Toward the end of 2020, the prevailing national mood prompted Atria to explore a reissue of Andrew Bernstein’s 2010 self-help book, The Myth of Stress. “A book could have been published 50 years ago,” says Suzanne Donahue, v-p, director of backlist, academic and special projects at Atria, “but if it’s the first time you’re reading it, it’s new to you.”

Donahue asked S&S colleagues to research keywords related to the book’s topic, which led to a new, more actionable title for the June release—Breaking the Stress Cycle—and a subtitle that emphasizes the concept of resilience, a key idea in the book that’s gained traction since it first published.

A bit of updating, whether new cover art, a new title, or new content, can amp up a backlist book’s contemporary resonance. The July reissue of 2014’s Defending Beef by Nicolette Hahn Niman, an environmental lawyer turned cattle rancher, is timely for several reasons, says Chelsea Green senior editor Ben Watson, including the increased interest in grass-fed beef seen during the pandemic. The revised and expanded second edition will sport a punchier subtitle—The Ecological and Nutritional Case for Meat—and incorporate recent research on the climate effects of livestock, among other new sections.

There are any number of reasons a backlist title might be ripe for a return to the frontlist. PW spoke with publishers about refreshing and repromoting anniversary editions, books on zeitgesty subjects, and generous swaths of a single author’s back catalog.

Group efforts

Alexa Pugh, publishing manager at Norton Trade Paperbacks, says the publisher noticed something unexpected after its 2019 online marketing campaign for the 50th anniversary of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin naval historical series, which began with 1969’s Master and Commander: plenty of interest from women, who hadn’t been considered the books’ core readership. Actor Mindy Kaling and crime novelist Donna Leon, for instance, mentioned the series in their respective New York Times “By the Book” interviews.

To promote the forthcoming reissues, which begin in May and eventually will encompass all 20 titles, Norton will reach out to women’s magazines using Kaling and Leon’s quotes, along with blurbs from A.S. Byatt, Louise Erdrich, Ursula K. LeGuin, Eudora Welty, and others. Artist Matthew Benedict was commissioned to do cover art that ties the installments together. “Each cover moves through the epic, like stills from a film,” Pugh says, “so it pulls together the entire series and gives the sense of motion.”

Ahead of the July release of Esther Freud’s new novel, I Couldn’t Love You More, Ecco decided to give the author’s backlist, which includes 1992’s Hideous Kinky, a more cohesive look. While searching contemporary portraiture on Pinterest, senior art director Allison Saltzman found Israel artist Tali Yalonetzki’s work.

“I was looking to find art by one person; they needed to have a range of locations and time periods,” Saltzman says. “Did the women I saw in the paintings remind me of the characters in the books?” With minor modifications, she was able to use Yalonetzki’s existing work on Freud’s forthcoming novel and a few backlist titles. Ecco commissioned a new painting for Hideous Kinky, a rare expenditure for backlist.

Revamping an author’s backlist gets complicated if more than one publisher shares the catalog. When Harper Perennial made plans to repackage titles by fiction and culinary writer Laurie Colwin, who died in 1992, the publisher met with Amy Berkower of Writers House, who’d recently begun representing the estate, and RF Jurjevics, Colwin’s child. It turned out that Vintage, which holds some of Colwin’s catalog, was also planning reissues.

The imprints took the opportunity to work together and have staggered eight Colwin releases throughout 2021, starting with the recently released Happy All The Time (Vintage) and Goodbye Without Leaving (Harper Perennial).

Harper assistant designer Olivia McGiff created covers with compatible artwork for both imprints, drawing on photos and memorabilia Jurjevics provided. “I used a lot of the body language from those photos as reference for the illustrations,” McGiff says. The woman on Goodbye Without Leaving’s cover is based on a photo of a friend of Colwin’s taken at a dinner party; the author’s actual kitchen tools inspired the illustrations on October editions of Home Cooking (Vintage) and More Home Cooking (Harper Perennial). One difference between the imprints’ releases: Vintage commissioned new forewords, including Katherine Heiny’s for the novel Happy All the Time and Ruth Reichl’s for Home Cooking, a work of nonfiction.

A new foreword can help provide context to an older work, says Bob Ratcliff, editor-in-chief at Westminster John Knox. This year, the press is releasing four titles, with unified cover art, in the new Reinhold Niebuhr Library series, whose release coincides with the 50th anniversary of the theologian’s death.

The forewords, some of which were included in previous editions, do not necessarily offer pure praise. Ratcliff says his team asked Mercer University theology professor David Gushee to contribute a new foreword to the fall release An Interpretation of Christian Ethics because “we knew he would bring an appreciative and critical eye to Niehbur’s work.” The foreword writers are informed but they’re not necessarily Niehbur specialists, because then “they would have been talking to themselves but not to people beyond that small group,” Ratcliff notes. “We wanted to help broadcast him more widely.” Many in the general public may be familiar with Niehbur and not know it; he wrote the Serenity Prayer.

Similarly, even those who haven’t read street-lit pioneer Donald Goines may have heard him name-checked by 50 Cent, Jay-Z, Nas, and others. Kensington began reissuing its library of six Goines titles in the fall with Black Gangster, and it continues in 2021 with four more titles, all with new, 1970s-inspired covers.

Goines’s work “is very deserving of respect,” says Vida Engstrand, director of communications at Kensington, and the books’ former mass market format wasn’t doing them justice. “It’s much easier for people to dismiss a mass market paperback.” The books are being reissued in trade paperback to increase their chances of getting on bookstore and library shelves—and, ultimately, into readers’ hands, the goal of any backlist reissue.

Rachel Kramer Bussel is a freelance writer specializing in books, publishing, and culture.

Corrections: A previous version of this article was inconsistent in its references to the imprint releasing the Aubrey–Maturin reissues; it's Norton. Vida Engstrand's name was also misstated and has been corrected.

Below, more on backlist books.

Looking Back, Moving Forward: Backlist Backbones 2021
Books written in years past speak to contemporary concerns.

Her Stories: Backlist Backbones 2021
Forthcoming reissues from several publishers convey a variety of female experiences.

Baby Got Backlist: Backlist Backbones 2021
Booksellers say older titles are key to nurturing young readers.

Fresh-Faced: Backlist Backbones 2021
Outdated references and current events are some of the considerations children’s publishers take into account when revamping older titles for modern kids.