Home » Covers » Cover versions: why are UK and US book jackets often so different?

Cover versions: why are UK and US book jackets often so different?

29 September 2017

From The Guardian:

Covers sell books. But in the case of Hillary Clinton’s memoir What Happened, you can’t help thinking that the book’s sales in the UK are despite the jacket treatment, not because of it. Whereas the US jacket oozes the gravitas you expect from the woman who stood up to Donald Trump, the UK jacket has all the power of a shrugged “meh”.

The book is published worldwide by Simon & Schuster, and the company’s US division opted for bold lettering on a white-and-blue background (incorporating the Democrats’ traditional colour). The design screams its serious credentials: this, it tells the reader, is The Book by the woman everyone expected to be a shoo-in for the Oval Office, a woman defined by her service in husband Bill’s and Barack Obama’s administrations.

It is a cover worthy of the memoir that has a place in academic libraries. Weight is given to the title, What Happened. A simple statement, it hangs above Clinton’s name, reflecting the question on the lips of everyone who awoke on 9 November to find Donald Trump was soon to get access to the nuclear codes.

But the UK cover … where do you begin? Any sense that Clinton is laying it on the line, or even offering answers, is washed away by a design so hackneyed it even has a generic politico-at-a-rally headshot, albeit one in which Hillary’s firm-lipped expression is reminiscent of the look your mum gave you the first time you barrelled home drunk. Not only that, but the background colour is as pallid as one of her pant suits, and the title – a question on the lips of everyone in the UK as well as the US – is squirrelled away beneath her name.

When I ask, “What happened?” her publisher responds with a terse refusal to comment. But it raises the question: why did the Americans get it right and the British so wrong when UK book design is supposedly the envy of the world?

. . . .

Traditionally, US design tended towards literal interpretation, driven, Bache believes, by the complexity of the US market: the image that motivates readers in southern California to pick up a copy of a book is likely to be different to what appeals to readers in South Carolina. As a result, US jackets have tended to appeal to the lowest common denominator, and that does not make for good design.

“It’s a complicated [market], so the design becomes simpler and focuses on broader appeal,” Bache says. “However, things have shifted in the last few years,” he adds. “There are a lot more similarities now, particularly in literary novels where the luxury of creating much more elegant, beautiful covers has been afforded to the books.”

The designer and illustrator Neil Gower believes US designers have upped their game because of the explosion in digital books. “I think ebooks and the internet have definitely focused publishers’ attention on making books beautiful, covetable objects again,” he says. Publishers on both sides of the Atlantic realise that to justify the cost of a hardback, a book needs to be more than a container of words. It has to be an object of beauty in its own right, he says.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Here’s the US cover:

And the UK cover:


29 Comments to “Cover versions: why are UK and US book jackets often so different?”

  1. Maybe someone on that side of the pond can explain it to us.

    My only guess is they feared a ‘who?’ reaction – at least with the picture the shoppers can say ‘Oh, it’s that one we saw on the telly, was trying to be the head of that madhouse over there.’

    (Heck, I hadn’t noticed/cared what her middle name was – still don’t know that other guy’s and he’s got the ‘go crazy’ codes. 😉 )

    • That’s not her middle name, its her maiden name, which she started using as part of her official name as soon as her husband left office.

  2. The uk cover asks a question and if you want the answer you can buy the book. There is no reason to buy the US version which answers the question on the cover.

  3. Huh. I like the UK cover. It’s attractive and draws me in. “Meh,” is my reaction to the US cover, which looks trite and underdeveloped in my eyes. ::shrugs:: To each his own.

    • I agree. I like the UK version much better too. Actually, it is often the case, even for fiction books, when they release one title with different covers on different sides of the Atlantic. It feels like the covers in the US target less sophisticated audience. Maybe it’s a reflection of reality, and the American readers are en-mass simpler than the Europeans?

      • In my experience, such as it is, American publishers have more contempt for their audience than British publishers have for theirs. British publishers seem at least to think of their readers as literate human beings. American publishers have a regrettable tendency to think their books are being bought by pigs, and design their marketing efforts (including covers) to have the effect of rattling a stick in the swill bucket.

        Case in point: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Sorcerer’s Stone. You see, American kids are too dumb to read a book with ‘Philosopher’ in the title, and it’s totally worth destroying the centuries of resonance that J. K. Rowling called upon by referring to the Philosopher’s Stone, and replacing it with a dumb made-up name. —So said the American publisher. (Here in Canada, a different publisher brought the book out under its original title, and nobody batted an eye.)

        • It is precisely this. They don’t even hide it. You can see it interviews with them, bonus points if we’re talking about foreign books translated into English. The editors talk as if they live on a higher plane of existence than the average Joe or Jane, who just can’t be havin’ with all that there book larnin’ stuff.

          Speaking of Harry Potter, Rowling mentioned the publishers warned her that Americans wouldn’t even understand the more humorous parts of her book. Yet she observed that at book signings in America, the kids laughed in all the same places the British kids did.

