A Quick Look at the Fine Art of Book Spine Design

by | Jan 22, 2018

Although there are fewer bookstores every year, and a smaller percentage of books being bought in those bookstores, physical retailers still accounted for huge book sales every year.

And even though more people search online for books, the actual number of people who look for books in bookstores has continued to increase every year.

For instance, in the 3-month Spring season in 2017, over 143 million people in the U.S. shopped for books at bookstores.

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’s 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

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 losers:

book design

  1. 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.
  2. This book looks like it’s stuck in the 1970s.
  3. Appears to have been designed for a much shorter book.
  4. These two books aren’t bad, but a lack of contrast renders them weak from a design point of view.
  5. Watch out for busy backgrounds, which don’t help readability.
  6. 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:

book design

  1. These four nonfiction books all have clean, clear spine designs that actually help sell the books. A win!
  2. 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.
  3. This book has a clear and readable spine the easily signals it’s in the health and wellness category.
  4. 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.

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 books, 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

Book Spine Images for Browsing

Beautiful Book Spines Of Bookstagram
Jane Mount Pinterest Book Spines Board
Marta Borrell Book Spine Pinterest Board
Beautiful Books: Designer Editions & Sets
Beautiful Book Spines Tumblr
Book Spines That Make Me Swoon

tbd advanced publishing starter kit

31 Comments

  1. rebecca hunter

    hi Joel Perhaps you’ve already answered this question somewhere, but here goes: If someone self-publishes, what do they use as the publisher name or logo (on the spine, for example).
    thanks, rebecca

    Reply
  2. Traci

    I am guessing your book is Courage and Croissants. Yes??! I know the author but had never seen her book!

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Traci, you are correct, but I already fessed up earlier in the comments. It’s a lovely book!

      Reply
  3. David Baird

    Here’s a mystery, Joel. For some reason books published in Spain usually have the words on the spine facing the opposite way to those published by English-language publishers, i.e. you have to twist your head leftwards to read them. Any ideas why that is?

    Reply
    • Harald Johnson

      Not just Spain but Germany and France as well (at least). The French translation of my main non-fiction book has the spine title going bottom-to-top (when standing), the reverse of my English versions. There are various theories for this (e.g., right-handed people find it easier to tilt their heads to the left vs. right when scanning a bookshelf), but I’m sure Joel will be able to answer this strange phenomenon more fully.

      Reply
      • David Baird

        Wow! This is hilarious. Spine reading seems to be a whole world of its own.
        But, on a practical level, it’s just annoying to have to keep twisting your head one way and another when looking for a book on the shelf!

        Reply
        • Harald Johnson

          You mean you can’t rotate your eyeballs 90-degrees? :))

          Reply
  4. Anita Rodgers

    My guess is that you designed the yellow book Courtesans. Not sure why, just really caught my eye and stood out.

    Reply
  5. Denise

    Joel, i’m trying to unsubscribe from this post’s comments and all i’m getting is this:

    Comment Manager
    You may not access this page without a valid key.

    Help! Have tried several times and the Remove Selected Subscriptions is not working…

    Reply
  6. Harald Johnson

    Timely post! I’m wrapping up my interior and will soon be moving to finalize the full-wrap cover. I’ve got room so will definitely add a “publisher identifier” (my LLC).

    QUESTION: I note that most (although not all) such identifiers are “right-reading stand-up” (i.e., 90 degrees from the rest of spine content). That is the preferred orientation, correct? Thanks.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Congratulations, Harald and good luck with the book. Yes, the logo or other identifier is customarily rotated so it’s right reading when the spine is displayed.

      Reply
  7. Karen

    Courage and Croissants! [But I’ll cop to looking it up instead of guessing
    :-D]

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Karen,

      You are correct, but you peeked!

      I guess that’s clever, but I’m going to ship a copy of my book to everyone who took a guess. Thanks for participating everyone. Contest is officially over.

      Reply
  8. Denise Thunderhawk

    Hi Joel,

    I knew it was The Ultimate Guide to Singing the moment I saw the cover.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Denise, close! I designed the interior of that book, but not the cover, although it’s got the red/black/white palette, and I do love the typography on that spine.

      Reply
  9. Gerard

    Hi Joel I guess is Essential Guide to Getting your book Published.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Gerard, should have checked the comments below, already eliminated. Take another guess.

      Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Alexandra, another good guess since it has the black/white/red theme, but no, sorry. That one is from Morgan James publishing, but thanks for trying!

      Reply
  10. Barbora Cowles

    My guess is The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published. Thank you for the giveaway and for a post with great information.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Oops, Barbara, you should have checked the comments below. Go ahead and have another guess.

      Reply
  11. Michael W. Perry

    Great advice. I’d add one more for those publishing POD, particularly through Createspace. I’ve gone round and round with them about this. The spine placement can be off as much as a quarter of an inch either way. I’ve had that in the same shipment of books from them.

    It’s not necessarily the end of the world, but it needs to figure in the design. Don’t risk differing background colors from the spine versus the front or the back. Either have the same color wrap around the spine or intrude the spine color well onto the front and back, say 1/2 inch or more.

    For the spine text, avoid the two extremes, so small it’s hard to read and so large, filling almost the entire spine, that it’s at risk in a botched Createspace printing, of intruding onto the front or back covers. And yes, that’s particularly difficult with shorter books with their thinner spines.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Good tip, Michael. And designers should remember that the 0.25″ variance can be a shift vertically, horizontally, or skewed so watch out for borders or “hard” edges near the spine or the trim.

      Reply
  12. Diane Prodger

    It’s “The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published”-it would have been one of the more challenging ones design-wise with all that type!

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Good guess, Diane, Sharon, and Amber, because that book is reminiscent of some of my own designs, and the red/black/white motif is used on many of my sites, including this one.

      But no, sorry. It was designed by the good folks at Workman Publishing.

      Reply
  13. Sharon K. Connell

    The essential guide to getting your book published looks like it would have been designed by you.

    Reply
  14. Amber Polo

    Essential Guide to Getting your Book Published

    Reply
  15. Melody

    Will Write for Food

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Unfortunately, Melody, although I love that spine, I had nothing to do with the publication.

      Reply
  16. Morgyn Star

    I can’t stop looking at Will Write for Food. ??? Great cover.

    Reply

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