Books Front Matter

Finding New Life in Old Books

Those unfamiliar with the industry can be forgiven for thinking new titles and flashy authors are the sole secret to publishing success, but the backlist — the old favorites and tried-and-true “classics” — continues to drive sales year after year. So, book publishers don’t spend all their time simply looking for the next bestseller. They’re also assessing their backlists to find books ready for another print round, and there are two common ways publishers breathe new life into old books: a modern introduction and a new cover.


When adding a new introduction, publishers may look for a contemporary author to add fresh perspective. The goal is to give the book relevance and position it as a classic with something pertinent to say about current events. And a contemporary essay does just that.

Figuring out which new writers to pair with which old books is something akin to a treasure hunt. Some publishers regularly read author interviews to see what works of literature inspired them. Others keep a keen eye out for an interesting pairing. Examples of note include Merve Emre’s introduction to Virginia Woolf’s The Annotated Mrs. Dalloway, Toni Morrison’s to Camara Laye’s Radiance of the King, and Esme Weijun Wang’s for Joanne Greenburg’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.

What makes these examples successful is each contemporary author’s ability to highlight relevant themes, questions, and conversations within the original work that give the book a modern context.

A fresh cover

Another technique publishers use to update backlist titles is a cover refresh. Visual and design tastes evolve over time, and what caught reader’s eyes fifty years ago isn’t necessarily going to have the same effect today. Classic editions also tend to have simpler covers, especially those that predate the widespread use of graphic design in book publishing in the mid-1940s.

Just as a contemporary author brings a new perspective to the book, so too do illustrators and designers. Anna Bond of Rifle Paper Co. created stunning new covers for many of Puffin’s classics, including Little WomenHeidi, and Anne of Green Gables. Other successful cover changes are a photographic collage cover for Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Manuja Waldia’s minimal line drawings for Shakespeare’s plays.

With modern introductions and updated covers, publishers must be diligent to ensure new editions respect the original text. The goal is to attract a new audience and inspire previous readers to indulge in a reread. Whether it’s a thoughtful introduction, a delightful new design, or both, publishers want to appeal to nostalgia readers and pique new interest in old favorites.

Contact your Sheridan representative for a consultation to discuss how Sheridan can streamline your publishing processes.

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