Longtime readers may be peripherally aware of the common lifecycle of a book. First, if a book is expected to sell well enough, a hardback is published. Several months later, a less expensive trade paperback edition is published. Then, several more months after that, an even cheaper mass-market paperback edition is published. It's a formula that aims to maximize the dollars a single book pulls in for the publisher. Publishing is first and foremost a business and this particular formula works.

Bringing Books Back From the Dead

That is not necessarily the end of a book's lifespan, though. That's especially true when lots of sales demand reprints and—even better—when many reprints mean it's a long time before a book goes out of print, if it ever does. But most books eventually do fall out of print and, even then it's still not necessarily the death of that title. Books—especially classics—are often resurrected through reissues. A reissue is when a publisher decides that an out-of-print book can find a new audience so they decide to make it available once more.

If you're paying close attention in the science fiction aisles of your bookstore, you may have noticed this playing out in an eye-popping way. Not only are several classic science fiction books being reissued, they're getting spiffy new covers to go along with them. I first became aware of this when I spied the bold new cover for the 50th anniversary edition of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin in the bookstore. This is just one of several classic science fiction titles being reissued by Ace Books:

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All of these classics have been reissued with striking, new minimalist covers.

Why Reissue a Classic?

One might wonder why a publisher would reissue a book that's been out of print for a while. Well, besides money, of course. (See aforementioned note about publishing being a business.) I spoke with Ben Lee, Vice President and Associate Publisher of Berkley's Backlist—which includes these Ace Book titles—about the other reasons classic science fiction might get a reissue. "Other major factors also include anniversaries (e.g. publication anniversaries, author centennials), new publications from authors that might revitalize interest in older books, and genre and industry trends in content," Lee said. Editorial opinion also plays a role.

Regarding whether a particular title gets a visual makeover at all, Lee says, "Most reissues get some sort of cover revisions. They could be as drastic as all new art and copy or they could be more subtle—color tweaks and variations, font changes etc. It really depends on the book, the market we are hoping to reintroduce the book to, and the collaborative creative process with authors and author estates."

Reissues are not only good for publishers, they're good for readers, too—even readers who have already read the book. Being freely available again, reissued books allow readers to either:

  1. Discover the book for the first time.
  2. Replace a lost or loaned-and-never-returned copy
  3. Replace a well-read-but-very-worn copy
  4. Point a friend to a great read without having to loan out your own copy and risk losing it (see: Point B)
  5. Buy as a gift.

Everyone wins!

Breathing New Life into the Classics

Reissue covers It takes more than just reprinting an old successful title to make it successful again. Packaging matters. A lot. While it's nice to see old titles in new condition, one with new, eye-catching cover art is even better. Publishers are keenly aware of this. Simply put: book covers help sell books. An attention-grabbing book cover leads to hands-on inspection, which leads to sampling the text, which in turn leads readers to cash registers and online shopping carts. An awesome book cover is the very first step.

Over at Ace books, Lee offers us a peek into what it takes to make that happen for a backlist title. "The creation of new cover art for an old book doesn't differ all that much from the process for a frontlist book," he said. "The book's editor and art teams re-familiarize themselves with the stories, characters and settings and use that context to set off on an entirely fresh cover design. Where it might differ is that we are ever cognizant of how the book has looked in the past, how strongly readers and fans feel about the book and story, and making sure that our final product is evocative of these classic stories in a way that will resonate with core fans and new ones alike."

Judging by how this longtime science fiction fan literally gasped at seeing the gorgeous new covers of some of these titles in person, I have to say it's a job well done.

John DeNardo is the founding editor of SF Signal, a Hugo Award-winning science fiction and fantasy blog featuring news, reviews and interviews. You can follow him on Twitter as @sfsignal.