Books as Objects and Notable Articles

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

By posted at 6:00 am on February 8, 2012 65

Like we did last year, 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 design never seems to garner much discussion in the literary world, but, as readers, we are undoubtedly swayed by the little billboard that is the cover of every book we read. Even in the age of the Kindle, we are clicking through the images as we impulsively download this book or that one. I’ve always found it especially interesting that the U.K. and U.S. covers often differ from one another, suggesting 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 clicking through takes you to a page where you can get a larger image. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments.

cover cover
The American cover is especially striking, with the bird and skeleton looking like something out of an old illustrated encyclopedia. And the wide black band suggests something important is hidden within. The British version feels generic, with the beach-front watercolor looking like a perhaps slightly more menacing version of the art you’d have hanging in your room at a seaside motel.
cover cover
Maybe these big black bands are a trend in American book cover design, but I think it wins the day here as well, imparting plenty of mystery on the half-hidden, murky photograph that it partially obscures. The British cover is somewhat striking as well, and I do like the watery, bleeding text effect. And whoever thought that floating dandelion seeds could impart foreboding? Maybe this one’s a tie, actually.
cover cover
It’s always interesting when the two covers are riffs on the same motif. I like both, but I think I think the yellow on black of the British version grabs me more.
cover cover
Both are good, but I love the creepy addition of the flies on the British version.
cover cover
The U.K. cover tries admirably to evoke the campus setting of the novel, but I love how the U.S. cover offers a stylized suggestion of the lettering used on old baseball uniforms.
cover cover
I don’t love either of these, and the painted out face and the hedge maze both seem a bit heavy-handed in the visual metaphor department.
cover cover
There’s something too advertisement-slick about the U.S. version, while the British version has a dark playfulness that I like.
cover cover
The American version isn’t doing much for me, but I love pretty much everything about the British version, up to and including the way the white splotch behind the title is seeming to reference the sun or moon.
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The American version is surprisingly bland, while the U.K. cover is a great riff on classic ocean liner posters.
cover cover
The British cover goes with another generic, tropical landscape, while the American cover has some great, mysterious detail going on in that border.
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I don’t love either of these. The American version is visually convoluted, while the British one feels underdone.

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

  1. Meg McAllister
    at 7:30 pm on March 3, 2012

    Great post. We didn’t agree on most of the covers, but I did enjoy your perspective. Made me take a second…and sometimes a third look in determining what motivates me to pick a particluar book up for a closer look.

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  3. Alisa
    at 4:28 pm on March 31, 2012

    I’m from the US and prefer the covers marketed towards us! Except for The Tiger’s Wife and The Cat’s Table…

  4. elz
    at 7:47 am on April 23, 2012

    i recently purchased The Marriage Plot here in Amsterdam, and I love this cover. I was pleasantly surprised that it was different than the covers I had seen previously. I didn’t even realize it was different for a reason, as in, there are different covers for US books & European/UK versions.

    I just moved to AMS 6 months ago, so needless to say I am still learning & adjusting to all the differences.

    interesting post, good read.

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  7. Paul Levinson
    at 4:40 pm on October 5, 2012

    Interesting analysis. Authors, in general, do not have much say about their covers. I was shown covers to all of my novels and nonfiction books, but did not really have veto power. The ultimate call was my publisher’s. In contrast, Kindle can give authors that power. I decided to keep the cover for my “author’s cut” of The Silk Code exactly the same for the US and the UK – because I like the cover so much, and think it has universal appeal. See this discussion about judging books by their covers for more

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  11. Brenda
    at 1:38 pm on April 24, 2013

    I will design my own covers, the covers will help me with my fictional novel i am working on. thanks for this post.

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  13. Josh
    at 10:54 am on July 6, 2014

    A great article and just goes to show the subtle changes that you’ll see from within cultures which share a great many similarities. I work on covers for authors from both sides of the pond ( you can see examples here ) and have found that when working directly with the authors most of the time their needs and expectations have stayed very close regardless off nationality.

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