What is the deal with French books? Have you seen these things?
January 4, 2007 10:16 PM   Subscribe

Why are the spines of French paperback books upside down?

You know what I mean. The text is printed in a different direction than it is on US paperbacks (and possibly paperbacks from other countries, as well, but I'm not sure of this.) Or is the U.S. the only one that prints the spine text with the top of the letters parallel to the front cover instead of the back cover? Does the French reversal have anything to do with why the table of contents in French paperbacks is in the back of the book?

This has always bugged me. When shelving my books, I either have to shelve the US ones upside down or the French ones, so the titles are all readable from the same direction.
posted by emelenjr to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Your question prompted me to go to my bookshelf. All my European non-English books have "reversed" spines. This is also true of most (but not all) my Latin American books.

I dont know the answer. But this post discusses it as well and posts some theories.
posted by vacapinta at 10:27 PM on January 4, 2007

This is a European convention (excluding the UK from Europe, as the UK often chooses to); German book spines are printed similarly.

It seems to be convention. North American publishers chose their convention so that the spine is readable when the book is face-up, as it might be when stacked on tables in bookstores.

I speculate that one reason for the alternative is that, if the book is face-up, there's no need to read the spine. So if the book was placed face-down, at least the spine might be readable, depending on the placing of a stack of books on a seller's table.

I have the same problem with my Kafka, Mann and Rilke. Just group your books by language and you'll be fine. :)
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:30 PM on January 4, 2007

Now this is odd! I have Spanish books that dont follow the European convention. And by Spanish I mean the publisher Editorial Seix Barral in Barcelona (books by Donoso and Puig).

But, all my Latin American books (such as a book by Bryce Echenique which is from a publisher in Colombia) follow the European convention.
posted by vacapinta at 10:40 PM on January 4, 2007

And so BP's suggestion of grouping by language would not help in the case of Spanish :)
posted by vacapinta at 10:42 PM on January 4, 2007

Candy wrappers are the same way. American ones you flip along the short axis, European ones, you turn over the long axis.
posted by adipocere at 10:43 PM on January 4, 2007

Books in the Spanish Language section of American bookstores have the writing going "upside-down" as well.
posted by Violet Hour at 10:50 PM on January 4, 2007

I have Spanish books that dont follow the European convention.

Yeah, Spanish books vary by publisher, according to Wikipedia, and the Netherlands and Norway follow the top-down convention also found in the U.S. We were talking about this in the bookstore a few weeks ago and decided that the European way doesn't seem to have any logic behind it.

I do like the image of folks in Europe tilting their heads to the left and folks in the USA tilting theirs to the right to read books on a shelf, though. Seems kind of appropriate.
posted by mediareport at 10:52 PM on January 4, 2007

US books are the ones upside-down.
posted by Memo at 10:56 PM on January 4, 2007

I'm guessing Portuguese books vary by publisher too based on this picture I took in Portugal. As I recall, this means in Spain and Portugal you are swinging your head back and forth as you walk through the store...
posted by vacapinta at 11:02 PM on January 4, 2007

Say you have a set of volumes, say 1-5, like an encyclopedia. With the North American convention, on the shelf you have 1-5 from left to right, and the cover is always pointing right. Take them off the shelf and place them face up on a table, and you have to reverse the order if you want volume 1 on the top.

Flip the spine around and the cover will point left on the shelf, but you can't see the cover, so who cares? Take that stack off the shelf and place it face up on a table.. Voila, volume 1 is on the top!
posted by Chuckles at 11:44 PM on January 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

It's not just books. French DVDs do this as well.
posted by veedubya at 3:54 AM on January 5, 2007

There is a 500 year history to this conundrum. Geography is a big influence and I think most of the logical rationales for each approach have been listed above (although I did note somewhere someone opining that it was a reflection of a country's road rules[!]).

The printing on the spine didn't arise everywhere all at the same time. I'm not sure of the history but say, if the first publisher was in France and chose a spine title direction and other local publishers (of which there were many) copied the convention, it's easy to see how it would end up becoming the country standard.

A visitor from another country probably saw what was happening and for instance went back to UK from France where this new printing technique would have been the subject of the same discussion as we are having here - at which point a different conclusion about the direction was drawn. And again, local publishers would copy the originators and so on.

It seems to me that all the anomalies (ie. outliers in predominantly 'one' or 'the other' countries) are due to publishers having spurned local convention because they thought it sucked or perhaps they were owned/staffed by printers from another country in their early days.

I don't know about anywhere else but some countries of the former Soviet Union ratified this by government standard a few years ago. Oddly, the decree directs that publishers go against the historical local convention. Heh.
posted by peacay at 5:51 AM on January 5, 2007

One advantage of the European convention is that you can read all the titles of a series in their correct order if you put them on the shelf in their proper order (left-to-right, as you would read them), tilt your head sideways to the left and read the titles line after line, while the order is reversed with the American convention which requires a head-tilt to the right.

By the way, most German books follow the European convention as well, but some don't. Since the convention is not even followed by all German books, I just shelve all the books right-side up and ignore the fact that the titles are printed in different directions.
posted by amf at 11:24 AM on January 5, 2007

If the spine type is in italics, then you need to turn your head more than 90 degrees to read it, and it is thus less legible. If it runs up the spine, you need less rotation.

That's the explanation I got when I went into publishing many years ago, and I'm stickin' to it.

Actually, no US book designer would specify italics for a title running from top to bottom on the spine, for just this reason. In my opinion, it's purely a matter of custom.
posted by KRS at 12:54 PM on January 5, 2007

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