Judging Books by Their Covers: U.S. Vs. U.K.

March 3, 2010 | 44 2 min read

Last year we had fun comparing the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of a sample of the Rooster contenders, so I decided to do it again with this year’s batch. There are all sorts of marketing considerations behind these designs, and it’s interesting to see how designing for these two similar markets can result in very different looks. The American covers are on the left, and clicking through takes you to a larger image. Your equally inexpert analysis is welcomed in the comments.

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I love the U.S. version here. The line drawing is exquisite and it draws the reader up to the tightrope walker and into the book. In fact, the design is a wonderful visual representation of McCann’s book, which revolves around the story of Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk but is not really about it. I don’t understand the U.K. design at all. McCann’s book is soulful and serious; the U.K. cover says “silly and strange.”
 
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The American cover wins again here. The cartoonish, half cut-off head draws you in, while the U.K. version feels more like a movie poster. Although, the illusion of movement in the U.K. design is nice and something you don’t often see on the cover of a work of literary fiction.
 
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This time I prefer the U.K. cover. There’s something weirdly sleepy about the U.S. cover. I love the red title script on the U.K. cover.
 
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These are both very nice for totally different reasons. The American design is bold, intriguing and eye-catching. The U.K. cover is intricate.
 
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This is really a case study in the “exotic,” no? I’m not sure I like either of these much at all.
 
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The American version doesn’t do much for me – a little too coy. I love the U.K. version here. I like the idea that you might paint your book cover on the side of a barn.
 
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These are both nice and bold, but for different reasons. The U.K. cover gets the nod, though, for the string, for the wavy, watery stencil, and for those horses; for all of it, really.
 
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If you’ve read this book, you’ll know that the American cover is ridiculous. The U.K. cover, meanwhile, is close to perfect.
 
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I don’t love either of these, but the U.S. cover is better. The U.K. cover looks like a made-for-TV movie, and this book has very little in common with a made-for-TV movie
 
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The U.S. cover is muddled and confusing. I love the U.K. cover. There’s something intoxicating about all those things hanging off the vines.
 

created and edits The Millions. He is co-editor of the collection of essays The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, called "funny, poignant, relentlessly thought-provoking" by The Atlantic. He and his family live in New Jersey. If you'd like to correspond, please don't hesitate to email.

44 comments:

  1. The UK cover of the Hilary Mantel looks better digitally than it does in real life: the real thing looks a bit too pink and soft, completely the wrong impression for a book that is far from soft.

    {And the marketing person in me wanted to tear out my hair when I saw it: you’ve got a novel about the court of Henry VIII with an enigmatic title . . . and you’re not going to do anything to help tell people what and when it’s about? It doesn’t seem to have mattered, since the book was so good that it found its audience, but still, it seemed like the publishers were unnecessarily tying one hand behind their back.}

  2. Love this post and the commentary. Max, do you know of any blogs dedicated to this topic? Would love to learn more about the art of book jacket design.

  3. The American jacket of my last book, The Ice Chorus, nearly derailed my career. Booksellers couldn’t give it away in spite of great reviews. The Brits did a much better job. Because we (Americans) are toddlers when it comes to consuming, jackets are often designed for the lowest common denominator of the demographic target, rather than for the book itself.

  4. Great post. I love book covers. That British Low Boy cover is surprisingly bad. Looks like a mid-90s movie poster about techno-raves or some nonsense. Luckily the US one is great.

  5. The US version of Marlon James is a mess – are two blurbs really necessary? Overall, I’d score it 6-4 in favor of the UK, with the UK winners being the last six – Shamsie, Mantel, Tower, Moore, James and Atwood. Out of all these covers, the UK Wells Tower is my favorite.

  6. “If you’ve read this book, you’ll know that the American cover is ridiculous. The U.K. cover, meanwhile, is close to perfect.”

