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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A rather somber example is that of Karel Thole, formerly the cover artist of Italian sci-fi magazines. As he grew progressively blind starting from The '80s, which made it difficult to work on new covers, magazines fell back on his previously unused covers — which often had very little to do with the book content.
There are several different covers for this book, due to foreign language printings and reprintings, but most tend to feature a spider to reference the Animal Metaphor of their club name.
The Italian translation by Mario Fois retains the spider, but moves it next to the author's name. The book's image is of a tea cup and tea pot.
The Spanish translation by Alianza Editorial neglects the spider, but has an eye looking through a keyhole.
The French translation by Michèle Valencia has several men dressed in identical fancy red suit jackets sitting down in a fancy restaurant. Only inaccurate due to the private room that the Widowers mention.
The Portuguese translation by Ulisseia retains the spider, and places it in front of a leather armchair with a crystal ashtray holding a cigar.
The first Dutch translation by Heleen ten Holt features a very unusually drawn spider as the cover. The second translation by Heleen ten Holt neglects the spider, but has a man seated in a comfy armchair in front of the fire to imply the armchair detective nature of the stories.
The Rest of the Robots: The 1974 Pyramid BooksEight Stories from cover has two humans in spacesuits surprised by an enormous robot in a sandy environment. The closest any story gets to this scene is Donovan, alone, getting surprised by Emma in "First Law", and even then she isn't much larger than a human is.
The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories: The 1978 Panther cover, using the title The Bicentennial Man, features an enormous six-limbed robot in water, using Eye Beams to attack a fighter jet. For one, nothing of the sort occurs in "The Bicentennial Man". For two, none in the rest of the stories feature four-armed robots (giant or otherwise). For three, nothing written by Dr Asimov ever featured robots larger than a fighter jet!
Many of the covers of Octavia Butler's science fiction novels make them look like inspirational romance stories.
One edition of 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.
The post 1982 editions of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep use photos from Blade Runner on the cover. This could be forgivable except it doesn't help matters that the title Blade Runner (with its distinctive logo) appears on the cover as the main title; the original PKD title placed below it in smaller letters. The word "Blade Runner" doesn't even appear in the novel, and while some parts in the movie come straight from the novel, there are things in the novel that are quite alien to the movie. A decade later there would be a brief series of sequels that are set in the separate universe of Blade Runner as opposed to that of the original novel.
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.
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 Spellsinger 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.
The covers on Asi Hart's books tend to be colourful and not very indicative of their content, but two stand out today:
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.
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 its 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.
Another Lovecraft example is the series of paperbacks put out by DelRey, which use sections from a diorama painted by Michael Whalen. The images are creepy and macabre, but have nothing to do with the contained stories.
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 action-filled 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.
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 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.
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.
In Scandinavia, Harlequin Romance novels are often published in four-novel volumes. The covers tend to feature some generic romantic couple, that aren't meant to represent any of the couples in the actual novels.
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.
Russian Roulette is a prequel, the original cover of which identified it as part of the series, but separate from the books featuring Alex as the main protagonist. However, a few years later all the books were reissued with new cover art; the new cover for Russian Roulette features the massive new Alex logo, and the cover illustration is of the one and only scene in the book where Alex actually appears, as well as the book now being numbered as part of the main series (originally it was unnumbered).
Alice, Girl from the Future: Many covers (especially the ones from Eksmo publishing house) show Alice wearing silvery Space Clothes and wielding ray guns, regardless of whether anything of the sort happens in the book (and rarely it ever does). For example, Alice and the Crusaders takes place on medieval Earth, yet the Space Clothes are there on the cover. The War with Lilliputians has it even worse: Alice is shown riding a huge grasshopper, a ray gun in one hand and a sword in another. Nothing of the kind takes place during the plot (in fact, in this particular book, ray guns are only used by villains).
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.
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?
Angel in the Whirlwind: The service uniform of the Commonwealth Navy is black in color, but for some bizarre reason the cover art of all the books depicts Kat wearing her dress whites on the bridge.
