A little about branding book spines for DIY Indie Authors

Thoughts on Entertainment, Writing

As an indie author on a shoestring budget, you may be wondering how you can make your print books look like they belong on your readers’ shelves next to the “big boy” books published with gobs of money and professional art departments behind them.

Using my Visual Arts BA powers and some slightly blurry photos of our booka nd DVD shelves, I thought I’d try to explain some of the elements of good spine branding. Spinal branding? Ouch. Sounds painful.

Let’s get started.

Spines of the AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER DVD boxed sets

AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER (Asian-influenced animated series)

Here’s the three-volume set of the marvelous fantasy cartoon series Avatar: The Last Airbender.

At the very top we have the logotype for the series itself, which any fan recognizes from the show’s intro sequence. But even if you’ve never seen the show, there’s a lotta info packed into that itty bitty logo: first, the Nickelodeon logo (in its signature orange) lets you know the station its from…and all that that implies (animation, kid-friendly, playful, positive energy).

Next, pictograms from an oriental language emphasize the cultural flavor of the series. But since it’s largely unreadable to US audiences (where these DVDs were being sold), the actual English name of the show is done up in lettering that echoes the brush and ink writing of the pictograms.

Awesome. And that’s just in the top inch or two of the packaging.

The positioning of the logo is exactly the same on all three volumes.

Further on down, we have more quasi-brush fantasy typography that shows us which volume we’re picking up. Same positioning, same typeface on all three, but different colors—volume 1 has a slight black cast shadow to help with legibility against the light-colored mountains, while volumes 2 and 3 have a little white to help them pop against their darker colors.

Further on down: fantasy glyphs seen in-series stand for the names of the volumes—Book One is “Water”; Two, “Earth”; Three, “Fire”. More elements that reflect the genre and cultural flavor of the series. Plus they just look pretty.

Beneath, Nickelodeon packagers decided to put an orange and white “nick DVD” icon on there—but for some reason left it off the third vid. But it’s not too jarring because they were small elements in the first place.

At the bottom, we’ve got closed captioning icons, a number of some sort, and the Paramount logo (which would be similar to putting your publishing house’s logo there, if you had one). All very small because they’re not as important to the consumer.

So for branding this series, positioning and unified typography (fonts) make them look like part of a set, while color doesn’t matter as much, as long as the written info is legible.

So let’s list some Strong Branding (not Strong Badding) traits here:

  • Positioning
  • Consistent type
  • Elements expressing genre and emotional flavor of product
  • Color

OK, now let’s look at a series that’s not so well-packaged.

Spines of THE VENTURE BROS. DVD boxed sets

THE VENTURE BROS. (Adult Swim animated series parodying Johnny Quest)

My husband’s Venture Bros. collection. Not a box set, but still the same late-night comedy animation series for grown ups.

Just by scanning from the top, we see weaker branding: the positioning is all over the place. None use a consistent typeface (though each individual season has its own flavor, so that’s nice) or color.

Now, lest you think branding is all about getting that consistent X-Y position on your graphics, let’s look at two sets that are stronger than The Venture Bros’ packaging.

DVD spines of a few seasons of BURN NOTICE

BURN NOTICE (slick USA Network spy dramedy where Bruce Campbell steals every scene)

From the top: subtle 20th Century Fox logo (again, not as important to the consumer), a pic (or not, or written info about the contents) and then the Burn Notice logo.

A couple of them have a gradient look, two have flat color (though they can’t decide whether BURN or NOTICE should be red-orange)—but it still clearly ID’s each DVd as the same series.

After, we have the season info (in about the same sans-serif typeface, give or take), plus either nothing or a tiny image (like those ‘90’s Dinsey VHS types back in the day). At the very bottom, DVD logo tells the consumer what format they’re buying.

All of the background colors are different.

An informative exercise might be to draw thumbnails or Photoshop roughs of how you might make these three to four DVDs look more like they belong together.

Here’s another pair that aren’t necessarily an official set, but still look right together.



HOT FUZZ (cop comedy) and SHAUN OF THE DEAD (horror comedy), AKA 2 of the 3 Simon Pegg movies

My husband loves these comedies. Even though they’re not a boxed set, some packager got it in their heads that Pegg fans might want them to look nice together, hence a lot of unity. From the top:

  • Studio name
  • Light-colored line
  • Pic of Pegg
  • Title in chunky sans-serifs, but individually crafted to reflect genre
  • A second pic (or nothing)
  • Universal Logo
  • Number
  • DVD format

And both color reds are very close.

They look nice together. Super!

Finally, in case all this looks too fancy, here’s about as simple as branding gets:

Spines of the MAGNUM, PI DVD Boxed set

MAGNUM, P.I., the best comedy-mystery series ever set in Hawai’i

Break it down!

