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How We Sell Stories: A Brief History of Paratext

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Welcome to the world of paratextual analysis. Paratext is a concept thrown around in English class that sounds fancier than it is. With books, you have the text of a story, and the paratext surrounding the story. Paratext can be the title, the author’s name, cover art, a synopsis, pull quotes from authors, or those little award badges. All that extra information on the inside of the novel like acknowledgments, title pages, author notes, maps, family trees, and dedications are also paratext. Basically, paratext informs readers about the story before they buy the book and creates ambiance around a book while you are reading. 

Whether a book is self-published or traditionally published, the paratext or gift wrap of a story is carefully considered. At the end of the day, bad paratext can misrepresent the genre of a novel and turn readers off. But, you know you have amazing paratext when you sink into a book seamlessly as the wrapping perfectly complements and sells the content. So, now that we are all acquainted, why don’t we crack open the spine of the topic and look into the history?

Paratext: The French Are at it Again

The term paratext was first used by the French literary theorist Gérard Genette. In his Introduction to the Paratext, he explains, “the paratext is for us the means by which a text makes a book of itself and proposes itself as such to its readers, and more generally to the public.” While the term was only coined in the 1980s, paratext has been used to sell books for quite some time.

The Early History of Paratext

To properly understand our relationship with paratext we have to take a look at book history. Before the medieval period, copying text for a wide readership was primarily done in Greece, Rome, and China. Oftentimes, professional copyists hand-copied texts for sale at bookshops or the request of a buyer. 

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With editions copied by hand, things like binding, handwriting, illustrations, marginalia illustrations, and fore-edge paintings brought value to the text. I am particularly fond of medieval marginalia illustrations that truly bring the text to life, and double fore-edge paintings where the page edges of a book contain two distinct paintings invisible to the eye when the book is closed.

In the Western Roman Empire during the 5th century CE, monasteries maintained, copied, and bound a majority of books. In medieval Europe, books were written in the vernacular, so the dialect of the writer was reflected in the text. At the time, an author’s name was not always attached to a story. Interestingly, medieval scribes often placed their names, the date they finished printing, and a brief note at the end of their texts. The signature has now developed into the printer’s colophon or a combination of a publisher’s emblem and the authorship and printing statement.

The Printing Press Is Here

Many point to China in the 6th century CE as the first use of block printing and developing movable type in the 11th century CE. European printing followed long after, in 1440–1450 with Gutenberg’s printing press using movable metal type. The use of the printing press changed paratextual font from a handwriting style to the lettering used in the printing press. In the 1500s the printer was in charge of the printing, editing, and bookselling, although one would still have to go to a bookbinder if they wanted the book to have longevity. 

Printers often used woodcuts to print illustrations, highlighting the content of the books and increasing the value overall. While books no longer had painted images and colorful marginalia, the woodcut illustrations brought a new kind of paratext to stories. Changes made to editions from specific printers drove sales. 

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It’s the 1800s: Paratext for the Masses

In the 1850s, new technology made the mass production of books possible, introducing inexpensive novels bound in paper. During the 1890s and 1900s, many publishing houses were founded and they began to work with authors to produce books. As a result, they began to make choices on paratext that would lead to the highest profits. 

Some publishers started creating collectors’ editions at high prices with high-quality paper and bindings. Of course, more affordable books were produced and sold to the public, but the price still limited some. The dust jackets on hardcover books were now designed and produced by the publisher. It was not until the rise of cheap paperback books in the 1950s that books could be bought on impulse at newspaper stands in Europe and the U.S. 

Paratext and The Internet: We Have Ebooks Now

I’m skipping forward a bit to the 1990s when ebooks began to be sold on personal digital assistants. Unfortunately, the dot-com crash in 2000 brought those to a halt. When Sony released an ereader in 2006 followed by the Amazon Kindle in 2007, ebooks finally became an option for the average reader. Ebooks retain the cover image and any text printed inside the book. Pull quotes and other back-cover content may be moved before or after the text of a novel or may be omitted entirely. Today, a combination of physical and digital book sales is commonplace.

