.

Manning, the publisher of the book, uses illustrations from this book for its other covers. This is to celebrate the inventiveness, fun and initiative of people in the computer business.

We do think that this is largely a branding decision. All Manning books have similar illustrations taken from the same book. So much so that if you are looking at a list of IT books on Amazon or on a bookstore shelf, it would be easy to identify a Manning book even without reading anything.

They say that it is never wise to judge a book by its cover, and these three are the prime examples for that. If a reader fails to look past the cartoony, unrelated and weird cover illustrations of these titles, they would never know just how helpful these books are. Some consider these books as the definitive guide for their subject matter and even profess that these are the IT versions of the bible that they couldn’t live without.

Have you read these books? Which IT book covers do you appreciate?

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