Think of a book. Any book. What does it look like? Can you tell me what is on the cover?

Now take a walk with me to a bookshop (you know, those things we used to have before Amazon came along). Browse the bookshelves, study the spines. Find your book and take it down. What does it look like? Does it match the battered, thumbed, and dog-eared copy you hold in your mind?

I wonder.

You see, I was reading this article recently about poster design (bear with me, we’ll get back to the books shortly). It suggests that there is (or, more accurately, was) a key image that is associated with a film. This is the image on the poster, the DVD case, the video box, and so on. We’re talking about ET’s stretching finger or the moth over Jodie Foster’s face, to quote the examples given in the article. As a novice poster design enthusiast myself, I found this whole concept very interesting, particularly as the article goes on to speculate about the dilution of this one, key image as a result of the internet and the rise of alternative poster design. But that is a topic for another day.

In terms of the main assertion – that a film has a single, key image – I believe there is a fair degree of truth to that. If I think of a film, if I think of the poster for that film, then I can say with a healthy degree of certainty that the picture on the front of the DVD case is also going to be that same image.

More importantly to this Journal entry, there is a good chance that the cover of that DVD case is going to feature the same image today as it did two years ago, and as it will in two years’ time. There is a consistency to that packaging.

Why is this not the case for books?

Think of that book again. Perhaps it is one from your childhood. That could be an answer: books have been around for a lot longer than videos or DVDs. Naturally, over time, there will be a need to refresh and update a book’s design. These are both Agatha Christie novels, and they both reflect the time in which they were printed. Similar, they are not.

Agatha Christie, hercule poirot, book cover design

Pondering Potter

It is not always the case that there is a generational gap before a book is repackaged. This Harry Potter was released in 2007 and, yet, there are already alternative cover designs available.

harry potter, j k rowling book cover design

In the case of our wizarding friend, there was a push to provide a more “adult” set of covers, so you wouldn’t look too much like a geeky teenager when sat reading your Harry Potter on the train. Instead, you would look like a cool, sophisticated, wizard-loving adult. Uh-huh. That’s right. You absolutely nailed it.

Those are not the only Potters published, however, as you can now pick up a completely different set of illustrated Harry Potters, published in 2014 by Bloomsbury. They look pretty good, but why do they exist? What was the rationale for creating a new set of illustrated covers when the originals are still (relatively) young?

But – hold on to your sorting hats – not only that, there is also a second set of “adult” covers. These new covers are undoubtedly excellent, with a woodcut aesthetic and a bold, colourful design that completely outclasses those original black-and-boring “adult” covers. These new “adult” versions were released to commemorate the 20th anniversary and I’ll admit that strategy does make sense. (We should also mention, again, that the previous “adult” covers were a bit rubbish.)

[The links above are to the “live” Bloomsbury site so, depending on when you’re reading this, there is a chance that the cover designs may have changed again. The links are correct as of right now. Tomorrow, who knows!]

Generally, there is a desire by the publishers to keep a book fresh, to entice new readers (aka sell more books), and to generate a talking point around their books. A new cover for Harry Potter is big news after all.

Sharpe, bernard cornwell, sean bean, book cover design

Even when a design changes for the worst (in my opinion, I do love those Gino D’Achille Sharpe covers), I can see the sense in updating and refreshing a book’s cover. A new cover may prompt a new appraisal of a book. It may spark an interest in it that wasn’t there before. Updating a cover seems to make good marketing sense.

We shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but we are certainly heavily influenced by it. With so many books to choose from, a cover can grab our attention and make us want to find out more. Or, done badly, it can make us slide on by, leaving it unnoticed and un-read.

My book, my cover

What makes sense for traditional publishers might be even more important for the self-publishing community. As with a traditional publisher, a new cover is a new opportunity, a chance to create some noise around a book. Even one that has been out there for a while.

And, when books are printed on-demand or only exist virtually, there is limited wastage from refreshing a cover. No warehouses full of old copies that need to be moved on. A new cover can be up-and-running and available online in relatively quick fashion.

The main reason for refreshing the cover of a self-published book is going to be this: catching a reader’s attention. Communicating the story of a book (not the story inside the book, mind) quickly and efficiently. Telling a potential reader that this book is (quick) this genre, (hurry now) a dark/light/scary/funny/exciting/sad/sexy story, and (be brief) the reason you should stop and buy it is…

Wait, where did they go?

Time is of the essence. The self-publisher cannot rely on the brand awareness of Harry Potter. They need a shorthand that communicates the key things about their book, clearly and at speed. The author and blogger Joanna Penn wrote about her experience of changing the cover for her books. It’s an interesting read, as it explains the reasons why the initial covers didn’t quite work and why the new versions better-communicate the story of her books.

Mmm, refreshing!

If you are a self-publisher and you’re thinking about refreshing your covers, I would recommend my top tips for cover design (of course I would, I wrote it). I hope it will be useful to anyone needing a cover, whether you are designing it yourself, hiring a professional, or anything in between.

Talking of hiring a professional (see what I did there?), if you need a designer for your cover, then you will also find some example covers, as well as more information about how to hire me and what you can expect as we go through the process of crafting your new cover.

But what about films?

We started with the assertion that films don’t do this. They tend to stick with one image.

While we can probably all name exceptions to this – anniversary-commemorating editions are an obvious example – there is a definite sense that the packaging for a film is less likely to change when compared with the packaging for a book. And I’m not sure why. Yes, that first stab might have been awesome and, yes, it may be an image indelibly associated with the film. But is that not also the case with book covers?

Guards, terry pratchett, book cover design

This is the cover for Guards! Guards! It just is, there’s no arguing with that. It’s brilliant, tells you just what you need to know, and has Josh Kirby’s excellent artwork. If Guards! Guards! was a film, this would still be the cover on the DVD box, almost 30 years after it first appeared. But it is not a DVD, it is a book. And you can now buy several different versions with different covers (including one of those boring black-and-a-photograph versions for adults).

So I leave you with a mystery to ponder. When it seems to make sound sense for books to reinvent their covers, to update the face they show to the world, why do films not follow suit? I’m genuinely not sure. If you do, I would love to know.


What are your favourite book covers? Do you love those black “adult” versions I have so rudely criticised? Leave a comment and let me know…

Other Journal entries that may be of interest:

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The changing face of book covers
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