The Fine Art of the Paperback Makeover

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” the humorist Will Rogers once said — which tells you he wasn’t a book publishing executive. In that world, the paperback edition is the second chance, an opportunity to market a book at a lower price and, in many cases, with new cover imagery aimed at new audiences.

Goals can include getting big-box stores to display the book, Instagram browsers to pause before swiping, or readers to rethink what’s between those covers. “The shift in perception can be quite dramatic or quite subtle, but the energies are redirected,” says Mitzi Angel, the president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Here are the stories behind eight intriguing 2023 paperbacks (and a sneak peek at the new look for Eleanor Catton’s novel “Birnam Wood,” coming in 2024), with behind-the-scenes insight into what you see — and what you may not, unless you pay close attention.


By Alison Espach (Henry Holt & Company)

What it’s about A girl’s death freezes her family in grief, and shadows her sister’s coming-of-age.

Hardcover Nicolette Seeback Ruggiero, Holt’s art director, found — and cropped — “The Swimming Pool,” a 2016 painting by T.S. Harris, on Bridgeman Images, a highbrow stock website that specializes in digitizing fine art collections.

Makeover goals “The hardcover really leans in to the quiet melancholy of longing and that’s OK,” says Christopher Sergio, vice president and group creative director at Holt. But “there was so much energy from the readers that we wanted a high-energy jacket.”

Paperback The redo offers more color and more expressive typography, set against a backdrop of flowers that came from a website of commercial stock images. (The art director was looking for something with an Alex Katz feel.) The change paid off: Barnes & Noble made the novel a May fiction pick.

Look closely The words“a novel” remain — still in tiny handwriting. On the hardcover it signaled humanity. “Without it,” Sergio says, “the rest of the cover gets significantly chillier.” The paperback is so big and busy that it’s there for a change of scale, luring a possible buyer to linger longer while scanning the cover.


By Claire-Louise Bennett (Riverhead)

What it’s about A young woman falls in love with language in a small town outside London. The real setting for this experimental novel, though, is the narrator’s weird, brilliant and very funny mind.

Hardcover Kristine Moran’s abstract painting (and Jaya Miceli’s cover design) met the goal of conveying a complex inner life.

Makeover goals While the hardcover signaled a sense of wildness and a literary aesthetic, Riverhead also noticed that many readers were responding to the narrator’s snarky and original voice. The paperback cover, designed by Stephanie Ross, nods that way.

Paperback “We think the paperback art is pretty funny, which the hardcover certainly is not,” says Helen Yentus, Riverhead’s art director. “I personally instantly put myself in this woman’s place, whatever experience it is that got her to want to tangle herself in those sheets and stay there.”

Look closely The narrator of Bennett’s novel is unnamed and the face in the photograph is concealed, too.


By Tess Gunty (Knopf)

What it’s about The lives of various tenants in an Indiana apartment complex over the course of one week in July. It begins with 18-year-old Blandine, who, tired of being trapped in her own body, is granted her wish of transcendence.

Hardcover Linda Huang’s cover features an arrow-stricken heart over a background of saturated red and blue hues.

Makeover goals After “The Rabbit Hutch” won the National Book Award in 2022, the paperback design was tweaked “to speak to the widest possible audience,” says John Freeman, the book’s editor.

Paperback Reimagined by John Gall, senior vice president and creative director of the Knopf/Doubleday Group, the Vintage cover ditched the thin, hardcover scribble for a stylized eggshell font over warm clouds of yellows, greens, oranges and reds, meant to evoke subtler elements, like tenderness and bliss, in the book.

Look closely The outline of a goat in the word “Rabbit” is a nod to a vital scene in the book. It’s also a small deviation in the font. “The goat is like a fly in the ointment of perfection,” Freeman says.

The hardback cover of “Easy Beauty,” at left, shows triangular silver fragments floating on a salmon-pink background. The paperback cover, at right, features a black and white snapshot of the author and her son in the center of a light aqua cover.


By Chloé Cooper Jones (Avid Reader)

What it’s about A philosophy professor reflects on how living with a disability has motivated her to grapple with the challenges of her body via the life of the mind.

Hardcover The publisher didn’t want it to look like a traditional memoir, with an author photo on the front. The solution? A mirror breaking into shards, set against a muted pink that offered a slanted take on “beauty.”

Makeover goals A more commercial look.“There are certain types of books that are never going to appear in a Target,” says Alison Forner, the senior art director at Avid Reader. “Our sales team probably thought there was a chance that this sort of store would take it on if it has a cover that they feel would connect with their consumers.”

Paperback The book’s editor approached Jones for a photograph, and she supplied a shot of her and her son taken in a photo booth. Clay Smith’s design “really spoke to several themes in the book,” says Forner. “Seeing and being seen, motherhood and seeing the world through her child’s eyes.”

