Books as Objects

Judging Books by Their Covers 2014: U.S. Vs. U.K.

By posted at 6:00 am on January 27, 2014 14

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 some of us no longer do all 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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So this is interesting. It would seem that us American readers require more orbs to get us interested in a novel of Victorian scope and heft. I like the slightly more subtle U.K. look
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The U.S. version is a little dull though it has a pleasing spareness to it and I like the vintage botanical illustration thing going on there. I far prefer it to the U.K. cover. I get that there’s a handmade motif happening but the colors are jarring to my eye.
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I don’t think you would ever see a cover that looks so “genre” on a literary novel in the U.S., and it kind of makes sense with Hamid’s self-help-inflected title and the “Filthy Rich” in a giant font. The U.S. cover is aggressively boring.
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Both are bold, but I prefer the U.S. cover. The burnt tablecloth is a more original image than the lobster.
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I suspect I may be in the minority here, but I prefer the U.S. cover which seems to bank on the Lahiri name, rather than the U.K., edition which seems to telegraph the subcontinental content.
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Neither of these seems to be exerting much effort to break out of the Western-genre tradition, but the U.S. version’s painterly affect at least gives it a little intrigue.
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At first glance, both of these appear to be going for the creative use of classic Asian motifs, but the British cover is actually pretty wild, using something called “Blippar technology” to produce an animated effect when you look at it with a smartphone. So, points for innovation in book cover design.
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Both of these are pretty great, but I love the U.S. cover. It’s clever to have a YA book with a cover that looks drawn by the hand of a precocious teen. It kind of reminds me of the similar design philosophy of the 2007 movie Juno.
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Drawings inspired by vintage botany texts must be in this year. Here we have two different versions of the same idea, but the U.S. take is more lush and interesting.
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Atkinson is a superstar in the U.K. (as opposed to merely having legions of devoted fans in the U.S.) so that may account for the foregrounding of her name on the U.K. cover. Regardless, the U.S. look is far more intriguing.
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The Flamethrowers unaccountably didn’t get a Tournament bid, but it should have, so we’ll include it here, especially because it’s a great example of some seriously bold cover design going on on both sides of the pond.




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14 Responses to “Judging Books by Their Covers 2014: U.S. Vs. U.K.”

  1. Fiona
    at 9:54 am on January 27, 2014

    Interesting. I much preferred the US version for almost all–except I really liked both Ruth Ozeki covers and I preferred the UK version of the turtle cover.

  2. Robert
    at 10:24 am on January 27, 2014

    It’s also worth noting that the UK Atkinson cover is designed to look like the rest of her books, for those slightly obsessive-compulsive readers who like all their editions to look like part of a set. The US cover is clearly much better though.

  3. John Eklund
    at 10:51 am on January 27, 2014

    Gotta disagree on the Rainbow Rowell. LOVE that UK cover and think that vintage nerdy look and color scheme is way underutilized.

  4. Ross G
    at 10:51 am on January 27, 2014

    I’m pretty sure the UK cover of How to Get Rich in Rising Asia is a riff on the cover of the big motivational/financial book Rich Dad, Poor Dad, which makes it definitely the better cover of the two.

  5. NM
    at 12:03 pm on January 27, 2014

    The US cover of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia reminded me of the UK cover of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King: same watery, wave-like, font-dissolving look.

    http://tinycamels.wordpress.com/2011/04/14/pale-vs-king-a-squabble-over-the-us-and-uk-covers-of-the-dfw-novel/

  6. Drew
    at 12:50 pm on January 27, 2014

    This might be the first year that I’ve overwhelmingly liked the US covers over the UK ones – usually, there are some bold and interesting decisions on the UK end. The only one that really does it for me from across the pond this year is Eleanor & Park, although I appreciate the sparser version of “The People in the Trees” too.

  7. Bernie
    at 3:16 pm on January 27, 2014

    I’m curious about the lack of “A Novel” being tagged onto the UK covers. Is it that Americans are worried they might read a story that, without that phrase on the cover, they couldn’t identify as fact or fiction?

    That said, the US covers handily win this round. Although I gotta admit, that Blippar cover seems like a gas.

  8. gelman
    at 5:40 pm on January 27, 2014

    the UK cover of the Flamethrowers is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen in my long and illustrious life

  9. John Bialas
    at 2:38 am on January 28, 2014

    Before I even read this piece, I thought that the UK covers would be the best, because it seems that most times they are. This time, though, the only UK cover I prefer is the one for Eleanor & Park. I would like to have a copy with that cover.

  10. Maureen
    at 10:49 am on January 28, 2014

    On a quick first glance I noticed: US cover designs seem a bit edgier and more contemporary overall; UK covers used more color and more combinations of color while US covers seem to have a more muted colors overall, the color exception being The People in the Trees. I’d say the UK covers gave off a more traditional vibe which may reflect perceptions more than actuality…but marketing is based on perceptions.

  11. Viv
    at 6:43 am on January 29, 2014

    the lack of “A Novel” being tagged onto the UK covers”

    This is something I’ve laughed at with other British friends, that Americans can’t tell what’s fiction and what isn’t.
    What did surprise me was seeing an online comment from a very well read American who worked in a bookshop – definitely not the sort of person we were thinking of – and had actually mistaken for non-fiction a novel by an author who’s reasonably well known and mis-shelved it for a while. I’ve not heard of that happening here – but then publishers often put a subject designation on the backs of books beside the barcode.
    Though apparently ” a novel” is used more often on literary fiction than bestsellers – I’ve read that some Americans like the phrase because it evokes Victorian-era title pages. I would hate to see “a novel” creeping in on covers here as it seems like prime dumbing-down territory.

    I prefer most of the UK covers. The Flamethrowers US one gives the misleading impression that it’s a serious political novel that may have some relation to the occupy movement. And again the American Life After Life cover makes the book look more serious than the standard of writing inside.

    Whilst I also prefer The Lowland British cover over that American one with its hint of italic Comic Sans-by hand, it’s an excellent example of the overuse of folk designs and general tweeness that has infected UK book covers in recent years, even certain ranges of classics.

  12. Jada Marne
    at 11:37 am on January 30, 2014

    As a former US expat who spent several years in Blighty, the UK covers for “The Son” and “Time After Time” are bullish in their generic Britishness. The serif font, the single graphic image bleeding to the edge – usually a photo or a photorealistic Photoshop manip – yawn. Walk into a Waterstone’s or W.H. Smith and these covers blend into a wall of sameness. “The Dinner” stands out slightly because the designer had the temerity to use a sans-serif font, but otherwise, more generic yawn.

    And “Eleanor and Park” is the typical generic cover treatment given to chick lit in Britian: hand lettered/cursive fonts, cartoony figures. (See the UK covers for “If You’re Not the One” by Jemma Forte or “Since You’ve Been Gone” by Anoushka Knight for more of the same). A shame, because Rowell’s novel is not generic chick lit.

    In other words, the US covers for the win.

    I never met a Brit who cared that US covers tend to have “a novel” written on them. Or an American, for that matter. It’s a cover style convention, and one that I would bet is invisible to most US book buyers. I certainly never took conscious note of it until now.

  13. John, USA
    at 8:24 am on February 3, 2014

    I work for the New York office of a UK publisher and we’re constantly bumping up against this issue. Thanks so much for compiling this list!

  14. The Links | The Good Read Guide 21st February | Rebecca Hawkes
    at 6:22 am on February 21, 2014

    […] judging a book by its cover isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I never realised how much the book covers change from the UK and US to attract different […]

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