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More Thoughts on the Sci-Fi Cover Debate

After reading Monday’s item about science fiction book covers that don’t scream sci-fi, which praised the approach taken by the UK division of Orbit, publishing director Tim Holman reflects on the US and UK covers for the new Iain M. Banks reissues, which Orbit is publishing in both markets with essentially the same cover images, just with slightly variant dressing. “If we felt that a book would appeal to a wider readership if it had a different cover in the US or UK, we’d give it a different cover,” he says. “But usually we don’t.”

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UK editions above, US editions below

“We don’t really have any rules when it comes to covers, but there’s one thing we always do first when we’re discussing them: we decide what it is that excites us about a particular book/series/author. What makes it stand out? What makes it different to everything else out there? And then we ask ourselves: how do we reflect that in the cover approach?”


Ultimately, for Holman, it boils down to a simple question: “Do we want our books to stand out or do we want them to fit in?” Another commentator takes a more cynical view: “In the US market, the cover isn’t for the potential reader, or at least not primarily for the potential reader; it’s for the chain and distributor buyers,” says C.E. Petit. “Chain and distributor buyers are completely uninterested in shelving books in more than one part of the store… and in fact will be less impressed by a cover that accurately represents the book’s content than by a cover that accurately represents the part of the store in which their own prejudices—since, as a group, they’re not themselves readers—will place the particular widget.”

But Michael Walsh of Old Earth Books peeled back the curtain to tell me a little bit about how he decided to use a non-”skiffy” cover for his reissue of Way Station, Clifford Simak‘s Hugo-winning novel. Previous approaches ranged from Doubleday’s original 1963 cover (bottom right) to various pulp interpretations to the uniform blankness of Gollancz‘s classics series, but Walsh ultimately went with a more pastoral image befitting, I think, a landmark reissue.

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That’s not to say he won’t go sci-fi when it’s right for the story; see, for example, the Old Earth reissue of Simak’s City.

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