US vs UK – Judging a Book By Its Country
By Rebecca D’Harlingue
June 22, 2021

Ever wonder why there are sometimes different covers for the US and the UK versions of the same book? I think the first time I really became aware of the fact that some books have a different book cover in the US than in the UK, was when I saw that the first Harry Potter book had two different covers. They even had different titles! What was up with that?

It can be jarring to see the “other” cover of a book that you’ve read and come to identify with a certain cover, as was the case for me when I saw the UK cover for Tommy Orange’s There There. Although the covers have some similarities, the UK one just didn’t seem right. Maybe I had more of a personal reaction because the book takes place in Oakland, where I live.

US vs UK

Usually, though, I’ve found a lot of pleasure in perusing the many articles and blog posts every year about that year’s books that had different covers for the two countries. The articles aren’t usually terribly serious. The person writing the article often rates which one they like better, and maybe why. Still, they usually confess that their opinions are just that, based on personal preferences.

There are lots of things to consider when looking at a cover. How do you like the typeface, the colors, the layout? Are there photos or graphics on the cover? Is it too busy? Too simple? Does it fit in with what you have come to expect for covers of that type of book? Often it just comes down to a gut reaction. Does the cover appeal to you or not?

Sometimes the book might even reflect different ideas of what the book is about. In an article in 2016 by Claire Cameron, she talks about the two covers for Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. Cameron says that for the US version the designer seemed to be seeing the book from the husband’s point of view of grief, with blues and swirls, but in the UK version, it seems to be from the wife’s perspective of rage and ecstasy, and features reds and sharp angles.

Similarly, the covers for Douglas Stuart’s Booker Prize-winning novel Shuggie Bain both have black and white photos, but the differences in the covers seem to emphasize different views of the story. The US version focuses on the faithful love that Shuggie feels for his mother, while the UK cover shows Shuggie’s isolation and poverty, due to his mother’s struggles with alcoholism.

In an article in 2019, Megan Wilson, a New York book designer is quoted as saying, “When I go back to the UK, I think they’re often more sophisticated and take more risks. I wonder if it’s because the market is so much smaller, versus our trying to reach such a broad audience.” Personally, I can’t see that UK covers are necessarily more sophisticated, but you can be your own judge. It has also been suggested that the UK is more accepting of “adult imagery,” though I didn’t see evidence of that in any of the book comparisons that I saw.

Sometimes the US and UK covers are similar. The colors of the covers for Madeline Miller’s Circe are the almost the same, reflecting the hues of ancient Greek urns. Here the graphics are different, though, with the US version showing a a Circe with a piercing gaze, while the UK version looks to me, well, frilly. At other times the covers are strikingly different, as is the case with Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated. I find the US version striking, particularly when one notices the tiny silhouette of a girl at the bottom of the sharpened part of the pencil. I confess to some confusion about the choices on the UK cover. This is a story of a child who lived with her survivalist family in an isolated part of Idaho. The UK cover looks idyllic, with a huge, Downton Abbey-type building in the background. Is it supposed to hint that the girl will ultimately go to Cambridge?

US vs. UK

Of course, covers are meant to sell books. Most books do have the same covers in the two countries, and you would think that if a book sells well in one country, that would be an incentive to keep the same cover. It doesn’t always go that way, though. Sometimes it is the case that the rights in the two countries may be held by different publishers, and they don’t have the rights to the cover. Often it just comes down to what the publisher thinks the market in each place wants. Are the US and UK book markets really so different for people who are likely to buy the same book? I don’t know, but in the meantime, I’m just going to have fun, and judge the covers of the books. What do you think?

Rebecca D’Harlingue
Written by Rebecca D’Harlingue

Award-winning author Rebecca D’Harlingue writes about seventeenth-century women forging a different path. Her debut novel, The Lines Between Us, won an Independent Press Award and a CIBA Chaucer Award. Her next novel, The Map Colorist, comes out in September, 2023.

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