          • And yet as an Aussie author edited out of London and then New York, my experience was that working in the US I got more care and attention than on the other side of the pond. My covers were frequently different, or at least cropped differently but that could be due to variations in page size. As for Ms. Clinton’s book, as an author I prefer the US version which has more literary weight, while as a reader, I feel the UK cover has stronger selling power. Just my 2 cents/pounds’ worth.

  4. Neither cover fits what I’d consider inspired. On the other hand, if they’d made this the cover (https://pbs.twimg.com/media/DFvoz26VoAIOPG1.jpg) that’s all they’d have needed. Question asked. Question answered.

  5. Both covers are boring. Both fit the book, according to most professional reviews I’ve read.

  6. I think the UK version is an attempt to portray her to the British people as America’s queen/royalty by imitating the covers of books about Princess Diana and Queen Elizabeth II. US readers would have none of that (because we know better), and so they opt instead for a cover that could be a huge contender for First Place in the Worst Self-Published-Style Cover contest.

  7. Is it common to have different covers for the same English language book in different countries?

  8. The cover is the ad for the book. The British may not be as biased as the Americans are, just by seeing her picture may turn the deplorables off.

    • I doubt the “deplorables” are the audience for the book. 😀

      I actually prefer the US cover, though.Instead of diluting with a photo, it asks the question she and her team and her supporters were all asking that weird-as-heck election night…

  9. In the UK (and New Zealand), that colour blue represents the political right … whereas the designers apparently chose it because it represents the Democrats.

    If you wanted to appeal to the UK’s political left, you’d pick red, and I can’t see Clinton or the Democrats being happy with that choice.

  10. Prior to problems with cover design is the problem with the title.

    “What happened,” when used in common conversation, almost always is a question, so people seeing the title will tend to add an invisible question mark. They will read it as “What Happened?” That has Clinton answering with something like, “Gosh, I dunno. I was taken by surprise.” Not the impression one would want to give.

    When people use “what happened” as a declarative rather than an interrogative, it almost always is in the form “what really happened,” but that may have been perceived by the publisher as too much of a mouthful or too whiney.

  11. “everyone expected to be a shoo-in”

    *short* And that right there is one of the big reasons she lost. The echo chamber. It’s real. Even across the pond.

    As for the cover, though, I wasn’t particularly overwhelmed by the US cover (I’m not a fan of text-only covers in general), but I have to agree that it’s way better than the UK version. The idea of putting her picture on it made sense, especially in a country that isn’t the one involved in what’s being discussed in the book. But that picture, and the way it looks just kind of snipped out of the original background and pasted onto a blank background… Yeah, the whole thing’s pretty awful. I mean, I’ve definitely seen a lot worse, but considering the money the publisher doubtless paid to publish it, that’s a pretty poor effort.

    I agree with Karl about the title, too.

    I sometimes see foreign covers for books that are a lot better than the US covers, even for US-based authors. It’s interesting to watch how different publishers try to appeal to the people of their countries in different ways. Makes me wonder how true to the culture the choices they make are.

    • I agree about the picture, Shawna. Surely there are better photos available, that are more flattering and that don’t seem to show Sec. Clinton floating in mid-air.

  12. The US cover looks like one of the “text only because we didn’t actually make a cover” auto-generated thumbnails from an online seller.

    The UK cover says “generic biography.” Fair enough.

    The US cover says “we cared so little about this title, we couldn’t even justify a $25 piece of clip art to put on the cover.”

  13. Bache, the designer, says and the article paraphrases but doesn’t quote:

    As a result, US jackets have tended to appeal to the lowest common denominator, and that does not make for good design.

    (Wonder what the actual quote from Bache was, that they went for the paraphrase instead?)

    Funny, as the designer for our one-author publishing house, I don’t want to appeal to the lowest common denominator. I want to appeal to the target market. Which most definitely requires some good design!

    • “I don’t want to appeal to the lowest common denominator. I want to appeal to the target market.”

      Exactly. But my guess is that when they’re paying the millions that they do for these political autobiographies, the publishers do want to appeal to the lowest common denominator because their target market is “literally anyone”.

  14. I think at this point, there is little Clinton can do that *anyone* will appreciate. In addition to those who hated her before the election, it seems most other people hate her now for losing.

  15. The covers of my books are different in UK than in USA.

    THe brits have been rather stuffy and conservative, apparently at least at my publishers have been, seeming to think british readers need to have things spelled out for them literally AND not seeming to realize that their editors at their er um advanced ages havent a clue of wht appeals to young readers.

    My usa publishers were WAY off the track with weird interpretations of the books for their covers. I art directed and still do, all covers. Part of it is the unfamiliarity of the dsigners and artists with certain layers of life and thus they make stereotypical guesses.

    I know Hillary from book fairs. She is a humor filled woman, and did the work normally relegated to men. She has been beaten and battered about more than any dignitary I’ve ever witnessed. I know ,many dont like her and some for reasons of their own, spew hate. I like her. She has true grit. And I find both covers insipid, knowing her.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.