Look over pretty much any Light Novel, and you'll probably see an attractive girl or group of girls on the cover, front and center, as if they're the protagonist. Though they usually do appear in the story, they are almost never the protagonist, who is typically a fairly generic-looking male Audience SurrogateUnlucky Everydude.
In Daniel Handler's A Series of Unfortunate Events, the twelfth book features several sinister-looking figures who fans thought would be important — or even specific characters from previous books — but no corresponding characters appear in the text. Inverted by the British edition of the sixth book, on which the cover gives away the main plot twist.
Isaac Asimov couldn't stop one publisher from repeatedly misspelling his name.
The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold is subject to this. Many feature a tall, handsome man. The main character is very short, with visible scarring on his face and noticeable bone deformities.
Several of the later books in the Goosebumps series. Especially notable (and from an early book, no less) is the original Night of the Living Dummy, whose cover depicts the dummy Slappy looking foreboding. In reality, Slappy appears to be nothing more than a normal dummy for 99.9% of the book, with the title character being a completely different dummy named Mr. Wood. Slappy also being alive is, in fact, the Twist Endingon the very last page. He is, however, the villain in the sequels, whose covers correctly depict him as such.
Deep Trouble is a particular offender. The cover features a menacing hammerhead shark preparing to devour an unsuspecting swimmer. The shark does appear in the book, but only for one scene and it's just a random shark rather than the main monster of the book. Presumably, even the artist recognized that the shark was the only scary thing in the book, since the main plot (mermaids) isn't even implied.
The cover of the first book of Black Legion depicts Abaddon with his signature topknot and infamous sword, Drach'nyen. In the book itself not only does the fact that he's not sporting the topknot clue to his Character Development, but Abaddon is also still centuries from finding the daemonic blade.
The first book of The Squire's Tales (hardback original editions) by Gerald Morris featured a knight, fully-armored, riding a horse backwards and carrying a lance with a banana impaled on it. Needless to say, this was not in the book. When the author complained about the artwork, the second book cover was based on a particular scene in the book, but it was terrible.
The covers of the second major print run for The Dresden Files novels portray Harry Dresden, wizard but in all appearances private detective, wearing what appears to be a cowboy hat. He looks like a young Clint Eastwood with a magic staff. He gets enough grief for the duster he wears; which at least is magical protection. The staff on the cover has Japanese writing on it, no less. The "runes" on the staff as seen on the cover are the word "Matrix" in mirror-image katakana. Why Matrix? Good question. Jim Butcher seems to have noticed this, as several times in the books, Dresden comments on how he never wears a hat, or considers getting himself one. It's rumored that the cover artists respond by making the hat progressively bigger and sillier.
And now the joke has apparently carried over to The Cinder Spires - protagonist Captain Grimm is described as wearing his Nice Hat at all times, and yet on the cover no hat is to be seen.
Dora Wilk Series averted it in its second edition, but the first cover for Soul Thief is guilty not only of depicting main character wrongly, but also of the blurb in the back of the book, which somehow turned Paranormal Investigation story into Paranormal Romance, complete with a bunch of Incredibly Lame Puns. The last book in the second edition also shows Dora with a Katana, while her sword is clearly described as being European-styled.
The Three Investigators series of children's mystery novels does this from time to time. One example is "The Case of the Invisible Dog", the cover of which shows the investigators cornered by a large transparent feral dog. The invisible dog in the story? A small glass statue, which they are hired to find.
Similar things can happen in the cover art of another kid-lit mystery series, the Cam Jason Mysteries. On the cover of The Mystery of the Dinosaur Bones, we see the skeleton of a menacing giant Tyrannosaurus-like dinosaur turning its head at Cam and her best friend/assistant, who are naturally terrified that this fierce dead animal is staring right at them. The actual mystery in the book has less to do with malevolent undead dinosaurs and more to do with some thieves stealing a few of the vertebrae from a near-complete fossil of a Coelophysis (Cam gets involved when her class goes to view this fossil on a field trip), hoping to sell them back to the museum curators. Woop-dee-do.
Coelophysis is a predatory dinosaur, but much smaller and skinnier than Tyrannosaurus.
In Cam Jansen and the Tennis Trophy by David A. Adler, the cover shows the protagonist in a tennis outfit, clutching a gold trophy. She doesn't wear those clothes in the book, doesn't play tennis at all, and the trophy is repeatedly referred to as silver.
A three-books-in-one edition of the first three books in the Anne of Green Gables series shows on the front cover a photograph of a blonde teenage girl wearing a plaid shirt and leaning on a haystack with her arm twisting back her loose hair suggestively. This extremely inaccurate, considering that not only were the books were written from 1908-1915 (thus no plaid shirts and "come hither" looks), Anne's appearance is well-established and frequently described in the books as a gawky redhead. The cover has received massive backlash from fans, who consider it an insult to the original stories.
Earlier editions of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone had a youngish wizard with a short brown beard and a purple robe on the back cover, presumably Nicolas Flamel or Professor Quirrell. It's most likely the former, as he appears to have the philosopher's stone in his pocket, though it should be noted that Flamel's appearance is never described and he never even appears in the book itself. Later editions replaced him with someone who was clearly Dumbledore.
As well as this, the cover art depicted Harry as someone who looked a lot older than the eleven-year-old he was during the events of Philosopher's Stone. The illustrator Thomas Taylor originally intended Harry to be fully facing the train, hiding his face from view so as to let the reader imagine what he looks like. The publishers insisted on a portrait, and so Taylor only had a limited amount of time to change his design. Since then he's somewhat wryly regretted the fact that one of the most famous covers in literature was the result of a single day's work.
The Chamber of Secretsone◊, from the same person, shows Harry flying on a giant book and wearing a crocodile-shaped hat.
Something of a subversion of this occurs with Terry Goodkind and his The Sword of Truth novels. The first edition of Wizard's First Rule features a red dragon on the cover. This cover is in no way inaccurate or not representative of the story contained within, but Goodkind himself seemed to think it was, because he considered the more fantastical aspects of the story to be mere window dressing and didn't like the cover hyping up the elements that he considered unimportant. In one Q&A session, Goodkind's reaction to the cover could make one who hadn't read the book believe that the dragon does not appear, which it very much does, and more prominently than Goodkind's comments would lead one to believe.
The Honor Harrington series has this problem a lot, especially in the later spinoff novels that focus on the adventures of minor characters: Honor Harrington is prominently featured on most covers, even though she is often barely mentioned in the book in question.
Honor is usually depicted as Caucasian despite being stated to have significant Asian ancestry in the books.
The books in Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos series all have a picture of a jhereg (presumably Loiosh) on the cover, and all of them have four legs and wings but jhereg are more bat-like than dragon-like. On occasion, Vlad shows up with Loiosh, always clean-shaven instead of sporting his signature mustache.
Anne McCaffrey's PartnerShip features an astronaut walking next to a female humanoid hologram being projected from a device that floats next to him as he walks away from a spaceship, giving the impression that the Brain Ship of the novel gains the ability to project an image of herself. This never happens. The blurb on the back cover also misidentifies the main character and misses the plot entirely.
The front cover of Hector Bywater's The Great Pacific War calls it "The incredible book that predicted Pearl Harbor", and the back cover says "Bywater predicted a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor 16 years before it happened." At first this seems like an annoying spoiler, but in fact Bywater's war never includes any sort of attack on Hawaii whatsoever.
