Claire King


Potato, Potato, Tomato, Tomato, Book Covers.

Posted on: April 29th, 2012 by Claire - 21 Comments

Today we’re talking about that Special Relationship….

I’m in the amazing position of having The Night Rainbow being published in several countries, including the U.K. and the U.S.A., where the cover designs have now been developed (I had input into both). I’m delighted with both of them, but they are markedly different (U.K. on the left, U.S.A. on the right):

I’ve asked some very kind booksellers in both countries, and my editor from Bloomsbury U.S.A., to talk about the importance of a book cover, and to try and define what defines the differences in our tastes. Here are some of the first responses:

First, Robert Gray, who from 1992-2005 was a bookseller and buyer for the Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, Vermont.

He has also been a contributing editor and columnist at Shelf Awareness since 2006. As a writer, his work has appeared in numerous publications, ranging from Tin House to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine toPublishers Weekly. He has an MFA in Writing and Literature from Bennington College. Rob tweets as @Fresheyesnow

Rob says:

The cover was always a factor for us when buying in stock, though not the deciding factor (excepting, of course those counter books that could be sold as gift items on strength of their covers or titles alone). If a book with a lousy cover was still something I loved and knew I could handsell, content always trumped art. But if a book wasn’t so great and the cover was irresistible, then the decision came down to a question: “Is this a book I know there are readers for, even if I’m not crazy about it?” Another factor I don’t see discussed often: When booksellers are building displays, a great cover always has a better chance of being showcased.

I do think customers instinctively reach for a book with a great cover if it’s on a display or face-out on the shelves. If it’s spine-out, then the game is over before it starts. Ideally, what a great cover does is get the potential reader to pick up the book, maybe scan blurbs on the back cover, open the book and flip through the first few pages.

Anything that inspires a customer to initiate that ceremony is critical.

Looking at your covers, I do think the U.S. cover will appeal more to American readers. I’m not sure I can be more specific than that. It’s an instinctive reaction for me, since I’m not a graphics or even a particularly visually-oriented person. I’ve just watched thousands of books being sold over the years. 


Anna J G-Smith has worked at Stroud Bookshop for the last 15 years.
Stroud Bookshop is an independent book shop, keeping books on the High Street and part of Stroud’s cultural heart. Anna is passionate about her job – even more so since she started writing, and rarely seems to have her bookselling hat off these days. Her writers blog is here and she tweets as @eryth
Anna says:
When ordering a new title in for stock, the most important thing is the write-up, and any advance reviews. Also if we like the premise, and feel it fits with the zeitgeist of the moment in which it is published. BUT, once the new titles arrive, then we can assess how best to display them, depending on jacket design (and heft!). I tend to be the one mostly responsible for the displays, as I am acknowledged to have a good eye for overall balance of colour/design. If I think a book looks particularly beautiful, then I will display it as prominently as possible, and especially if it is a hardback. With paperbacks it is slightly easier, in that the bestsellers tend to be displayed depending on how many we have in stock, and what the prevailing colours/designs in paperbacks are at the time. For example, Julian Barnes and Graham Swift look well next to each other at the moment:
Design is important to customers. Hardback design in particular: if they’re going to shell out on a new title they might not otherwise buy (unless they’re die-hard author-addicts who can’t help themselves!) then they like the idea that they are buying something beautiful. Smaller hardbacks in particular fit this niche, (Julian Barnes – again – was an example last year), as do books that they might like for themselves, but can only justify if buying a gift for someone else. Paperbacks are where the most committed browsing takes place. For backlist/classics it helps to have either a smart and recognisable livery (Oxford, Penguin, faber etc) or something beautiful and striking. Joanne Harris’s Chocolat still stands out years later, because of the rich purple; David Mitchell’s Thousand Autumns Of Jacob de Zoet is another good example.
When a title is new, and selling well, then it is more likely to be displayed face-out. This is where good design comes to the fore.
A good cover helps a book more than a bad cover hinders it. If a customer really wants to read a particular title, then a poorly designed cover will not put them off – though it does cause comment. This does happen a lot, and especially if the design is changed between hardback and paperback, or between trade paperback and A-format. Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English is a good example here. The original design was very striking in red and yellow. The A-format paperback is less memorable, and especially when there are so many other blue covers around.
Now to your covers. They are BOTH beautiful. I much prefer the English cover for the hardback  – and it will look lovely stacked high in the middle of my hardback display, and in the window! – the U.S. edition is too much like other jackets I have seen, but will look very strong as a paperback cover, whereas I think – lovely though it is – the striking detail on the UK cover will be diminished once it is scaled down. And I’d be very surprised if my customers don’t greatly admire the hardback cover. It is unlike anything I have seen in a very long time, so will stand out well. Bloomsbury do have a knack for GOOD covers that buck the mass market; Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell being another example.

