One book cover crossed out, with collaged hands pointing at the used cover
One book cover crossed out, with collaged hands pointing at the used cover

Every book jacket exists in multiple versions that the world never sees before a winner is finally picked and delivered to shelves.

Here, Penguin Random House designers share their favourite nearly-covers from some of the most popular books of recent years, and explain the process behind the magic.

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

Why We Sleep alternate cover

The cover that nearly made it to print for 'Why We Sleep'

Chosen by Isabelle De Cat, Designer at Penguin Press

Why We Sleep is a ground-breaking non-fiction looking at sleep and dreams.

"There was a lot of excitement around the manuscript of Why We Sleep and with good reason: it truly is a life-changing read. To make our edition stand out in a fairly overpublished area, we needed to avoid the ubiquitous pillows, duvets and other night scenes.

It took three rounds of visuals before arriving at a solution that would make everybody happy: the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign, an object peripheral to sleep but still signalling it. A few weeks later, the first cover proofs came in, the metallic pantone of the door knob worked nicely on the uncoated paper stock, all looked really good…. And then everything changed! After a brilliant talk given by the author at a Penguin event, the cover was yet again re-briefed. The more iconographic approach of the original design was toned right down in favour of a greater focus on the author’s name."

  • Why We Sleep

  • 'Astonishing . . . an amazing book . . . absolutely chocker full of things that we need to know' Chris Evans

    'Matthew Walker is probably one of the most influential people on the planet' Evening Standard


    Sleep is one of the most important aspects of our life, health and longevity and yet it is increasingly neglected in twenty-first-century society, with devastating consequences: every major disease in the developed world - Alzheimer's, cancer, obesity, diabetes - has very strong causal links to deficient sleep.

    In this book, the first of its kind written by a scientific expert, Professor Matthew Walker explores twenty years of cutting-edge research to solve the mystery of why sleep matters. Looking at creatures from across the animal kingdom as well as major human studies, Why We Sleep delves into everything from what really happens during REM sleep to how caffeine and alcohol affect sleep and why our sleep patterns change across a lifetime, transforming our appreciation of the extraordinary phenomenon that safeguards our existence.

    'Startling, vital ... a life-raft' Guardian

    'A top sleep scientist argues that sleep is more important for our health than diet or exercise' The Times

    'Passionate, urgent . . . it had a powerful effect on me' Observer

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Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara

Alternate covers for Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line

Progression of cover iterations for 'Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line'

Chosen by Kish Rajana, Middleweight Designer and Etta Voorsanger-Brill, Junior Designer at VINTAGE

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is a debut novel about boy in India searching for his missing friend.

"For the hardback of Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, VINTAGE Art Director Suzanne Dean was looking at lots of different approaches – from photography, collage and illustration, as well as taking inspiration from Indian sign painting and beautiful matchbox imagery alongside the rich application of colours - ultimately leading to the final hardback cover design.

One of the unused covers from this selection included use of Dimpy Bhalotia’s Mumbai street photography of kids. Her images resonated well with the novel’s energy, as well as the protagonists that inhabit it. This was the stepping stone, and key inspiration for the paperback, which took many forms playing with layout and design of Dimpy’s photography. Ultimately, we referenced back to the impactful colours and style of Indian sign painting, and combined it with Dimpy’s energetic photography to create the paperback version.”

  • Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line

  • 'Anappara creates an endearing and highly engaging narrator to navigate us through the dark underbelly of modern India' Observer

    'I love this book...I just fell into it' Tayari Jones

    We children are not just stories. We live. Come and see.

    Nine-year-old Jai watches too many reality cop shows, thinks he's smarter than his friend Pari (even though she always gets top marks) and considers himself to be a better boss than Faiz (even though Faiz is the one with a job).

    When a boy at school goes missing, Jai decides to use the crime-solving skills he has picked up from episodes of Police Patrol to find him. With Pari and Faiz by his side, Jai ventures into some of the most dangerous parts of the sprawling Indian city; the bazaar at night, and even the railway station at the end of the Purple Line. But kids continue to vanish, and the trio must confront terrified parents, an indifferent police force and soul-snatching djinns in order to uncover the truth.

    * A New York Times Notable Book *
    *One of the Observer's 10 best debut novelists of 2020*

    'A heartrending tale' The Times
    'A drama of childhood that is as wild as it is intimate' Chigozie Obioma, Booker Prize shortlisted author of An Orchestra of Minorities
    'Extraordinarily good, deeply moving and thought provoking with brilliant characterisation. A very important book' Harriet Tyce, bestselling author of Blood Orange
    'Djinn Patrol is storytelling at its best. The prose is not just sympathetic, vivid, and beautifully detailed, but also completely assured and deft' Anne Enright

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Taking Up Space by Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi

First visuals of 'Taking Up Space'

The first visuals included a more overt visual link to university

Chosen by Amy Musgrave, Designer at Cornerstone

Taking Up Space is a manifesto for tackling racial inequality written by two Cambridge graduates.

