The After-After-Thought: The Spine

If a book’s back cover is often an after-thought, the spine is an after-after-thought.

Yet, as I wrote in my last post, the spine is the backbone of the whole operation. The thing holding the front and back cover together.

Typically (unless you or your readers upload photos or videos to Amazon or other retailers) your book’s spine won’t be visible to browsing customers online.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put in an effort.

In fact, there are two reasons spine design deserves your special attention:

1. It’s difficult.

Unlike the front and back covers, which have a standard set size you can stick to, the width of your book’s spine will vary depending on how thick your book is – which depends on both the number of pages, and the thickness of the paper used to make those pages. This means your spine requires some extra care and will quite possibly be the most-tweaked part of your cover in the final stages of the publishing process. Just like the back cover, while the design of a spine is unlikely to sell your book, it can turn potential readers off by cheapening the appearance of the whole package.

2. It’s important.

While the spine might not be an advertisement to online shoppers, it is an important advertisement of your book nonetheless. How often have you found a new favourite author by browsing a friend’s bookshelf, or the shelves in a holiday home or second hand store or library? If your book has an attractive spine, it’s more likely to be picked up by people browsing. And as Smashwords founder Mark Coker points out, virality depends on people discovering and sharing, sharing and discovering your book.

If your book does end up on the shelves of a library or bookstore, its spine may well be more important than the front cover in initially attracting browsers. Why? Owing to a lack of space, only very few books are ever displayed face-out in bookstores or libraries. In fact, most big box bookstores actually charge publishers a premium to have their books displayed cover-out rather than spine-out. So unless you’ve got stacks of cash, or are on especially good terms with your local bookshop owner or librarian, chances are, the first thing browsers will notice about your book – if they notice your book at all – is the spine.

And, as I’ll explain below, these days, an attractive spine can be a boon for #bookstagramming.

The ingredients of a spine

There are surprisingly few guides to spine design around (which is why I decided to write one!)

Essentially, most spines have three key ingredients:

  • The book’s title
  • The author’s name
  • The publisher’s logo

If it’s a book in a series, it may also have a number (but take a look at the books in your genre before deciding to do this – although an undeniably useful indicator to readers, and something I love, this seems to be more common among graphic novels and indie books)

What is a good spine?

A good spine, as I hinted at the beginning of this post, is one which not only contains these ingredients, but which ties the back and front covers together.

This doesn’t just produce design that is pleasing to the eye. You also want to have a spine that ties in visually with your front cover so that people can find it.

When you’re looking for a book that has a blue cover, you don’t expect it to have a red spine. You’ll be looking at all of the blue books, ignoring the red, yellow and other colours, and not finding what you’re looking for if the spine and cover are too dissimilar.

That isn’t to say that you must use the same colour for cover and spine. Many designs don’t – and quite successfully (see my previous post for one example). But it is one of the simplest ways to create a cohesive design. If you’re set on a spine and cover with different colours, consider other ways to tie your design together – like logos, font styling, and picking a colour that is included, even if it isn’t the dominant colour, in your front cover.

While experimenting with out-of-the-box design can yield some awesome results, if you’re going to mess around with one of the key ingredients, generally speaking, you’d better have a good justification for it. Here’s why:

Name & title

The first two items in particular – the title and name – are standard because they help readers find your book on a shelf. The spine primarily serves a kind of indexing purpose (while the front cover attracts us to it, and the back cover gives us information about it).

Logo

One of the most visible differences between indie and traditionally published books is often a small one: the presence or absence of a logo on the spine.

If you’re an indie publisher and don’t have a logo, there’s no reason you can’t use something simple, like your (or your publisher’s) initials. But you can possibly be even more creative than that.

The idea isn’t simply to mimic what the big publishers are doing. After all, what would be the point of going indie (either self-publishing, or via a small, independent press) if all we’re going to do is copy what the generic big five are doing? Rather, we want to be creative and original, while simultaneously, giving potential readers enough of the cues they have come to understand as signalling quality.