Most Animorphs covers shows the kids changing into animals, which, to be fair, is the premise. However, the process is different than described in the books, because a.) the covers usually depict them wearing normal clothes, while in the books they need special skintight morphing outfits to avoid problems, and b.) it shows the process as relatively fluid and even, whereas the stories utilize low-key Body Horror that works differently each time. Tied into that is that some are anatomically incorrect—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.
Another infamous issue in the fanbase: Tobias' model. In the books, he's described as a short, geeky blond kid. Most of his covers depict a broody-looking brunet, which is also how he wound up depicted in the TV show. His last two actually do switch to a blond model.
Partial example: VISSER shows Visser Three, a dark centaur-ish alien, glaring out from the cover. The book is mainly about Visser One, making this the only Animorphs book where the antagonist is on the cover. As the Review BlogCinnamon Bunzuh! noted, "A cover depicting a middle-aged housewife peering ominously would not have the same impact."
A minor example is the second book, which depicts Rachel turning into a gray cat, while in the book it's black and white.
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 is 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.
A recent cover of the digiReads edition of Literature/Anthem by Ayn Rand depicts the main character in front of a crowd of men wearing grey three-piece business suits with ties, against a mechanized backdrop of industrial-looking gears. The novella is about a man in a primitive agrarian society that lacks industry, and no one wears anything like a business suit. The lack of industry in the book versus the cover is especially glaring because it's not an aesthetic issue, it's thematic. The writer intended to depict a communistic dystopia that squelched creativity and had stagnated after technologically regressing. It was a crucial plot point of the story that it takes place in a primitive agrarian setting.
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◊ 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 a prominent object on the cover not look bland.
The cover of Baby-Sitting is a Dangerous Job shows the terrified main character facing a pair of angry snarling dogs with the caption, "Three bratty kids are the least of Darcy's problems!", implying that the dogs belong to the family she babysits for. In fact, the dogs belong to the men who kidnap Darcy and her charges, and actually turn out to be fairly docile around the children, as they don't like the kidnappers much either.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. The writer explained that the publisher simply printed the books using the wrong image files from the file list Lego had sent them. This gaffe was even referenced in one of his later stories, in which a shapeshifting Dark Hunter takes on Keetongu's form to other characters' confusion.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
The cover to the first Bravelands book depicts Fearless as a young lion cub. This is accurate... for the first chapter. It then skips to him as an adolescent cub one year later. Yearling lions look very different from younger lions.
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.
Cam Jansen Mysteries: A kid-lit mystery series, with similar things to the "Three Investigators" example. 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.
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.
Cat's Eye, by Margaret Atwood, is a literary novel with autobiographical elements. The book is subtly layered and poetically written, exploring the nature of female friendship from childhood through adolescence and the way it shapes women as adults. The cover◊ features a figure in a hooded black robe hovering over a bridge and holding a glowing orb. This is probably meant to reference a scene in the book where the protagonist has a vision of the Virgin Mary when she's nearly drowning in a freezing creek, but the cover image is much more warlock/Grim Reaper than Holy Mother.
The Chicken Soup for the Soul series are a collection of real-life stories meant to inspire its readers with its heart-warming stories, easily identified by their mottled, colorful backgrounds, glaringly cheery and cutesy art or photographs that generally decorate the covers. But sometimes, to some people, the stories can be far from heart-warming at times due to how depressing they can sometimes be.
Chicken Soup for the Preteen Soul and Chicken Soup for the Kid's Soul, despite their cutesy cover art, features some stories that some young readers may find disturbing, especially in the Tough Stuff section, as it talks about serious topics such as drug abuse, attempted suicide, and tragic deaths. One story talks about how someone breaks their neck while playing on a moving train, another accidentally strangling themselves to death, gang violence, and even someone being molested. These stories are hardly suitable to the intended audience, ages 8-13. This, however, wouldn't be a problem had these stories been in the teenage/adult Chicken Soup stories instead.
