By Tom Anderson
In today’s globalised world™ of Amazon and ebooks and the like, it is easy to forget that, not so many years ago, finding a particular book (even a mainstream one currently in print) could be a challenge. In the 1990s and 2000s, one thing I looked forward to when visiting the US and Canada was checking out the bookshops. In Chapters or Borders (RIP) I would often find a shelf’s worth from an author who, at the time, was more obscure in the UK and might only have one or two works (such as Timothy Zahn) on the shelves of Waterstone’s back home. Nowadays this ritual has felt increasingly soulless, as I know the exact same books are available for download on my Kindle regardless; but I still make the trek to Indigo on visiting Canada for one important reason. The text of books may have become globalised, but their covers are another matter.
Of course the covers are not the only thing that varies. American science-fiction paperbacks consistently have thinner paper and denser text than the same book published in the UK; though I’m making them sound like an inferior product (and a few spines have fallen to pieces) I actually quite like the American approach. Maybe it always just felt ‘exotic’ to me, or maybe it’s because it feels more efficient (remember, back in the day taking physical books through customs added to the weight of your suitcase…) I should say that I’m just reporting my own experiences here; there will likely be legal or practical reasons for some of the differences I’m discussing which I’m not aware of.
Even books with the same basic cover design (same title, same image, etc.) were (and are) often subtly different across the Pond, which occasionally led to frustration when one book doesn’t quite fit in your neat collection on the shelf. A great example is the old Bantam Star Wars books, today called ‘Legends’. The North American and UK versions look the same at first glance, but there are a few small stylistic differences and the North American edition is just slightly smaller so it doesn’t fit on the shelf among the others. For the later LucasBooks ‘New Jedi Order’ series, the cover design became nigh identical, with even the stylistic font differences disappearing, but then I run my finger along the books on my shelf and feel that irritating dip where Edge of Victory II: Rebirth (bought in Canada) rubs up against Edge of Victory I: Conquest. Both by the same author (Greg Keyes) and with the same spine design, but it. DOESN’T. QUITE. FIT!
I’m not going to discuss such crimes against obsessive-compulsive disorder here, however, but rather the more dramatic differences in cover design often (though not always) seen in (especially) fantasy works across the Pond. I should say that our long-suffering editor is very unlikely to be able to find copyright-free versions of any of these to illustrate this article, so please support your local Google Image Search so you can see what the heck I’m talking about.
I’m going to draw a distinction which is a generalisation, though a reasonably valid one. British fantasy covers like minimalism. American fantasy covers like faux-mediaeval oil painting realism. If you’ve seen it in passing, you start noticing it over and over.
I should start by defining what I mean by these terms, as they can have a number of meanings. Sea Lion Press’ own excellent covers by Jack Tindale are arguably minimalistic in style, but mostly not the kind of minimalism I mean when I’m talking about UK fantasy (and other) book covers. The minimalism the UK likes consists of a solid colour cover with a simple design in the middle of it. This can occasionally be a photorealistic image, but is usually simpler than that. This type of cover is not completely unknown in North America, I should be clear; ironically, many US editions of the Discworld novels (which have very elaborate covers in their original UK editions) evoke this minimalistic style. However, there are many, many cases where the same fantasy series has minimalistic covers in the UK but realistic ones in the US – and, importantly (the reason why I’m writing about this) it changes your immediate perception of the work in question. Despite the proverb, we do judge books by their covers, and looking at a book or series I know well put in an alien North American cover is a shocking and thought-provoking moment that, in itself, still justifies going to foreign bookshops.
Where does the UK minimalism in fantasy come from? Shocker, like basically everything else in fantasy, it probably comes from The Lord of the Rings. Though some early British editions of LOTR did have dust-jacket covers depicting forest landscapes, the most iconic ones use minimalistic solid-colour covers with a simple design by Tolkien himself, showing the One Ring and the Lidless Eye opposed by Gandalf’s Red Ring at the top. My dad’s own copies of the book I grew up with use this design, and it still appears on one of the most popular single-volume editions today, albeit with a red background. I am not sure when this minimalism became mainstream in UK fantasy, as there are certainly many more elaborate cover designs in the 1960s, 70s and 80s before minimalism became the norm near the end of the 1990s and start of the 2000s. My childhood Book Club Associates editions of The Chronicles of Narnia from the early 80s have elaborate and detailed vignette-based covers. Indeed, even Doctor Who novelisations of the 1970s and 80s (where one might think they could easily have gotten away with just using production stills) hand-drawn covers were used. It just wasn’t the done thing not to have an elaborate cover. The later focus on minimalism may have been due to the re-release of that minimalistic LOTR cover in response to the Peter Jackson films helped spur publishers of more recent fantasy authors to copy it, but that is just a guess on my part.
