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

February 2, 2011 | 51 2 min read

Like we did last year, we’re going to have a little fun comparing the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year’s Rooster contenders. Book cover design is a strange exercise in which one attempts to distill iconic imagery from hundreds of pages of text. Engaging the audience is the name of the game here. and it’s interesting to see how the different audiences and sensibilities on either side of the Atlantic 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 encouraged in the comments.

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At first glance, these are both a little cheesy, but closer inspection of the American cover reveals a clever trick: the shadow of the cake is the silhouette of our despondent protagonist. The U.K. cover, meanwhile, is a bit too on the nose. Lemons, check. Cake, check. Particular Sadness, check.
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These are both appropriate creepy, and while the U.K. cover gets points for the claustrophobic smallness of the toy house, I think the U.S. cover is better here. there’s something harrowing about that crayon scrawl on the stark white background.
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These are both pretty great. The U.S. cover is simple and memorable with those curly guitar strings hinting at the drama within. The U.K. version is more playful, and I love the slightly sunbleached and tattered effect.
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Franzen’s Cerulean Warbler on the U.S. cover has become somewhat iconic stateside. In the U.K., they give us a feather and a big “F” instead.
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The U.S. cover is awfully bland here, while the U.K. cover is pretty stunning, with a clever visual pun.
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The U.K. cover has a cool throwback sci-fi vibe going on, but the U.S. cover is one of the more visually arresting efforts in recent years.

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.


  1. They have tails you know…(Brits that is)

    My cousin/brother Jeb told me so.

    I’ve even heard that some of the books they read have plain covers with just the name of the book on it!! Sometimes only down the spine!!!

    They have big dusty old libraries with these plain covered books and people actually read them!!! 80

    Its a mad, mad world and no mistake!!

  2. It isn’t that one set of covers are better or worse than the other it is good that publishers recognise the different sensibilities of 2 seperate sets of readers. perhaps we could work on the spelling next.

  3. P-lease! Don’t get me started on the spelling!!!

    I’m pretty sure they learnt modern English from us Americans (You only have to read Charles Dickens to understand how backward they were before we educated them on modern English)

    I love the accent though; “Aw-roight Mary, spare us cupla bob!”

    so twee…

  4. “Aluminium”

    “Honour, Colour.”

    An obsession with the letter ‘u’ maybe?

    (If you line up lots of u’s it kind of looks like teeth:


    They have wooden teeth you know….


    (The Queen mother did in fact had plywood teeth)

  5. Actually judging from the perspective of which books I would be more likely to pick up to read the blurb – for the most part (perhaps one exception) I prefer the UK covers. Could not always tell you why. I certainly wouldn’t presume to say the US covers are awful (well one or two really put me off) but simply that they do not attract me in the same way.

  6. This is strange: in the years since I’ve been following TMN’s Tournament of Books, this marks the first time that I’ve preferred the US editions over the UK. Except with “Freedom” and “So Much for All That.” That giant bird drives me nuts.

  7. You should compare covers of the John Cleaver series by Dan Wells. They’re also in Germany (and look at the cover from Taiwan from the first book).

  8. Great piece; I find it fascinating that although we English and Americans are very similar in many respects, that there are also some beautiful finite differences that make us wonderfully unique.

    I can’t agree on this whole spelling deal though! – ‘English’ grammar on the whole is an organic entity and changes have appeared throughout the 20th Century on both sides of the Atlantic. Hundreds of words are added to the Oxford English Dictionary every year, I’m sure the same applies state-side…

    NB: The American spelling ‘Aluminum’ is in fact scientifically correct; When this new material was presented to English engineers, they, in their wisdom changed it!

    (The queen Mum did in fact have very bad teeth though i’m sure they were spruce not plywood!!)

    vive le difference as they say…

  9. > I did think that the Necronomicon post was funny though!!

    Like it or not, ‘Dwayne the Rude’ is one funny guy!

    We are very good at laughing at ourselves over here ;)

  10. Generally, the UK covers have a little more tone, but adaptability to local tastes is a dine idea.
    Comments (above) about dumbed-down American spelling are pointless and incredibly self-defensive!
    Is oversimplification really the first principle of everything in the US?

