Judging Books by Their Covers 2013: U.S. Vs. U.K.

February 11, 2013 | 12 books mentioned 58

As we’ve done for several years now, we thought it might be fun to compare the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books contenders. Book cover art is an interesting element of the literary world — sometimes fixated upon, sometimes ignored — but, as readers, we are undoubtedly swayed by the little billboard that is the cover of every book we read. And, while many of us no longer do most of our reading on physical books with physical covers, those same cover images now beckon us from their grids in the various online bookstores. From my days as a bookseller, when import titles would sometimes find their way into our store, I’ve always found it especially interesting that the U.K. and U.S. covers often differ from one another. This would seem to suggest that certain layouts and imagery will better appeal to readers on one side of the Atlantic rather than the other. These differences are especially striking when we look at the covers side by side. The American covers are on the left, and the UK are on the right. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments.

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I much prefer the U.K. version here. The woodblock art is sublime, and the red and black are nice and bold.
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Both of these make great use of a wild ’70s aesthetic, but I like the subtle menace of the U.K. cover over the day-glo U.S. design.
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The U.S. is my winner here with that intriguing and very “meta” book on a book design. The U.K. cover isn’t quite fully realized.
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Against any other cover, the clever ripped-and-repaired look of the U.K. design would be my winner, but I love everything evoked by that big can-shaped slab of gelatinous cranberry on the U.S. cover.
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The layered look of the U.S. cover is simply stunning and very evocative, while the U.K. cover falls prey to the all-to-common crutch of “Asian” themes adorning novels about Asia or by Asian authors.
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Perhaps unsurprisingly, the U.K. covers for Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell books have far outshone the U.S. covers. The U.S. covers seem to lean heavily on the old “historical fiction” look.
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Speaking of historical fiction tropes, these both draw from the classic “a picture of something old from a museum” look.
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The U.K. version is stunningly bland, while I love the big-text-over-paint look of the U.S. cover.
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Now this is interesting: two different versions of the same idea. I think the U.S. cover pulls it off better.
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There’s something more daring about the text-only, dictionary-definition U.S. cover, while the U.K. cover seems designed to signal very loudly that this is a war novel.
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This one’s a tie for me. I’m a sucker for the vintage text and graphics mash-ups.
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I don’t love either of these, but I think the painterly U.S. cover is better than the U.K. cover’s exploding flowers.

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


  1. I don’t know. The Yellow Birds UK cover does have Emmy winning actor Damian Lewis’ blurb on the front. That made my wife want to read it. I’d like to think that blurb exists solely to blur the line between reality and fiction. It’s the equivalent of having Martin Sheen blurb presidential biographies. Whatever sells more books.

  2. I like that the UK covers resisit the rediculous sub-title of’ a nove’ on every other book, or maybe they just hide it better.

  3. The UK FOBBIT cover shamelessly rips off posters for the movies MASH and Full Metal Jacket. I mean _shamelessly_. Not only does that make the cover an automatic loser, but whoever designed it should be fired.

  4. I find most all of these covers to be bland, aesthetically weak, and unattractive. A good cover can sell a book and even add to the overall reading experience by providing a memorable visual reference but this batch, with a few exceptions, screams boredom.

  5. I want the U.S. copy of “Arcadia” just for the cover. I think I would probably look at the cover a lot longer than I would read the book.

  6. I was amazed to find that the James Herriot series ( ALL THINGS BRIGHT & BEAUTIFUL, etc.) about a Yorkshire veteranarian were covered with Yorkshire landscapes in the USA, but boffoed (animal kicking-ass cartooned) ) in the U.K. .
    Quite a cultural diff.!

  7. I so wish the US version of the Round House cover was the same as UK! It is so much better? I mean, what even is that supposed to be/represent on the US cover? Shards of?

  8. What’s with the almost verbatum blurbs from Karl Marlantes and Publisher’s Weekly for Fobbit and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk? From Marlantes for the Fountain novel: “The Catch-22 of the Iraq War.” From Publisher’s Weekly for Fobbit: “The Iraq War’s answer to Catch-22.” I haven’t read either of these novels, but this seems just…odd.

  9. re: Arcadia, compare the UK vs US covers for the original Blind Faith album from 1969. Maybe the UK designers have a Charles Dodson think going?

  10. For me, it’s about half better U.S. and half better U.K. No one country’s cover artists are better than the other’s. Interesting comparisons. Thanks for posting.

  11. Great post. I noticed the same thing as ydm, but wondered if US book covers are for some reason required to specify that they are “a novel” (or “stories” in the case of Dear Life)?

  12. The thing about the A.M. Homes covers is that in the UK that tin of cranberry sauce doesn’t carry the same cultural capital. As arresting as the image is, it just would not have struck a chord.

  13. Speaking as a UN indie bookseller, I found this comparison fascinating. For years the feeling has been that US covers are much stronger than UK, but that’s no longer the case. It’s as if the UK publishers were so focused on digital for a few years, they dropped the ball on many aspects of the physical book – but no longer. Disagree with the ‘Yellow Birds’ cover – it has real impact in the shop. The US cover of ‘Bring up the Bodies’ is abysmal, a real ‘will this do’ effort – sorry. The UK ‘Alice Monroe’ cover also works well in the bookshop setting strangely. If does look classy on a table jostling with other literary names. Madeline Miller – both poor, but the book sells strongly on word-of-mouth so no harm done. Think the US ‘Arcadia’ cover is better – but other than that and Kevin Powers I think you are spot on…thanks very much for the post…

  14. It’s eye-opening what publishers think readers will and won’t like. When Hodder & Stoughton published the UK version of THE SECRETS OF MARY BOWSER, a novel based on the true story of a former slave who became a Union spy in the Confederate White House during the American Civil War, they put a black woman on the cover. The Norwegian edition also has a black woman on its cover (very different cover). But in the US? Nope.

    Major publishers here seem to believe that if you put a black woman on the cover, the book won’t appeal to white readers. (Once a book is already a bestseller, that can change–The Help got black women on the cover on the re-release after the film was out)

    I think all three covers have their appeal (judge for yourself http://loisleveen.com/index.php/site/blog-single-entry/judging-a-book-by-its-covers)–but the assumptions behind them reveal what happens when the same story becomes a product for different audiences.

  15. Totally awesome post. I agree with you 90%. I tend to lean towards cerebral covers sometimes too cerebral which squeaks the brain!! Authors have limited say in their design of book covers. As a graphic artist it was a huge challenge for me to let go but ultimately have I trust the publisher’s art and marketing department to know what they are doing and get on with the business of writing. Thanks for sharing this. Cheers!

  16. Overall, I think that the UK covers are more captivating! They are beautiful, with bright colors and details. For the most part when judging a book by it’s cover, I would most likely pick the UK books up off of the shelf over the US ones.

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  18. I generally agree with your judgements, except that I find myself not liking photos in cover designs, particularly photographs of people. It gives it too much of a feeling of being a film tie-in or novelization.

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