    For those of us who HAVEN’T read the book, the US version is really intriguing… the sand, the stairs, the red glow. The UK version, on the other hand, is a line drawing of a white house. On blue. Which tells me nothing. Totally boring and unevocative and unappealing to me.

  7. FWIW, the “K” in Kingsolver on the UK jacket doesn’t bleed off the edge. It does in the image at Amazon.co.uk; it doesn’t on the Faber and Faber site. I always found a publisher’s site to be a more reliable image resource than Amazon.

  8. CKHB, that’s a great point! I agree that it is more enticing to one who hasn’t ready, and that’s what matters after all, potential disappointment be damned.

    Joseph, Thanks for the correction; that does make the UK Kingsolver cover slightly less intriguing to me. We hope your BDR site returns from its hiatus some day!

  9. I like that the UK cover lets me know immediately what is meant by the title of “The Help.” The US version is one of those pretty, generic things they stick on women’s books.
    The UK cover for Let the Great World Spin is inexcusable.

  10. On Wolf Hall, I would have thought that UK readers would be so familiar with the ‘logo’ of the Tudor rose that it (especially when combined with the rough wood texture) would shout historical novel. This seems a good case of there being a real need for two versions.
    i’ve just judged a UK novel competition and was surprised by 1) the range in quality of book jacket design – why would publishers neglect such an obvious marketing tool – and 2) yes, how the cover influenced my expectations to the extent there was a least one novel I would not have picked off the bookshelf and would therefore have missed a good read…

  11. I loved your article/list – as an Indie-Bound bookstore owner, I find it interesting/intriguing the way folks pick up a book (when not handsold by their favorite bookseller :) – sometimes I just think they like the cover!
    I heard Umberto Eco speak a few years back at a national ABA meeting about the importance of graphics/color/design in books – and I truly believe it should extend to the covers of books – I treasure my signed/first edition books because I also have their covers in excellent shape!
    Thanks for the info –

    Kathleen

  12. Of the ones I’ve read…

    Wolf Hall – agree with Bridget Whelan. Also, the blurb on the flyleaf is impressively well-written, especially given the sheer size of the novel.

    The Year of the Flood – the UK cover is one of the best I’ve seen/stroked in ages. What you can’t tell on here is that it’s deliciously embossed. Edibly good.

    The Lacuna – Much prefer the American cover for its boldness. It’s a bold novel.

    Of those I haven’t…

    I’d reach for the UK cover of Let the World Spin before the US one

  13. It’s funny, I’ve seen the UK cover for Let the Great World Spin in Canada and most of the rest I’ve seen the US cover.

    I agree completely with Max’s assessment of the Lorrie Moore. I’ve read it and it’s definitely better represented by the UK cover. Perhaps it’s more enticing, but it also doesn’t do the writer justice. Her prose is new and fresh feeling, while that cover seems… old. Screams prairie fiction to me.

    @ poornima – Check out http://covers.fwis.com/
    They seem to be having some technical difficulties right now, but it’s a great space where lots of designers discuss book covers.

  14. This confirms to me that there is no universal right or wrong in cover design nor a clear distinction according to nationality. We respond individually to a cover in the light of what we know and have experienced and from our own prejudices.

  15. Having worked as an independent bookseller in both the US and UK the difference in covers is always incredibly interesting (and often confusing).
    One of my favourite marked differences was with Memoirs of a Geisha. Striking and original in the UK. Totally missable in the US.

    On these titles, I agree with Bridget that UK book buyers would instantly be able to judge the content of Mantel’s book. In addition I think they’d be able to instantly recognise it as literary fiction (compared say with the more genre-typical covers of C. J. Sansom’s excellent Shardlake novels).

    I agree also that the UK covers on the first too royally suck, whilst the UK Atwood cover leaves the US one standing in about 1992… very disappointing job.

    I think that the UK Burnt Shadows cover is OK though, fitting in with other UK covers of a similar ilk. Unlike the US cover it wouldn’t deter male fiction readers over here, a situation likely reversed in The Book of Night Women.

