Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Book Cover Face-Off: France vs. United States

Paris-dwelling authors Adria J. Cimino and Vicki Lesage team up yet again, this time to explore the differences between American and French book covers.

From Adria J. Cimino, author of the novel Paris, Rue des Martyrs:

When I tell my American friends that, traditionally, French book covers look pretty much like this:

The reaction is: “Why? How can the reader possibly choose a book without a cover that sets the tone??”

Sure there are some French publishing houses and collections that feature illustrated covers similar to those found in the U.S., but they don’t represent an overwhelming majority.

As I looked at the sea of plain book covers at the recent Paris Book Fair, I knew there had to be a reason for packaging the written word in such a way. Covers in white, ecru, pale yellow or even red. Decorated only with the titles and names of authors and publishers.

So I decided to do a bit of research.

First stop: Les Editions de Minuit, a very selective publisher of literary fiction. This publisher’s novels have white covers, blue lettering and the house’s star logo as such:

“It’s a brand,” an Editions de Minuit spokeswoman said. “These covers make our novels recognizable by publishing house. Usually, a publishing house wants to set itself apart from the others.”

I immediately understood her point because I know that in many cases French readers say “I absolutely have to read the latest Editions de Minuit” as an American would say “I absolutely have to read the latest J.K. Rowling.”

Each publishing house is known for a certain type of book, such as literary fiction, general fiction or very commercial fiction. (In some cases, larger houses have many collections and each collection has covers with a specific color or bordering.) So if you are a French reader and love literary fiction, you probably would snap up books by Les Editions de Minuit. If you are a reader of general fiction, you might go for Gallimard books. Actes Sud is the publisher of Paul Auster in France… so if you’re an Auster fan, you might like other books from that publishing house.

Further clarification comes at a neighborhood bookshop on a small street near the Canal Saint-Martin. Maryline and Corinne, booksellers at Litote en Tete, explain that they rarely see French readers choosing a book by its cover.

“If they did, they probably wouldn’t be big readers,” said Maryline. “Those who read know the houses. We even teach that to small children.”

“We put our faith in the publishing houses,” said Corinne. “We recognize the writing, the authors and work of the editors behind it.”

And for those readers who want further guidance, booksellers are key, according to Les Editions de Minuit. “Their work is essential for us,” the spokeswoman said.

At Litote en Tete, Maryline said that she and her colleague do their best to read as many books as possible so they can advise readers.

“People sometimes ask us to tell them the whole story,” she said. “If they are bringing a book as a gift for someone in the hospital, they ask us to choose something with no mention of diseases, death or sad endings.”

French readers also rely on reviews in magazines or television shows featuring books and authors if they want to get a head start before they set foot in the bookshop.

But selecting a book in France is rarely a five-minute affair. It is much like everything else in the French culture: It is about taking one’s time and savoring an experience.


From Vicki Lesage, author of Confessions of a Paris Party Girl:

As an author, I always notice book covers, partly out of professional interest and partly out of curiosity. I imagine the work that went into it and guess why they made certain choices with images, font, etc. Click here to read more… 

And for more on book covers, as well as our American in Paris stories:


  1. Thanks for doing the research! I've always been curious about why the covers were so plain. And my first instinct is usually to poke fun at the French, so it's was fascinating to learn that not only is there a reason, but a pretty logical one that fits in with their culture. As a foreigner, though, I'll never be able to convert to such plain covers. I don't know their publishing houses and I'm just too used to pretty covers :)

    1. It was fun doing another joint post with you! And I really do think it's a cultural thing. It seems that when you are French you are used to the "publishing house" system and the idea of illustrated covers being important is strange. And for us, it's just the opposite! :)

  2. Enjoying reading yours and Vicki's blog posts! One thing I did notice though while living in the US: when an author is more likely to be categorized as “intellectual” reading, the publishing house chooses a book cover less “flashy.” Look at Auster, Dos Passos, Morrison, etc. Not quite your typical US colored book covers…

    1. Thank you! Interesting observation... and very true. Perhaps for the very literary fiction, the U.S. style is a bit closer to the French style!

  3. Thanks for putting this together. I must say I kind of like the French covers. Very minimalist! But at least you don't fall into the trap of judging a book by its cover.

    1. The great thing is it does pretty much force the reader into taking time to choose a book. It makes this selection process all part of the reading experience. And there is something rather elegant about a French book with a simple cover... Thanks for stopping by!

  4. I rather like the French covers - I've sometimes been turned off a perfectly good book because of a far too garish (or girlish) cover. But I have to admit that it does make it more difficult to find a book if you don't remember the title and just have a faint recollection of the cover picture...

    1. I don't like really overdone book covers either... with loads of colors and images. Simplicity is often best! :)

  5. Hi Adria! it's Melissa G
    Super interesting topic which I've often wondered about myself. I find UK book covers extra flashy and often overdone, but then I once read that in the UK, reading bestsellers is considered like reading magazines, which would explain the covers somewhat.
    As for French books, personally my favourite editions are Folio, who use interesting images (often paintings) that relate to the story/era/atmosphere:

    I think it even encourages one to explore the history/art of certain periods - for instance I'm obsessed with the Belle Epoque, and it's cool to think that so many artists (painters, writers, philosophers, musicians, etc.) used to hang out together!

    1. Hey Melissa, That is very interesting about the UK covers... And you are right: Folio covers are pretty cool and do make one want to further explore! Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts :)

  6. What an interesting post! I too quite like the minimalist style of the French cover. Too often, British covers at least don't 'fit' with the pictures I have in my head as I read the book.

    1. Thank you, Margaret! It's true that the risk with an illustrated cover is that it may not match the story. I've gotten used to the French covers -- I just make sure I have time to browse when I enter a French bookstore!

  7. What a great pair of posts! I've long noticed French book covers- my own musings, and have blogged about it at least once.

    It does all make sense when you realise that they select books by publisher. So they're building a brand, like Penguin Orange covers or Penguin Classics do with their covers I guess. It's such a different way of thinking though- to have such faith in a publisher, rather than follow an author- or pick a book by the cover- I'm sure that we all do that! Authors may change publishers in the anglophone world too, perhaps that doesn't happen as much in the francophone method?

  8. Hi Louise, I just read your blog post and really enjoyed your thoughts on the issue. Thanks for adding the update link to my blog! It seems that authors here don't change publishers as much as in the anglophone world. Each publishing house in France has such a strong image regarding the type of book it publishes that its authors clearly belong right there. The difference between anglophone and French publishing is certainly an interesting subject to explore...

  9. Nice article. I was actually looking for an explanation about this difference on Google and I end up on your blog.

    I guess it's totally a cultural thing. As a french person, when I see some book covers on the shelves of an american or british bookshop, I have the feeling I'm watching the covers of some french "romans de gare" (Railway Station novels - Airport novels as you seems to call it). It actually reminds me of this book publisher: :)

    I don't know why ... a bit of pretentious intellectualism probably and a french education which emphasise Literature as the major form of art, a sacred thing, something noble than need a serious cover .... maybe ...

    There's a interesting quotation about the "roman de gare" that you can translate like this:
    « The "roman de gare" are irrelevant, absurd, vulgar, commercial novel. It is something you grab at the station shop with some chewing-gums and tissues, seduced by a colourful cover. Readers of "novel station" are just looking from a trivial distraction.»