One edition of Philip K. Dick's The Eye in the Sky has the best, most pulpy cover ever, featuring a man in futuristic space-clothes getting zapped by a laser. That any laser zapping happens in Now (the 50s) is neither here nor there. The blurb on the back suggests that the writer read only three pages of the book; the first, the last and a random page in the middle. It claims the Eye in the Sky will never let them go, as if the whole book is about escaping the Eye. In fact, the Eye is escaped relatively near the beginning and the whole book is an exploration of prejudice and the views people hold deep down.
Too Many Magicians by Randall Garrett is a clever whodunnit set an alternate Earth where low level magic exists and the technology is of approximately Victorian-era level. So why did one paperback edition◊ feel it necessary to have a naked woman unleashing a lightning bolt from her hand on the cover?
The covers of Trudi Canavan's The Black Magician Trilogy are pretty awful as well. The UK versions feature the main character posing with a staff in a martial-arts esque stance, while the US versions are even worse; one of them has a flaming pegasus on the cover, for no reason whatsoever!
One edition of The Crying of Lot 49, despite having some really neat and appropriate cover art, completely craps the bed as far as the descriptive blurb goes. "The highly original satire about Oedipa Maas, a woman who finds herself enmeshed in a worldwide conspiracy, meets some extremely interesting characters, and attains a not inconsiderable amount of self-knowledge." The implication is of a heartwarming tale of finding oneself, and not the bizarre Post-Modern Mind Screw that the book actually is.
Frank Frazetta made his fame by painting covers that were much better than the books that they.... well, covered. And often completely unrelated to the story.
John DeChancie's 1989 Castle Kidnapped featured on its paperback cover the primary characters, tied up and being borne away on the back of a huge blue turtle-like creature which nowhere appeared in the book. On Fidonet's old SF_LIT echo this spawned the acronym FBT, for "Friggin' Blue Turtloid", and was later mentioned in several filk songs and in fan art.
The covers of Keith Laumer's Bolo series are legendary amongst its fans for never getting the image of the eponymous tanks right. In one particular book, it showed a tank being faced by what appears to be a typical Taliban or Al-Qaeda insurgent... despite the fact that the battles in the book were against beaked aliens with black and white fur.
Gardens of the Moon has three-ish covers, all of which have some innacuracies. The first edition featured a man with long hair, a black cloak and a huge sword calling down lightning while standing in front of a desert fortress. Supposedly this is Anomander Rake standing before Darujhistan, but that's neither Rake nor Darujhistan as described in the books (Darujhistan is much larger, and not only isn't in a desert but its opposite side is a giant lake). Another version has a dashing knight in shining armor on a rearing horse with a pouty-lipped sexy babe in sleeveless, low-cut armor standing near him. That's either Whiskeyjack and Sorry, or Paran and Lorn, but either way the picture resembles neither of them, and neither Lorn nor Sorry dress that way. The most accurate cover depicts a generic fantasy tower, but even there, no such tower appears in the story.
Todd Lockwood's cover for Memories of Ice depicts a man wielding two rapiers who is most likely Gruntle, but that's not Gruntle. That's Sabretooth.
Steve Stone's covers for The Tales of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach unfailingly leave off Bauchelain's forked beard and instead of Korbal Broach being a towering monster of a man, he's a short, squat fellow that looks like Uncle Fester.
Darryl Sweet's interpretations of The Wheel of Time series are known for two things: being completely inaccurate and/or completely inconsistent. The best covers never seem to portray the same people. In particular, Rand rarely ever looks the same, and you would only know it's Rand because he's the main character. In particular the differences in size are never accounted for. Rand is quite tall being half Aiel, but is always portrayed the same height as everyone else. The worst are the covers that are completely inaccurate with the most infamous being The Great Hunt where the Trollocs are black people in armor. Lampshaded in The World of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time: the section titled Historical Portraits of Questionable Accuracy contained copies of all the book cover art.
The World of... manages to have its own (interior) artwork issues, hence the Fan Nickname "Big Book of Bad Art".
The Outlander series of novels got a lot of this, apparently. Probably the reason why the author has requested people are left off her covers— they are not your typical romance novels. Such as this early cover.◊ Not as salacious as it might seem. (Hint— there's character development, actual research done which the author loves showing off and Rape As Trauma done well.) The graphic novel in production might stray into this a bit— from what we've seen of the artwork, wow, Claire's a stunner. Everyone's really good looking. Everyone.
The American paperback version◊ of Stephen King's Bag of Bones depicts a lake, which is the extent of its accuracy. The naked woman in the badly-done CG of the lake and the little shack in the distance bear no resemblance to anything in the story, and the denuded trees seem a bit unlikely considering that the part of the story set on the lakeside takes place in July.
This◊ cover of Stephen King's Firestarter draws the focus to a large pair of eyes, presumably Charlie's. However, the eyes on the cover are green and it is mentioned many times throughout the book that her eyes are blue.
The cover of the French gamebook Le Carillon de la Mort (from the Les Messagers du Temps series) looks undeniably cool: a giant pointy-teethed dark monster coming out is pulling out a very long slimy tongue and is grasping on its end a muscular naked man wearing just a helmet and carrying a sword, while a shadowy cloaked figure watches the scene. No such creature appears in the book, not even this situation.
One edition of John Wyndham's The Chrysalids features what appears to be either an extremely enthusiastic interpretation of the effects of radiation on the developing foetus, or else a green arthropod/crustacean alien wearing a fur coat and cummerbund, wielding a spear menacingly. At least, that's what it looks like.
An at-least-they-tried example from a Penguin edition of Wyndham's The Kraken Wakes: it shows an ocean liner being sunk/attacked by an alien bio-tank. Ships do sink in the novel, and there are bio-tanks, but they never appear in the same scene.
One paperback version of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian has a blurb which completely misses the point of the entire book, implying that the book is about the oppression of harmless innocent Native Americans, when actually everyone in the book is a murdering bastard, regardless of colour or creed.
Many of the covers of Octavia Butler's science fiction novels make them look like inspirational romance stories.
From Notes on Northworld at David Drake's website: "While I was writing Northworld, Beth called to ask what the book was about because they needed to put a cover on it. I sent her a scene of people dueling in powered personal armor. Beth called back in a week. "We had a cover conference on your book," she said. "We're going to put a tank on the cover. Is there a tank in the book?" I told her that there would be, now that I'd been told about the cover. And there is."
The Polish cover◊ of Regina's Song is only a minor example. The twins were blond in the book, but on the cover they're black-haired.
The Dale Brown novel Shadow Command has a boat on fire on its British front cover. No boats appear in the entire book.
This trope may have inadvertently launched Harry Turtledove's career: a colleague complained to him that her publisher had given her work a cover "as anachronistic as Robert E. Lee holding an UZI". This offhand complaint inspired what turned out to be his breakout success, The Guns of the South (whose cover, ironically, did not lie.) The British editions of later Turtledove works are very prone to this trope: for example, the Worldwar books show the lizardlike Race aliens lacking their chameleon-type eye turrets mentioned every goddamn paragraph in the book, wearing clothes, and having a symbol that looks vaguely like a pterodactyl. It's emphasised in the books that the Race don't wear clothes and have no distinctive symbol or flag because their homeworld has been politically united for so long that there's nothing they need to distinguish themselves from.
