Refusing the genre reveal
I have a strong memory of being in grad school, and my (illustrious, MacArthur-winning) PhD advisor talking to us about the then-new (?) trend of putting “A Novel” on the cover of novels. We were discussing theories of the novel, and genre, and the history of form, and, well, post-structuralism was still cool, so there was much to analyze with this whole stamping of the genre on the front of an example on that genre. We laughed at the absurdity —hahahahaha.
A few weeks ago, when David Wilson and I were discussing the cover design for Belt’s first novel, publishing in 2022, David asked if we were putting “A Novel” on it. Now, this question was in some respects surprising, as David has never asked me if we should put “Non-Fiction” (aka “Not a Novel”) or “A Memoir” or “A Researched Argument” on any of our other covers. But he clearly knew that these days, most novels scream their genre to potential readers. I was quick to respond: “No! I hate that convention of adding ‘A Novel’ to covers!” Then, when we looped the author, Aaron Foley, into our cover design discussions, he saw a few mock-ups and asked, “Should we add ‘A Novel’ to it?” Because he also, despite having published two other books with us that did not state their category on the cover, knew that novels must say “A Novel.”
Last week, I participated in the pre-sales meeting for our Spring 2022 titles. Pre-sales meetings are when publishers ‘present’ their forthcoming books to a panel of people who work for our distributor and who are in charge of various accounts: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, ‘the field,’ (independent bookstores), Baker & Taylor, and Ingram. Our distributor is PGW, and we have been with them for three years, and I am still learning the conventions of the pre-sales meetings (as well as the subsequent sales meetings, when we re-present the titles, this time for regional reps from indie bookstores). It took me ages—and I still forget during each meeting, and am temporarily taken aback—to learn that part of what happens in these meetings is reps suggest things we should change. Common recommendations involve lowering prices, switching from paperback to hardback or vice versa, adding more metadata to the info we load into the database they use to look at our catalog (always add more metadata!), getting more or better blurbs (or, in our case, any blurbs at all, as we are shifting away from them), and changing our comps (‘too old’ is common). They also recommend pretty extensive changes sometimes: change the title, change the cover. Those do still startle me, and I vacillate between going back to the staff and author and telling them we need to make some pretty major changes and simply nodding at the advice and then thinking to myself, “nope.” If you have read this far into this paragraph you can probably now guess that a comment that was made at the last pre-sales meeting was “You need to add ‘A Novel’ to the cover of your novel.” I think it wasn’t even a suggestion; it was more like catching us in a mistake: we forgot the ‘A Novel.” (Many new memoirs also add ‘A Memoir’ to the cover but sales reps have never asked us to add ‘A Memoir’ to our covers).
Still not going to do it! Our novel will go into the world without a genre reveal! (Yes, I AM very proud of that phrase). Ou novel will go forth into the world as our not-a-novels do, naked and undefined by arbitrary formal conventions! People might just guess that are genre fluid! (ok I’ll stop). The only retort I can imagine is “people need to know it’s a novel when they are browsing” and to that I say: “booksellers almost always do their own categorizing? like putting a label like “FICTION” on shelves? Also, gajillions of books are sold online and all the sites include genres in their metadata (metadata!)”
I have not done the research on “when did putting ‘A Novel’ on covers of novels become a thing, and why?” but in my muddled head it was the mid-90s, when I was in grad school discussing genre theory, and laughing at it—hahahahaha. Maybe then, during the Borders Era, stockers needed the labels to know where to shelve the new releases? I dunno! They certainly did not also start adding genre stamps to all books; only fiction it seems. Why were/are novels special, harder for browsers to conceptualize upon seeing their covers? And now that we are here, why not “A Fiction” so we can put short stories into the mix? Or were people in the 90s buying novels thinking they were short stories and feeling ripped off then they realized they only got one long story? The 90s were a weird time!
If you know more, or if you have another reason why our novel should have A Novel, please get in touch!
In other news—well, there is a lot of publishing news, isn’t there! I’m reading it all and making mental notes towards a future newsletter on some of it (and in news about newsletters and publishing that also mentions this newsletter on publishing, see this story in Fortune about Substack. It’s really good.) Also, thanks to all who took me up on my free book to new subscribers option.
Thanks for reading Notes from a Small Press! If you subscribe and send me your address, I’ll send you a free copy of So You Want to Publish a Book?, the book based on this newsletter. It does not state its genre on the cover.