Books are routinely given completely different covers abroad, often with baffling results. Tom Lamont asks the designers responsible to explain why

Albums are sold across the world inside a universal sleeve, blockbuster films branded in a singular style. But novels, by a convention that nobody in the publishing industry seems fully able to explain, must be re-jacketed from territory to territory. It inspires all kinds of illustrative madness, and makes browsing foreign bookshelves a fascinating – often bewildering – experience.

What possible discussions took place in Germany, for instance, when publishers first received the manuscript for Martin Amis’s House of Meetings – a novel that describes the misery of life in a Russian gulag – and set to work on a cover that featured six figures body-popping in the windows of a modern apartment block? What prompted Italian book designers to give junior wizard Harry Potter a hat shaped like a mouse, and why did the French opt against the monochrome design that jacketed Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated in the UK and the US, concocting instead a watercolour of somebody fondling a woman’s breasts?

“What you are trying to get across on a cover is the essence of a book, quite an ambiguous thing,” says Nathan Burton, a British designer who created the striking cover for Ali Smith’s The Accidental, based on an image of a dead woman. “Designers in different countries read and interpret the fiction in different ways.” It doesn’t quite explain how Germany arrived at silhouetted dancers for House of Meetings, but “the germ of an idea can come from anywhere,” says Burton. He points to the Swedish cover of The Accidental, on the surface a starkly different treatment – “but there’s a photograph of a girl, bold sans serif type… You could argue that they are born out of a similar thought process.”

There are colder business reasons for creating jackets that differ by territory, says Julian Humphries, head cover designer at Fourth Estate: “Different sales channels have different sensibilities.” It can be hard to pinpoint what exactly these sensibilities are – “It’s a cultural thing,” he says, “as taste-driven as different countries eating different things for breakfast” – but broadly speaking, literary fiction is an easier sell in mainland Europe than in the UK or the US, so publishers there can be less overt in their attempts to grab the attention of customers. “In Europe you often see book covers with simple images and plain type, and that sells books for them,” says Burton, whose colourful design for A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz stands in stark contrast to the black-and-white German edition. “The UK book market is more competitive, all the covers in shops shouting: ‘Buy me!’ We have to put on a bit of extra spin.”

The US, meanwhile, tends to signpost its literary fiction more than the UK, says Humphries. “With their version of Wolf Hall, for instance, they picked out the history bent of the novel much more. Theirs was a great cover, and won prizes everywhere.”

Why don’t publishers, then, replicate covers that have been a success abroad? “It does happen but it’s quite rare,” says Humphries. Megan Wilson, an art director at Knopf Doubleday in New York, says that American designers are sometimes asked to look at British jackets, “as an example of something that works or doesn’t, but we are rarely asked to use them directly”. Burton tries to avoid looking at alternative covers if he’s working on a book that’s already been published. “It can take you off on odd tangents. It’s always best to work from fresh.”

Having worked in both the US and the UK, Wilson is sceptical about book buyers being so different in each country that they require different covers. “Why is there a need to design different covers for different countries? I don’t believe there is one. When I crossed over to New York publishing after working in the British industry, I didn’t change my style at all.”

“I don’t know whether it comes down to bloody-mindedness to do our own thing,” says Andrew Smith, a designer at Penguin, “but it has certainly become the norm to start covers from scratch.” Could it be that all this re-jacketing zeal – the Alexander McCall Smith reimagined in France to look like an issue of National Geographic, a British Stieg Larsson designed with all the artistic nous of an NHS pamphlet – comes down to pride?

“There probably is an element of that to it,” says Smith, who was part of the team behind the black-and-white jacket of Everything is Illuminated. On the colourful nudes of the French edition of that book, he is diplomatic.

“Not really my cup of tea.” © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds