How Important is Your Book’s Spine Design?

on March 21, 2011 in Book Design & Production
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Book spines -- oh, they're important alright. I was reminded just how important they are on my weekend book-buying binge at our (sadly) closing Borders. At the end of the day I left with nearly 30 new mysteries. And then I ordered 11 more online to fill in the gaps in the series, and still have another order or two to place in coming weeks to finish the collection.

What does that have to do with book spine designs? Everything. I went in looking for some Sarah Strohmeyer (started a first book from her and love it) and Victoria Laurie (haven't read yet but have heard good things) books. I left with books from at least a half dozen authors, and it was all because of their spine designs.

Why Book Spines Matter in Marketing

In a physical bookstore the book spine is probably the first thing a potential buyer sees, assuming you're in the stacks and not out on display. Similar books often have similar cover and spine design elements. I can look at a book spine and say "this is a cozy mystery probably featuring a female amateur sleuth" before I even look at the book's title, nonetheless pull it off the shelf to read the back cover. And if I'm looking for something new as a reader, that instant visual attraction is what ropes me in over Joe Schmo's book next to yours.

Now not all indie published books will make it to physical bookstore shelves. But the same applies in libraries -- when someone wants to check out a new author, the book spine might be the first thing to attract them. When it comes to online sales, the front cover is more important.

What a Book Spine Tells (or Should Tell) a Reader

From that perspective of a buyer, there are a couple of things I expect a book spine to tell me before I even touch a book:

  1. What genre (or sub-genre in the case of mysteries) your book falls into;
  2. What the book is about, at least in a vague sense.

The first can be relatively easy. Some genres and sub-genres have consistent color themes. For example, when I see books in the mystery section with bright pink or pastel color schemes, I can safely bet they're targeting females or at least feature a female sleuth. When I see dark covers with big, bold lettering they tend to lean more towards the thriller side.

The second is apparently tougher, although I don't know why. And it's where a lot of book spine designs fail in my opinion. You have to remember that the spine has to catch someone's eye from at least a few feet away. If they can't read the title of the book from there, they might skim right past you to someone else's book. This is something a few series I picked up struggled with (and I only found them because I was on the hunt for every similar series I could get my hands on that day -- a less discerning reader than usual). Some focus on obnoxiously dainty title text which is almost unreadable until the book is in-hand. It doesn't catch my eye. It doesn't give me a better idea of the series, not to mention the individual book's story. It doesn't usually help you make the sale. I'll pass you over.

I know you don't have a lot of room to work with. But please, keep the text bold enough that your title is clear. If you're selling solely online this might not be an issue. If you plan to sell in print outlets or rely heavily on libraries to drive interest in your books, these are things you might want to consider. And remember, even if they aren't sold off of a book case, they'll probably end up on one. And those spines can still play a role when readers decide which book to pick up and re-read (and therefore spread the word about when they realize how much they love your book all over again).

Do you think your spine designs have helped or hurt your book sales? Have they not impacted sales at all because you only sell online? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts.

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7 Comments

  1. Kathleen Dale March 21, 2011 Reply

    Good article. Thanks. I’m starting to do some covers for online-only publishing, and I found out quickly how right you are about making it readable. Thumbnails render your title very small indeed!

    Online indie publishing has a lot of room for cross genre works, and works of alternative lengths. Many times story doesn’t fit neatly into a marketing slot, a genre, even an age market. So it’s even more challenging to design covers in this day and age.

    Thanks for the article!

    • Jennifer Mattern March 22, 2011 Reply

      Excellent point about thumbnails! I hadn’t even thought about that this time around because I was so focused on the impact of the spines on a bookshelf. But online, whether selling print books or e-books, you do often rely on your cover art (although not for all nonfiction audiences). And those images can be scaled to all sorts of sizes. Very good tip to keep that in mind, thanks! :)

  2. Lori March 23, 2011 Reply

    Your Borders is closing, too? The one in the big mall is going. I think there’s one on the Main Line that remains.

    I’ve never thought about the spine until now. Wow. And that’s exactly how I choose a book off my own bookshelf. Great post, Jenn.

    • Jennifer Mattern March 23, 2011 Reply

      That’s the one I meant. ;) It’s the closest I have.

      And that one may be closing too. I know they just announced a Philly store closing in addition to the KOP location. I think they said Neshaminy (although I don’t see a Neshaminy store listed?) would be the closest one staying open. The Express here was closed too, but hopefully temporarily (flooding issue). But with them closing up shop, wouldn’t surprise me if it stays that way.

      • Jennifer Mattern March 23, 2011 Reply

        Damn. Just saw the Reading store is closing too. :(

        Still have BNs in Exton and Plymouth Meeting at least (I think).

  3. Todd Russell June 25, 2011 Reply

    For those using CreateSpace for POD you need to have at least 130 pages in order to have text on the spine. Something to consider to go along with the post above :)

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