The cover blurbs for Harry Turtledove'sSupervolcano series consistently refer to protagonist Colin Ferguson as a retired police officer, when in fact not only is he an active police officer, a major story arc revolves around him tracking down a serial killer and dealing with the blowback when the killer turns out to be his department's chief. He does eventually retire due to injuries sustained in an unrelated shootout, but in the last 20 pages of the third book.
The cover of Club Dead, the third book in The Sookie Stackhouse Mysteries, shows Sookie dancing in the air above the eponymous club with someone who appears to be the vampire Bill, though he is never at the club and in fact does not appear in person for much of the novel's action.
The cover of Hazezon◊, the third book in the Magic Legends trilogy, features Hazezon holding the halves of a broken sword above his head and (on the back) Jedit fighting Johan in a desert with a burning city in the background. None of that happens in the book; Jedit fights Johan in an oasis, and where the business with the sword comes from, nobody knows.
The Kedrigern fantasy stories by John Morrissey state several times that the wizard Kedrigern dislikes wearing the conventional magician's robes and is brown-haired and clean-shaven. So what kind of wizard appears on the cover of every paperback collection of these tales? A white-bearded Merlin type clad in a star-and-moon-spangled robe.
A cover of Judy Blume's book Blubber features two smiling pre-teens on the cover. The book itself on the other hand deals with two girls who decide to start tormenting an overweight girl.
Several of the international Twilight covers feature a girl with long, blonde Rapunzel Hair, sometimes even swarming around the letters of the title in the shape of a heart. Not only is the protagonist a brunette, but the only blonde girl of any importance in the series, Rosalie, has an extremely minor part in the first book. One can only assume it's something to do with Phenotype Stereotype.
Penguin Publishing released Quantum Of Solace: The Complete James Bond Short Stories around the same time that the film Quantum of Solace the film was released. In the book's defense, it makes no indication that it is a movie tie in - however, Quantum of Solace the Bond film and "Quantum of Solace" the Bond short story are only similar in their titles - the plots of each are completely different. As QOS is not a Bond story of any particular note, choosing it for the title of the book that collects all the Bond short stories in one place seems quite arbitrary, and was obviously done to tie into the movie.
To be fair, Bond movies based on the short stories rarely have anything to do with the story beyond sharing the same title—Octopussy, for example (in the original story, Bond wasn't even a character, although he was referenced once in passing), The Man with the Golden Gun, and others.
Some posters and covers for The Crucible appear to show a romantic embrace between John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder). While there is an affair between the two, it's done before the film even starts and Proctor detests Abigail for it so much that by the end he's willing to give up his own life to try to get her killed; when this fails and she tries to rescue him, Proctor tells Abigail he'd rather die than let her save him.
Apparently done the opposite direction to normal in regard to The Gatherer by Owen Brookes. Inside the dust jacket is a description that makes it sound like the highbrow sort of horror. On the back of said dust jacket is an excerpt of a scene in which the villain Gornographically mutilates some girl's breasts.
Phil Foglio always did a good job with the covers for the hardback editions of Robert Asprin's Myth Adventures novels, but when Walter Velez did the covers for the Ace reprints, he tended to get a lot wrong. The cover of the first, Another Fine Myth features Aahz the demon as a towering philosopher in a thong. Three strikes, you're out. At least they got his skin color right.
The blurb on the back of Vivia by Tanith Lee makes it sound like the protagonist Vivia is claimed by a vampire god named Zulgaris. In the actual novel, the vampire god who makes Vivia a vampire and his lover is a completely different character from Zulgaris, an invading warrior prince and alchemist who captures her.
Some editions of The Amber Spyglass has an ornate spyglass on the cover, which fits the title but not the story: in it, the eponymous artifact is a far more primitive device made of two sheets of resin fastened together so the user can look through them.
The covers of Lois Lowry's Anastasia series usually feature the eponymous heroine in the setting of each book, and would neatly avert this trope except for one minor detail: Anastasia is supposed to be blonde. Both the older hand-drawn covers and the newer photographic covers depict her as brunette. Maybe it's the matter of her personality?
At least one edition of Bruce Coville's Jennifer Murdley's Toad (part of the Magic Shop series) has a cover depicting Bufo, the toad in question, ranting to Jennifer, who on this cover is depicted as an attractive-looking blond girl. The problem is that, in the book itself, Jennifer is specifically described as being... well, not as hot as the girl on the cover, to put it mildly. The illustrations in the book, for the record, depict Jennifer as looking fairly unattractive and chubby. It's possible that the girl is meant to be Sharon, who is in fact described as blond and attractive; even so it still fits, as Sharon is a secondary character who only directly reacts to Bufo a handful of times.
The cover of Morton Rhue's The Wave features a group of students sitting eagerly glued to footage of Adolf Hitler. While this technically does happen, it's massively out of context: the Hitler footage was shown to them to demonstrate how wrong they were.
The Italian cover of Homegoing, a science fiction novel by Frederik Pohl, features an odd shark-shaped starship which does not appear in the book (compare it with the original cover). Furthermore, the tagline reads: "They're the Hakh'hli. They're aliens. They feed on human flesh". Purchasers fancying a sci-fi-horror story were utterly disappointed, as the aliens in the book do NOT feed on human flesh (they breed their own alien animals).
An edition of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant features covers that together form an illustration of the title character's oh-so-plot-centric white gold wedding ring. Except that the ring in the picture is kind of a dirty bronze color.
Jack Campbell'sThe Lost Fleet books feature the main character, John Geary, holding a different gun, in different armor, in a different location on each cover. This is despite the fact that Geary: Has never carried a weapon, has never worn armor, and didn't even leave his ship until the sixth book. (The books also contain absolutely no physical description of him, so there is no reason to believe he looks like that — even the race may be wrong.)
This is actually lampshaded in the eighth book, Invincible, when his flagship captain jokes about writing her memoirs:
"I can just imagine the kind of book cover they'll insist on. Some really heroic pose by you doing something you never did, probably. Maybe in battle armor. With a gun."
House of Leaves is an interesting example. The cover design is fine, but the choice of blurbs on the back paint a somewhat... um... misleading picture. "Funny, moving, sexy..." and "a love story..." are not the first descriptions that jump to most readers' minds when thinking of this book, and absolutely no mention is made of the novel's most memorable facet: it's really, really scary.
The official Guy Gavriel Kay fansite Bright Weavings lampshades this with a gallery of some of the interesting choices publishers made for cover art. The author praises some, politely declines to comment on most, and is openly baffled by others. Believe it or not, all of the following examples are from the same trilogy in different editions/languages (The Fionavar Tapestry): Evil Barney, Candy Land, Treant Guy, Yay Boobies (NSFW), and Tarzan the Wizard. Only Treant Guy has more than half an Ass Pull's worth of resemblance.
Behold! The new cover of Dante's Inferno! Yes, that's the book itself. Apparently, Dante's classic journey to the afterlife involved wielding a wicked scythe to slay the denizens of Hell with while wearing leather pants sans shirt to show off his muscular pecs. This is a special case of a lying cover, as it's perfectly accurate— for the video game that was Inspired By the poem. Penny Arcade not only "approves" of this tactic but offers an additional suggestion.
The original paperback editions of the Riverworld novels typically depicted various historical figures (e.g. Sam Clemens)-complete with their facial hair, which did not grow on the eponymous planet. They were clothed on the covers too, in their period dress.
