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On The Usage Of ‘A Novel’ On Book Covers

A photo of four books with 'a novel' on the cover

This topic was inspired by Violet, who questioned the need for such a phrase when I was reading Julie And Romeo (the cover of that book doesn’t say ‘a novel’ but the GoodReads title does). The question made me remember the times I’ve wondered the same.

My main thought, which I assume are the same as other readers, is that the usage stems from the publisher or author wanting people to know that the book isn’t non-fiction, to clarify what the contents will be. But then it’s generally obvious whether or not a book is ‘real’ or not – in fact it’s often books that don’t bare a distinction that are less obvious. It is also often books with a complex or nondescript title that include the phrase, for example it’s evident ‘Julie And Romeo’ is a play on Shakespeare’s work but it isn’t unheard of for real people to find themselves in such a situation. And, looking at the photograph above, some of those books might be mistaken for non-fiction if you didn’t read their blurbs. Thus a distinction is needed.

So, okay, that could be the reason. But somehow there is still that element of discrimination – in a way it seems the phrase implies the inferiority of fiction, as though the publisher is saying “This book!… oh, sorry, it’s not real life”.

You do have non-fiction books that state ‘the true story of…’ but in that case there’s the sense that that’s there to let people know it’s the truth, the real evidence as opposed to non-fiction that might be biased or not detailed enough.

Of course there is the possibility that it could be to confirm it’s fiction for those who don’t wish to read non-fiction. I admit this is a hunch, but there is that divide. Or, on the other side of the equation, and to bring in a conversation I had the misfortune to participate in, some people think they have enough stories in their own life to warrant fiction worthless.

Numerous other reasons could be found. This topic could be inexhaustible, and I doubt that without the input of someone in the know the true reason could be known.

What are your thoughts about ‘a novel’?


Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness)

May 6, 2013, 2:16 am

I always think adding “A Novel” sounds a little pretentious, like whoever decides that wants to make sure you know that this is Literature with a capital L and not just a story.


May 6, 2013, 2:34 am

Great topic Charlie! I’ve always felt a bit like Kim above. Like adding “A Novel” is a lah dee dah way of saying that this is a IMPORTANT WORK OF LITERATURE ;)

Jo @ Booklover Book Reviews

May 6, 2013, 11:55 am

I’m not a huge fan of the practice, perhaps simply because it does seem to be in vogue at the moment…

Laurie C

May 6, 2013, 12:09 pm

So funny! I just read recently that library catalogers are going to stop putting “a novel” in the catalog record, and I was sad. I love to see the words “A Novel” on the book cover. The two books beside me right now on the couch have similar looking cover designs (red, black, and gray theme) but one says “A Memoir” and the other says “A Novel”. So you know at a glance! If it says “A Mystery”, you know the author intends it to be part of the crime fiction genre. I’ll be sad to see this long tradition end!


May 6, 2013, 3:19 pm

I’ve honestly never noticed this before, so I don’t think it can bother me much.

It sounds rather elegant, rather than just putting ‘by’.

I think it is a useful distinction if the topic or title could easily be construed as non-fiction. There are always people who love to complain and I am sure they would if they felt ‘duped’ into reading fiction or were silly enough to assume the fiction they were reading was non-fiction.


May 6, 2013, 3:56 pm

You know, I’ve noticed the appelation A NOVEL, but I never really gave a second thought as to what it meant. I guess it is there to help distinguish it from non-fiction, although, I don’t think I would ever see a title like ROMEO & JULIET and think it was about real people. :D


May 6, 2013, 5:09 pm

I’ve often seen this on book covers but have never given it any thought. I think there might be some cases where adding those words can help prevent confusion – for example, there’s a historical fiction novel by Edward Rutherfurd called “New York: A Novel” which I suppose might otherwise have been mistaken for a travel guide or a history book. With most books, though, it’s probably not really necessary. I think I would have assumed that “Julie and Romeo” was fiction anyway, whether the words ‘a novel’ were mentioned or not!


May 6, 2013, 7:33 pm

I find it rather unnecessary. It’s hardly ever that I wonder if something is a novel or not.


