“Booksellers Against Trick Spines” was originally an April Fool’s gag, but the problem of trick spines might have some basis in reality. A trick spine is the name someone has given to book spines which don’t look anything like the front cover of the book. Brilliant Books gives a few examples. Some of these spines are indeed starkly different from the front cover art: One Long River Song has a yellow spine but hardly any yellow on the blue front; The Body Keeps Score ditto, with orange instead of yellow. One can see how this might make a spine-out book difficult to locate on the shelf: the memory of the book you have internalized is the front cover.

Well of course this is by no means cause for major concern, but I do think “good” design would tend to call for some relationship between the various panels making up a cover. After all a good design should stick in the mind, and become integrated with the overall idea of the book in question, facilitating picking it out in a crowd. Given that in most bookstore crowds the only bit of the book that’s going to be seen is the spine, that should argue for a bit of primacy being given to that portion of the design. And I don’t mean by this those annoying little boxed duplicates of the illustration on the front cover which became such a fashionable trick a few years back. I think the design of the whole cover should be one integrated whole.

The original joke, picked up in a Shelf Awareness update on recent April 1 “initiatives”, includes this logo for the supposed organization dedicated to countering the plague.

While booksellers driven batty by this problem might solve the issue by training and alphabetical ordering, perhaps we should also bear in mind the needs of the home library user with the seeker desperately trying to locate that blue cover while all that’s exposed to view is a yellow or orange strip. Almost makes you want to settle for a boring alphabetical arrangement for your books. I keep mine in serendipity-inducing randomness — constant inspection is needed to keep fixed in your mind where any individual book is to be found.

Might the trick spine be a problem, real or imaginary, which finds its origins in the increasing importance of online bookselling? All the design attention nowadays gets focussed on the need for a striking front cover, one which will be readily identifiable when reduced to the thumbnail size we are likely to encounter online, so that the spine and the back cover almost become afterthoughts.