Which Looks Better, Hardcovers or Paperbacks?

Our readers weigh in on 20 pairs of book cover designs

Paperback and hardcover editions of Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
Paperback and hardcover editions of Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

Perhaps the defining question of any book lover’s life is: should you read the hardcover or wait for it to come out in paperback? There are countless considerations to take into account when defining yourself as a Hardcover Person or a Paperback Type. Are you a weakling, or given to prancing around in a fancy evening gown with only a clutch to keep things in? Paperback. Are you looking for books that can be recycled as monitor stands or improvised weapons? Hardcover. If you care about being the first to read something, hardcover might be your best bet; if you’re prepared to buy your favorite book multiple times so you can lend it out, go with the cheaper paperback. But one consideration that rarely gets discussed is the aesthetic difference. Which cover looks better? What do you want to look at on your bedside table?

We’re back with our Battle of the Book Cover series, in which we judge books by their covers based on our Instagram poll results. This time, we’re looking at covers in their paperback and hardcover editions.

Alternative Remedies for Loss by Joanna Cantor

This is a funny novel about mourning, and one of the covers is more about the grief while the other is heavy on the humor. In contrast to the paperback cover, in which a sweater-clad woman sits hunched at her desk with her back to us, the hardback makes light of the story by showing a young woman doing yoga in full office attire. Our readers may have felt it lacked gravitas.

WINNER: Paperback

Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton

A thriller about 20-somethings living the high life in New York, Social Creature questions self-esteem, friendship, and the cultural obsession with social media, so it makes sense that this basically came down to a makeup challenge. Heavy eyeshadow marred by tears, or an avant-garde butterfly mask design? Voters preferred the butterfly lewk.

WINNER: Paperback

Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa

The title does a lot of work here, but it deserves a cover to back it up. The paperback of Your Heart is a trip: a distorted image of a crowd centering in on a person in red is vibrant and modern. But readers preferred the simpler, starker image of a crying eye on the hardcover of Yapa’s novel about grief, activism, and love.

WINNER: Hardback

Open Me by Lisa Locascio

With a title that commands you to read it, Open Me is a bildungsroman about a high school grad with a lifelong dream of going to Paris who ends up in Copenhagen with an older Danish lover. The relationship takes a turn when the two move to a small town up north and she meets a Balkan War refugee, with whom she shares a special connection. <whispers> THE CONNECTION IS SEX. Our voters couldn’t choose between the juicy lips on the paperback and the deceptively chaste purple flowers on the hardback version.


All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy

Both of these look good as hell, but voters preferred the layered, intricately patterned window shapes of the paperback to the hardcover, showing scraps of paper scattering over a mountain. The book is about a biracial German Indian man looking back on his and his mother’s lives, so the fact that there’s actually a man looking at things on the paperback cover also helps.

WINNER: Paperback

Hippie by Paulo Coelho

The cover on the left shows us that this is an On the Road-esque journey that leads to Kathmandu by showing… someone driving to Kathmandu. In a VW bus. The ‘60s peace-and-love font of the hardback, despite featuring a LITERAL heart and peace symbol, is somehow less on the nose.

WINNER: Hardback

America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo

Voters preferred the illustration of a mother and daughter on a sunlit path walking into the horizon, on the hardcover of this tender story about three generations of women, rather than the paperback cover, which depicts the symbolic experience of motherhood: a skewer through the heart.

WINNER: Hardback

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

An image of red wine sitting in a broken glass graces both versions of this debut, a gritty story of a young woman who moves from Ohio to work in the glamorous and chaotic New York City restaurant scene. The paperback shows the act of the glass shattering and the hardcover shows the aftermath–perhaps EL readers preferred the latter with its millennial pink cover perfect for Instagram.

WINNER: Hardback

Good Trouble by Joseph O’Neill

Irish novelist O’Neill’s first collection of short stories focuses on American men in the 21st century. In an interview with Lit Hub, O’Neill said, “When I came to New York, I saw there was a theme in the culture of men in particular trying to come to terms with what it means to be an adult, a crisis of maturity. It was a consumeristic, materialistic view of American society. This quest for maturity seems to be an American preoccupation.” Both covers capture O’Neill’s signature wry tone, but the ominous cloud floating in orange space makes the book look more enticing.

