Dec 12, 2010

Covering Covers: The American Revolution

I started Stomping on Yeti, back in 2009. At the time, I considered myself pretty "tuned in" to the genre scene. A year and a half later, its funny how oblivious I was. Sure I knew the big name authors. I kept up on the best-selling books. Entire subgenres were left untouched. But I knew almost nothing about the short fiction markets. The UK scene might have well have been in Spanish. My "up-and-coming" authors were names everyone else had been reading for years. If you would have suggested Mieville, I would have said Moby Dick isn't Sci-Fi. So I discovered new authors, new voices, and more new books than I could possibly keep up with. And as I waded into the endless sea of genre fiction, I started to notice patterns among the tumult - particularly when it came to the differences between the US and UK markets. Not only did the UK get the first crack at a number of high profile authors, they always seemed to be outclassing my fellow Americans when it came to shiny covers. Lest not a book be judged...

Noq, it's possible that I am simply greenergrassing things. Maybe the differences aren't as severe as I remember. But after doing a little research and looking back on some of the 2009 releases, my hypothesis appears to be well founded. Take a look at these cover comparisons:

  US                                    UK
Just to be clear, Best Served Cold is an excellent fantasy novel not a psuedonecrophiliac how-to guide. The corpsette gives entirely the wrong impression.

  US                                    UK
Look Jupiter! And a telescope! and Galileo's eyes. Wait... Isn't that what Galileo saw through his telescope? I so get it now. That being said, the UK cover is still magnitudes better. I accidentally bought two copies. One to read, and one to have so I could still see the cover while reading the other.

  US                                    UK
I don't think I can describe how much I wanted the UK cover after seeing this. I considered buying it again but ended up just printing it out and Scalzing it to my US edition like bacon to a cat. [Note: I haven't actually done this {yet}]

   US                                    UK
Not only did they change titles, they destroyed the beautiful Patrick O' Brian homage in exchange for a spear and watermarked compass. That's like letting Robert Stanek take over for Neil Gaiman.

You may disagree with me (cover art is a matter of taste), but the fact remains that a year or so ago, I was convinced that the UK cover art couldn't miss. If the American art was good, the British are was better. If the US art was bad, the UK would fix it. Even series known for iconically sub par cover art (think The Wheel of Time or Pre-Mcgrath The Dresden Files) were somehow made palatable with strong minimalist versions. I would have taken the collective UK cover pool in a second.

But paying more attention to cover art in an attempt to find that elusive exclusive over the past year, I've noticed something. The US covers are getting better. Significantly better, to the point that they are matching or exceeding almost every UK attempt. The collective art departments (Tor, Pyr, and Del Rey among others) have me looking to Bobby Flay for a good recipe for crow. Take a look at these 2010 books:

  US                                    UK
Aside from the questionable font choice, the US cover is far more attractive and much less of a departure from the cover to Retribution Falls.

  US                                    UK
While the Gollancz's Spiderman cover isn't necessarily bad, the Tor cover is fantastic. Final Fantastic.

  US                                    UK
And that's the revised version. Due to obscenity laws I can't show you the original UK cover.

Right now you might be saying, "the US versions might be better but those are pretty comparable." To which I reply:

  US                                    UK
The UK cover is so dead, it's channeling its inner Poltergeist. Pyr wins this one, Tyson style.

  US                                    UK
Really? 1995 would like their video game back.

Hard to challenge those last two. Granted, it's not a strict competition since they serve different markets. But at the same time, I've got to give credit to the art directors responsible for coordinating such great work particularly Lou Anders, Irene Gallo, and Lauren Panepinto. They not only manage to commission great work but to showcase the creative process on their respective blogs. So many people don't give credit where it's due.

Lauren Panepinto - Orbit
Irene Gallo - Tor
Lou Anders - Pyr

Counterexamples anyone?


  1. The most pronounced example of US > UK cover art is Under Heaven by GGKay. Although, on a whole I still think UK > US in the art department.

  2. I went in with that impression too but I really couldn't find that much to support the argument relying solely on 2010 covers.

  3. Great post - you pipped my own, actually! I've been saying this all year. Once, US covers were awful and UK covers were classy. Now the balance is swinging firmly towards US covers. In fact, some recent UK covers beggar belief - looking at your examples above, The UK version of The Quantum Thief is about the worst book cover I've ever seen. It's beyond awful, and is heading into some hitherto uncharted region of bizarre and peculiar.

