Books as Objects and Notable Articles

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

By posted at 7:02 am on March 3, 2010 44

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.

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




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44 Responses to “Judging Books by Their Covers: U.S. Vs. U.K.”

  1. Levi Stahl
    at 7:23 am on March 3, 2010

    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. Poornima
    at 8:20 am on March 3, 2010

    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. sarah stonich
    at 11:43 am on March 3, 2010

    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. Lincoln
    at 12:48 pm on March 3, 2010

    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. Joel
    at 1:28 pm on March 3, 2010

    Poornima, The Book Design Review blog was a great resource. Unfortunately it is is on “indefinite hiatus” since January. Fortunately, it has a large and wonderful archive of posts.

    http://nytimesbooks.blogspot.com/

  6. Pete
    at 3:08 pm on March 3, 2010

    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.

  7. Ryan
    at 3:50 pm on March 3, 2010

    Excellent post and thanks for the link, Joel. I wish I’d known about that sooner.

    Every week or two I impose my limited knowledge and unfounded design opinions on random books. Oddly, under the same title.

    http://burrowpress.com/tag/judging-a-book-by-its-cover/

  8. CKHB
    at 4:21 pm on March 3, 2010

    “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.

  9. Joseph Sullivan
    at 4:48 pm on March 3, 2010

    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.

  10. C. Max Magee
    at 4:57 pm on March 3, 2010

    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!

  11. Poornima
    at 7:49 pm on March 3, 2010

    Joel, thank you for the heads up. Will definitely check out the blog you recommended.

  12. Tom B.
    at 8:38 pm on March 3, 2010

    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.

  13. Book Covers: Brits vs. Yanks « biblioklept
    at 10:36 pm on March 3, 2010

    [...] for making Biblioklept’s Book Cover Week so much easier. What can we say, we’re lazy. Here’s his fun post on American book covers versus British editions. And, just to prove that we’re not that lazy, we did two of our [...]

  14. Judge, Jury, Executioner « Narwhal Party
    at 11:03 pm on March 3, 2010

    [...] pitting UK and US book covers head-to-head. I mostly agree with the commentary. Read the post here. Also, the wonderful Biblioklept added their two cents here. I am seriously coveting that UK [...]

  15. Bridget Whelan
    at 4:21 am on March 4, 2010

    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…

  16. Kathleen Dixon
    at 8:42 am on March 4, 2010

    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

  17. Lisa Gee
    at 8:52 am on March 4, 2010

    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

  18. Nic Boshart
    at 9:23 am on March 4, 2010

    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.

  19. Jonathan Roberts
    at 10:07 am on March 4, 2010

    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.

  20. Matthew Williams
    at 10:23 am on March 4, 2010

    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.

  21. markham
    at 10:34 am on March 4, 2010

    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.

  22. Chasch
    at 10:34 am on March 4, 2010

    About Wolf Hall, in my opinion the Canadian edition is rather well done… it points to historical fiction without being too obvious about what it’s about. In my opinion the use of portraits (even truncated portraits) as in the American edition is overdone. I rather like the UK edition, however.

    http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_DpbzQjeiDuo/SujR0gNEahI/AAAAAAAAA70/oucfBWVlDto/s320/Wolf+Hall

  23. first impressions « Collection Developments @ Sno-Isle
    at 12:14 pm on March 4, 2010

    [...] in the battle of the covers, take a look at the U.S. (on left) versus the U.K. (on right) as compiled by The Millions.  here are a few [...]

  24. chris
    at 12:42 pm on March 4, 2010

    Another website for book covers is causticcovercritic.blogspot.com.

  25. Simon
    at 2:09 pm on March 4, 2010

    Excellent article, and some apt analysis. I’ve put a link at http://www.hyraxia.com. I’ve always thought of UK covers as being a little more simplistic, as though it shouldn’t matter, though this is certainly changing.