"The initial idea for Taking Up Space was to have a bright, classy cover with a small nod to university incorporated in the design. We tried a few ideas involving scrolls and crests but the one that sat most naturally was the graduation cap over the ‘i’.

This visual was eventually moved on because whilst it was bright and had a really elegant font for the title, we wanted the cover to have more impact and to live up to its title by ‘taking up’ more of the cover. The graduation cap icon was also removed, as the new direction of filling the cover with the title was much stronger solely with type – trying to fit any images into the design would only take away from it.

Everyone loved this style font though, and in the end we did keep a small part of it for ‘up’. There’s always something a bit more personal about a cover with handwritten style type, and this cover from the beginning felt like it needed that.”

  • Taking Up Space

  • 'Brilliant' CANDICE CARTY-WILLIAMS, author of QUEENIE
    'Hugely important' PAULA AKPAN
    As a minority in a predominantly white institution, taking up space is an act of resistance. Recent Cambridge grads Chelsea and Ore experienced this first-hand, and wrote Taking Up Space as a guide and a manifesto for change.


    Understand that your journey is unique. Use this book as a guide. Our wish for you is that you read this and feel empowered, comforted and validated in every emotion you experience, or decision that you make.


    We can only hope that reading this helps you to be a better friend, parent, sibling or teacher to black girls living through what we did. It's time we stepped away from seeing this as a problem that black people are charged with solving on their own.

    It's a collective effort.
    And everyone has a role to play.

    Featuring honest conversations with students past and present, Taking Up Space goes beyond the buzzwords of diversity and inclusion and explores what those words truly mean for young black girls today.
    #Merky Books was set up by publishers Penguin Random House and Stormzy in June 2018 to find and publish the best writers of a new generation and to publish the stories that are not being heard. #Merky Books aims to open up the world of publishing, and this year has launched a New Writer's Prize and will soon be launching a #Merky Books traineeship.

    'I know too many talented writers that don't always have an outlet or a means to get their work seen, and hopefully #Merky Books can now be a reference point for them to say "I can be an author", and for that to be a realistic and achievable goal... Reading and writing as a kid were integral to where I am today and I, from the bottom of my heart, cannot wait to hear your stories and get them out into the big wide world.'

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Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Development of different visual routes for Moonflower Murders

Development of different visual routes for Moonflower Murders

Chosen by Glenn O’Neill, Associate Art Director at Cornerstone

Moonflower Murders is an intricate thriller by an international best-selling author.

"The initial design proposals for Moonflower Murders were various graphic depictions of moonflowers incorporating spots of blood. However, this direction wasn’t considered leading to a sufficiently lyrical solution, and considering it was a thriller, it lacked menace.

Next were depictions of a derelict lighthouse and a design featuring a hotel described in the narrative. Neither approach had any traction in our weekly design meeting ­– by now though the typography was settled, with the author branding decided using a typeface, ‘Revolution’, where ‘Anthony’ and ‘Horowitz’ set satisfyingly to the same length.

Finally, I tried some rough illustrations of swooping owls in an atmospheric night scene, which found favour with our design meeting, and then also with the author and his agent. I then commissioned illustrator Sinem Erkas to complete the cover, which is what we see today."

When the Lights Go Out by Carys Bray

Visual development of When The Lights Go Out

Several covers were created before a blend of them culminated in the final visual

Chosen by Ceara Elliot, Senior Designer at Cornerstone

When The Lights Goes Out is a satirical novel examining family and relationships.

"This was briefed as a book about marriage, but also climate change. From the start I had some lovely imagery to work with from the text; water, smoke, nature and candlelight to name a few. I loved throwing these around the page, exploring dark and earthy colours, abnormal layouts and various textures. 

Initially the house with the smoke cloud was considered as being the right visual to pursue, but after discussions it was decided it felt a little cold, dark and lonely, and didn’t obviously portray global warming. The one that was chosen to be taken further, had the same domestic element (the house), which felt crucial to the book, along with a stronger nod to climate change represented through rising water levels, slowly drowning the title.

I commissioned James Weston Lewis to illustrate the cover and create a full jacket to wrap around the book. The textures and colours used evoked a little more warmth to the cover that was needed to ensure it communicated that ray of hopefulness. In most cases, the decisions made around cover choice, though at the time may seem frustrating, end up being for the right reasons. The covers that don’t make it aren’t lost, and in the case of this book, they can always be recycled and reused."