  11. Generally the American covers are more artistic.

    What’s clearly noticeable though is the fact that 90% of UK covers have snippets of acclaims or praise from sources, be it newspapers or other authors. This plays as a major selling point for the books from my study of the UK market.

  12. As an American, I could not say which is better–we are all culture bound. I can critique the art tho.
    The Brit ROOM for instance offers great claustraphobic effect with the gradient as if looking through a window and the strectched text on ROOM give the effect of a magnifying glass. So that house is really small. The Am. ROOM suggests a child and maybe an angry child which I don’t find as interesting.

    The Brit FREEDOM has vertical text which is harder to read. The Am FREEDOM has eye catching text and nice colors.

    SO MUCH FOR THAT on the Brit ver is harder to read than the Am. but the opposite ti true of the next book, SUPER SAD.

  13. To Dwayne Davies:

    The British fascination with the letter ‘U’ is actually a very successful innovation on their part.

    It makes drawing the ‘U’ to a Scrabble rack much less of a threat.

  14. ^ U’s used to be V’s – (Ancient stonemasons found it easier to carve a V than a U.)

    I live near a city called Bath, Roman Name: Aqvae Svlis

    V’s like, 4 points, U’s only 1 point :(

    I therefore blame the Romans for my poor Scrabble scores.

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  16. There is one big difference between the US and UK. The UK still publishes a lot of quality writing,= and has many excellent bookstores. The US tends to publish cookbooks, romance novels and self-help trash. The difference may be that the British still teach English in schools. Most people here in the US find People magazine challenging.

    Just pop in any American bookstore–what do you find. Anything BUT books and then cookbooks and self-help trash.

  17. Dear Dwayne Davies…

    Give it a break. Or get a job. You obviiously have too much time on your hands given the number of off-topic posts…

  18. I thought the good ‘ol US would be crushed in this one, but I’m pleasantly surprised to see that we faired pretty well. I’m one of those nerds that would lean towards purchasing a book (or any product) just because of the design. I appreciate the insightful reviews after each example.

  19. me being neither American not English i would say i have unbiased opinions and I think for all the books except for freedom i prefer the UK book covers are much better since I am guilty as charge of judging books by their cover i would have choose the UK ones every time (except for freedom) without even knowing which one it belongs two!!!!!

    ~Cuz Diamond is nothing but coal that did well under pressure~

  20. You can’t really tell from the picture, but the UK Super Sad… has a coloured foil effect that, IMHO, works very well.

  21. IMHO:

    “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake”: US. US version reminds me of the paintings of Wayne Thiebaud: Happy, but with a haunting quality. The UK version looks like a still life with cake, lemons, and human being. That’s kind of creepy when you think about it.

    “Room”. UK. A hauntingly beautiful quality about it. Little house draws us into picture, and might draw me into the book itself. The US version is more scary-creepy-disturbing.

    “A Visit from the Goon Squad”. US. I like Jennifer Egan, and the bigger her name is on the book the more likely I am to read it. The UK version is just kinda’ weird with the letters falling like coal on an umbrella. What’s that about?

    “Freedom”. US. It’s pretty, and it has a whole bird and not just some lame feather like the UK version.

    “So Much For That”. US. Bold colors and torn picture suggest more than a place setting where if you look closely the knife has been replaced by a box cutter (or is that a fountain pen?). I like orange in books. It reminds me of my copy of “A Clockwork Orange”.

    “Super Sad True Love Story”. US. A tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top title deserves a similar cover. The UK version is too muted and convoluted in tone. The US version is as in-your-face as the title.

  22. jeez, could’ve you have been ANY more bias against the UK??

    could’ve been a good article…


  23. I am a writer and I design my own book covers completelty by myself. Who else knows better than me how to visualize the content of my manuscript?

  24. I find it interesting that for the “unbearable Sadness of Lemon Cake”, the UK cover emphasises the “Sadness” whereas the US cover emphasises the “Lemon Cake”. Far be it from me to draw any conclusions from that. :-)

  25. Reading some of these comments are quite funny, “Visit a dentist already” & “Plain covers with only the title down the spine”, guys come on, really? Don’t believe everything you hear. The U.S version of most of the books are better, which is a shame really as it’s the covers that draw you in, oh well, I think more time needs to be spent deciding on the cover designs over here in Britatin.

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