An enduring battle between book lovers is that of hardcovers versus paperbacks. Ultimately, your preference might come down to many factors. Hardcover fans insist on the book’s durability and quality and being among the first to purchase a long-awaited release, while paperback lovers advocate for the cheaper price and lightweight design. But in addition to the price and release date, there’s another factor to consider: the cover design. To celebrate the paperback release of managing editor Alyssa Songsiridej’s debut novel Little Rabbit, we’re comparing the covers of 20 books with both hardcover and paperback editions from the past two years. We’re back with our Book Cover Contest series, in which we judge books by their covers based on our Instagram and Twitter poll results.
The Employees by Olga Ravn
The Employees is the humorous story of a space voyage piloted by humans and humanoids alike that delivers a stinging critique of productivity culture. The hardcover edition leans into the sci-fi setting with its eye-catching design reminiscent of the cosmos, while the paperback version displays a nightmarish image of a water cooler overflowing with black liquid. Our voters decided on the satire of corporate culture.
Activities of Daily Living by Lisa Hsiao Chen
This debut novel from Lisa Hsiao Chen follows Alice, a Taiwanese immigrant who, while caring for her ailing alcoholic stepfather, becomes fascinated with the enigmatic 1980s downtown performance artist Tehching Hsieh. Both covers are inspired by Hsieh’s radical use of time: the hardcover features a repeating pattern of squares reminiscent of a calendar, while the paperback’s stretching gestural figures suggest the slower passage of Alice’s daily life. Ultimately, our readers preferred the fluidity and movement of the paperback cover.
Sarahland by Sam Cohen
In Sarahland, Sam Cohen imagines the wildly different lives of a cast of characters who all share the name Sarah. The bright pink and green of the hardcover edition’s background is offset by the gravitas of the black-and-white photograph of dolphins leaping out of the water. In contrast, the paperback version’s colorful cartoon objects suggest the multiplicity of lives and narratives within the collection. Our readers voted for the fun and eye-catching paperback cover that taps into the collection’s playful nature.
Small World by Jonathan Evison
Jonathan Evison’s Small World is an epic novel that chronicles 170 years of American national development from different points of view across space and time. The hardcover edition leans into the idea of westward expansion by featuring a path cutting through a wheat field under a bright blue sky. The paperback brings together the many lives and narrative perspectives within the novel through a collage of faces and natural landscapes connected by the transcontinental railroad. Our readers overwhelmingly preferred the vivid imagery of the paperback cover.
Four Treasures of the Sky by Jenny Tinghui Zhang
Four Treasures of the Sky is a dazzling historical fiction debut set against the backdrop of the 1880s Chinese Exclusion Act, following a heroine named Daiyu as she struggles to make her way in the American West. The hardcover features an abstract design of a fish leaping out of a swell of waves in the shape of a woman’s face, while the paperback leans into the historical setting with Daiyu’s face rising from the clouds above a Western town. Both covers suggest the theme of rising above difficult circumstances, but readers overwhelmingly voted for the hardcover design.
The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell
In The Marriage Portrait, Lucrezia, the third daughter of Cosimo de’ Medici, navigates the trials and tribulations of the Florentine court and the mysterious motives of her new husband. The hardcover is an adaptation of the eponymous marriage portrait, painted around 1560 and attributed to Bronzino or Alessandro Allori, overlaid with orange stripes to dramatically reveal Lucrezia’s face. The paperback cover is a colorful tangle of plants and animals inspired by the Medici menagerie and the fantastic creatures of the grotteschi decorations in Italian Renaissance palaces. Ultimately, our readers preferred the more mysterious and haunting hardcover edition, which conveys the novel’s theme of reclaiming women’s voices to uncover long-buried secrets.
How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water by Angie Cruz
How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water tells the story of Cara, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who faces unemployment during the Great Recession and struggles to begin a new career. The bright blue and yellow cover design of an abstract figure holding a glass of water contrasts sharply with the warmer, softer illustration of a woman’s upper body. Our readers preferred the more literal interpretation of the book’s title.
The Confession of Copeland Cane by Keenan Norris
The Confession of Copeland Cane follows a Black teenager coming of age in East Oakland, California while struggling against the forces of surveillance and the police state. The hardcover image of a wall of colorful bricks was followed by a paperback edition featuring a painting of a young man gazing thoughtfully upwards. Our voters preferred the paperback version, which gives us a window into Copeland’s humanity.