At least in the American translation, the cover picture for The Battle Horse is stylized enough to not be a direct lie, but the back cover blurb relies rather heavily on being Metaphorically True. The story itself is about rich kids who stage "jousting" tournaments and poor kids who're paid to be the horses. The blurb makes it sound like The Game Come to Life, with the female lead becoming a horse.
The second book in the Animorphs series shows Rachel morphing into a gray cat on the cover. In the book, the cat is actually described to be black and white. Also, the kids are usually shown morphing in their clothes, despite the fact that the books say they can only morph skin-tight outfits. (A lot of the morphs are anatomically incorrect. E.g. instead of the human ears rising to become the animal ears, the human ear disappears and the person's hair rises and reshapes to form animal ears.)
The covers in general could not depict morphing more inaccurately if they tried. Rather than the weird, always different, sudden-crazy-stuff-happening-at-weird-times morphing in the actual books, the covers show a smooth, all-at-once kind of morph.
Partial example: VISSER shows Visser Three, a dark centaur-ish alien, glaring out from the cover, when it is mostly about Visser One, who has a human host. As the Review BlogCinnamon Bunzuh! noted, "A cover depicting a middle-aged housewife peering ominously would not have the same impact."
The Doctor Who Expanded Universe novels often have wholly-meaningless covers, but in one notable case◊, they actually depicted two spinoff-only characters... in silhouette, and all wrong. Mr Heroic Build on the right there is actually supposed to be almost comically scrawny, and the girl in that strangely-detailed skirt is apparently wearing it in 18th-century England. Other than that, it's pretty accurate — hey, guess why there's a ring?
A minor example: The 50th Anniversary "The Monster Collection" reprints each have an image of the monster on the front. The problem is that the monster on the cover is always the New Series version, even though all the novels featuring monsters from the classic series were originally published long before the New Series existed, and in the cases of Illegal Alien (Cybermen) and The Scales of Injustice (Silurians) the specific versions of the monsters (Second-Doctor-era Cybermen and Fifth-Doctor-era Silurians) is a plot point.
Covers are notorious for showing Ben Skywalker as looking like his father Luke when he in fact looks like his mother Mara.
The cover picture of the novel Shadow Games (the main character, Han Solo expy Dash Rendar, running down a corridor with the insignia of the Galactic Empire on the left and the Rebel Alliance on the right) seems to be a big case of this. But for more than 2/3 of the book, there's no sign of the conflict between the Empire and the Rebels playing even a background role to the story. In actuality, it's the blurb on the back cover (implying that the conflict is between Black Sun and a rogue ex-member, with Dash caught in the middle) that's deceptive. It's really all about the Empire and the Rebels, the protagonist (and the reader) just doesn't find out until near the very end.
Downplayed with To Kill a Mockingbird. It is a divided book, with its first half being an episodic Coming of Age story of a tomboyish girl in the South, and its second half being a focused narrative about the deepest ugliness of racial prejudice, class resentment, and pure human spite. Covers will either show a little girl (meant to be Scout, the narrator) or they'll be nonindicative of either plotline (for example, a tree.)
Ursula K. Le Guin herself complained about covers depicting the hero of A Wizard of Earthsea as white. The only white people in Earthsea are the Karg raiders, everyone else is black or brown. The hero, Ged, is brown.
The cover of Steven Harper's Trickster features a rather badly-drawn Kendi and Sci-Fi cover babe Gretchen, who, though not quite a Lady Not Appearing in this Book, definitely doesn't play a prominent enough role to warrant cover status. Potentially misleading on two levels since, though most people would probably assume Kendi and Gretchen were a couple due to their sharing the cover (and Gretchen's rather revealing dress), Kendi is actually married TO A MAN and Gretchen is quite a bit older and plainer than her cover counterpart.
One cover for Anna Sewel's Black Beauty shows the eponymous horse with a pretty pre-teen girl in suspiciously modern clothing. The story takes place in Victorian England and the only pre-teen girls who get any story-time at all don't have anything to do with Beauty — they're the granddaughters of a gentleman who buys Merrylegs.
The Starlight and Shadows series has two sets of covers in different releases. Not a single one has a picture of the protagonist anywhere close to her descriptions, or indeed, of a drow at all (what with angular face and specific eye colorations) beyond a Dark-Skinned Blond with sharpened ears. The second set got a round-faced lady and rumours say cover's a portrait of the illustrator himself with his girlfriend. That's the "good" variant.
It was common in the Sixties and Seventies for the cover blurbs of mystery novels to completely misrepresent the story within. This happened due to the popularity of thrillers and spy novels, which made plain old mysteries seem fit only for pathetic spinsters. The cover of the 1975 reprint of Rex Stout'sPrisoners Base promises that the client "only has a fifty-fifty chance" unless Wolfe intervenes; in the novel, however, the client dies on page ten.
A common note on the cover of a pre-Internet 1970's-80's "Airport Novel" variety True Crime book was "10 pages of shocking photographs!". The actual photo section of the book however was often anything but shocking though, showing things like the killer's high school yearbook picture ('70s hair! Shocking!), or a picture of the victims on an unrelated camping trip (they liked camping! Shocking!). If they actually did show you pictures from the crime scene they would be censored, and therefore not be particularly shocking, either.
The heroine of Ash: A Secret History is a white-haired girl, with her pale hair being repeatedly referred to and turning out to be a plot point. This didn't stop one cover artist from drawing her with red hair, however.
The cover for The Backward Bird Dog by Bill Wallace has J.C. hiding his head under his body (itself a major spoiler) and frowning, as if confused as to how he should point. A similar illustration comes up in the final chapter of the book, only he's actually smiling. This is because by that time he's found a way to keep his nose out of harm's way when pointing during a hunt.
The first couple of books in the Dragonlance "Chronicles" series have pretty accurate covers. But Caramon and Raistlin are never in a forest together at any point during Dragons of Spring Dawning◊—as a matter of fact, they get separated early on and stay separated for most of the book. And when they are in the same place at the same time, Kitiara isn't there. In Dragons of Summer Flame, Tanis and Usha never meet one another, and never will, since Tanis dies in the middle of the book. Similarly, the three characters standing together on the cover of Second Generation◊—Palin Majere, Steel Brightblade, and Gilthas—never cross paths during any of the five stories in the book.
In his Artbook, John Howe explains that he's had to draw book covers armed with only very brief summaries given to him by the publishers. In one case, he also admits that he... hasn't read the book very closely either.
The cover of Jessica Amanda Salmonson's The Swordswoman depicts the title character dressed in nothing more than a very short kimono fighting humanoid bugs with the trademark three swords of the world. Yes, she earns all three swords, and she does fight humanoid bugs, but she fights the bugs before she gets the swords. And she does dress more sensibly than that.
Steve Perry's The Albino Knife has a cover blurb that bears no relation to the book. It describes the eponymous character as 'the secret weapon of the Matadors'. She's a competent fighter, but not a weapon in any way, secret or not.
The cover blurb of The Regiment by John Dalmas announces, "The planet Kettle has only one resource: soldiers. But they are very good soldiers." The Private Military Contractors of the title regiment actually come from the planet Tyss; "Kettle" is a nickname for the very hot mining world Orlantha, which is where they're fighting in this book. Also, Tyss does have other resources; it's just that its soldiers are by far the most famous. The sentence about their quality is absolutely correct.
At least one edition of Eagle Strike prominently features an F-15E Strike Eagle on the cover. While cool, the fighter never shows up and plays no role in the novel. Other editions fix this.
