Book covers always use the expression “A novel” for works of fiction.


As you walk around your neighborhood bookstore or browse through Amazon’s fiction section, your eyes may scan the words “A Novel” on many covers. “The bedroom of Mars: a novel, “Little Fires Everywhere: a novel, “Purity: a novel. “

“Duh,” you might be thinking, although it’s possible that the phrase doesn’t cause more than a slight blip on your radar, too small to register as a thought. As a book marketing convention, “A Novel” is so mainstream that it hardly seems worth commenting on. When I first started emailing people in the book publishing world to see if they could tell me why this tradition exists, I received several responses like, “I’m not sure. have much to say ”.

I’m not the only one pursue the question. When a book is in the fiction aisle or carefully labeled as such online, does it really need to advertise itself as a novel? The answer to this question is simple: We don’t always come across books within the well-organized confines of a library, bookstore, or ecommerce algorithm. “A Novel” is not a subtitle but the reading line on a book cover, which explains its contents to a potential reader and serves as a useful cue when browsing through a stack of unsorted books. In theory, it helps marketers sell books, immediately bringing their content to the fore. This reflection appears to be particularly widespread in the American market. When a book crosses the Atlantic from the UK, “A Novel” is often added to its cover, as with the american edition from “Normal People” by Sally Rooney; the original version does not have this distinction.

The US cover of Sally Rooney’s “Normal People” includes the “A Novel” reading line.

British takeover of

UK coverage does not.
Faber & Faber

Fortunately, “A Novel” doesn’t exist just for practical and boring reasons like this.

Books have used the “XYZ: A Novel” format since the 17th century, when realistic fiction began to gain popularity. The term “novel” was a way of distinguishing these more down-to-earth stories from the whimsical “romances” that came before them, says Steven Moore, author of “The novel: an alternative story.Then, like today, it was a label that identified the kind of literature you were getting into.

And Michael Schmidt, who wrote “The novel: a biography”Suggests this: Because so many 17th and 18th century novels adhered to historical truth in context, labeling them as novels made it clear that they were in fact works of fiction and not actual narratives.

Explicitly labeling experimental works like “Pale Fire” as novels helped broaden notions of what the novel might be.
Bauman rare books

At the start of the 20th century, with the rise of modernism in literature, the reading line began to serve a new purpose. As the genre became more and more experimental, publishers put “A Novel” on book covers to reassure people that they were approaching something familiar, while simultaneously broadening the definition of what could be a. novel. “Pale Fire” may have been a mixture of poetry, commentary and prose, but its first edition, in 1962, still carried the slogan “A new novel by Vladimir Nabokov.

“It was a way of telling readers that the novel was more than a realistic story – it could be something experimental,” says Moore. “It indicated that the novel was a growing genre.”

This use case persisted. Moore remembers putting the words “A Novel” on book covers when he was working at a small newspaper in the 1990s that published “a lot of experimental and weird stuff.”

“We’ve been careful to use the ‘A Novel’ tag to show that the novel is an expansive thing. There’s always a smart idiot who says, ‘This isn’t a novel,’ like the novel is narrowly defined, ‘he says.

As much as “A Novel” can be used to broaden the horizons of the genre, today it is used to create a hierarchy, to place a work of fiction on a higher ground than its peers. Norah Piehl, executive director of the Boston Book Festival, noted that it is often applied to novels “with some pretension to literature.” These are not romance novels or thrillers that you pick up at the airport and have the covers styled in such a way that they never get mistaken for anything else. These are books with abstract titles and beautifully spared covers that aim to win awards, which are reviewed by the New York Times Book Review, which bequeath to their readers the cultural capital to be able to say “Have you read …?” “

In the case of Anissa Gray’s 2019 release, “A Novel” takes on a playful tone.

Piehl counted the numbers and told me that at the Boston Book Festival 2018, 35 of the 50 works presented that would be classified as a novel had this reading line. If we exclude romance novels and thrillers, none of which says “A Novel” on the cover, the proportion rose to over 80%.

Usually adorning a new work of fiction with the subtitle ‘A Novel’ is a vaguely pretentious flourish, a way for writers to present themselves in the company of 19th century masters who regularly released new works with this semi-redundant act. of gender specification, ”begins Chris Lehmann’s Washington Post review from “The Fabulist: A Novel” by Stephen Glass.

When it is not a question of saying what is or is not literature, “A Novel” can serve a real and functional purpose. This is useful when a writer wants to deny that he is writing from life when that is exactly what he is doing, or when a person well known for his non-fiction or criticism switches to fiction. .

“Last year we introduced James Wood, the literary critic, for his novel, and I think in that case it’s helpful for the reader to think, “Oh, this is not a literary criticism work,” Piehl says.

Although often serious, “A Novel” can be used as a nod, like “Novel: A novel, “AJ Perry”Twelve stories from Russia: a novel, I guess, “and Padgett Powell”The interrogative mood: a novel?” Which one is written entirely in questions. Moore said that when he came across “The care and nutrition of hungry girls: a novel“on Amazon, he interpreted the phrase as somewhat mischievous, as if anyone would mistake the book for a how-to guide.

“A lot of people have had fun with the term,” says Moore.

Cover designers often take a playful approach to reading lines as well. For “ExDesigners Claire Williams Martinez and Charlotte Strick handwritten “A Novel” on the cover in such a way that it appears to be dragging behind a car flying skyward. The words are tiny, a witty blooming rather than the meat of the composition. You could easily mistake them for an exhaust plume.

Designers have found clever ways to incorporate “A Novel” into the covers.

Some contemporary designers pervert the hierarchy of information on a book cover by making “A Novel” as big as the title and author’s name, which are more important than the reading line. “Immigrant, Montana, ”Designed by Janet Hansen, has all three in the same color and font; the alternate title “Lover, Bihar” has been crossed out, as has “A Meditation” below “A Novel”. Other designers use the fact that “A Novel” is tertiary information to their advantage, seeing it as an opportunity to use the font in a more inventive way. For “A loving and faithful animal,Strick and Williams Martinez used the same typeface but cut “A Novel” in half, placing it at the top and bottom of the jacket to create a visual loop meant to represent “inherited complexes” in families. You could never do that in the name of an author or in the title of a book.

“Here, ‘A Novel’ was our friend,” says Strick. “It was helpful to have the extra guy.”

For designers and marketers, “A Novel” is a tool that can be used in different ways and for a number of conflicting reasons, as large and diverse as the genre it describes. People might not have much to say about it, but it says a lot.


Comments are closed.