Subverted in the Chicken Soup for Little Souls series, where they made the stories more suitable for a younger audience. Also, the covers actually fit the overall story. Perhaps the folks who created the series realized how depressing the stories could be for a younger audience and decided to make briefer, more happier and simple stories.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 actually stored on an alien computer system. Granted it is mentioned that The Lists appearance can be altered, but it still never appears as an actual paper list in the book.
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 Waste Lands 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.
Every book of Elizabeth Moon's The Deed of Paksenarrion 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 Finnish cover of the first book in Robin Jarvis' Deptford Mice trilogy, The Dark Portal. It looks like a cutesy book for kids about mice◊, right? Well, not exactly... it's a very dark story in which several characters suffer violent deaths such as getting skinned alive and having their heads ripped off.
One edition of Vixen 03 shows the protagonist, Dirk Pitt, diving to find a B-29 bomber wrecked on the seabed. This does happen in the book, but there the plane is a C-97 Stratocruiser transport.
One edition of Poseidon's Arrow shows a PBY Catalina flying away from an exploding ship. The exploding ship appears in the novel, the Catalina does not.
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 (he was very fond of covers that showed the entire book happening at once). 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 orangutan, being depicted visually as a chimpanzee.
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).
Just War has the deliberately dishonest kind of lying cover, with the blurb making a big deal about the Doctor arriving in World War II to find the Germans occupying English soil, and assuring the reader that this is not an alternate universe and there will be no reset button at the end. It turns out the blurb is using deliberately obtuse language to talk about the historical occupation of the Channel Islands.
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.
The Dora Wilk Series averted it in its second edition, but the first cover for Soul Thief is guilty not only of depicting the main character wrongly, but also the blurb in the back of the book, which somehow turned a 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.
Steven Brust's Dragaera: The books starring Vlad Taltos 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.
Mercedes Lackey's Dragon Jousters: The cover of 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.
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.
The original paperback of 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.
The dragons as described in the books are pretty conventional winged reptiles. The cover artist for the early UK editions, David Fairbrother-Roe, really liked drawing dragons with frills. Lots and lots of frills, and horns, and spikes, and spikes that end in frills. They were beautiful and distinctive, but they weren't the dragons in the books.
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.
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 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.
Familias Regnant: 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.
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.
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.
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.
Forgotten Realms: 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.
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 cover of the Franny K. Stein book The Fran With Four Brains depicts Franny being menaced by three brains that each have a pair of eyes and pigtails identical to Franny's. The actual story is about Franny creating three robot doubles of herself and having to take them down when they go out of control.
One Garfield board book showed Nermal on the cover. Nermal actually didn't appear in that book at all!
Garrett, P.I.: In the cover art of Sweet Silver Blues, a trench-coated private detective confronts some gnome-sized people packing Tommy-guns. 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 we mention there are no guns in this fantasy-noir series?
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.
On the cover of the German edition, Crowley is depicted as some kind of ugly, green monster. Whatever happened to "Tall, Dark and Handsome" personified?
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, complete with the tagline "Just when you thought it was safe." 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. This was presumably done because the main plot (a boy befriends a mermaid and has to save her from a mad scientist) wasn't particularly scary and thus wouldn't have made a good cover picture.
The UK cover of ''Be Careful What You Wish For''◊ shows what looks like a shattered crystal ball, with Samantha's face reflected in it. There is a crystal ball in the story, but it never breaks. The picture can also be interpreted as Samantha being trapped in the crystal ball, which also doesn't happen.
Somewhat invoked with Grand Theft Childhood, since at first glance the title and tagline makes it sounds like a book meant to reinforce people's beliefs that video games are destroying our youth. While in reality, the book invertsNew Media Are Evil and is actually about how video games often help children more than hurt and how politicians and the media are essentially using it as a scapegoat.
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.
The cover of the paperback edition of John Meyers Meyers' The Harp and the Blade has a starburst shoutout thingy that says "A fantasy of Druidic England!" The story takes place in France, there are no Druids, and the if there is a fantasy element (that's debatable) it used only at the very beginning to set up the main character's dilemma.