The Japanese covers for The Tomorrow Series have a minor example: Ellie's (Asian, non-Japanese) boyfriend Lee is absent from most of the covers and way in the background when he does appear, while a white guy (presumably Kevin) is front-and-center on most of them, making it look as though he's the male lead/love interest.
Alan Dean Foster's books seem to suffer from this often. For instance, the titular characters of his Pip and Flinx novels look very different in each cover; Pip almost always has horns, and occasionally feathers, while the only consistent thing about Flinx is that he is human, male, and has hair that is some vague shade of red.
The Spellinger series was hit or miss on this. Some covers were alright, but others took misrepresentation to new levels. Most notable might be Roseroar, an almost ten foot tall Amazon tiger covered in armor and with huge weapons, etc. On the cover she's smaller than the hero and nude and seems to have escaped from Cats. On the other hand, there is a unicorn, and that did happen! Another early cover for the first book shows a tall, thin, and clearly human wizard in a hooded cloak, posing dramatically. The only wizard in that book is a talking tortoise. The blurbs on the back covers are equally prone to misidentifying characters' species, e.g. calling a sloth an anteater, or a tiny golden lion tamarin a gorilla.
Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends has a cover drawing with two children peering over the edge of the earth - however, this is not "Where the Sidewalk Ends", this illustration is from a different poem in the book called "Edge of the World". The actual poem about "Where the Sidewalk Ends" is about the grassy spot between the sidewalk and the street, and has no illustration in the book.
On the cover of one of the books in J. D. Robb's In Death futuristic mystery series, there's a picture of a modern-day semi-automatic pistol which has no relevance whatsoever to the plot. This is particularly jarring because the series is set forty-some years in a future with extremely tight gun control, so that any use of a firearm is a major plot point in a story.
Contrast that with the cover art for Sweet Silver Blues, in which a trench-coated private detective confronts some gnome-sized people packing Tommyguns. Not only is Garrett never described as wearing a trench coat, but the family which the "gnomes" are supposed to represent (the Tates), although short, are human enough that one of them accompanies him to infiltrate a human-supremacist group in a later book without any of the bigots batting an eye. Oh, and did I mention there are no guns in this fantasy-noir series?
The cover of Johnny Tremain shows a boy, presumably Johnny, holding a rifle. It's a plot point that Johnny's crippled hand prevents him from using guns. (The boy also lacks the widow's peak Johnny is described as having, but that's a smaller issue.)
With Rivers of London the cover art is actually a pretty good display, although it does give away the entire plot if you pay close enough attention to it, but the blurb tries to make it out to be a Harry Potter clone despite having nothing to do with those books either in subject matter or themes.
The blurb for Whispers Under Ground implies that the FBI agent is a Fundamentalist who'll spend most of the book locking horns with the apprentice-wizard protagonist. Her faith is only very obliquely referenced, she doesn't even learn magic exists until the conclusion, and her only real concern about it is how to avoid mentioning it to her Bureau superiors.
This is the cover for the Japanese version of Moon Over Soho. In the author's own words "I have no idea who this is supposed to be."
The Bantam editions of the Doc Savage novels are usually pretty good, depicting either an actual scene from the novel or a generic image of Doc. However, the cover for Brand of the Werewolf depicts Doc wrestling with what appears to Universal Studio's Wolf Man. No scene like this occurs in the novel (where the 'brand of the werewolf' is a distinctive mark left behind by the killers).
Most editions of The Picture of Dorian Gray seem like they go out of their way to avoid showing an accurate picture of Dorian or the painting on their cover. Dorian is often described as having blond hair, blue eyes, and a feminine appearance, aside from being (or, towards the end, looking) only around 19 years old. Covers almost always show a picture of a man in his late-20s or early-30s with black hair and dark eyes. More than a few even show him with a beard.
The cover for Mercedes Lackey's Joust shows the main character, Vetch, standing with a dragon, presumably Avatre, while in full jouster armor. Not only is Avatre a hatchling at the end of the book, but Vetch is a serf, and never wears jouster armor in the book.
Apart from misleadingly making the book look like it's aimed at small children, it seems that the ONLY information given to the artist in Make Way for Dragons is that the story is set in California and has dragons in it. The cover we get is a blond "Valley Girl" with shorts and a denim jacket riding a skateboard past a bunch of palm trees as a tiny green dragon-dinosaur-thing clings to her leg - none of which has a THING to do with the book. Just for starters, the actual main character is a male cello player, most of the action takes place in the mountains, and the dragons are golden.
The BIONICLE guidebook Dark Hunters has a promo shot of Keetongu on the front cover, with a group-shot of Vahki bringing up the rear. Keetongu is a highly sentient benevolent beast, while the Vahki are robotic law enforcers in the city of Metru Nui. Neither have any connection to the eponymous evil bounty hunters.
Most of the books used random promo-images of the toys as their cover picture, and rarely did these correspond to the stories told within. The Darkness Below shows Toa Nokama diving underwater, but the story is actually set in the underground maintenance tunnels of a museum. The cover of Maze of Shadows shows Toa Nuju standing atop an ice tower in the city of Metru Nui, but again, the events happen in an underground tunnel-system. Voyage of Fear is about a dangerous journey through an underground river, but the cover has Onewa climbing mountains over an open desert. On the other hand, the UK cover for Makuta's Revenge may seem like an aversion, as it actually shows Makuta, unlike the US cover — only in this case, even the title is misleading. The UK cover of Tale of the Toa, showing Tahu Nuva surfing on lava, is also misleading because Tahu only becomes a Nuva at the end of the following book.
This is a minor one, but a cover of Pat Conroy's The Lords of Discipline shows a picture of a college class ring. This doesn't seem too bad, as the novel opens "I wear the ring" and every alumnus of the Carolina Military Institute (based on Conroy's alma mater, The Citadel) is proud of their rings. The problem? The ring had a stone. The Citadel's class rings are signet rings and thus do not have a stone.
One Garfield board book showed Nermal on the cover. Nermal actually didn't appear in that book at all!
The UK cover to Burning Tower by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle shows, logically enough if you haven't actually read the book, a medieval castle in flames. The book is set in Fantasy Mesoamerica, and Burning Tower is a character's name.
The covers of many J.T. Edson novels feature generic western scenes that bear no real connection to the contents of the book. And some are just flat out wrong. The Corgi edition of The Remittance Kid shows a gunfight on the deserted main street of tiny frontier town. The novel takes place entirely in Chicago.
The cover for Patrick Senecal's Aliss, a Bloodier and Gorier take on Alice in Wonderland, features the heroine facing off against Bone and Chair (The Mad Hatter and the March Hare). Bone and Chair are painted as distorted, monstrous grotesques, whereas in the novel itself, part of what makes them so creepy is that they're nothing of the sort: Aliss repeatedly notes how elegant they look, and finds Bone moderately attractive.
John Foley's wartime memoir Mailed Fist is about going up against the German panzers in underarmed, underpowered and undergunned tanks. So good so far. But while Foley fought his war in British-built Churchill tanks, every cover art depicts American Shermans....
A later edition goes one better: the cover depicts an M4 Sherman in a North African desert setting. But Foley's war - and the setting of the book - was exclusively in northern Europe after D-Day. note A large section of the book concerns the (minimal) British participation in the Battle of the Bulge, about as far away from an African desert as you could hope to get. Snow and ice figure a lot.
