From the bookseller today:

Can you really judge a book by its cover? One school of thought says that if you are scouring the shelves of a bookshop in America, you can. For in the US—particularly for heavy-weight literary titles—publishers often create exquisite book jacket covers in terms of ideas, aesthetics and production.

But in the UK, things are different. Weighty tomes typically have a more conservative appearance, with UK publishers seeming to be more averse to taking risks with design.

A lot of the work is template-driven: “design by numbers”. Simply pick a commercial image (something provocative works well) and then emblazon the author’s name over the top of it in large type, thus destroying its aesthetic value. Many UK designers claim they are forced to “visually prostitute” themselves in this manner just to get work.

One subscriber to this viewpoint is Chip Kidd, the celebrated American book jacket designer, associate art director at Alfred A Knopf and author. Kidd, who is attributed with sparking a revolution in jacket design, thanks to his work for authors such as Michael Crichton, Cormac McCarthy, John Updike and David Sedaris, is bewildered by the approach of some UK publishers.

“A lot of the time, I would like to know what the British publishers are thinking,” says Kidd. “Is the UK’s book buying audience really all that different from an American one?

“There are all sorts of innovative British designers doing all sorts of niche design books but frankly, for adult trade books that you might buy from a branch of Waterstone’s, I don’t see a lot of chances being taken.”

David Pearson, the award-winning British designer whose extensive work for the Penguin group includes the Pocket Penguins and Great Ideas series, says: “There is certainly a vibrancy to contemporary US cover design, which is increasingly leaning towards more cerebral solutions—much like those common in the British market in the early 1960s. Paradoxically, British book design seems to be embracing a form of pulp realism not dissimilar to the newsstand-friendly US jackets of the same period.”

Cultural differences

Given that CD and DVD cover sleeves are typically the same for both markets and appear to translate just as well in terms of sales performance, Pearson and many of his peers in the design world are asking why book jackets from opposite sides of the Atlantic are so different.

Part of the reason for the differences in cover designs are cultural, according to Simon & Schuster art director Jeremy Butcher. “They often publish the same book over there [in the US] and we repackage it for the UK market because their design aesthetic is so different to the UK,” explains Butcher.

“There are certain devices that they use that signal a US cover. Commercially, this US look doesn’t work in the UK marketplace and so we often give the cover a UK make-over.”

However, there could be a more complex reason for the differences: Britain’s influential trade buyers. The US market is much more fragmented than in the UK, where the power lies in the hands of a few buyers, and this influence appears to be seeping  through into what appears on retailers’ shelves.

Phil Baines, font designer and author of Penguin by Design‚ the history of Penguin’s iconic book jacket covers, says he has seen many examples of covers that have been designed as if they were originally intended to be image-led but then the publisher appeared to get cold feet, reverted—literally—to type and slapped large lettering over the image instead.

“The marketing departments have a strong say in what gets through and their decisions take into account feedback from trade buyers,” explains Baines. “As a result, we are seeing an awful lot of book covers led by the marketing department, rather than by the art team.”

Influential UK book jacket designer Jon Gray, who works for publishers both in the UK and the US, argues that the power of the supermarkets in the book industry in Britain has caused a decisive change in the way books are designed.

He says: “In the US, the designer, art director, editor and author will create a cover that they feel is right for a book, and then that will be shown to a sales department. It would then be shown to the trade. This often means that your cover is first and foremost a nice piece of design, relevant to the book. In the UK over the past year or so, we’ve started to work backwards. We ask the trade what they want—or look at what it appears to want—and then attempt to mould covers to fit.”

Indie influence

Pearson attributes the aesthetic movement in the US to the “recent resurgence of forward-thinking independent booksellers”, whereas in Britain, he says, “the market seems to be increasingly governed by large supermarkets with a penchant for blandness”.

Yet many argue that the opposite viewpoint may be equally valid. It is not such a bad thing that design decis-ions are at least informed by retailers and marketers—people who know what sells and what customers want.

Richard Ogle, art director at CHA, part of the Random House Group, is quick to point out that there are two sides to this story and it’s not as clear-cut as some designers would have you believe. “The reason publishers of the more commercial supermarket-led books are less prepared to take risks is that they have enough risk in the size of the author ad-vances and marketing spend without the cover taking risks on some kind of misguided design whim.

“There are many hoops to jump through to get approval on a commercial cover, including targeted sales perceptions, market research and even input from book trade and supermarket buyers.”

He adds that whether someone judges the work to be risk-averse or not, it takes “great market awareness and understanding on the part of the designer to produce that sales-winning cover that every publisher requires for their top commercial authors”.

Gray concedes that part of the reason for the more conserv-ative approach taken by UK publishers boils down to minimising the risk of a book failing by daring to break from the norm. “I think it has become very much like the film industry, where the bulk are pretty traditional, and conform to certain stereotypes. Publishers, like studios, are very unwilling to risk their investment making something that looks different.”

Despite the criticism of UK publishers’ approach to jacket design, CHA’s Ogle says their US counterparts are not getting it right all the time. “I have always thought US mass market covers, are on the whole, appallingly designed, with brash type and -imagery, and over-the-top finishes and print tricks,” he says.

Whichever side of the fence you are on in this debate, what is not in doubt is that a large number of UK designers are saying their creat-ivity is being stifled by commercial concerns. Designers can only attempt new, more daring things if they are given the space to do so, but in the current climate this does not appear to be happening.

As one designer explains: “I’d love to pick a lovely picture and put some delicate type on it but our sales guys will be screaming at me to use bigger type and a more commercial image. You might get a nice artistic looking cover into the pages of Creative Review, but it wouldn’t get past our sales staff.”


1 US book jacket designers tend to put a lot of rules on the covers, often underlining or highlighting words they want to emphasise.

2 US publishers often rely more heavily on experimental type.

3 US jackets tend to have more artistic images, unlike the more commercial images chosen by their UK counterparts.

4 A common device in the US is to print the words “a novel” on the cover. UK versions invariably take the phrase off.

5 US font size will often be fairly small – even for elements such as the author’s name – particularly when compared with UK books.