  26. Edith
    at 3:37 pm on March 4, 2010

    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.

  27. Different covers « Book Thieves
    at 8:46 pm on March 4, 2010

    [...] } Kind of following on from our discussion of different titles for the same book, this article in The Millions looks at the different covers the same title may get in the US and the UK (we seem [...]

  28. Cover appeal « Blue Mountains Library Staff Connection
    at 9:19 pm on March 4, 2010

    [...] This article in The Millions looks at the different covers the same title may get in the US and the UK (we seem to get a mixture of the two here in Australia). There are more over here at Biblioklept. The comments are worth persuing and perusing too. Do you agree with C. Max McGee’s assessments? I agreed straight off him on the cover of Let the Great World Spin – we had the UK cover here and it made me ill to look at that contorted man on the front – I wouldn’t go near it. [...]

  29. Michele Emrath
    at 8:31 am on March 5, 2010

    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.

  30. Jenny @jayjaycee1
    at 3:15 pm on March 5, 2010

    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

  31. Jenny @jayjaycee1
    at 3:15 pm on March 5, 2010

    BTW, if you want a great example ot cover text bleed, an obvious example is the great cover of THINGS WE DIDN’T SEE COMING by Steven Amsterdam http://tinyurl.com/yjf7jt3 (great little story, too) . The Australian version http://tinyurl.com/dap3hz

  32. eeleenlee
    at 5:37 am on March 6, 2010

    agree with the Margaret Atwood and Mantel covers, they are both intoxicating

  33. Hedes & Dekes: Go Ahead, Judge by the Cover « Uptown Literati
    at 4:30 pm on March 6, 2010

    [...] lot of marketing strategies go into cover designs, as C. Max Magee writes in the online Magazine The Millions. Magee picked a sample of books from The Rooster 2010 Tournament of Books shortlist, and compared [...]

  34. Vegard
    at 5:00 pm on March 6, 2010

    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.

  35. Jerry Kindall
    at 7:35 pm on March 9, 2010

    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.

  36. Judging Books by Covers | adPineapple
    at 9:22 am on March 10, 2010

    [...] Judging books by their covers, has a bad rap (a look on the different approaches to book jacket design – US versus UK) by The Millions. [...]

  37. Literary News: March 12th | BOOK CLUB CLASSICS!
    at 4:01 am on March 12, 2010

    [...] Judging Books by their Covers [...]

  38. NKS
    at 3:32 am on March 17, 2010

    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.

  39. 5th Estate · The Millions: US versus UK covers
    at 7:21 am on March 17, 2010

    [...] The Millions site last fortnight about the differences between UK and US covers. In a piece entitled Judging Books by their Covers. Millions editor C. Max Magee compared various jacket looks published here with those from across [...]

  40. Cover Me « Chatter, A Blog
    at 6:57 am on March 18, 2010

    [...] see the radically different designs people come up with for the same book, as The Millions’ comparison of a bunch of recent U.S. and U.K. releases proves. (We agree with all of their picks, except when it comes to Wells Tower’s Everything [...]

  41. Tricia
    at 11:24 am on March 19, 2010

    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!

  42. UK vs. US | The Sheila Variations
    at 10:45 pm on July 2, 2010

    [...] love this: a compare and contrast of the covers for the UK and American versions of the same book. Fascinating. This entry was posted in Books and tagged book design. Bookmark the permalink. [...]

  43. Judging Books by Covers | adPineapple
    at 11:11 am on August 24, 2012

    [...] Judging books by their covers has a bad rap — a cursory look at the difference between the British and American book jackets for the same novel, by The Millions. [...]

  44. Welcome to the Great Anglo-American Cover-Up! | thegreatangloamericancoverup
    at 2:36 pm on December 6, 2012

    [...] have been compiling an annual comparison (usually of titles of American Origin) for the last several years. But other than the occasional blog entry or newspaper column (often aimed, for some reason, [...]

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