Over at The Rap Sheet, we often see posts about copycat book covers, and the issues of judging a book by its jacket. The Sunday Observer takes a look at the importance of book covers and how they translate internationally:

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.”

There’s more to The Observer’s story and it’s here.

Incidentally, The Sunday Times reports that the three biggest-selling paperbacks in the UK in April were Volumes I, II and III of Stieg Larsson’s bestselling Millennium Trilogy, which last week held the No. 1, 2 and 4 positions. (The Korean, U.S. and UK covers of the first book in that series are shown above right.)

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