Book Cover Sunday: SFF Book Spines

*WARNING! PICTURE-HEAVY BLOG POST!*

(A follow-up to Book Cover Sunday: Fantasy Cover Art)

This week I got an urge to browse my local Barnes and Noble, and what better than use a blog post as an excuse?

As I wandered up and down the science fiction and fantasy aisle, it struck me that we – writers and readers – tend to focus a lot on the cover itself. However, since bookstore space is limited, only a few lucky books get displayed cover out. Most have to jostle for space with other tempting titles.

So what are the strategies for book spine design? Here are a few thoughts on the subject; please take with a huge grain of salt since I am not an cover artist, graphic designer, or marketing professional. And please feel free to add your own comments, too!

First of all, here’s a general view of one of the store’s shelving sections.

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Disregarding size differences in mass market, trade paperback, and hardback, I still found that my eye was immediately drawn to the solid blocks of color in this edition of Pierce Brown’s sci fi trilogy:

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Now, these may not be the prettiest book spines around, but wow are they ever effective. However, they give us nothing else to go on, once they’ve drawn the eye. If you hadn’t heard of Pierce Brown, maybe you’d pick one up. Or maybe your eye would then slide to the books next to them. Having a purely graphic spine with no artwork (besides the cryptic symbol in the middle) is always a gamble.

Also eye-catching are the fonts used for the titles on these Miles Cameron novels. But different from the Pierce Brown books, these spines give us a clue as to the content. We have swords, and knights. We know what sort of story to expect.

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If the author has a larger body of work, with plenty of titles displayed on the same shelf, their book spines can be a little more discreet. After all, what counts here are sheer numbers. From the same section (see first image), here are Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden novels:

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Don’t they look nice all together? It’s eye-catching simply by means of bulk. Would one of these on its own work as effectively? I doubt it. This strategy is definitely one for prolific authors. Here are a couple of other examples, from Seanan McGuire and Charlaine Harris (oh, the pretty colors!).

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Okay, so maybe Charlaine’s aren’t that subtle. But they follow the same style: you’re supposed to collect the set. Now, don’t you want to see them all together on your shelf? I know I do!

Robin Hobb’s books are even more discreet. Here, the author’s name is the key attraction. But when you’re a well-loved writer like Hobb, with a tremendously loyal following, you can do precisely that. Your name is the key sales pitch, after all.

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Here are a couple of books by Joe Abercrombie that have gone for the ‘author name as banner’ approach:

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Now, these happen to have gorgeous covers, but the spine is minimalist almost to a fault. Your eye is drawn to the stark white author name. These really are all about Joe. Compare them to the two titles by Abercrombie in the next photo. Here, despite the enormous lettering, our attention is caught by the images behind. To be honest, I’m not sure why the font needs to be so big here, since all I want to do is look at the picture.

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I like the second ones a lot more than the first; I love the use of images on book spines. It’s a great intro to an author you may not be familiar with and I think that, particularly in cases where you might purchase only a couple of the author’s books (as opposed to a ‘collectible series’ like the Dresden Files), it works very well indeed. Take a look at these Steven Erikson titles, compared to the ones next to them. Aren’t they catchy? However interesting that font on the Jennifer Estep novels, the pictures on Erikson’s novels really jump out at you.

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Here are a few more Erikson titles. Yummy, right?

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This edition of Brent Weeks’ Night Angel trilogy goes for a cleaner, more minimalist use of images, using a graphic style and an emphasis on title over author name that is often seen in YA books:

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Compare Brent’s novels to some popular YA fantasy titles, and you’ll see what I mean. Here are Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles, and the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas.

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As I mentioned before, the author’s name is extremely discreet, with book title being the main draw along with the image. Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle takes this to an extreme:

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Of course, in Paolini’s case, he’s got the color going for him in terms of eye-popping catchiness. But hey, why stick to plain red, blue, and green when you can go all the way and adopt Gail Carriger’s style for Prudence? Yes, I’ll take some hot pink with my tea and crumpets. That’ll do nicely.

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When I set out for my little bookstore jaunt, I was sure I would find plenty of common threads; widespread strategies applied across the shelves. The truth is, book spines seem to come in an even more bewildering array than book covers. Every publisher wants their books to be the ones that jump out at you, and each one seems to have a different idea about how to do that. After all, a book spine is the author’s  business card, the first impression upon a prospective reader. And I’m sure that if I were to browse other genres outside SF/F I’d find new strategies, new conventions.

I know one thing for sure; I’m going to be paying a lot more attention to spine design from now on. And now excuse me, I’m off to play with my bookshelves. I have some spines to reorganize.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Book Cover Sunday: SFF Book Spines

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