May 6, 2013, 8:52 pm

Interesting question! I never really considered it before. Honestly, when I read that on a book cover, I feel like it’s implying a certain level of “seriousness” in the subject matter. For example, I don’t recall seeing it on any YA or comedic novels. Perhaps that’s just me?


May 6, 2013, 10:06 pm

I recently read a book which had A Novel on it and I wonder why. It seemed rather superfluous to me at the time. Now you mention it though I suppose it could help distinguish between fiction and non-fiction at a glance.

Rebecca @ Love at First Book

May 6, 2013, 11:07 pm

Honestly, I never know why they say “a novel.” It confuses me, like as opposed to what else that you wrote? I get that they want to differentiate b/w fiction and nonfiction, but I still am not sure why it happens.


May 7, 2013, 5:21 pm

All I have to say is that in Spanish editions they don’t write “a novel” in the cover. All I can think is about publishing houses that have books of fiction and non-fiction and they have decided to put “a novel” for the fiction ones, but I really don’t know what to think about it since I have never seen in here.


May 7, 2013, 5:22 pm

I could me more acceptable if they would write for example “a mystery novel” or something about the genre, but “a novel”, at least in Spanish, sounds weird, like it needs more explanation.

Jenny @Jenny’s Books

May 9, 2013, 2:22 am

I am strongly against it. I never like it when it shows up on books, and I always feel the book would have been fine without the weird pointless subtitle.


May 9, 2013, 8:49 pm

This makes me want to pull my books off the shelf to see if I can make any distinction!! I have noticed the use but I haven’t thought much about it. I’m not even sure I agree that it might be used to distinguish Literature with a capital L. I don’t think it’s meant to be superior or exclusionary though. Interesting thoughts!


May 15, 2013, 7:34 pm

Whenever I have seen it, it has I think always been in the case of a book having a title that would otherwise be identical to that of another book. So my take is that it is to distinguish it, not from nonfiction, but from another work of fiction with the same name.


June 13, 2013, 4:05 pm

Kim: This. I can’t help but think this myself, even if it’s not true. That’s how it comes across to me.

Jennifer: Indeed.

Jo: Good point, it is used so much, it might look better if it was less often.

Laurie: I can understand that decision, it’s not strictly the title of a book if it’s used so often, and it must take up space sometimes. True, it can be helpful if there are those differences, though I think “a memoir” and so on are a lot rarer.

Alice: Yes, that’s very true. Making it as obvious as possible does make sense.

Heather: It would be difficult to believe it was about real people. That said there are some interesting names chosen nowadays…

Helen: Something like ‘New York’ would definitely benefit from it, even if in the fiction section (at face value you might think it’d been put on the wrong shelf). I did wonder if this case is so people don’t think it’s Shakespeare. I don’t know, especially as you’d expect people looking for Shakespeare to know enough to be able to tell easily.

Judith: Exactly. And you’d expect non readers to have a fair idea as well.

Kelly: Yes, maybe. I suppose for me it makes it seem less serious (as Kim said ‘pretentious’ though I could agree to the thought behind it being to imply seriousness. That said, this particular book isn’t serious, but many with ‘a novel’ are.

Jessica: Yes both to superfluousness and telling non-fiction and fiction apart.

Rebecca: Yes, as opposed to your other book which may also have been fiction? Very good point.

Isi: Interesting that it’s not used in Spain. I wonder if it’s an English thing? Hmm… maybe if ‘a novel’ is too general in Spanish that makes sense, but then if you don’t have other ways to differentiate in Spain it does back up the idea that it’s unnecessary here, too.

Jenny: I have to say I feel it sometimes spoils the cover.

Trish: That is exactly what I did. I actually chose the books for the photograph that could be considered harder to tell apart from non-fiction (title-wise), though the pictures and blurbs make it obvious. I couldn’t find the answer online, maybe I searched for the wrong phrase, so at that moment thoughts it is.

Rhapsody: Yes, that’s another option, though I have to wonder if it would work, especially if the other work was fiction also.



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