In the middle of the New York City launch party this spring for Gina Chung’s debut novel, Sea Change, Chung’s friend Vanessa Chan snuck out to pick up a surprise. At Carvel, several blocks away, a sheet of ice cream cake was waiting.
On the cake was an edible version of Sea Change’s cover: a large pink octopus outstretched in front of a turquoise expanse, the title and Chung’s name written above. Riding back to the party in a friend’s car, Chan balanced the cake in her lap and “prayed it would not melt,” she recalls. Back at the event, the cake elicited screams and “cry-laughing” from the author and praise from other attendees, who reflected on their own childhood Carvel memories.
For authors, the emotional payoff of writing a book is, most obviously, in holding that book in their hands or seeing it on a shelf. But for some, there’s a sweeter, secondary satisfaction: seeing — and then eating — their book in the form of a cake. From popular fiction to academic releases, the book cover cake has become a publishing rite of passage. And with social media now fueling so much marketing and buzz, the photographable combination of a book cover and a cake is a clever form of promotion. These cakes commemorate launch day, and then the pictures become congratulations-worthy posts; no wonder some writers hope for them with a bucket-list sense of aspiration.
“The minute I saw that those were happening, I got really excited about them,” says author Addie Tsai, who recalls seeing poet Dana Levin getting a themed cake to celebrate her 2016 book Banana Palace. Naturally, Tsai was “thrilled” when a friend got a book cover cake for the Houston launch event of her 2019 debut, Dear Twin. “It just feels incredibly special to see this image that’s the product of so much work I’ve done in a different form outside of the book,” Tsai says. “Other people get to literally enjoy the book cover by eating it.”
That Tsai got to have such a launch feels particularly special considering a few months later the pandemic canceled almost all book events and tours. The author Caitlin Horrocks joked about this by placing her 2021 book Life Among the Terranauts on top of an unfrosted cake and captioning it “Celebratory Book Cover Cake: Pandemic Edition.”
Chan, who is an author herself, considers the book cover cake like an upgrade to the standard bouquet of flowers one might bring to a launch event: In her experience, close friends are usually the ones responsible for getting the cake for an author, often as a surprise. When given to one author by another, the book cover cake can be a direct symbol of what Isle McElroy has described as the literary world’s shifting focus toward friendship and support, as opposed to the competitive feuds that typified previous generations of authors.
The growing popularity of edible-image printers has helped the trend along. For over 30 years, the NYC bakery Duane Park Patisserie has made book cover cakes for launch events, according to owner and pastry chef Madeline Lanciani. These have included cakes for Eric Kim’s Korean American, Hetty Lui McKinnon’s Tenderheart, and Junghyun Park and Jungyoon Choi’s The Korean Cookbook. Although Duane Park’s website features pictures of hand-frosted book cakes from the past, “almost all of the books we make now are made using our edible ink printer,” Lanciani says. “Making the covers completely by hand has become cost prohibitive.”
While book cover cakes might be a longstanding tradition from a baker’s perspective, they take on new resonance for authors in the age of social media. As much as these cakes are objects of congratulations, they’re also marketing tools — and good ones, at that. Book covers have become their own kind of social media currency, leading publishers to design them around how much they might stand out on Amazon, Instagram, and TikTok, and photos and videos of those striking covers in cake form can be catnip for social media engagement. Climate activist Mikaela Loach revealed the cover of her 2023 book It’s Not That Radical on social media by cutting into a hyper-realistic cake that was decorated like the book.
Within this publishing and social media ecosystem, in which the books one reads also act as shareable social and status symbols, the book cover cake is a natural fit, in line with the rise of book-themed lifestyle merch. A picture of a half-eaten book cover cake featuring Delia Cai’s Central Places, for example, conveys a sense of something that you want to be a part of: not just a book that’s read alone, but a social celebration. The book cover cake is “easy. It’s cool. It’s memorable,” says Chan, whose own debut novel, The Storm We Made, is due next month. “Of course, it photographs well — we are the generation of social media.”
Tsai was in the middle of a big move when her second book, Unwieldy Creatures, was released in 2022. There was no official launch event nor book tour — and, accordingly, no cake. Tsai’s publicity team knew Tsai was sad about this, and so they sent a surprise while the author was in London for a reading this year: a box of cupcakes featuring the cover of Unwieldy Creatures.
“I was just really, really touched that they did that,” Tsai says.