  • When the Lights Go Out

  • _________________________
    'This is a powerful and truthful story about hope and how to find it' THE TIMES

    'Wry, beautifully written . . . it works on many levels' DAILY MAIL

    'Bray's satire shines with observation and subtlety' GUARDIAN

    'She writes with a quiet formidable brilliance. Her observations on relationships are acute, painful and extremely funny. This is a gem of a book.' EMILY MAITLIS

    Global temperatures are rising.
    The climate of the Abrams' marriage is cooling.

    Emma is beginning to wonder whether relationships, like mortgages, should be conducted in five-year increments. She might laugh if Chris had bought a motorbike or started dyeing his hair. Instead he's buying off-label medicines and stockpiling food.

    Chris finds Emma's relentless optimism exasperating. A tot of dread, a nip of horror, a shot of anger - he isn't asking much. If she would only join him in a measure of something.

    The family's precarious eco-system is further disrupted by torrential rains, power cuts and the unexpected arrival of Chris's mother. Emma longs to lower a rope and winch Chris from the pit of his worries. But he doesn't want to be rescued or reassured - he wants to pull her in after him.

    Darkly funny and beautifully written, When the Lights Go Out is a novel for our times: a story about cultivating hope and weathering change.
    'So timely, and so deeply human, a novel which takes us right into the heart of a marriage and at the same time grapples with the most crucial issue of our age. It's bursting with compassion and wisdom.' SHELLEY HARRIS, author of JUBILEE

    'Through exquisite use of language and observation, she examines the intricacies of family life in ways which have you laughing one moment and biting your nails with worry the next.' SARAH FRANKLIN, author of SHELTER

    'With characteristic wit and humanity, Bray shows us the necessity and the impossibility of preparing for disaster, and reminds us of both the fragility and capacity of love.' JENN ASHWORTH, author of A KIND OF INTIMACY and FELL

    'I think WHEN THE LIGHTS GO OUT is exactly the novel we need in these times: it's complex, nuanced, and compassionate, frightening and heartening. I think Carys has written something truly extraordinary and I hope it flies. I'll certainly be cheering it on.' STEPHANIE BUTLAND

    'Gorgeously written... funny and compassionate... I found it very affecting.' GOOD HOUSEKEEPING, 2020 Pick of the Year

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Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce

An illustrated map version of Miss Benson's Beetle

Originally, Neil Gower created a bold, vibrant travel poster inspired cover

Chosen by Richard Ogle, Art Director at Transworld

Miss Benson’s Beetle is an uplifting novel about female friendship.

"At the time of designing, the book wasn’t even called Miss Benson’s Beetle. At one point it was called The Glory of Margery Benson and, at another, Margery Benson’s Awfully Big Adventure. Based on the premise of a big adventure, with only sample chapters available, we felt that travel posters of the 1950s (the decade the book is set) was a good cultural hook to hang the jacket on. We commissioned Neil Gower who illustrated a bold map concept with suitcases representing the two female protagonists.

However, as more chapters were supplied, it was felt that this was a much deeper, emotional book than the quirky, fun map idea portrayed. We changed tack and recommissioned Neil to redo the cover in a new style he’d recently developed to illustrate a book called As Kingfishers Catch Fire. The richness and aspirational pitch of these illustrations better suited the unfolding novel’s direction. The result, we felt, represented the more aspirational heart of the novel.”

  • Miss Benson's Beetle



    'The perfect escape novel for our troubled times.' PATRICK GALE

    It is 1950. In a devastating moment of clarity, Margery Benson abandons her dead-end job and advertises for an assistant to accompany her on an expedition. She is going to travel to the other side of the world to search for a beetle that may or may not exist.
    Enid Pretty, in her unlikely pink travel suit, is not the companion Margery had in mind. And yet together they will be drawn into an adventure that will exceed every expectation. They will risk everything, break all the rules, and at the top of a red mountain, discover their best selves.

    This is a story that is less about what can be found than the belief it might be found; it is an intoxicating adventure story but it is also about what it means to be a woman and a tender exploration of a friendship that defies all boundaries.

    'A girl's own adventure...This is Rachel Joyce's best book yet ...Exciting, moving and full of unexpected turns.' THE TIMES

    'Brilliant and elegant and wise...powerful and moving...I can't recommend it enough.' JOANNA CANNON

    'A beautiful portrayal of female friendship in all its frailties, contradictions and strengths.' RAYNOR WINN


  • Buy the book

Knee Deep in Life by Laura Belbin

Visual development of Knee Deep In Life

The covers that evolved from type-led, on-trend visuals

Chosen by Loulou Clark, Art Director at Ebury

Knee Deep in Life is a memoir about motherhood.

