They say not to judge a book by its cover, but before a reader sees the full cover, they likely see something else: the book spine sitting on the shelf. Although there are fewer bookstores every year, and a smaller percentage of books being bought in those bookstores, physical retailers still account for huge book sales every year.
And even though more people search online for books, the number of people who look for books in bookstores has continued to increase every year.
For instance, in 2022, physical bookstores had revenue of nearly $9 billion. While that’s less than they were selling in the mid-2000s, sales have been growing for the past couple of years (after a sharp downfall in 2020 when retail establishments were largely closed).
This market will continue to become more important to successful indie publishers who want to expand their reach beyond online sales.
One of the key tasks for the book designer when it comes to books that will be sold at retail is the design of the book spine.
The vast majority of books displayed in bookstores are shown “spine out” to maximize limited shelf space. Only a few books will be shown “face out” and, of course, they will have an advantage.
However, we have no control over that, so it’s incumbent on us to create a spine that helps the book reach its sales potential, and which suits the rest of the cover design, of which it is a part.
“… The facet of physical books that endow book-buying with its romance and mystery, that truly distinguishes one book from another, is … the spine.”—Kari Larsen, Literary Hub
Real-World Testing of Book Spines
Picking through our library at home, I arranged a shelf of books that demonstrate some of the best and worst of spine design. Here they are, with comments about how well they do their jobs.
For this article I decided to look at only single volume works. There are many examples of outstanding design that spreads across the spines of all the books in a series, but that’s a different design challenge. If you’d like to see some of these designs, check out the links at the end of this article.
First, the book spine losers:
- In section 1, we have three books on which the design of the spines seems to have been completely overlooked, with just some type thrown on there for primitive identification.
- This book looks like it’s stuck in the 1970s.
- Appears to have been designed for a much shorter book.
- These two books aren’t bad, but a lack of contrast renders them weak from a design point of view.
- Watch out for busy backgrounds, which don’t help readability.
- Lastly, 5 books whose designers apparently had no interest in allowing browsers to even read the spines.
Okay, now let’s look at some book spines that got it right:
- These four nonfiction books all have clean, clear spine designs that actually help sell the books. A win!
- Each of these five books uses design elements from the front cover to bring some of the thought that went into communicating with the reader onto the spine. In consequence, each has a unique look and message.
- This book has a clear and readable spine the easily signals it’s in the health and wellness category.
- These are two versions of the same book. On the right is the spine of the hardcover edition. The problem is that the light-colored title was displayed on a dark blue background on the cover. When it moved to the spine the background stayed home, leaving the title very difficult to decipher. The version on the left is the paperback that came out a couple of years later, where the publisher wanted to maximize readability, creating quite a contrast between the two editions.
Elements of the Book Spine
Don’t forget the elements you need to include on the spine. The one many self-publishers neglect is the publisher identifier, but that’s something most professional book buyers will notice right away if it’s missing. If you aren’t publishing under an imprint, consider creating your own author logo.
Here’s my list:
- Author’s name, frequently only the last name to conserve space
- Book title, and if it contains information that helps define the book, this should be the dominant element
- Publisher identifier, typically a logo alone, or combined with the publisher name
You’ll notice I didn’t include the subtitle in the necessary elements, and that’s on purpose. If it’s short, try to include it. But if you have a long, descriptive, or keyword-stuffed subtitle, you’re probably better off leaving it off the spine completely.
I’m sure you’ve got examples just like these on your own bookshelves. Study those book spines, see what they did right and what they did wrong.
When I published this article, I promised a free book to anyone who could guess which spine I designed. The contest is over, and you can see some of the results in the comments below