One edition of Gertrude Stein's How to Write describes the contents as a generic "advice for the young writer" book with tips on grammar, style, and so forth. The book is 400 pages of gibberish, and is a lot closer to Finnegans Wake than to Elements of Style.
The Flight Engineer: Commander Raeder does not look like James Doohan (chalk that one up to marketing trying to call attention to Doohan being co-author), and at no point in The Privateer does the Invincible fly into a docking port in the side of an asteroid. The Independent Command also screwed up several details on its picture of a Fibian.
The cover of A Brother's Price is highly Romance Novel, with a man carrying an unconscious woman. Jerin does pick up Odelia once, with his sister there to guard him, and it is in many ways a romance novel, but this cover is very misleading as to the roles of those two characters. It also shows him as very visibly armed, which Jerin never is.
The cover to The Dangerous Days Of Daniel X features the titular character holding The List; the problems is that it is depicted as a literal paper list, whereas in the book it is actual stored on an alien computer system. Granted it is mentioned that The List’s appearance can be altered, but it still never appears as an actual paper list in the book.
Time Machine gamebook series: In the Polish edition, the back covers feature a situation from the book and hint that you will have two choices in that situation (and that if you choose wrong, you'll end up stuck in a time loop). Most of the time, it turns out that when this part comes in the book, you don't actually have the choices presented by the cover.
The Polish cover for Mystery of the Atlantis deserves a special mention: it claims that the Olympic games featured in the book are the first Olympic games (something that isn't in the book)... and this claim on the cover is accompanied by a huge headline stating "it's the year 400 BC", while in real life the tradition of Olympic games actually began at least three centuries earlier! (And this is meant to be an educational series.)
Legacy of the Dragokin: The image in the cover is accurate but It won't happen until the final act of the climax. One can only assume the author was going for Rule of Cool.
On E. D. Baker's The Wide-Awake Princess, Gwendolyn's asleep and Annie's awake, but that's the only visible difference, even though it is clearly stated in the book that Gwendolyn is stunningly beautiful and blond, and Annie is mousy, plain, and brunette. On the sequel Unlocking the Spell, you can only guess which of the princesses is which.
One edition of Agatha Christie's A Murder Is Announced features a cover that prominently features an analog clock reading 5:30, despite the fact that the book made a point of the murder being scheduled for and committed at six o'clock.
Tutis Digital Publishing's covers of prints of public domain material, which are so strange and inept as to be almost dadaist. The Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz cover, for some reason, depicts modern fighter jets flying over Mars. See herefor yourself.
The blurb on the back of the third book in the Inheritance Trilogy, Kingdom of the Gods, would have you think Shahar Arameri is the main character of the thing. To be fair, she does play a fairly large role in the first half of the book - but she gets Demoted to Extra about 250 pages in.
When Games Workshop began publishing novels under the Black Library label, the back cover blurb was a short excerpt from the book, followed by a 3-5 sentence "summary" beneath. Often, this summary would only give you the barest hint of what the book was about, if not tell you an outright falsehood. An example of the latter can be found on the first edition of Space Wolf: Ragnar's Claw, which hints that the characters will visit a hive world named Venam. No such world appears in the book.
In-Universe example in every book. Cain is always depicted on the cover with a bolt pistol, but his sidearm of choice in the novels is a laspistol. This is supposed to be an in-universe propaganda thing (the cover art is treated like a propaganda poster), to befit his status as a HERO OF THE IMPERIUM!
The Greater Good depicts Cain and a Tau Fire Warrior as Back-to-Back Badasses against a tyranid onslaught. This was likely for Symbolism's sake: The tau do appear in the book and form an Enemy Mine with the Imperium against Hive Fleet Kraken, but they never fight side-by-side (the most that happens is the Imperium provides astropaths to help fleet coordination).
The cover to Unlock City is somewhat more abstract in arrangement, so complete accuracy to plot details can't be too expected, but the depiction of Otoha cowering behind her brother Koudai is a definite cheat—the two of them don't ever come into contact over the course of the novel.
There is an old French edition of The Return of the King which covert art represents Gandalf with a staff in the hand, standing on a flying rock. No scene like that ever appeared in the story. In the same collection, the cover arts of the two other books (the Fellowship members for The Fellowship of the Rings, and a group of black-skinned Orcs for The Two Towers) are a lot more relevant.
Some of the Discworld books have covers by Josh Kirby that really don't reflect what characters look like, or depict scenes that didn't happen. Some examples are Granny Weatherwax as a stereotypical hunched-over warty Wicked Witch when she's actually a handsome older woman who sometimes complains that she doesn't look like that. Or Pteppic wearing a Martial Arts Headband for no good reason and curly-toed slippers that just look impractical for an Assassin. Or Twoflower, who wears glasses and was called "four-eyes," literally having four eyes. Not to mention the Librarian, an orang-utan, being depicted visually as a chimpanzee.
The cover of the current version of High Magics Aid, as well as the description on the back, seem to imply that its a typical fantasy novel that just happens to have the appeal of having been written by the founder of Wicca. In the actual book, there are only a very few cases in which actual magic appears to have been used, and Witchcraft is mostly depicted as a persecuted and misunderstood religion.
The cover of the Heris Serrano omnibus shows a pale-skinned Slavic-looking woman wearing power armor. The titular character is black, and power armor does not appear in the trilogy at all.
Every book of Elizabeth Moon's Paladin's Legacy series (the four published so far anyway) has a cover centered on a bearded, dark-haired man wearing a crown. The two kings who are mentioned in the books are clean-shaven; one is a redhead, the other is blond.
The original paperback of Anne McCaffrey's Dragonflight had decent enough artwork, but the cover blurb was the hilariously nonsensical phrase "In Ruatha, you fought to live — or you fought to die!" The action of the story begins in a castle called Ruatha Hold, but quickly moves elsewhere for the bulk of the novel. This suggests that whoever wrote the cover copy didn't read very far into the book.
Those That Wake's book jacket has an example. It says Mal is erased from the memories of everyone who's ever known him. While this does happen, it's not until much later than the summary would have you believe. The wording also implies that Tommy, Mal's brother, may be the memory-erasure victim, which isn't the case at all.
Possibly in the wake of the Twilight craze, a lot of books with slightly similar themes have been reprinted and released with covers that try to arise the image of the story being a similar supernatural romance thing, featuring close-ups of beautiful girl faces, pseudo-poetic titles written in elaborate letters and so on. This also includes certain German rereleases of The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice. One particular instance is this cover◊ for what is supposed to be The Vampire Armand. Not only has the title, which roughly translates to "The Scent of Immortality" almost nothing to do with the story as such (while earlier editions just had a directly translated title), the only woman that the female face on the cover could allude to, Bianca, has a rather minor role in the book, which tells about Armand, obviously a male. Germany has a few more of these instances for newer released Vampire Chronicles editions, but this one really sticks out.
Happened occasionally on men's adventure magazines, usually in the "sweat mag" subgenre, where the cover did not match any of the stories inside. The biggest offender is thiscover for BIG ADVENTURE Issue 1, Volume 1 (September 1960), which has no story to go with the cover (the cover was reused by Battle Cry in its October 1962 issue, which likewise did not have a matching story). To its credit, it does have very good stories that are very well written.
