Cover story: Designing for Backlist

The importance of spine-out books

If you wander through your local bookshop, past the table displays of new releases and beyond the bestsellers shouting for your attention, you will find the backlists – the legacy of every author – spine-out and in a variety of looks and styles. From time to time an author may have a table showcasing their work for all the public to see, but often they remain in their alphabetised slot upon the shelves. Which is why designing for backlist is so important, it’s an ideal opportunity to appeal to new readers or even to promote a front list title.

It also offers a chance for the designer to create something different as it’s an aspect of book cover design that offers a little more freedom. Arguably this is due to there being much less pressure, compared to a brand new novel, as they have been showcased before and sales expectations are much lower. It’s for this very reason we often find backlist design neglected; but we are missing a trick.

Last year I had the opportunity to present to the AAA (Association of Authors’ Agents) and I chose designing for backlist for a couple of reasons; I had recently finished creating my series for Lionel Shriver (so it was fresh in my mind) and it’s an area of publishing that few people talk about. In the presentation I split the kinds of backlist into these distinct groups: The Refresh, Front to Back and The New Front List.

‘The Refresh’ is often the most simple. All that’s required is a bit of a tidy up and uniformity; you take covers from the authors’ list – many different in look and style from one to the next – and create a unified look using a combination of new typographic styling, colour tone etc and try to create something that feels new. Here’s an example:

From my experience, ‘Front to Back’ is the most common. There comes a time when an authors ‘brand’ needs a whole new look, whether due to sales or just to stand out against emulating competitors, which often goes hand-in-hand with rejuvenating the backlist too. Basically, the style and layout for the new front list title is used to adapt those that came before it – it’s a great marketing tool as each promotes the other. However, it’s important to think ahead as a concept that works well for one book (namely the front list) can become diluted after its twelfth use, losing what made it unique in the first place.

Then there’s the opportunity to create something entirely new. Especially in the case of books from estates, such as Little, Brown’s new Daphne Du Maurier and HarperCollins’ new Edmund Crispin covers, they can be reborn as ‘The New Front List’. This route is often more creative, the designer can commission different illustrators and typographers asking them all to create something covetable – backlist titles aren’t expected to become number one bestsellers, though it shouldn’t stop you from trying.

As well as the above, there is an important and often overlooked aspect of backlist design: they almost always remain spine-out. Which is unfortunate, but there is so much we can do to make them stand out even when tucked away on a shelf. Both ‘The Refresh’ and ‘The New Front List’ offer the ideal chance to do this (‘Back to Front’ will use the front list styling)

Take Stephen King’s extensive library as an example, each has the same design-style but a decision was made to take each of his 50 plus titles and put them into a series of sets, each with their own theme (chillers, iconic etc) and colour. When found on shelves with the dark tones of Horror, they stand out incredibly well.

I think the process for designing a backlist is just as important, if not more so, than front list. These books tend to exist only online and as ebooks, so creating a covetable, physical book for the world to find can give an old book a new lease of life (even when spine-out). It can promote and boost sales of new novels and, most importantly, show your author or estate that you have confidence in them and their legacy.


Daphne Du Maurier covers: art directed by Nico Taylor, illustrated by Neil Gower (Jamaica Inn, Frenchman’s Creek) and Jordan Metcalf (Rebecca)

Edmund Crispin covers: designed by Ben Gardiner

Stuart Bache is art director at Oneworld