Readers aren’t necessarily looking for a particular logo on the spine. Those publisher logos which are widely recognised (such as Penguin’s penguin) are next to meaningless nowadays. The publishers to which they belong have grown so enormous, swallowing up so many smaller firms, that it’s impossible to see a logo and know there’s a high likelihood of a book published under that mark suiting your tastes. On the flipside, those small presses which maintain a highly selective catalogue often have unremarkable or even unknown logos.

Yet, while readers might not be looking for a particular logo, publisher icons are such a common feature of spines, a potential reader may well get the feeling that something is ‘amiss’ if a spine doesn’t have one.

Sometimes, reluctance to read books that break from the mould in some way can be a result of what Carolyn Howard-Johnson calls #bookbigotry, a bias against independent publishing rooted more in the propaganda produced by big publishers than in actual concerns about quality. Other times, readers may not care whether a book is independently published – in fact, they may even strongly support indie writers. But they may still judge a book design which lacks some key ingredients as less carefully produced, and hence, likely to be of lesser quality, than one which ticks more of the traditional boxes.

Naturally, there are some books – both independently published and occasionally sprouting out of the traditional presses – which manage an avant guarde take on book design successfully. But unless you’re confident you can do that, seeking to meet readers’ expectations while offering a signature twist of creativity is potentially a safer route.

How can I be creative while colouring inside the lines?

For the spine of Number Eight Crispy Chicken, I didn’t want to bow to tradition, mimicking the big boys with a publisher logo of my own. Let’s face it: nobody is going to be looking for my publisher’s logo. Nobody is out there browsing the shelves of their local bookstore thinking “Wow, I wonder when Neofield Publishing’s next book is coming out?” And that’s okay. (Frankly, I couldn’t deal with the pressure!) So using the little publisher logo I’ve developed for my YouTube channel would really be a waste of precious spine real estate – especially since my publisher name is based on my penname.

At the same time, I didn’t want to entirely buck tradition, forgoing a logo altogether and risking not meeting readers’ expectations. So I used the opportunity to be a little creative.

For the spine of Number Eight Crispy Chicken, my designer and I decided to go with one of the airport pictograms that seemed to capture the essence of my story, and would hopefully give a browsing potential reader a sense of what kind of a book it is (since the title alone doesn’t!). I think it also looks sufficiently logo-like to not stand out (in a bad way) to browsers.

Ruben O’Neill, whose cover I examined in my previous post, did something similar by including a little ladybird on the spine of Mom I’m Sorry, which ties in to the image on the cover. It’s also a terrific example of how you can tie your book together without necessarily using the same colour on the cover and spine: if people remember his book’s front cover, they will likely pick out the ladybird on the spine.

A word on multiple books/series

If you are publishing multiple books, and especially if your book is part of a series, make a note of what font(s) you have used, font size, and the size and positioning of your logo. Even the big publishers sometimes mess this up. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of collecting a favourite author’s entire oeuvre, only to have the publisher change the size of their logo, or change it from the top to the bottom, or perhaps even change how the entire cover (including spine and back) is designed part-way through the series. It’s incredibly frustrating to book collectors, and if you want your book to be discoverable, either because it’s proudly displayed on your readers’ bookshelves, or because readers consider it ‘instagrammable’, it’s best not to offend the hardcore aesthetes out there 🙂

Everything is a marketing opportunity (although don’t overdo it!)

I decided to do something a bit unique and make a little (overly dramatic!) “spine reveal” video for Number Eight Crispy Chicken. On both Twitter and Instagram, I discovered after posting that the hashtag #spinereveal had only been used once before!

How did it work out?

On Instagram, my spine reveal actually got 1.76x more views, and almost twice as many comments as my actual cover reveal did.

Not that I think I’ll do a fancy-pants spine reveal for every book I write!!!

Take a look and let me know what you think!

3 thoughts on “The After-After-Thought: The Spine

    1. Thanks Michelle! I’m so glad you think so!
      There weren’t many posts around on this topic, so I thought I’d tackle it myself 🙂

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