    Oh, and a note to say that at a glance, or maybe on gut reaction, I’d have mistaken the Kingsolver for a Salman Rushdie. I wonder which would be less pleased?!

    Nice article. Great comments.

  16. I’m just gonna assume from these covers that American publishers don’t trust their readers abilities. Just to reinforce the obvious the American covers state “A novel’. Maybe they should print ‘now turn the page’ at the bottom of every page too.

  17. Really, Sarah? The American ‘toddlers’ did your last book in, not the snobbish, superior attitude of it’s author? *cough* How interesting.

    That being said, I’m in the lovely position of being able to travel between the US and Ireland frequently (Ireland generally gets the UK editions), and often get to see the different covers. Sometimes I even wait to buy a book if I know I can get a prettier edition in another country; for example I buy my Flashman novels with the UK cover only…they’re fantastic, while the US ones are utterly uninspired.

    Anyway, the biggest UK failure I’ve seen is the cover for Like Water for Elephants. It’s a big, sparkley mess that looks terrible in person, especially when compared to the subtle American one which gives a sense of mystery. Meanwhile, on the US end, their cover for The Book Thief (dominoes?!) is pointless rubbish compared to the UK one: a sweet girl and Death dancing down the road. Each side has their own sins to atone for, I think.

  18. This is a great article! I love the comparisons you chose, and I agree with most of your statements. I never noticed how much a cover appeals or turns me away from a book. How interesting that publishers think their audiences are so different.

  19. Thanks for this post. I am in Melbourne Australia. I have seen BOTH the US and UK versions of Barbara Kingsolver’s THE LACUNA in my local bookstores. I guess it depends on who owns the bookstores! But the indies stock the AUST/UK version. On closer inspection this morning, however, (and after reading this post) I looked more closely. Our Australian cover of THE LACUNA is taken from the UK one, though a little changed. Ours has the same painting, without the ripped text look over it. It also misses out on the ‘bleed’ of the type to the left. Which led me to wonder if the bleed is intentional. I don’t think it is, as nice as it looks. The whole type is off midline. I checked some other pages and I think I shall stand by my thoughts. Right to the source, Faber and Faber, show this as the UK cover http://tinyurl.com/yanoeyk . This is the slightly different AUST cover http://tinyurl.com/yd7r8lg . Nowhere do I see the bleed. Nice as it is, It’s not intentional. BTW, this is the paperback UK cover – different again. http://tinyurl.com/yc5ax6r

  20. Strange to see that the covers differ so greatly. I knew that each country has a custom cover but is seems it is little control on how the cover should look. As a designer it seem there is a lot of ups and downs in this selection. The comment about what Umberto Eco said is ever so true. Think of how much goes into product and packaging design. A book is a product and if the cover doesn’t give you any idea about the book, there is a problem.

  21. I like that the American edition of “Wolf Hall” makes the title nice and big, so us dumb hicks know which is the title and which is the author. Of course, seeing the two covers side by side like that, it becomes even more confusing which is which if you’re not familiar with the author, since the orders have been reversed between the two countries!

    I count myself among said dumb hicks, of course.

  22. I liked the idea of comparing covers for same book published for different regions. As a book cover designer I enjoy comparing and watching work of other book cover designers. i also do same type of comparison with my optional covers and finalized covers. Thanks for sharing all these b’ful book covers.

  23. Cool article! I love it. To continue the comparisons, I recommend following @CoverSpy and @CoverSpyLondon on Tumblr and Twitter — we’ve got cover spies in New York and London who blog and tweet cover images of the books we catch people reading around our cities. (Also http://www.coverspy.com and http://www.coverspylondon.tumblr.com.) On March 17, both UK and US spies caught readers of The Year of Magical Thinking: http://coverspylondon.tumblr.com/post/454215553 and http://coverspy.tumblr.com/post/454710482

    Cheers!

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