Rachel Mannheimer is my editor at Bloomsbury in the USA

Rachel says:

It’s difficult to pinpoint how important is the cover design for a novel. With the closing of so many bookshops, and the rise of online shopping – for print books and especially for e-books – I think there are fewer face-to-face encounters, as it were, with the book cover. There are new ways to find books, which are great, but it’s rarer for readers to discover books based solely on an eye-catching image. Still, when I’m in a bookshop, it’s definitely still my eyes leading me. (Then I read the blurbs or reviews on the back). And a memorable image still makes an impression if you see it online, in an advertisement, wherever. The cover conveys something about the style of the book before you know anything else.

When you consider the difference between what readers in the U.S.A. like in a cover, compared to the U.K., I think it’s a matter of a slightly different visual language, and just what the customer is accustomed to seeing – what connotations different visual cues have. Successful British book covers look like other successful British book covers, and successful American covers tend to look like other American covers. And I would say, to be supremely reductive, that British covers can look a bit schmaltzy to American eyes, while American covers can look stiff and boring. But sometimes something works perfectly in both markets! It just depends.

I love the cover we came up with for The Night Rainbow; it’s evocative and stylish. There was discussion early on about how difficult it would be to match the title literally (though the UK cover does come close). But it’s also such an interesting phrase, “night rainbow.” The designer had to work with both its sweetness and its mystery. Also, you had been clear about not wanting a straight representation of Pea; you wanted the reader to have space to imagine. This image the designer found, I love that it shows a little girl, but it’s a bit disorienting; you’re not quite sure what you’re looking at. You want to read and learn more.


Many thanks to Rachel, Anna and Robert for taking the time to comment.

For more discussion on UK versus US covers:

Here’s a link to a brilliant talk by Chip Kidd on Book Design on Seth Godin’s blog.

Some very interesting comparisons of the last year’s novels on The Millions.

Not just a wildly different cover, but a different title too, from Morag Joss

For more information/to see other work by the designers of my covers:

UK: Holly Macdonald

USA: Jennifer Heuer

21 Responses

  1. Interesting post, Claire! I like the covers, though the British one more by some way. Interestingly my novel (out later this summer in the UK & US) also has that phrase “a novel” on the US cover only.

    In my case (the novel is called “TALKING TO THE DEAD”) I can see the need for the explanation. My title, for example, might be consistent with some spiritualist text. But yours – NIGHT RAINBOW – what could that be except a novel? A book of meteorology?

    I’d add to all the good comments in your post that simply grabbing the reader over competing texts matters too. I had a book out at Xmas once – non-fiction, not a novel – and it had a lovely cover, but a quiet one. It was simply drowned in the mass of louder, brighter, more sales-y Xmas titles. With hindsight something more brash &; less beautiful would have sold a lot better.

    • claire says:

      Hi Harry, it seems to me that the addition of ‘a novel’ in the U.S.A. is universal, although I don’t know why. Tradition?
      Have you ended up with two different covers for TALKING TO THE DEAD, or have you managed the rare ‘works in both markets’ cover (like Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question)?

  2. Interesting post. I’ve always wondered why covers vary from place to place. In your case, I much prefer the U.K. version… which makes me wonder if I’m being typically English! Of course, some books also change their titles, which intrigues me even more. Why, for example, is ‘The Golden Compass’ more likely to sell in the U.S. than ‘Northern Lights’? (I’m mostly being rhetorical… unless you happen to know the answer!)

    • claire says:

      Yes exactly, it seems as though even if you can’t put your finger on it, we lean towards our cultural norms. Do have a look at Morag’s post for another example of title and cover change (link at the bottom of the post)!

  3. Carys Bray says:

    Lovely covers both, Claire. Congratulations.

  4. As a cross-cultural communicator, I was fascinated by your post, Claire.

    For me, the UK cover is more adventurous, intriguing, possibly challenging. It throws out questions.

    The US one seems “safer” in some way. I don’t know the story of your book (yet!), but the image of a small child on grass viewed from above conveys sentimentality and possibly predictability.

    I’ll be buying the UK version…

    • claire says:

      It’s interesting, because the comment you make about small child on grass – when Rachel and I first spoke about the US cover I said it was something I wanted to steer clear of. We did have a number of iterations, but I’m really pleased with the result, because it’s in line with the American market whilst being oddly different because of the movement of the girl (which fits perfectly with the story).

  5. Isabel Rogers (@Isabelwriter) says:

    Very interesting to hear those three different points of view, and also that nobody can quite define the difference in taste (though Rachel came closest with her pithy “schmaltzy vs. stiff & boring” idea). I wonder what would happen if synaesthetes designed covers? Fascinating stuff.