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.
Heralds of Valdemar: The cover blurb for the paperback edition of 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.
The cover of the current version of High Magics Aid, as well as the description on the back, seem to imply that it's 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.
His Dark Materials: 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 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).
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 also usually depicted as Caucasian despite being stated to have significant Asian ancestry in the books. Furthermore, she is typically described as rather plain, or at least unremarkable-appearing, which is not how the covers present her.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
At least one edition of Bruce Coville's Jennifer Murdley's Toad 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 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.)
The cover of Julia's Kitchen by Brenda A. Ferber makes it seem as if the book is going to be some sort of happy novel focused around the enjoyment of cooking or, perhaps, a cook book filled with delicious recipes because of the exaggerated comic book art style featuring a rosy-cheeked, smiling woman who is baking cookies◊ when in reality, the book is actually a Tear Jerker about a girl learning to cope with the death of her mother and little sister due to a house fire and trying to get on good terms with her distant father who is also devastated of the tragedy. He, however, isn't very close to the main character as he was to his younger daughter whom he had a much stronger bond with. The way the book talks about death and the process of coping is awfully realistic for the young audience it's targeted to, and there are a lot of depressing moments in the story (with the protagonist even finding out that her father secretly had wished that she had been the one to die in the house fire rather than her younger sister). While things do improve at the end of the novel, with the protagonist taking over her mother's famous cookie business and getting on better terms with her dad, still, the cover totally doesn't fit the mostly depressing atmosphere of the book at all since the story hardly if ever, talks about cooking other than it being something the protagonist's mother was passionate about due to her owning a well-known cookie business, which makes the cover ridiculously misleading for those thinking that this is either a book that teaches its readers easy recipes they can make or a light-hearted read, which it can very easily be mistaken for such. It's not.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The controversial The Legend of Rah and the Muggles is guilty of having a cover that actively tries to emulate the Harry Potter books, despite its author claiming that the Harry Potter books plagiarized her work. It shows a castle, most likely the one that appears in the first chapter and is owned by the mother of the twin protagonists of the book. The problem is that the castle is only featured in that chapter and is never mentioned again.
The cover to Michael Z. Williamson's time travel novel A Long Time Until Now shows an American GI, a Roman legionnaire and a stone-age spearman riding in an armored car while being attacked by mammoths and a woolly rhino. This doesn't happen in the novel; instead there's a chapter where Americans, Romans and prehistoric men go hunt rhinos on foot, and another separate scene where a Roman gleefully rides on top of an armored car.
Lord Darcy: 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 Lord of the Rings: There is an old French edition of The Return of the King with cover art representing Gandalf with a staff in his hand, standing on a flying rock. No scene like that ever appeared in the story. In the same collection, the cover art for 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.
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.
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."
The UK cover to Burning Tower by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (in The Magic Goes Away series) 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 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.
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.
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.
Gardens of the Moon has three-ish covers, all of which have some inaccuracies, though the first two are glaringly wrong. 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.
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.
The original American covers for most of the volumes 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.
Steve Perry's Matador Series: The Albino Knife has a cover blurb that bears no relation to the book. It describes the eponymous character Veate as 'the secret weapon of the Matadors'. She's a competent fighter, but not a weapon in any way, secret or not.
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.
Miss Marple: One edition of 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.
The cover of the first paperback edition of the first book in the trilogy, Mistborn: The Final Empire. 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.
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!
The Russian covers for the Moreau books by S. Andrew Swann appear to have been sourced from completely unrelated paintings. The covers for Forests of the Night◊ and Specters of the Dawn◊ feature male barbarian warriors and imply fantasy settings, while the cover of Emperors of the Twilight◊ depicts a science-fiction city but shows a human couple with a man up front carrying a basketball. All three books are Bio Punk thrillers set in a world of genetically engineered animal soldiers and cyborgs, at least one of which is the main character of each novel (and, in Emperors and Specters, female).