The first print run of the Fablehaven series suffered from this, especially the first book. It's not that the covers were inaccurate, per se, as they did depict things from the actual books. It's that they put most of their emphasis on the cute, happy fairies flying around, with lots of bright, kid-friendly colors, and, in the first book's case, a fake classified ad making the book seem like a comedy fantasy adventure. Although there is comedy, the books take a notoriouslydark turn fairly early in the series. Later reprintings of the books gained new covers that more accurately reflected the tone of the series, with more dark and scary elements.
As for the author's other books, the sequel to The Candy Shop War,The Arcade Catastrophe, featured a more traditional variation on this. Although the scene depicted on the cover of the book technically happens within the story, it is only ever implied, by nothing less than the very last line of the very last chapter. Perhaps because it just depicts a generic scene of the Kid Heroes fighting off bad guys, whereas any other actiony scene from the rest of the book would be far too spoiler-filled to safely depict on the cover.
The Beyonders series actually has fairly good covers, but many of them (as well as a few of the author's other books) use the following quote from Rick Riordan to advertise the series: "An irresistible blend of adventure, humor, and magic." While technically true—as in, the series does contain adventure, and moments of humor, and magical things happen—it makes the series sound rather more happy-go-lucky and lighthearted than it actually is.
H.G. Wells was so irritated by the illustrations by Warwick Goble for the magazine serialization of his novel The War of the Worlds that he added a passage to the hardcover edition in which the narrator complains about how inaccurate the early illustrations of Martian fighting-machines was during the invasion.
Many later editions of the book disguise the fact that it takes place around the turn of the 20th century and depict the Martians laying waste to modern cities completely with skyscrapers and sports cars.
This online cover gallery features a category called "Huh??" containing many examples of this trope. Things you'll find here, but not in the book itself, include a giant floating eyeball, a vampire frog, a bald green man wearing a dress and firing a shotgun, the U.S.S. Enterprise, an army of mummies in a cornfield, and...whatever the hell is going on here. There's also a section cataloguing all the covers that show the Martians attacking in flying saucers rather than gigantic walking machines.
The series of Sonic the Hedgehog novels in the early 1990s where rife with this; often shoddily drawn and seemingly the artist had no clue what the book was about outside of the title:
Sonic the Hedgehog in Robotnik's Laboratory sees Sonic standing in-front of a classic Frankenstein lab with bottles and vials in the background while holding a vial with a ghostly green face oozing out of it. The book is about transforming animals into utensils and the eponymous laboratory is nothing more than a holding cell where Sonic's friends are held before being transformed.
Sonic the Hedgehog in the Fourth Dimension sees Sonic cheerfully running past some dinosaurs. Probably the least offensive as he does briefly travel back in time to the age of dinosaurs but it's a very minor part of the story.
Sonic The Hedgehog And The Silicon Warriors has Sonic and some sort of robot Tails looking like they're about to attack each other. No robot Tails appears, Sonic and Tails never fight, and the "Silicon Warriors" are actually Lawyer-Friendly Cameo's of other video-game characters which probably would have been a more interesting cover.
The Polish book publishing house Amber used a simple method for choosing covers for its sci-fi books. Just pick some classic piece of sci-fi art from their library, which (if you're lucky) has some vague resemblance to the title, and you're set. For instance, the book Robot ended up with a painting by Chris Foss (listed here as The Caves of Steel), depicting the remains of a destroyed giant robot. In reality, the "robot" of the title is a man-sized Ridiculously Human Robot and no giant robots appear anywhere in the book.
Funnily enough, the English edition of The Caves of Steel which used this cover could have the exact same thing said about it: no giant robots there, buddy, just police officer R. Daneel Olivaw.
The Polish website wolnelektury.pl offers a lot of public-domain literature for download. The books are also available as PDF downloads, and each such PDF has an image as the cover. The images usually have a more or less tenuous connection to the contents, but some are way out of the left field. The most utterly baffling cover image, however, is the one for Sinbad The Sailor.note not the original Arabic stories, but rather a Polish adaptation It's a screenshot from Farmville. As in, the Facebook game Farmville. What.
This seems to be lampshaded in The Beating of His Wings, the last novel in The Left Hand of God trilogy, when the protagonist Thomas Cale has a dream vision in which appear three unrealistic images of himself resembling the covers of the three books in the series. He notes that he never wears a hood like in them. However, this turns into something like a subversion or even reconstruction, because the image of Cale as a faceless Angel of Death rather than a person is something that is relevant in the story itself, which is what the dream is probably about. This also means that the covers are symbolically appropriate even while at the same time you could say they have been exaggerated for effect.
Bill the Galactic Hero has three odd physical features: his canine teeth are fangs, his left arm is a black right arm (Bill himself is Caucasian), and his right foot is a giant chicken's foot. Many covers get the first two right, but forget the last.
Minor, but strange, example. The cover of the second American edition of The Well of Ascension, second book of Mistborn: The Original Trilogy, depicts heroine Vin fighting a Steel Inquisitor. Unfortunately, not only does Vin never fight (or even interact with) an Inquisitor in Well, it's the only book in the trilogy where she doesn't fight one!
More pronounced was the cover of the first paperback edition of the first book in the trilogy. Front and center is a person who resembles neither Vin nor her mentor Kelsier (the two main POV characters), there's a Grim Reaper-looking guy in the background (complete with scythe!) who is possibly an extremely poorly drawn Inquisitor because he couldn't be anything else, and there are crows everywhere, despite the fact that they seemingly don't exist in a book set in what might charitably be described as Planet Mordor.
Greg Egan's Orthogonal trilogy features two mild examples. First, the cover art for each book in the trilogy depicts the Generation ShipPeerless as a sleek and sexy Cool Starship, while the actual books describe it as looking exactly like what it is: A mountain that was hollowed out, reinforced, fitted with rockets, and blasted into space. Second, the cover of the first book is particularly egregious, as it depicts no fewer than five such spacecraft. In fact, a second, much smaller craft is constructed part of the way through The Eternal Flame, but that's it for the first two books. By the time the third book rolls around, they have a veritable fleet of small (around 4- to 8-person crew) spacecraft.
The cover◊ of Awake in the Night Land shows the Last Redoubt as a mayan pyramid, even though it is stated to be a featureless pyramid. This was a request from the editor in order to make such prominent object of the cover to not look bland.
The British paperback of Thomas Burnett Swann's fantasy novel Will O' the Wisp depicts a topless woman riding what appears to be a giant dragonfly. Needless to say, neither of them have anything to do with the book. The novel was originally serialized in Amazing magazine a couple of years earlier. It's probably no coincidence that the issue containing the first instalment uses a similar cover idea, apparently based on an unrelated story. note The text is obviously set direct from the magazine, because it erroneously includes part of the synopsis from the beginning of part 2.
The cover to Elizabeth Vaughan's Dagger-Star shows Red Gloves's birthmark on the top of her breast, completely bared by her not-very-plunging neckline. In the story, the mark is under her breast, and she commissions armor with a special flap in case she needs to show it to anyone.
In general, covers for The Gunslinger tend to depict Roland wearing a hat, but it's mentioned very early on that had a hat but lost it. It's likely that this is for the sake of evoking his resemblance to Clint Eastwood's "Man with No Name" persona.
This isn't the fault of the artists. This line does not exist in the first edition of The Gunslinger, and in fact that version makes frequent references to Roland grabbing his hat or putting his hat on. Other books mention it as well. The line is, for some reason, inserted into the revised, expanded version of The Gunslinger, but still ignored by the other volumes and it's probably best that the reader ignore it as well.