Look closely Yes, the publisher knows the paperback looks a lot like Patti Smith’s “Just Kids,” which also featured a photo booth image (in that case, the author with Robert Mapplethorpe.) “The Patti Smith book is an iconic cover of an iconic book,” Forner says. “I don’t think it’s a terrible thing to remind people of that.”


By Melissa Bond (Gallery)

What it’s about A mother and journalist recounts her increasing dependence on prescription benzodiazepine drugs amid uncertainty in her personal and professional life.

Hardcover Chelsea McGuckin’s design prominently features an image of the author shrouded in a red-orange haze.

Makeover goals “We wanted to keep reaching that memoir reader, which is reflected in our subtitle, but we also wanted to appeal to readers who were keyed into the prescription drug epidemic and who are fans of compelling narrative nonfiction,” says Rebecca Strobel, the book’s editor.

Paperback McGuckin’s paperback design features a pill sheet, with one pill in the titular orange. “Our title is an abstract phrase from an intense scene of the book,” Strobel says, “so we wanted the cover image to be something crystal clear that signaled to readers what this book was about right away.”

Look closely The book’s subtitle is changed, too, which further helps to clarify the author’s specific struggle.


By Peter C. Baker (Knopf)

What it’s about A small airline that serves as a C.I.A. front is the link between a convert to Islam living in Rome and a former activist in conservative North Carolina.

Hardcover Huang, the designer, went to Swarthmore with the author, and their conversations resulted in an abstract design that hinted at redacted letters and bureaucratic anonymity. “It’s a book about torture and rendition — a lot of heavy themes — so it’s hard to visualize,” she says.

Makeover goals “There was a female audience that was missing, and potential for that,” says Gall of the Knopf/Doubleday Group.

Paperback What began as an image of two women and an airplane, with hints of Rome, was pared back to represent the character of Amira, whose husband writes to her from a black-site prison.

Look closely A cloud-filled blue sky links both covers. Both are Huang’s work — though she typically doesn’t design for Vintage, she was brought in on this job because of her personal connection to Baker.


By Abdulrazak Gurnah (Riverhead)

What it’s about How colonialism shapes the lives of three protagonists in an unnamed coastal town in German East Africa in the early 1900s.

Hardcover “The jacket needed to be bold and signal that this was a sweeping saga with complex characters,” says Yentus, Riverhead’s art director. “Identities and relationships become fragmented, so there was a need to represent these characters; together, layered, and at the forefront, but in a clear and simple way.”

Makeover goals Gurnah’s 2021 Nobel Prize provided a bigger challenge: publishing “Afterlives” alongside paperback editions of two cornerstone Gurnah novels, “By the Sea” and “Desertion,” in a cohesive package.

Paperback Yentus came across the paintings of Lubaina Himid, a British artist born in Zanzibar, while researching cover options. Himid’s vibrant figurative work — preoccupied with identity, belonging and the legacies of colonialism — seemed like the right fit.

Look closely The figure’s fixed gaze puts the cover in conversation with the stoic individuals found on the covers of “Desertion” and “By the Sea.”


By Marie Rutkoski (Henry Holt & Company)

What it’s about A kaleidoscopic look at working-class lives upended by a murder and a disappearance connected to a strip club.

Hardcover In Colin Webber’s design, a claustrophobic image of strands of grass aims for the thriller reader; neon-tinted type hints at the after-dark milieu.

Makeover goals Put the reader into the setting: “We’re on the road where the crime took place, in a way that feels more specific,” says Holt’s Sergio.

Paperback A Photoshopped composite of several stock images, stitched together by Forner, who was hired on a freelance basis. The thin type and lowercase lettering adds an idiosyncratic, retro feel.

Look closely You won’t see it unless you find the original image, but the designer had to move the silhouetted figure in the car-with-headlights photograph to what would be the American driver’s seat.


By Eleanor Catton (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

What it’s about After occupying an abandoned farm in the New Zealand countryside, a guerrilla gardening collective finds an unlikely ally — or existential threat? — in an inscrutable American billionaire.

Hardcover Movement is built into Jon Gray’s stark illustration of a drone flying over a small, mostly leveled forest.

Makeover goals “We wanted to bring out an eco-thriller dimension a little more,” says Angel, FSG’s publisher, of the Picador paperback, which will be published in March.

Paperback Designed by Alex Merto, Picador’s art director, the new cover presents Justin Metz’s overhead illustration of a forest from the perspective of a flying drone. Unlike the hardcover, this one is bursting with color.

Look very closely The grassy enclave is shaped like an eye, a reference to the book’s surveillance themes.

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