I Hear You’re Rich by Diane Williams
This collection of 33 very short stories embodies Diane Williams’s mastery of strange, suggestive flash fiction. The hardcover edition, featuring a figure from classical mythology bedecked with a wreath of grapes indicating Dionysian wealth and excess, is perhaps more befitting to the collection’s title and triumphed over the paperback cover, a more simplistic black-and-white image of a bird.
Groundskeeping by Lee Cole
Groundskeeping is the love story of Owen, an Appalachian groundskeeper with writing aspirations who takes a job at a small college, and Alma, the college’s Writer-in-Residence who comes from a successful family of Bosnian immigrants. The hardcover edition succinctly embodies the theme of connection across differences with an image of two intertwined leaves. The paperback is a pictorial representation of Owen’s groundskeeping work that hints at the central narrative, which our voters selected as their favorite.
Checkout 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett
In Checkout 19, a woman revisits the small traumas and triumphs that have shaped her life to explore her personal history as a writer. The abstract shapes and vivid colors of the hardcover edition suggest this dizzying journey, while the paperback image of a woman’s head covered by a blanket might have seemed comparatively listless for voters, who chose the more energetic original design.
Little Rabbit by Alyssa Songsiridej
This debut novel from Electric Literature’s managing editor Alyssa Songsiridej follows the complex relationship between a young writer and an older choreographer she meets at an artists’ residency. Our readers preferred the hardcover edition of two kissing faces overlaid with gestural lines that suggest the fluidity of dance over the vivid colors of the paperback version.
The New Life by Tom Crewe
This debut novel is a reimagining of the lives of John Addington Symonds and Henry Havelock Ellis, two Victorian men who collaborated on one of the first medical texts about homosexuality. The contemplative black-and-white cover of two men gazing at a pond is overlaid with a rotated circular image which suggests an alternative mode of existence. The paperback edition, which our readers preferred, restores a sense of liveliness and interpersonal connection to this work of historical fiction.
The Imposters by Tom Rachman
The Imposters is narrated by the obscure elderly Dutch novelist Dora Frenhofer, who decides in the midst of lockdown to come to terms with the complicated interpersonal relationships she’s had over the course of her life. Our readers preferred the hardcover’s stark gestural figure of a woman set against a background of watercolors over the paperback’s pictorial representation of silhouetted figures flying kites over a rosy urban skyline.
In Memoriam by Alice Winn
In Memoriam is a love story that follows World War I soldiers Gaunt and Ellwood from the idyllic grounds of their secluded English boarding school to the trenches and battlefields of war-torn Europe. The original hardcover edition features a dramatic black-and-white image of nighttime rockets exploding over no man’s land, but our voters favored the paperback cover’s warmer pastel-toned painting of a swimmer gazing contemplatively out to sea.
The Black Period: On Personhood, Race and Origin by Hafizah Augustus Geter
This experimental memoir combines lyrical prose and criticism to narrate a poet’s origin story as the daughter of a Muslim Nigerian immigrant and an African American artist. Our readers narrowly selected the paperback edition featuring the author’s family photo, perhaps more fitting for the form of a memoir, over the hardcover’s eye-catching painting of a woman symbolically connecting to her roots.
Joan Is Okay by Weike Wang
Joan is Okay narrates the story of a successful Chinese American doctor contending with the dual pressure of her high-stakes career and the cultural expectations of her mother, who returns to America to reconnect with her children after the death of Joan’s father. The funky font and vivid colors of the hardcover edition’s text triumphed over the cooler green tones and addition of a stethoscope that characterizes the paperback edition.
When I’m Gone, Look for Me in the East by Quan Barry
Both covers evoke the beauty of the natural landscape in this novel about a young monk named Chuluun and his identical twin Mun, who set out on a journey to find the reincarnation of a great lama across the sweeping Mongolian landscape. However, voters favored the bright print-like imagery of a sun, cloud and bird on the paperback edition over the more fluid abstract lines of the hardcover.
Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton
As expected, forest imagery features heavily in the cover design of this novel about the unexpected collaboration between the environmental activist and guerrilla gardener Mira and the enigmatic billionaire Robert. The stark and forbidding black-and-white hardcover edition with chalky sketches of trees was favored by voters over the more colorful paperback image of a green eye-like patch of conifers in the middle of a brown forest.
Fatty Fatty Boom Boom by Rabia Chaudry
Both covers utilize a pink and yellow color scheme, but the intricate design of the letters on the hardcover edition won over the plainer text and family photo accompanying the paperback cover. Rabia Chaudry’s memoir centers on her evolving relationship with food and body image growing up in a close-knit Pakistani immigrant family.