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.
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 Neanderthal Parallax: The first book's cover shows a Neanderthal (presumably Ponter), typically, as dark-haired and dark-skinned. However, in the book he's described as blond and pale-skinned (as would be more accurate to what we've found out about the appearance of Neanderthals). The other book covers only showed his arms, still dark-skinned as before.
The cover art for A Night in the Lonesome October accurately conveys that it's a Monster MashMassive Multiplayer Crossover, but it does so by showing all the characters mingling in a social gathering that never occurs in the story. It also misrepresents some of the individual characters, such as depicting Crazy Jill as a Hot Witch in an Elvira-esque gown; the actual Crazy Jill conceals her youthfulness and wraps her hair with a bandana.
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."
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 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.
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.
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 2020 English edition cover of Quest for Fire shows a tundra environment complete with reindeer, muskoxen, arctic foxes, ptarmigans and a wolverine carrying off an arctic hare. The story takes place in a temperate or even subtropical climate during an interglacial period but as everyone knows, Mammoths Mean Ice Age.
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.
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 Reluctant King: The omnibus e-book's cover has Jorian (who in the book is described as having long hair and a mustache) with short hair. Worse, beside him is a woman who's clearly meant to be Yargali, who's literally whitewashed. She's described as having skin that's so dark it's nearly black, with the character on the cover Caucasian looking
Both the cover and the blurb for Rise of the Dragons, by Angie Sage, misrepresent the book badly. The cover features a girl flying on a silver dragon, with no front legs, over London. The blurb implies that the book with be about a girl named Sirin befriending the silver wyvern-dragon in London. Instead, the girl is an Advertised Extra, most of the book takes place in another world and stars two siblings named Joss and Allie, the silver dragon bonds with Joss, and he has four legs. While Sirin does get to befriend a dragon in the story, it happens in the last chapter (on the last page, even!) and it isn't the silver dragon on the cover.
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 Japanese covers of the other books show reasonably recognisable versions of Nightingale, the King of the Quiet People, and Sky the dryad, but the main character is conspicuously absent.)
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.
One cover for A Girl Named Glazastik depicts a smiling Vihrik easily flying in the air, holding a happy Glazastik, who has a large shiny blue key in her hand. First, the ice key she steals in the book is small, almost completely invisible and rapidly melts in her hand. Second, the whole point is that Glazastik's smile is locked up in the king's treasure chest which can only be opened with the ice key, so she can't be still holding it and already smiling at the same time. Third, when she gets her smile back, she also regains her normal weight, and far from cheerfully floating with her above the rooftops, Vihrik barely manages to bring her to the ground without dropping her.
One cover for Princess Wennie shows a happy, richly-dressed blond girl in a crown, sitting on a throne and surrounded by Pretty Butterflies. This never happens in canon, because Wennie is a poor orphan and has red hair. When she does acquire a throne, a crown, expensive dresses and golden hair, she gives up her soul in exchange, becomes a cold-hearted, moody brat, and her butterflies stop visiting her.
Schooled in Magic: The title of Graduation Day is Metaphorically True. Emily doesn't graduate, though the author in the afterword says that in another sense, she graduated because she realized that Whitehall no longer had anything to offer her and that she had no reason to sit Sixth Year exams just for the achievement.
The first cover of Seeker Bears shows the three main characters as adults instead of as cubs. It and the second books cover also depict them as a trio, despite the fact they don't all meet until the end of the second book.
In Lemony Snicket'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.
The Dale Brown novel Shadow Command has a boat on fire on its British front cover. No boats appear in the entire book.
Robert McGinnis's illustration for the original publication of "She Fell Among Thieves" shoots for the statue's sex appeal and ignores most of the description given of it as well as anything it can be assumed to look like based on the biblical tale. The blurb claiming that the men are up against "all the supernatural forces of the ancient world" is also more than a little exaggerated.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
Star Wars Legends: Covers are notorious for showing Ben Skywalker as looking like his father Luke when he in fact looks like his mother Mara (i.e. red-haired, green-eyed, not blue-eyed and blond).