    Some other great examples are:

    1. Under the Dome by Stephen King - US cover is a superb CG/art combo that King had input into. The cover reveal was a big deal, with bits of it being revealed as the countdown to publication ticked on. There's also a slightly rarer "copper-text" version, with the title and author line in a metallic embossed copper, representing the inside of the dome getting dirty. The UK version is a bland blue dome. I asked the UK publisher about this, and they didn't seem to know what I was talking about.

    2. Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King. His latest collection of four novellas. Again the US cover is a smart black dustjacket with embossed text. The UK version is a washed-out, insipid blue picture of a field.

    3. The Passage by Justin Cronin. Speaking of washed-out, the insipid sepia UK cover is very poor in comparison to the US one, which features embossed silver text and a very cool "oilslick" effect of the rainbow in the middle of the forest.

    4. Spellbound by Blake Charlton. You've already mentioned his first book, but recently Blake revealed the art for the US cover of the sequel, featuring a stunning painting of a bronze dragon. As soon as I saw it, I knew it would never be used in the UK. And I was right.

    5. The Adamantine Palace by Stephen Deas. Stephen's UK covers a minimalistic and rather classy, but the painted dragon on the US edition of TAP is beautiful.

    6. Adrian Tchaikovsky's Shadows of the Apt series. Here it's more down to personal taste. The UK covers are pretty good and quite stylish, but they are a little cliched fantasy. The US covers from Pyr are much more energetic and engaging, I think (although I agree with your comment about The Scarab Path).

    I think mainstream/commercial fantasy/SF has an aversion to using painted covers in the UK, for some reason. Philippa Ballantine's Geist and Spectyr both feature lovely painted art in the US (Geist is out now, Spectyr is forthcoming). I was talking to her on Twitter about the covers and she confirmed that while the UK art had not been decided (and indeed the books are not yet scheduled for UK release), they would *not* be using the US art.

    It's a real shame, but in the last year I've found myself buying more and more books from the US, even books by UK authors, as the UK cover art is more often than not rather manky.

  4. I like the UK version better on quite a few of these. My favorite UK cover of the year is Jeff VanderMeer's Finch. I haven't seen the covers Adam has mentioned, so it may be a mixed bag. Or maybe the grass is always greener on the other side?

  5. @TN - You like the UK cover back on the 2010 covers? Black Lung Captain is a coin flip but the other 4 are pretty clear cut.

  6. I dig the UK Quantum Thief and I think both Spellwrights are pretty bland. Even though the US Dervish House is better, it's not good. And clearly the US Out of the Dark is better but the book kinda stunk in my opinion so the cover is of no consequence.

  7. Hey thanks for the nod...I like giving people a look behind the curtain, as it were, so I'm glad youre enjoying seeing the process a bit.

    I think the whole UK vs US comparison has always been a flawed way of looking at it—in my experience as art directing covers for both the US and UK simultaneously these past 2 years at orbit, there's really not any difference. The place for comparison is really between houses (and their respective art directors) and I think it's only now that people are able to see deeper and deeper into more art departments that the fans will be able to get a better feel for house styles, whether the house is publishing in the US, UK, or both.

    That said, I will happily take the compliment that you feel the US art directors are kicking butt. it's appreciated.

  8. As an isolated year I think US = UK for 2010 (but The Blade Itself on its own might be enough to qualify it as a win for the UK because the US version is beyond awful).

    A few UK covers that I preferred over their US counterparts are (other than your examples):

    Paul Hoffman's The Left Hand of God (not that I was interested in the book itself)

    Graham Joyce's Memoirs of a Master Forger by William Heaney (How to Make Friends with Demons in the US): The US version is embarrassingly bad. His The Silent Land UK cover is better than the US as well.

    The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell is an uncontested win for the UK

    I like the UK cover for Charlie Huston's Sleepless better than the US version, but I think I'm in the minority on that one.

    I prefer the UK version for The King of Crags by Stephen Deas, but I can see why people would prefer the US version.

  9. REG,

    The UK cover to Sleepless doesn't really have much going for it by photo alone. I was enamored with the US version when the images of the covers were released, but ended up buying the UK version (you can't really beat the discounts from The Book Depository) and I have to say, that UK cover is much more impressive in person and definitely beats out the US version.


    I have to disagree with you on the Morgan covers. I hated the US cover so much that I spent extra to order it from the UK, back when it had this far superior cover. When it comes to the two covers you have shown, though both are generic and boring and not at all impressive, I'd go with the US version if only because it at least shows something more than a glowy sword on a static background.


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