WINNER: Hardback

So Much Life Left Over by Louis de Bernières

De Bernières writes about a couple left in turmoil in the aftermath of the World War I in his newest book. For a novel that travels between Western Europe and South Asia, the paperback seems pretty static. They’re just standing there! Right outside the house! Meanwhile, the hardcover accurately conveys the numerous lives the couple lives. With a plane emitting sections of an image of a tropical place as it soars from a person’s finger, this one wins.

WINNER: Hardback

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

These covers pose the question: Where do you want your house, in a suburb or on the moon? The hardback cover centers a house (emblematic of the Indian American family at the book’s center) against a huge moon and a bronze sky. On the paperback, it’s under fireworks in what looks like a subdivision. EL readers picked the more exotic locale.

WINNER: Hardback

Everything Here Is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee

Butterflies are at the center of both covers of Mira T. Lee’s debut about sisterhood, immigration, and mental illness. The paperback features a kaleidoscope of butterfly shadows flying in front of a faceless young woman, but readers preferred the hardback, which might be two butterflies, or a butterfly ripped in half. If you’re going to put a butterfly on your book, make it metal.

WINNER: Hardback

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

A BBC children’s radio producer grapples with her past and Great Britain’s history a decade after the Second World War, in which she was forced to engage in Fascist espionage. Is this better conveyed by a statuary angel or a flamingo? Voters didn’t think it was the flamingo.

WINNER: Hardback

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

It seems like a good idea to trust the story to stand on its own, as the black-and-grey text cover does. But this is a story about an eleven-year-old slave in Barbados who escapes and journeys from Barbados to Canada, London, Morocco, and even the Arctic. The paperback accurately conveys that sense of adventure—plus it makes you very curious whether he will end up flying in a hot-air-balloon-boat. (Spoiler: yes!)

WINNER: Paperback

The Falconer by Dana Czapnik

The Falconer introduces us to Lucy Adler, a seventeen-year-old girl who preoccupies herself playing pickup basketball in New York City in the 1990s. A photograph of the legs of a young couple is centered on the honeydew-green paperback cover, portraying the budding romance with her wealthy classmate, with whom she plays basketball. This makes it seem like the book is about young love and detracts from the fact that Lucy is the center of the story. Maybe it’s not surprising that Electric Literature readers preferred the drawing on the hardcover that takes the man out of the picture.

WINNER: Hardback

A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley

The hardcover of Brinkley’s story collection, a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award in Fiction, might make your eyes cross; the image of a city street accurately evokes the urban setting, but it’s so blurry, like portrait mode without a portrait. Our voters preferred the poignant and original paperback art of silhouetted breakdancers.

WINNER: Paperback

The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling

A young mother travels from bustling San Francisco to the desert in Altavista, exploring what the Golden State has to offer for her and her toddler. While the paperback cover is muted and mysterious, it’s not as unique as the hardcover with the two blurry stacked images of a woman and the road, amplifying the cold and heavy aesthetic of this novel.

WINNER: Hardback

We That Are Young by Preti Taneja

The cover on the right is gallant with a golden fist against a red background, but maybe EL readers couldn’t stop thinking about that urban legend about the woman who was painted gold and DIED. They preferred the childlike drawing of a three-headed tiger, symbolizing three daughters made to compete against each other by their successful, megalomaniacal father.

WINNER: Paperback

All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdevi

One of the most celebrated books of 2018, All the Names They Used for God is a genre collection as much as it is a short story collection. A mermaid on the paperback hints at one story that is a concoction of magical realism, but readers may have felt that the fragmented pressed flower collage on the hardcover does a better job of suggesting the other genres being played with: science fiction, horror, and more.

WINNER: Hardback

Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson

A finalist for the 2018 National Book Award, Where the Dead Sit Talking is a coming-of-age story about two Native American teenagers who connect in the foster care system. Both versions of this book cover feature the same bird of prey: one’s head and wings are shown at the bottom of the paperback and one floating with a single feather falling off on the hardback. The more grounded image won Instagram followers’ hearts—they like their birds at rest.

WINNER: Paperback

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