One great delight of bookstore work is seeing new cover designs. The mind boggles at the responsibilities those few square inches carry. And there’s so much to admire when they succeed: Look at how cleverly the art department has symbolized the content! What a fresh way to communicate to the intended audience! Such subtlety in layout—the way the art director pulls together the disparate components of a book... And what distinctive use of color to create a memorable image, making this book immediately unique from all others! Who could forget that celadon face with the delicate coral script? Don’t you wish you had time to read the black one with the foil lightning flash? Any way you could justify the purchase of the snappy red and gold one for Sean’s birthday?
Once booksellers have skimmed an ARC, they have a pretty good sense of which customers will be interested in a particular title, but can they find the specific book again, when it’s displayed spine-out?
If the spine doesn’t repeat major elements of the front cover, the book is almost as good as lost on overcrowded shelves. Only a tiny minority of new releases are purchased in multiple copies for face-up or face-out stacks. If a book joins the collection as a single copy, it will be shelved spine-out. If it’s a slim picture book among hundreds of competing titles, or if it belongs to a deep, slow-moving backlist, it will sit, sobbing quietly, lonely in the crowd. I could swear I’ve seen tear stains on paper jacket hems.
Mostly, though, front-line booksellers swear as they search for a book, making lame-sounding excuses: “[#!&!!$], I know it’s here somewhere; I saw it arrive yesterday.” Or, “Holy [#%&!], just a moment, I’ll check in the back to see if it’s hiding.” Or, “[%&$!!#], let me ask my colleague if she’s seen it.” Or “[F@$%#&]... Golly, I must be book blind today.” The customer wonders if the flailing bookseller is incompetent. Staff who should be attending to other duties are summoned to help with the search. Now everybody is annoyed—and the book sits there invisibly, camouflaged behind a spine that bears little resemblance to its front cover. The sale falls through, and two hours later someone shelving the day’s new books notices the fugitive, hiding in plain sight.
Online resources commonly show front covers, so even if the book is unfamiliar, the image is often available to the bookseller, even a rookie. And most bookstores try to keep the shelving in a defined order, so the bookseller knows where a given book should be. But there are so many exceptions: a customer mis-shelves the book, it’s part of a display at the moment, it’s been reassigned to a different section, or a hundred other scenarios.
A bookstore’s buyer is usually working from catalogues that show front covers. Long before the actual publication date, the front cover is doing its job, and it continues to do so even after the book is out of print. Yanking it back by using a contrasting spine design is marketing sabotage.
My own eye is particularly observant of color, but according to the article “What Makes an Image Memorable?,” by Phillip Isola, Jianxiong Xiao, Antonio Torralba, and Aude Oliva, there are other more memorable elements, especially images of humans. 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?
There are often long discussions among designers, art editors, publicists, sales reps, and marketers as a book is brought to fruition. One can imagine that there are egos, compromises, costs, deadlines, and internal politics to deal with, on top of color, layout, typeface, genre, content, etc. A further design criterion is probably not all that welcome. But what’s one more variable in this boatload of considerations, especially if it’s one that can make all the difference in getting the book into the customer’s hands at the right moment? Isn’t that the whole point?
Carol B. Chittenden is the recently retired owner of Eight Cousins Books, in Falmouth, Mass.