The original cover to Stray depicts an illustration of Pufftail as a scraggly, sad-looking cat. This fits the dark tone of the book and fits his life as an abused stray. A revised cover uses a cute stock image of a kitten instead.
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 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.
A non-English cover of Tailchaser's Song depicts a black cat on the cover. Tailchaser is an orange tabby. The black cats in the book are predominantly villains who have white-spotted bellies.
The white cat on the original cover is likely Whitewind. Whitewind is not particularly important aside from Whitewind leading Pouncequick to become a Far-senser in the last part of the book.
Talion: Revenant: The original paperback edition features a scene on the cover that is nowhere in the book. It's not even clear which characters it's supposed to depict, though presumably Nolan is one of them.
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.
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. Likewise, "The Case of the Missing Mermaid" shows the boys looking at a live mermaid perched on a rock. The titular mermaid is actually a ceramic ornament.
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.)
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).
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.
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.
In Turbo Cowboys (think Mad Max for kids) book 2 Spin Out, the Takers are depicted as a rival biker gang. In the text, they use armed half-tracks.
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.
For that matter, all of the books' English covers are "symbolic" to the point of revealing nothing about the plot. For example, the first book features a pair of hands holding an apple, which Word of God says is supposed to suggest that the romance is a "Forbidden Fruit."
The first volume depicts the White Queen, who is certainly an important character in the book. As noted under the Light Novels point, this would imply that she's the main heroine of the series. And in fact she is. What isn't apparent is that she's also the main villain of the series.
Similarly, the cover of the second volume shows Kyousuke and Fuuki standing together. Fuuki is the main human antagonist of the novel.
The most egregious example is the fourth volume's cover, which shows Kyousuke and the White Queen, posed as if they're fighting alongside each other. While they do work together in the novel, and it is an accurate portrayal of the Queen's attitude to this, the similarity ends there. Kyousuke spends the entirety of their time together trying to find ways to kill the Queen, and actively refuses to let her fight for him.
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.
The cover for Utopian Massacres is a highly stylized image of a humanoid figure standing out in the sun. What that has to do with anything in the novel is anyone's guess.
In one cover◊ of Willo Davis Roberts' The View From the Cherry Tree, the tree is depicted as too far from the house for Mrs. Calloway to have gotten caught in it, which is how she dies. There's also a pretty good view of the murderer - enough that Rob could have recognized him - when in the book all he saw were the murderer's hands. The cat is also depicted as a cute orange tabby, while in the books he's actually a big, mean black tomcat named "S.O.B."
Villains by Necessity: While the cover's image actually happens (Blackmail fights a dragon), the blurb starts out describing the characters as being "a depressed thief who dresses in black, his short, feisty sidekick"... The one in black is Sam, an assassin rather than a thief (that is his "sidekick", although Arcie isn't really that either). He is literally the first one introduced, and we learn his profession almost immediately. It seems odd that whoever decided this just couldn't get such a basic detail 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.
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.
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.
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.
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! Inexplicably he's also never seen wearing a red sash, even though it's a basic part of the Commissar uniform (and a symbol of the office) and he frequently mentions it.
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).
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 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.
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".
Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends has a cover drawing with two children peering over the edge of the earth and a dog hanging off from the side - 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 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.
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 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 Decadent Court.
Worlds of Shadow: The covers (especially the original ones) are very bad in most cases, with little link to the books' contents nor any indication who the characters shown even are in some cases.
Eleanor Arnason's A Woman Of The Iron People has a bad history with covers. The book is anthropological science fiction about a human anthropologist encountering a furry humanoid alien race segregated by gender. The first edition cover depicted a sexy woman holding a skull◊, which has nothing to do with the story. Another cover depicted what seems to be one of the female aliens naked, but her body is almost completely hairless, while the aliens in the book are totally covered in fur.