Why (& How) Books Sometimes Get New Covers

Novelist and Editor-at-Large, Jessica Strawser, shares some of the many reasons why book covers might see redesigns over the course of their lifespans.
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Novelist and Editor-at-Large, Jessica Strawser, shares some of the many reasons why book covers might see redesign over the course of their lifespans.

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You get only one chance, the saying goes, to make a first impression. But if your book launched in hardcover and a paperback edition is forthcoming—or if you’re releasing, or rereleasing, any new edition, no matter your publisher or method—you might get a second chance after all.

We’re talking, of course, about book covers: Those all-important marketing tools we’re not supposed to judge a book by (though who are we kidding?).

With my first two novels at St. Martin’s Press, everyone involved was so thrilled with our hardcover packages we wouldn’t have dreamed of changing the look of the paperbacks. When it came to my third book, however, turnover in editorial and marketing staff (which, as you’ve likely heard but bears repeating, is extremely common in the publishing industry) meant Forget You Know Me changed hands more than once between acquisition and publication.

The hardcover released to starred trade reviews in February 2019—but behind the scenes, our work wasn’t done yet. With every new publishing team comes a new opportunity to get additional, experienced takes on the best possible cover to capture a story—and, more to the point, its audience. Thus, as we looked ahead to the March 2020 trade paperback release, a collective decision was made to undergo a redesign.

What are the reasons a book might get a new cover in a new format or edition? Does the author have input? And how much can redesigns differ from originals?

Let’s look at some side-by-side examples—across different genres, but with universal takeaways—to find out.

Women’s Fiction / Domestic Suspense

With Forget You Know Me, the initial cover conveyed something unsettling going on behind closed doors—a popular look in domestic suspense. But when a look gets too popular, you risk similar books blending together on a crowded shelf: a cue to look again at what sets yours apart.

Forget You Know Me is a cross-genre novel, driven by characters whose closest relationships are pushed to change and grow, so the cover design shift (which hits shelves this week) prioritizes that. Note that a character is now included in the frame, while maintaining the undercurrent of the original ripped photo effect:

Forget you know me book covers
Forget You Know Me book covers

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When Kelly Simmons’ The Fifth of July released from Sourcebooks Landmark in 2017, it was a trade paperback original—yet this year, they decided to launch a redesign without the impetus of a format change. Knowing what elements of the story readers are responding to can give marketing teams direction on what to emphasize.

“The idea was for the new cover to better reflect the Nantucket setting so many readers relate to, as well as a young woman’s complicated relationship to the island over the years,” Simmons says, noting that the new look has a less ominous feel as well. “I’m excited to energize this novel for another season of beach reading.

Fifth of July book covers
Fifth of July book covers

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Historical Fiction

Sometimes, a cover’s impact comes from not an image, but a tone. “As Bright as Heaven had beautiful hardcover artwork that captured the solemn impact of the Spanish Flu pandemic on humanity,” author Sue Meissner says. “But for the paperback’s smaller size and to also highlight the novel's salute to hope and resiliency, a warm yellow replaced the plum and gray.”

The USA Today bestseller had loved the original 2018 edition from her team at Berkley, but as a seasoned author, understands the importance of being open to change. “In one respect, I was sad to say goodbye to the original hardcover design, but the new [2019] cover gave the book a second chance to find readers that it might have missed had it not been changed.”

As Bright as Heaven book covers
As Bright as Heaven book covers

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Mystery / Thriller

The original cover for Hank Phillippi Ryan’s 2018 hit Trust Me contained a hidden message: Can you see it? If you turn the book on its side, the background spells L-I-A-R. It was clever (as was the story inside: Ryan has the Agatha Award nomination to prove it!)—but was it too clever? For the paperback, which released a quick four months later, Forge Books opted for a photo-driven cover with a choice pop of color.

“I adore the LIAR cover, and heard gasps of surprise from audiences whenever I revealed the secret,” Ryan says. “But the story of Trust Me is not only the cat and mouse game portrayed by the LIAR cover, but also what happened to two little girls. The empty and sinister swing set in the could-be-your-neighborhood reveals Trust Me is going to be relatable psychological suspense. I think it’s a terrific example of how a clever and thoughtful cover designer can choose from equally important themes of the same book—and, understanding their readers, assure them they’re getting the kind of story they’re hoping for.”

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Kathleen Barber’s breakout debut, Are You Sleeping, got a similar cover design revamp from Gallery Books, and then went a step further—with a new title to match the book’s Apple TV+ series adaptation: Truth Be Told.

“I loved how the Are You Sleeping hardcover’s bold yellow jumped off the shelf, but I secretly worried the trees and ominous font made it look scarier than it is,” Barber explains. “When it came time to release the paperback, the team at my publisher wanted to aim for something that better highlighted its book club-friendly nature, and I agreed. They came up with this paperback design, and I couldn't be happier!”

That was in March 2018. By late 2019, the streaming series starring Octavia Spencer and Aaron Paul was ready to debut.

“After we learned the television series based on Are You Sleeping would be titled ‘Truth Be Told,’ we decided to change the title of the book to match. I was very, very anxious about this! I was afraid that people would think it was a new book and then feel tricked. To my knowledge, that's only happened once or twice, and I think the retitled book having the same cover image as the paperback has helped minimize the potential for confusion.”

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Young Adult

Many movie/TV tie-in covers are more overt, leaning on visual recognition to tie fans of the screen adaptation to the book: Nicola Yoon’s moving #1 New York Times YA bestseller, The Sun Is Also a Star, published in a Delacorte Press 2016 hardcover featuring a colorful graphic element, later ebook and audio editions that led with the stars of the 2019 MGM and Warner Bros. film, and a newer rereleased print edition that marries both.

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The latter might be proof that with a little ingenuity and a fresh eye, it really is possible to have the best of both worlds.

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