Also, it is probably not solely down to LOTR, as I have seen evidence of a shift towards minimalism in non-fantasy UK covers at the time as well. For example, let’s talk about Agatha Christie. I picked up a number of her books of a Fontana edition from the 1970s which have extremely elaborate 1970s covers (common with science fiction and fantasy of the time, in fact). For example, the rather prosaic 1920s railway mystery The Mystery of the Blue Train has a largely unrelated Surrealist artwork on the front. By the early 1990s, however, her works had been re-released again as “The Agatha Christie Collection”, a series still theoretically by Fontana, but with the name firmly relegated beneath the fire and water logo of HarperCollins. The latter was the result of a merger between the two venerable British publishers William Collins, Sons (who owned the Fontana name) and Harper, which had both been founded in the 1810s but now had been bought by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and were combined in 1989.
These then-new Agatha Christie editions, other than a couple with David Suchet on the front to take advantage of the popular and also then-new ITV adaptation of Poirot, all use a particular type of minimalist cover. These had a pastel background (usually cream, light green or similar) with most of the cover taken up by AGATHA CHRISTIE and the title in appropriately Art Deco capitals, and between them would be one or two inanimate objects relevant to the plot – such as a pair of boots or a bottle of poison. I might add that some of them actually manage to spoil plot twists by doing so! Unlike the later minimalist covers I’m going to get on to, these ones had detailed hand-drawn designs for the inanimate objects rather than simple outlines.
I may have put my finger on a big reason behind the trend towards minimalism in UK editions of fantasy books, as HarperCollins in its various incarnations also puts out a lot of the latter. Let’s now finally get to some examples. Firstly, though, we need to talk about the American cover trend for contrast. Whereas Britain moved towards minimalism, America continued the path of the oil-painting style covers that had been popular in 1960s and 70s science fiction, and artists seem to have adopted a very specific and recognisable style for depicting fantasy works. These are hard to describe in words, but essentially they look like someone depicting 1500s Europe in an oil painting style, except with better lighting, and usually attempt to depict a specific scene from the book. What is striking to my eyes is how similar these covers all look. This may seem a bit ridiculous when I’m about to talk about how UK minimalist covers also all look basically the same, but it’s a bit more expected with those. Whereas every US fantasy cover seems to be set in the same generic European mediaeval fantasy world no matter who wrote it, or whether it was written in 1981 or 2021. It’s genuinely surprising to me whenever I see a bookseller in the US or Canada and pick up something new which my mind is telling me should be a dusty and much-creased copy in a second-hand bookshop.
So let’s talk about some examples. Let’s take the mammoth Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan, for instance, and only look at the first three books for simplicity. There have been multiple editions of these, of course, but I’ll describe the ones I’m most familiar with.
The Eye of the World:
US edition (Tor): Two characters in mediaeval clothing on horseback, with others behind them, trotting past a night sky with the moon behind them. The title is at the top in a distinctive font and the author name crammed into the side.
UK edition (Orbit): A solid black cover with a three entwined rings symbol (which I’m still not sure what it has to do with any symbols actually described in the book) in yellow. Much of the cover is devoted to the author name, the title, and a review quote.
The Great Hunt:
US: Three characters (two male, one female) stand amid some rocks, wearing mediaeval clothing, one holding a horn aloft, one with a lantern and one with a book. All text about this being book two and a sequel is, again, crammed into the corners to make space for the art.
UK: Exactly the same as book 1, except the symbol is green.
The Deagon Reborn:
US: A character in mediaeval clothes raises a hand and a sword glows suspended over him, while two others look on in dismay, and there are some red marble pillars behind him.
UK: Exactly the same as book 1, except the symbol is orange-red.
It continues in that vein. I can poke fun about how all the US covers make me think of a Ren fair and maybe destroy a sense of disbelief, but I’d have to be pretty pig-headedly nationalistic to claim the British approach is better. It does feel as though it doesn’t constitute anything more than applying one photoshop filter and knocking off to the pub early. And yes, all thirteen(!) books have the same cover design. Later UK editions don’t much improve on this (let’s tint the cover a different colour and ZOOM IN ON THAT SYMBOL FROM DIFFERENT ANGLES!)
What about some other series? How about Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar trilogy, which I’ve written about elsewhere? Again, there are a number of editions, but just focusing on the Harper Voyager UK one I know and the first US one to come up in a search:
US: An elaborate and alien-looking palace in a valley with tiny horsemen visible in the foreground.
UK: A solid gold cover mostly filled with the title and author name text, with a small Tsurani ship symbol as a black silhouette (something which is relevant in one chapter near the start and that’s it).
US: A horseman stands before a dramatic rift valley. This doesn’t have much to do with the book but it’ll do.
UK: A solid silver (geddit) cover with two crossed daggers (which also doesn’t have much to do with the book).
