Cover Design: When Change is a Good Thing

True story: there are some really, absolutely, unquestionably terrible book covers in the world – ones that make you want to approach bookshelves with a flamethrower rather than an open wallet – and while we’d like to curse these to that terrible time in history when ‘fashionable’ was synonymous with ‘seizure’ (the 80s), this isn’t always going to be the case. Given that some people still believe a large stock image and a whacky font is a winning way to represent their title, I don’t think we’re going to be stuck for contenders for the worst book cover award any time soon.

Sometimes, though, we get it incredibly right. Splinter in the US have just released a new line of classic book covers, titles including Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice. These get a makeover every now and then because the text is in the public domain, so you can have heaps of editions vying for sales at any one time differentiated only by cover art and typeface, and I reckon the Splinter series are among the nicest I’ve seen.

A lot of readers are quite delicate about changes in cover design, particularly if it’s an author whose books they’ve collected for a long time, but re-inventing covers is part of getting your book into bookshops. If an author wants new readers to be able to enter into their series or find their backlist titles, it’s more than likely that they’re going to have to rework the jacket design.  I mean, can you imagine how weird shelves would look if we had a series that started in the 1990s and was still publishing today with the same cover style? How dated would those covers look compared to every other thing on the shelf?

Well, I’ll show you.


Danielle Steel

Danielle Steele - then and now

I love varying hues of brown on a book cover as much as the next person, but how would the cover for Granny Dan (a book I can only assume is about a guy called Dan who has a thing for more mature women) stand up next to 50 Shades of Grey ? It’d look like Ricky Martin standing next to Ryan Gosling.


John Grisham

Grisham covers - then and now

The cover from 1999 isn’t dreadful – big serif font, some sort of landscape – but it’s been echoed in crime covers for more than ten years. Adhering to tradition can be just as much of a death knell as having something entirely dated. You need to stand out in the crowded genre shelves, and re-branding big authors is part of how cover fashion is decided.


Ken Follett

Ken Follett - then and now

I don’t even know who this guy is, but joke’s on him for the 1985 cured-salmon cover. I’m sure at a time when Hammer pants were an acceptable form of clothing and nouveaux cuisine consisted of glazed fruit and meat, this wasn’t too bad. Would it look good today next to Alex Marwood or Val McDermid? Ho ho ho …no.


Content might well be timeless, but the cover art generally isn’t. Re-branding and reinvention is part of reaching new fans and carrying a story through to new generations. It’s kind of like a new haircut – sometimes it takes a while to get used to, but when you look back on your old hair in a few month’s time, you’ll wonder how you ever thought it was cool.

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  1. We’re seeing this more and more with the inside content too. Reversions make up a huge majority of educational publishers business, particularly re-versioning courses for different markets and up-dating content.

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