The Beguiling Blight of B-Format Books
I am still left perplexed when a book cover so beautiful is tossed aside for very little reason at all. At the end of the day, it will always come back to the same axiom: why fix it, if it ain’t broke?
B-format, small format? Whatever you call them, they’re as good as a doormat! These eyesores line the shelves of bookstores across the country, filling aisles with their garish covers and gross feeling jackets. How these get past the drafting stage is beyond me, and often betray the quality of the books themselves. They say “don’t judge a book by its cover,” but in these instances, it can’t be ignored.
B-format books refer to the re-release of a recently published book. When a book is initially published, it is labelled an A-format or trade version, and comes at a heftier price than normal. A tall-spined title at $32.99, these copies tend to be discarded after six months to a year, when it is replaced to make space on shelves for a cheaper, B-format equivalent.
Besides these typical changes, some publishers choose to swap out what might have been an already good quality cover or paper material. These are rarely for the better, and can range from the small and minute, to the confusing, baffling, and strange.
Ottessa Moshfegh’s Death in Her Hands, for instance, is about an elderly woman discovering a note in the forest, and believing herself to be at the centre of an insidious, murder mystery plot. Fittingly, it bore an eerie and haunting large format cover. Darkened woods tinted a ghostly blue, with jagged tree branches, evokes the horrors of an endless forest with death lurking around any and every corner. It puts you in the perspective of its paranoid protagonist.
The small format version, however, does away with these dark, moody colours in favour of a bright poppy pink. It also features a silhouetted figure standing at the precipice of a lake, expanding outwards into the face of a woman, who we can assume is maybe the protagonist. The lake does play a significance in the novel, but the way it is rendered with her eyes and mouth bleeding in does not resonate with the story bound within its pages. A confusing message is therefore sent to potential readers, who may be accordingly hesitant to pick it up.
Emily H. Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines similarly trades out the dark and mysterious blood red and black cover of its original, for a polychromatic rainbow of shining yellows and pinks. This collection of garish colour choices does not fit with the dark academia vibe of the novel, and would stand right out among someone’s collection of tomes (not for the right reasons).
Some are less radical a change, yet brew deep discomfort for a bookseller like me, who has to stare at these covers everyday. Diana Reid’s Love and Virtue, originally published with a rich swampy green cover, was re-released with a gaudy pink cover. Further, the textural experience transformed with their changing paper stock, replacing a nice rough material with a cheap, plastic-y feeling one. The book, which once exuded a more sophisticated and academic quality, now gives off the same vibes as a cheap, trashy romance novel that would blow up on TikTok and spill off the shelves at Big W.
The worst example that comes to mind, however, is Sheila Heti’s Pure Colour. What once featured a strange, green amorphous oval on the cover, now has a slapped on generic photo of a wilting flower, a betrayal of the novel it is supposed to be advertising. Beyond pure representation of the general vibe of the book, Pure Colour’s original cover was also striking in its simplicity. You were drawn in, like a target, by its emerald void. The little touch of it being askew and covering the title just ever so slightly, set it apart as something truly delightful.
Determined to get to the bottom of this, I reached out to my friend Emma*, who works at a large publishing company to do some inquiring on my behalf. According to her coworkers, “the general response for the rejacket of the B-format is that it’s usually changed drastically if the book did not sell as much as they wanted it to and so they’re rebranding and hoping to appeal to a different or broader market.”
“In terms of the paper quality, it’s generally different because the book is going to be sold at a cheaper price than the trade. That is what we guessed anyway!” It should be noted this is largely an educated guess made among those at the publishing company, rather than a definitive explanation.
This would make sense, though. A cover such as Heti’s Pure Colour, while unique and beautiful, may have failed to reach a broader audience who might be frightened off by a more abstract image. The same, unfortunately, goes for Plain Bad Heroine and Death in Her Hands..
Love and Virtue is an odd case, however, where the book was extremely popular in its large format version. The change in colour palette seems strange, given the title was already so successful. It is worth mentioning, however, that this was the second book Ultimo Press ever published, so they may have not only not expected it to be such a hit; further, publishing companies are admittedly entitled to their own reasons for rejacketing.
I do also wonder if this “broader audience appeal” is a chicken-egg scenario: does the average consumer actually prefer the worse cover, or are they only buying it because that is all they get? Should we give the average audience more credit?
I will also concede that this is all just my opinion, and there are no objective measurements for a good or bad book cover. Some of the ones I complained about, others may love. However, I am still left perplexed when a book cover so beautiful is tossed aside for very little reason at all. At the end of the day, it will always come back to the same axiom: why fix it, if it ain’t broke?
*Names have been changed.