A Darkness at Sethanon:
US: Under a dark forest, armed figures bearing flaming torches walk towards a distant sunset.
UK: A solid black cover with a golden dragon silhouette on it (spoilers).
You get the idea. It got even worse when they did a different UK cover set clearly meant to opportunistically rip off Twilight.
I could talk about many more examples of this, it shows up again and again. I remember seeing earlier editions of A Song of Ice and Fire on the shelf in the 90s, when they had quite distinctive covers with a landscape on there, but nowadays pretty much all British editions (other than those using images from the TV adaptation) go minimalistic with a crown on a solid colour or similar. It also seems to be an increasing trend; earlier I mentioned the 1990s Agatha Christie books with their hand-drawn minimalism, but today they are often released with an even more simplified and minimalist design (such as The Pale Horse being solid purple with an outline of the titular pub sign on it – well, unless it’s replaced with an As Seen On TV cover from the recent, execrable TV adaptation – Thande rant article coming some day).
Mind you, not all examples of UK ‘minimalist’ cover design smack of lack of effort. An excellent example of this is Brandon Sanderson’s fantasy books. Sanderson started hitting the UK shelves in the mid to late 2000s. Let’s look at his original Mistborn trilogy, the first books of his I read. The UK editions have a solid white background with an elaborate image in the centre in monochrome shades of grey and blue. Across the three books, the image changes from a distant figure, to one closer and turning towards you, to a close-up on the face, revealing it’s the main protagonist Vin. This is a nice effect and the art is certainly well done, though it doesn’t tell you a whole lot about the books of course. The US editions appear to mostly fall into the generic fantasy mould, although at least they look more modern than many of the ones I mentioned above. Some of them even look rather like video game art, rather evoking a former SLP forum member who used to like to claim that Sanderson writes about magic in such a technical way that he might as well be writing video game manuals!
The UK publisher of Sanderson’s works, Gollancz, has stuck with the same ‘white cover with nice but monochrome artwork’ style consistently for all his other books, except a few recent ones which have gone for black instead. This is a good example of how fashion can take over an industry until everything looks the same, and then they have to innovate. The embrace of white covers in the UK was also seen with Trudi Canavan’s books and some of Brent Weeks’, and many more. Robin Hobb’s covers also fit the pattern; detailed artwork in the US (not quite as stereotypically mediaeval as some) and conversely, the UK covers do a mediaeval take on minimalism with a parchment background and a painted coat of arms or other symbol. While on Sanderson, I should also mention that the US covers of his Stormlight Archive series have really nice artwork that firmly makes it clear this setting is unique and not ‘just another fantasy’, while the UK ones make them look the same as all his others.
Of course there are many exceptions to all this. I’ve already mentioned the Discworld novels, and Jasper Fforde’s books come with elaborate artwork as well. There was also a somewhat related tendency in the UK to do ‘adult’ versions of Harry Potter covers out of a sense that adults would be embarrassed to read children’s books on the train. The earliest versions of these were so comically serious and arthouse-y that they made me laugh every time I saw them, such as dark black-and-white photographs of a steam train and a Ford Anglia among the crowds. I’m still a bit annoyed that my copy of the fifth Harry Potter book is one of these, due to a scramble to get a copy when it first came out, while all my others are of the much nicer kids’ editions. And it fell to bits quite easily, apparently adults are mugs when it comes to printing and binding quality. I do think this unfortunate push for ‘adult’ versions also hasn’t helped the drive towards minimalism; Very Serious Cover editions of books like the Discworld novels followed suit. As someone who grew up with Josh Kirby’s riotously fun, incredibly complex covers and whose perception of Discworld is inextricably associated with them, I just find this sad.
So that’s my observation: UK fantasy readers often get fobbed off with solid colours with a little silhouette, while US fantasy readers almost always get some proper artwork, but art that often makes every fantasy setting look like the same generic mediaeval European fantasy Ren fair, and probably doesn’t do much for the genre’s image in the eyes of the reading public. Again, this is just based on my own experiences, and if you have different ones (or know about different cover trends in other countries) please feel free to comment on this article in the forum. In some ways it’s just a random little observation, but I do think that a cover can change a perception of a book to you. I always feel like any cover with photo art based on a recent TV or film adaptation always feels inherently more flimsy and inauthentic, even though the text inside is completely unchanged. Perhaps one advantage of minimalism is that it does leave it entirely up to the reader imagination to paint a picture of what lies within, whereas cover art will always present one interpretation and tend to lock the reader into it. And in these days of ebooks, maybe it doesn’t matter so much anyway. But at the end of the day, we still judge a book by its cover.
More of these articles on the way!
Tom Anderson is the author of many SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour, To Dream Again), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, The Surly Bonds of Earth and Well met by Starlight.