"Targeting Laura’s core online audience, this cover was briefed to convey her humour and personality through the use of bright colours, following the trend of type-led designs. We saw lots of great energetic designs throughout the process but as it evolved, we felt it lacked what Knee Deep in Life was known for – Laura’s hilarious photos. We developed the designs to include photography, first trying a confident single image approach, paired with contemporary colour palettes and bold typography, but later settling on a strip of three images, which reflected more of a snap shot of her Instagram feed.

It can be tough rejecting great designs, but more than achieving just an attractive cover, we must ensure we communicate the content in an immediate and dynamic way. This book went on to be a Sunday Times Bestseller.”

  • Knee Deep in Life


    'I just howled. Bloomin' love you' Giovanna Fletcher

    'You're hilarious. Thank you for making me laugh every day' Mrs Hinch

    When does Mary Effing Poppins arrive?

    Laura Belbin survived hitting her thirties (oh, to be wrinkle-free again), anxiety (just), motherhood (two adorable little shits) and the new body that went with it (a left tit that sags slightly more than the right, anyone?). In Knee Deep in Life she gives a fearless and filthy account of her transformation from no-responsibilities woman to being in demand 24/7, the heartaches and humiliations, and most importantly, her (definitely-pushed-to-the-limits-but-totally-indestructible) marriage to Steve, the man who helped her to hold it together when post-natal depression kicked in.

    Full of heart and wit - not to mention swearing that would make a sailor blush - this is the beast of a book Laura intends on riding into the hands of those people who doubt themselves every single day: the ones who have struggled to accept the way they look; the mums-to-be about to find themselves taking their first step towards parenthood; and the women bossing it like badasses every single day but never getting the credit they deserve. You are more than enough.

  • Buy the book

Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer

Gold, green and blue original cover of 'Rough Magic'

The cover that nearly made it to print, before taking a different route with a new audience

Chosen by Loulou Clark, Art Director at Ebury

Rough Magic is a novel about the world's toughest horse race.

“The challenge here was finding the tone for the paperback to reach the right audience. As a book about extreme landscapes, it was initially briefed to pursue an illustrative route – similar to the hardback, sitting firmly in the nature writing space with beautiful foil finishes for a covetable package, exuding the magic of the writing.

However, when reviews of the book focussed on how compelling the author’s personal narrative was, we questioned whether the lack of a figure reflected the memoir aspect of the book clearly enough. It was when Rough Magic was selected for the Richard & Judy Book club that we decided to review the whole approach.

Driven by the opportunity of this new platform and slight shift in audience, and listening to retailer feedback, we considered photographic designs that would depict the journey the author took, and were able to source the perfect image. The dramatic skyline and silhouetted horses solved our previous concern, drawing the reader into the image and setting without the need for a human figure. With this image, the design suddenly fell beautifully into place and the book led on to great success.”

  • Rough Magic



    'Such an addictive and likeable book...One of this year's best memoirs' The Telegraph

    'It's the resistance to the obvious narratives that makes Rough Magic so appealing: the book undermines lazy women-in-the-wilderness tropes at every turn.' Sarah Moss, Guardian

    'Think Educated meets Wild' Entertainment Weekly

    'Rough Magic is transporting, beguiling and terrifically entertaining' Daily Mail

    The Mongol Derby is the world's toughest horse race. A feat of endurance across the vast Mongolian plains once traversed by the people of Genghis Khan, competitors ride 25 horses across a distance of 1000km. Many riders don't make it to the finish line.

    In 2013 Lara Prior-Palmer - nineteen, underprepared but seeking the great unknown - decided to enter the race. Driven by her own restlessness, stubbornness, and a lifelong love of horses, she raced for seven days through extreme heat and terrifying storms, catching a few hours of sleep where she could at the homes of nomadic families. Battling bouts of illness and dehydration, exhaustion and bruising falls, she found she had nothing to lose, and tore through the field with her motley crew of horses. In one of the Derby's most unexpected results, she became the youngest-ever champion and the first woman to win the race.

    A tale of adventure, fortitude and poetry, Rough Magic is the extraordinary story of one young woman's encounter with oblivion, and herself.

  • Buy the book

Can you reimagine one of Penguin’s biggest book covers?

The Penguin Student Design Award aims to discover and nurture the next generation of design and illustration talent. Experience a real cover design brief first-hand with our 2021 titles from Benjamin Zephaniah, Meera Syal and David Wallace Wells. Submissions close on 23rd March.

Image: Ryan MacEachern / Penguin


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