We all know by now that a book’s cover is important – people do judge it, and a lot of emphasis has been put on how a good cover is maybe the most important part of gaining a potential reader’s attention. And this is true, but it doesn’t address one important point:

For physical books, many times a book’s cover isn’t immediately visible, only the spine.

Sure, in bookstores if you’re a big enough name or a new enough book with some buzz, you’ll get the cover-forward treatment. But a lot of their stock is displayed like a normal bookshelf – spines out. This is especially true of used book stores. And libraries, and bookshelves in homes and businesses. You get the picture. Obviously this isn’t an issue online, where the cover image rules supreme. But there are a lot more avenues to discovering a book than just browsing the web. And a book’s spine is an extension of the cover, so if you’re going through the time and trouble to have the cover designed well, why would you skip over the cover’s backbone? The extra effort required is minimal to make sure your book’s full attention-grabbing potential is reached.

This quote captures it well:

“Of course the full front cover can’t be duplicated on a spine. But to have the spine echo the front cover is to make the best use of both.

If the image on the front cover is worth a thousand words, why not keep a few hundred’s worth on the spine?

Carol B. Chittenden
for Publisher's Weekly

I mean, really, which of these are you more likely to pull off a shelf for a closer look?

mockingbirdmockingbird2mockingbird3

 

Not the one on the far left, right? It’s boring compared to the other two.

A good book spine can work just as hard as the cover to draw people in.

Here are some more varied examples of mostly-great spine design (as with any bookshelf, there are a few outliers):


 

All of the same points of cover design should be kept in mind when designing the spine, too, but here are some additional things to keep in mind:

  1. Relation to cover: A disconnect between the spine and cover serves no one well. The two should work together to encompass your book. You have three options with this: continue the front cover onto the spine directly, distill the front cover down into simpler imagery that will fit on the spine, or contrast the spine with the cover within the same visual feel. You can see examples of each of these above.
  2. Legibility: While there are exceptions to this, your best bet is to make sure the title is without question legible. Generally this means sticking to a sans-serif or serif typeface, rather than something scripty. Book browsers already have to crick their necks to the side to read titles most of the time, you don’t need to make it any harder on them. It also means making sure that there is enough contrast between the background color and the color of the type. The best font in the world won’t matter if the color choices mean it’s hard to read.
  3. Work with the width: Don’t be intimidated by the spine! Even a super skinny one can pack a punch, if the design is bold enough. Use its verticality to your advantage, or push the design clear to the edges of the space. Get creative to maximize this bit of cover real estate.
  4. Think beyond the single book: If your book is going to be part of a series, plan ahead! As a reader (and a designer), I LOVE when a series coordinates, especially if they combine to form a larger image. Or if you’re an author with a larger body of unrelated works, think about how your author branding can be applied to spines for consistency, making it easy for fans to pick out your works.

In short, though the space be small, the impact is mighty, and you are best served by giving your book’s spine as much attention as the cover if you’re selling physical books.

Have you ever been drawn in by a gorgeous book spine before?

Bonus, check out the following Instagram accounts:
SpineSideOut for poetry composed from book spines, it’s great.
Juniper Books out of Colorado, who specialize in custom book jackets and are masters of multi-book spine art.