"Why do publishers add 'A Novel' to the titles of novels?": A Question.
October 16, 2008 1:41 PM   Subscribe

Why do publishers slap on "A Novel" to the titles and/or covers of, well, novels?

A few examples:21 out of 56 books (nearly all of those 56 are novels, as far as I can tell) on the current NYT Fiction Best Sellers lists also have "A Novel" in their titles or on their covers. And that's by no means an exhaustive list.

I can understand the point of putting "A [Name-of-Series, Name-of-Continuing-Character, or Name-of-Universe] Novel" on books. Readers can then easily identify a Discworld, James Bond, Dragonlance, or what-have-you book.

Since booksellers now have defined sections, a novel in the Fiction section isn't likely to be mistaken for an autiobiography. Anthologies and collections of short stories are relatively easily identifiable by their tables of contents, credited editors, or descriptions. Poetry is usually off in its own sub-section. Which leaves the novel as the bulk of the Fiction section.

So why the generic "A Novel"?
posted by CKmtl to Writing & Language (22 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
It really is just to distinguish it from a collection of stories or essays or some other genre. I have sat in meetings where marketing and editorial people have discussed this very issue and it ends up being a marketing decision. Also, it's just a tradition.
posted by mattbucher at 1:51 PM on October 16, 2008

Also, you are giving the typical book buyer a lot more credit than a publisher's marketing department does. They don't assume a buyer does more than glance at the cover for a second or two.
posted by mattbucher at 1:53 PM on October 16, 2008

An affectation. It's faux-artsy. By saying Noun: A Novel, you're saying Noun: a Novel Which Doesn't Come From One Of Those Other Sections. You know, a 'genre.' No, there's no pulp here, this is a real book—a book which your classmates from Yale won't laugh at you for reading. It is a NOVEL. It helps them sell to the coffee shop set.
posted by sonic meat machine at 1:54 PM on October 16, 2008 [15 favorites]

Because many people don't buy books in bookstores? When you're browsing online and the bestsellers and "books you might like" and whatnot are all jumbled up together, it's extremely difficult to tell from the cover and title what kind of book you're about to click on. People want as much information as possible into the title that will tell them, "this is the sort of book you were looking for." Having the genre in the subtitle is a way to lure in readers who are looking for books of that genre, but who might otherwise be confused.
posted by decathecting at 1:56 PM on October 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think it's supposed to imply "OF SOME LITERARY MERIT" in that straight-up genre fiction often lacks the A NOVEL. That is, a book with an A NOVEL on it, and especially genre fiction with an A NOVEL, claims more literariness of some sort than a book with just a brass-bikinied woman glowering at an exploding spaceship.

It annoys the hell out of me. What, do they believe that I'd think that Anathem was actually a dildo if they didn't tell me it was a novel, so they should politely warn me against pleasuring myself with it? That I'd wonder whether American Gods was a novel or a recently-killed wombat if not for their information?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:56 PM on October 16, 2008 [3 favorites]

21 out of 56 books (nearly all of those 56 are novels, as far as I can tell)

Presumably, you could distinguish which ones were novels much easier when they had the words "A Novel" written on the front?
posted by afx237vi at 1:59 PM on October 16, 2008 [4 favorites]

So that you don't think it's a book about white tigers, or American religion, or an island in Florida.

As far as them being separated in the booksellers, I figure most books bought after browsing are bought off the tables, not the shelves. And the differentiation there between fiction and non-fiction is very understated.
posted by smackfu at 2:21 PM on October 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

I work at the house that published two of the books you reference. This is called a reading line, and is used to identify a novel as not also being part of a genre fiction, as suggested above.

It's not so much a publisher's decision--the big chains request it, so we do it.
posted by purplecurlygirl at 2:25 PM on October 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

I couldn't find it on amazon, but when I was a bookseller, we got in a title, "Look: A Book."

I don't remember the author.
posted by cjorgensen at 2:26 PM on October 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

Presumably, you could distinguish which ones were novels much easier when they had the words "A Novel" written on the front?