In modern publishing, paratextual design standards are dependent on country, genre, edition, and physicality. Paratext has become paramount as it drives readers to purchase one book versus another, used or new, in hardcover, paperback, ebook, or Audiobook.

Paratext Today: The Physical and Digital Landscape

I think the best way to look at modern paratext is to pull a few examples. I cannot look at every book ever published, or even a book from every genre. Instead, I selected two 2020 releases. First, I want us to look at the hardcover edition of an adult fantasy novel, The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin from Orbit. Then, we will take a gander at the independently published ebook edition of an adult historical romance novel, The Duke Who Didn’t by Courtney Milan. As an aside, I would highly recommend both.

Let’s Get Physical

The City We Became has a photo-realistic cover of New York City with hidden plastic tentacles emerging from the matte finish of the cover. An AR 3D image is available to bring the art on the physical cover to life with Google lens. It mirrors the content of a fantasy book that emphasizes the hidden world. Much like the main characters, you can unlock another dimension of the city. The cover prominently notes “New York Times bestselling and three-time Hugo Award–winning author” and uses a Neil Gaiman pull quote, “A glorious fantasy.” Right away, you are given an identifiable genre, a comparable author, and the author’s prolific background. 

The back cover pull quotes provide additional praise. Time to crack the spine, held by a lovely bumblebee black and yellow footband. The front flap includes a summary and catchy tagline. Still curious? The back flap includes the author’s bio and website, Orbit’s website, and the jacket design info. You have to want this book now. Once you bring the book home your reading experience can be improved with a list of other books by N. K. Jemisin, an annotated map of the New York City area, and the acknowledgments. The paratext works because it is visually enticing and it accurately reflects the context of the novel.

Time To Get Digital

It’s now time to look at The Duke Who Didn’t by Courtney Milan. The biggest difference between paratext in books versus ebooks is that in books, the paratext that can impact readers’ choice to either buy it or move on, can be located anywhere on or in the book. When you are purchasing an ebook, the paratext available before purchase comes from the online listing. I would argue that as the material is supplied by creators of the book, the online listing is part of a book’s paratext. 

Turning your attention to the Amazon page, we see an ebook cover with a photo of a couple about to kiss in front of a golden field of wheat. Now, you know your main characters, the pastoral setting, and the romantic content. The ebook cover also advertises Courtney Milan’s impressive catalog, noting she is a “New York Times bestselling author.” When you look inside, you can see the front matter including a table of contents, summary, note to the glossary, and audio glossary for pronunciations. The ebook prepares you to understand the Cantonese, Hakka, and Mandarin used in the text. Additionally, content notes are available with a link to her newsletter. As the copy is an ebook, the reader just has to follow the link to the websites in question.

Once you buy the ebook, a wealth of paratext awaits and improves the reading experience. After the end of the novel, there is a thank you that includes links to her website, Facebook, and Twitter profiles, encouraging discussion and reader interaction. The author’s note at the back includes her sources and thoughts on the historical period. There is an interesting discussion in Romancelandia punctuated by Vanessa Riley’s article regarding historical accuracy and the need to validate historical romance with a source-based author’s note. However, I did appreciate the way the note rounded out the story. 

Additional paratext includes an excerpt of her next book, a glossary, her acknowledgments, and links to her other books. Courtney Milan has complete control of the paratext surrounding her text and creates a well-rounded reading experience for those who purchase the ebook.

So What Now?

Both N.K. Jemisin and Courtney Milan are popular authors who have experienced success in their respective markets. I admit, these examples only show a small portion of modern paratext, but once you have the tools to identify the paratext of your books, you can apply them to any reading experience. Today, when we read, we experience the world that paratext creates. As technology and publishing continue to evolve I cannot wait to see what paratext is added or lost in the process of selling books.

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