  • The Universal Logo
  • Pics of Tom Selleck (because if you can legitimately use a photo of Tom Selleck toh elp sell your product, you’re NOT gonna leave it off!)
  • The title
  • The season

And that’s it.

You don’t even have to gradient the title. No fancy colors. Same positioning. Same typefaces. It just works.

In sum, here are the elements and hierarchies I see as being the most important things in book/series spine design:

  • Consistent Typography
  • Positioning
  • Packaging expresses genre/flavor/mood of contents
  • Color

And, for you authors, maybe add in “Publisher’s Logo” in there near the bottom.

Here are some more picks from my bookshelves with a little commentary to give you some more ideas.

Book spines for the CARDCAPTOR SAKURA manga

CARDCAPTOR SAKURA, a Japanese fantasy comic for girls.

The numbers at the top tell you the volume. Colors behind the type keep it clear despite lovely differing pops of color.

Book spines for the W.I.T.C.H. comic series

Book spines for W.I.T.C.H., an Italian fantasy comic for girls (German language edition).

Similar to CARDCAPTOR SAKURA, spine branding principles apply even in a foreign language. (Weak color contrast in #1 and 8, though. Don’t do that!) Color matters less than type and positioning.

DVD spines for Jessica Smith's WALK ON workout DVDs

Spines of three of Jessica Smith’s WALK ON workout DVDs

Workout DVDs from one of my favorite YouTube instructors! Each DVD looks great individually, but you can’t really tell they’re all part of her “Walk On” series. I’d probably pick the middle or left design to emulate over an entire series.

Spines for SUPERNATURAL seasons 1-4

SUPERNATURAL (dark fantasy TV series)

Hits of color with the black. The pics focus on the stars.

DVD spines for all three seasons of FATHER TED

FATHER TED, British sitcom

FATHER TED—More star focus—a different character per season. RIP Dermot Morgan! 🙁

DVD spines for both FATHER TED and RED DWARF

FATHER TED and RED DWARF (British sci-fi sitcom)

The BBC’s branding game is strong…just look at the black and white BBC logos at the very tops of these DVDs. No reason your publishing house can’t do something like this.

Book spines for ARTEMIS FOWL - two German editions and 5 US editions

Middle-grade science-fantasy series ARTEMIS FOWL. Two German editions to the left.

Do you prefer the German editions, or the US? Which do you think captures the books’ genre better? What might you emulate for your own spine designs?

Book spines for four of William Sleator's books

Four YA science-fiction books by writer William Sleator (RIP)

Three of these were bought around the same time, but HOUSE OF STAIRS sticks out like a sore thumb. (These are incredible sci-fi stories, btw). I prefer the old old style covers from my school library, but I’ll confess the new releases do look all right together.

Spines for Bruce Coville's BOOK OF... series

Bruce Coville’s BOOK OF series (middle-school sci-fi/fantasy)

Part of my prized Bruce Coville collection. No idea why SPINE TINGLERS II is orange, but it makes you sit up and take notice, eh? Typography glues these together.

Book spines for two of Bruce Coville's alien series

To the left: Bruce Coville’s MY TEACHER IS AN ALIEN series. To the right: his ROD ALLBRIGHT ALIEN ADVENTURES series

More Bruce Coville. (Whoops, JENNIFER MURDLEY’S TOAD should be over with the other Magic Shop books.)

On the left: MY TEACHER IS AN ALIEN series (like, the 90’s covers). You can see them strengthening the brand (GLOWS, FLUNKED have different text effects) as they go along. Ditto the ROD ALLBRIGHT ALIEN ADVENTURES (starting with ALIENS ATE MY HOMEWORK).

Spines for Bruce Coville's MAGIC SHOP series (and also a couple from I WAS A SIXTH GRADE ALIEN)

To the left: book spines for the MAGIC SHOP series (bought across the years). To the right: two of the I WAS A SIXTH GRADE ALIEN series

The last set of Bruce Coville: The MAGIC SHOP books. Bought at a variety of times, so you see little unity—but the current set all look like JULIET DOVE, very classy!

Also check out my very incomplete set of I WAS A SIXTH GRADE ALIEN—PEANUT BUTTER LOVER BOY has the series name in an actual logotype, but the original’s no slouch, with the author’s name in a specific typeface, and a picture in the same spot…Strong setup!

DVD spines for three PEANUTS holiday specials

A three-piece DVD set of PEANUTS holiday specials

Snoopy vids—smash or pass? You tell me in the comments below! (Yes, Virginia, there is a CHRISTMAS DRAGON!)

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