The Signet mass market paperback of The Drawing of the Three makes it look as though the three doors that connect Roland's world and Earth are all right next to each other in a peaceful field, when the doors are actually separated by miles of monster-infested wasteland. As a bonus, the doors on the cover are mismatched, not labeled, and have their frames. The doors in the book are frameless and all identical apart from their labels.
Severaldifferenteditions of The Wastelands have cover art depicting Blaine the Mono as an old-fashioned steam locomotive with a huge skull on the front of its smokebox. In the book Blaine is a futuristic, supersonic bullet train with no skulls in sight. They got the train part right and that's pretty much it.
The Pocket Books mass market edition of The Dark Tower depicts the titular tower as much smaller than it actually is. The real tower has 600 floors. The one on the cover has maybe 20.
A recent edition of The Stand has a picture of a man holding a bullet in his teeth, something which never happens in the book. This is especially noteworthy given that the book in question is over 1100 pages long, meaning there were plenty of scenes to try to match up a stock photo to, yet they managed to find a scenario that never occurs. Most older editions have artwork of a white-clad, sword-wielding warrior fighting a monster with the head of a crow, which is meant to be a symbolic representation of the book's good vs. evil narrative, but it can mislead readers into thinking they've bought a high fantasy epic and not a post-apocalyptic horror story.
The original American covers for most of the volumes of the Malazan Book of the Fallen manage to have a very peculiar mix of depicting, for the most part, clearly recognizable scenes and characters and at the same time managing to get so much wrong it's clear the artist probably only had a short excerpt to go on and nothing in the way of description/summery. For example:
Meet the generic knight and his equally generic busty token decoration◊. It's a first book, so a generic cover could be expected. Except it could be several pairs of characters. Is it Whiskeyjack and Sorry? Whiskeyjack is a veteran soldier and Sorry a teenaged girl with Asian features. Is it Ganoes Paran and Adjunct Lorn? Paran is barely scratching 20 and the Lorn is the one in command. Is it Whiskeyjack and Lorn? They don't share one scene in the entire book. Is it, heavens forbid, Anomander Rake, who famously sports a giant sword on his back, long hair and knightly regalia? Then never mind skin colour, they got the race wrong.
Memories of Ice◊ gives us Gruntle and Stonny Menackis posing heroically on the roofs of Capustan. This is at a point of the book where the latter is raped and Gruntle, never one for posing, really has other problems. Chief among them being that he looks more like Sabretooth than his book description.
House of Chains◊ has what is - presumably - KarsaOrlong kneeling in what might be the glade he starts the story in, except instead of his tribe's gods there's a bunch of giant stone hounds. Which do exist. In another world. Where they don't do anything like the cover suggests. Basically, the cover is sending so many varied clues regarding the story it manages to say absolutely nothing due to overload, all while being Out of Character.
Midnight Tides◊ depicts an iconic scene in the most loving of details, down to each warrior's favourite weapons, all while getting their skin, stature, the overall fact they're not actually human, as well as the location and time of day (they are supposed to be at the bottom of a rocky crevice where no light of day can reach), and also the climate wrong. It gets the dragon skull right, though.
The Bonehunters◊ seems to think it's a Christmas-themed comedy with zombies. This scene does accur in the book. It is, however, trivial and the book itself is thematically nowhere near wacky zombie Christmas hijinks.
The cover blurb for the paperback edition of Mercedes Lackey's The Black Gryphon talks about how Skandranon, the title character, is on a dangerous mission for his creator, and when no one has heard from him in a while his best friend worries he might not make it back. All of this is resolved within the first two chapters, while the rest of the book pursues other plotlines.
A Fistful of Sky: The protagonist is extremely overweight, with short curly hair and the person on the cover is definitely not her. Nor is that a scene from anywhere in the book.
In The Extended Phenotype, in the chapter denying genetic determinism, Richard Dawkins comments on how he uses slides from the covers of a French and German edition of his The Selfish Gene as an illustration of what he was not trying to say in that book. They feature figures representing humans presented as robots or marionettes.
In Fortune Falls by Jenny Goebbel, there's a black cat, but it has a two-inch tail. The black cat shown on the cover has a tail that's normal length.
The paperback cover for Tolkien's edition to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight features the eponymous Green Knight as a giant grass monster, a far cry from the description of the Knight in the book, who has merely green skin and green armor and clothes, instead of being covered head to toe in long green fur.
At the Mountains of Madness consistently has cover artwork that is either completely bizarre or flat-out lies about what the story is about, usually substituting scenes of generic horror for anything that actually happens in the story. It'd be easy to show a wintry landscape, or a plane flying over some mountains, or perhaps a Lovecraftian Eldritch Abomination menacing the characters, but very few versions actually do so. Instead, we get the following attempts at selling H.P. Lovecraft's perhaps best-known story:
The Arkham House ninth edition features a scene in a cemetery with two men digging up a coffin while a skeletal man wearing Revolutionary War-era garb (complete with powdered wig) looms menacingly above them. This one is especially egregious since, as it's name implies, Arkham House is devoted to publishing Lovecraft stories, but their cover for At the Mountains of Madness depicts a scene that never happens in the book.
The 1991 Tor edition (full title At the Mountains of Madness and Other Tales of Terror) depicts a robed man who appears to be completely a skeleton below the neck. True, the book contains stories besides At the Mountains of Madness, but as it's the one plainly being used to sell the book, it seems a little strange that Tor would depict something that never happens in it.
The Barnes & Noble Essential Reading edition (At the Mountains of Madness and Other Weird Tales) has the same problem; it is, again, a compilation of various Lovecraft stories, but At the Mountains of Madness is the one being trumpeted in the title and yet the artwork gracing the cover depicts... a skeletal man playing a musical instrument.
The 1971 Beagle edition is even stranger, showing a bug-eyed man with an eyepatch.
The 2014 Createspace edition features Cthulhu on its cover. Sure, Cthulhu is actually a character from Lovecraft's mythos, and he has some connection to the events of At the Mountains of Madness, but it's a little like putting Grand Moff Tarkin on the poster for The Empire Strikes Back. An important character in the canon, but one who has little to no bearing on the story being advertised.
A 1985 Harper Collins omnibus edition shows a gremlin-like creature.
The cover of Sarah Pinborough's Murder features a Creepy Child with Glowing Eyes of Doom. The novel does feature a young boy whom one of the viewpoint characters, Thomas Bond, finds creepy. The child in question is creepy only from Bond's more and more warped perspective, does not have glowing eyes, and is never dangerous to anyone.
Two examples involving popular YA fantasy heroines:
The title character of Ella Enchanted is described as having black hair, yet the covers of almost every edition give her medium or light brown hair instead, which Gail Carson Levine has complained about.
In Beauty: A Retelling of Beauty and the Beast, Beauty's hair is described at first as "neither blonde nor brown," and brightens into "a light coppery red" as she matures. The cover of the 1993 edition portrays her with dark brown hair instead. Since it also has her wearing a yellow dress, it seems likely that the artist was trying to evoke Disney's Belle.
The cover of Wolf Hall is fine; it's the Tudor rose, and it's about Henry VIII's reign through Thomas Cromwell's eyes. The title is the liar. Wolf Hall (or Wulfhall) is the ancestral home of Jane Seymour's family, but they don't really become significant until the second book, Bring Up the Bodies, and the only time spent there is the brief visit in which Henry meets her. The phrase is, however, illustrative of the dangers in Henry's Deadly Decadent Court.