    • claire says:

      I read elsewhere that the British are happier with a more abstract image whereas Americans like to have a character with which to identify. It seems clear though that there is certainly a difference, even if it’s hard to put your finger on.

  6. Despite being an American reader, I prefer abstracts/illustrations to photographs. I guess I prefer not to be told exactly what the character looks like. And I despise movie tie-in covers–I never buy them if there’s another edition available. Your US cover is quite lovely, but it’s the UK cover that would intrigue me more as a reader. I’m sad we won’t get it over here!

    • claire says:

      Thanks for your comment, Claire! I absolutely prefer not to have an image of the character, and movie tie-ins for the same reason – it already gives me visual repairs when I would prefer to imagine them myself. I also always like to read a book before seeing a film. But I suspect that’s a minority view at least for American readers – many others from the USA have told me via twitter that they definitely prefer the photographic version.

  7. Jennifer says:

    Hi Claire, I designed the US cover, and thoroughly enjoyed your novel! What a beautiful story! And the characters were all so wonderful as was the setting! I’m so glad you gathered the comments from sellers and the editor. I’m always curious myself as to why UK and US covers are so different, and when I saw the UK cover I kept thinking, how fun it would be to try something illustrative. However that pendulum hasn’t swung away from photography in the US, but hopefully sometime soon. In my opinion, we could use a zig to the usual zag on bookstore shelves these days. Anyway, thanks for such a wonderful novel, it was a pleasure to work on the cover.

    • claire says:

      Hello Jennifer, thank you so much for coming by to say hello, and for the gorgeous cover. I really love what we ended up with! As soon as I saw it I knew exactly where we were in the book! There were a lot of lovely comments on Twitter from readers in both the USA and the UK saying how much they liked your cover, so I’m sure it will fly off the shelves! I really appreciate all your efforts.

  8. Frankie says:

    “It’s difficult to pinpoint how important is the cover design for a novel. With the closing of so many bookshops, and the rise of online shopping – for print books and especially for e-books – I think there are fewer face-to-face encounters, as it were, with the book cover. There are new ways to find books, which are great, but it’s rarer for readers to discover books based solely on an eye-catching image.”

    I think this is really underestimating the importance of a cover image in online stores. If anything, I’d say an interesting cover is probably more important now; books are never shelved spine-out on the internet.

    When I’m looking for something to read and browsing books, I usually search based on genre or keywords. Then I order the 30,000 or 60,000 results by rating so the stuff the unwashed internet masses (or author’s sock puppets) think is best shows up first. Then I scroll through, looking at covers and titles, until something catches my interest. (Then I read the blurb and the bad reviews. 🙂

    Maybe I should be ashamed to admit it, but this is how I shop. And I’m probably missing lots of great books with so-so covers and so-so titles, but I just don’t have the time to carefully read each blurb. (Even on my Nook, my old first edition, after I search, I turn on the cover browser.)

    It’s not just estores–a regional indie shop mails a print catalog quarterly, and of the five books I ordered, two were books I’d been waiting for by authors I like, and 3 caught my eye with their covers first and I went on to read the description. Just because it isn’t in a brick and mortar shop doesn’t mean the cover isn’t the first thing people notice about a book.

    This is purely personal anecdote, of course, but I wouldn’t be surprised if other people shop in a similar fashion.

    • claire says:

      Thanks Frankie, that’s a really interesting point of view, and yes of course books are never shelved spine-out on the internet!
      Also, the covers that look great on the internet are not necessarily the ones that look good in stores. But that’s a whole other topic!

  9. […] Publishing editor’s line edits, Copyedits and Proofs. And not forgetting the book covers! […]

  10. […] remind you, here are my UK and US book covers. We had a discussion with booksellers and Bloomsbury *here* about why they are so […]

  11. Wow, your covers are incredibly different! Both beautiful, although I definitely prefer the UK one. So much magic. Plus it really stands out on a screen.

    I think mine is quite unusual in that it will have the same cover in the US and the UK, after some debate on both sides. David Mann originally designed one for the UK that I really liked, but then it went to the US and underwent a full colour change, which looks much better. The cover is very abstract – definitely no identifiable character on the front – so it’ll be interesting to see what the US market makes of it.

    On a general note, Bloomsbury is amazing with covers.


    • Claire says:

      Oh how exciting for you. It’s great to se how iterations can improve something you already really liked.
      I can’t wait to see your cover, let us know when you do your reveal!
      Bloomsbury is known, I think, for producing particularly beautiful book covers. Lucky us 🙂

  12. […] Publishing editor’s line edits, Copyedits and Proofs. And not forgetting the book covers! […]

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