Exactly. Admittedly, my book browsing is a lot different from most people's, probably. I often find myself browsing shelves of totally uncategorized books. But it's happened enough times for me to notice that I'll see a book's title and pick it up, thinking it'd be a non-fiction topic that interests me, and then see that it's actually a novel.
posted by lampoil at 2:43 PM on October 16, 2008

"A Novel" usually seems to indicate the snooty, More Literary Than Thou books.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:50 PM on October 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think it's done when the title doesn't make it clear that it's fiction.

e.g. "American Gods" could be a title for a textbook on theology or the sociology of religion, "The White Tiger" could be a field study of animals, and the publisher probably figures people don't know what to make of Anathem or Duma Key
posted by winston at 2:59 PM on October 16, 2008

Presumably, you could distinguish which ones were novels much easier when they had the words "A Novel" written on the front?

I see what you did there. Actually, I'd originally written "all of those 56 are novels". Then reconsidered on the off chance that a one or two weren't, which could have prompted someone to jump in with "These two aren't! Nyah!" I see your point, though.

I guess the root of the annoyance* is that I assume that books in the Fiction section are novels unless otherwise indicated, and that this isn't an assumption that the marketing types expect of a Typical Buyer. So it seems as odd as putting, say, "Peaches: A Canned Fruit" on a can of peaches in the canned fruit section of the canned goods aisle.

*Which ROU_Xenophobe captures pretty much perfectly.
posted by CKmtl at 3:49 PM on October 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's not always easy to tell the difference between a memoir and a novel. If you're in a store with a clearly delineated fiction section, okay, it's redundant. But is it really hurting you?
posted by rikschell at 4:58 PM on October 16, 2008

But is it really hurting you?

Yes. Yes, it is. IT HURTS ME IN MY HEART.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:00 PM on October 16, 2008 [4 favorites]

I incline toward the slight cachet of the term being the fundamental reason. Of course, I understand more and more people buy books online, without the benefit of being able to pick them up and leaf through them; when you let someone else categorize a book, you are at the mercy of what they think it might be*. If "A Novel" is part of the title, your chances of finding the right book increase greatly, both in what you are browsing for and in the bookseller being able to categorize it right. I am sure without the subtitle, Special Topics in Calamity Physics: A Novel would wind up in the hands of a lot more baffled science grad students.

* My hometown library persists in shelving A Clockwork Orange in the humour section. Ha ha.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:47 PM on October 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

But is it really hurting you?

Aside from the knee-jerk annoyance, it doesn't hurt me in any real way. No more than cover design "hurts" me. Neither are absolute deal breakers for me.

That being said... If I were presented with two versions of a book (or two online store entries), one with and one without that reading line, I'd probably buy the one without. Just as I might prefer to buy the UK edition, if it were available, because it has a nicer cover.
posted by CKmtl at 6:47 PM on October 16, 2008

I dunno if it's the intention of the publisher or author, but I've had my eye caught by an interesting book cover sitting on a "New books" shelf at the megabookstores, and noticing the "A Novel" bit, which saves me the effort of picking up the book, since I'm not a novel reader. So I suppose the opposite has happened, thus encouraging people to pick up such books.

And then there's the other kind of opposite, where a book cover might look like that of a novel, when it's really a non-fiction work. But there are a lot of other things you can add to the title other than "A Work of Non-Fiction" (eg: "On the Green: The All-Time Kick-Ass Posts of Ask Metafilter" wouldn't be confused for a novel)

I tend to agree with the idea of the "faux-artsiness" of it. It's sort of like art pieces in exhibits that are entitled "Untitled." I suppose it at once legitimitizes it as "art," and separates it from all those other pedestrian pieces that actually have titles (scoff). (Although in this case I could just be overly cynical, and those poor artists honestly couldn't think of a title they liked...)
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 1:13 AM on October 17, 2008

Did A Short History of Tractors In Ukrainian do this? If not, it probably should have done. It had an ambiguous title and was suitably "book clubby."
posted by the latin mouse at 8:15 AM on October 17, 2008

It did in the US, Canada and Germany, the_latin_mouse, but not in the UK and France .
posted by Kattullus at 2:48 PM on October 17, 2008

Kattullus: Check the UK one again, it's hidden on the body of the tractor. Sneaky, that.
posted by CKmtl at 3:23 PM on October 17, 2008

So it is! I guess it just shows that the French are the most serious/pretentious (delete according to taste)
posted by Kattullus at 5:44 PM on October 17, 2008

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