Even though my previous post was more of an exercise in seeing what Excel’s new(?) box-and-whisker graphs do, I was pleased with the result. So I carried on adding the other Goodreads years. As a reminder, I’m counting how many of the 20 books listed in a category have a book title (I’m not looking at author name) primarily in a sans-serif font. The test is an eyeball one, so the numbers may be a bit wobbly for display fonts that might be ambiguous.
The Goodread Awards go back to 2011 but I ended up stopping in 2014. This was because 2013 (and earlier) had a separate category for Paranormal Fantasy. This separate category would likely make sans-serif covers in Fantasy even less common. For example, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files typically use a blocky font for the title and added occasional sans-serif examples in the later Fantasy category. In 2013 though, Cold Days by Jim Butcher was the winner of the Paranormal Fantasy category and that same category had 7(ish) sans titles whereas Fantasy had 0.
Here is the updated chart:
“Science Fiction typically uses sans-serif fonts for titles” is a defensible claim — the proportion is high and the spread is relatively narrow compared with other genres.
Are there trends over time in the data? That is a harder question to answer. Here is a graph of four of the genres for comparison:
I didn’t put all the categories on the graph because the graph is unreadable with all eight. Of the four show, only general fiction is showing a general trend over time and even that is noisy. Sans-serif fonts have increased overall for general fiction.
Across all the genres, the levels are fairly steady in the data but note that this treats each genre with equal weight. We know genres are not of equal weight though. If I just pick on what Goodreads calls “Fiction” on the grounds that is the broadest category and on “Romance” on the grounds that is the giant of genres the graph looks interesting:
The noisy upward trend is visible in Fiction but it is also noticeable how some of the noisy peaks and troughs match those in Romance. Looking at the covers, some of this is due to overlap with the category sometimes called “Chick-lit”. For example, in the 2021 awards, That Summer by Jennifer Weiner is also classed as Chick-lit on Goodreads and uses a sans-serif font on a pastel-shaded cover with a style of cover art that uses cartoon-like images with block covers. That approach to covers has become popular in Romance as well, although the actual composition on That Summer has some significant differences (e.g. characters facing away from the reader). [see https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/55467800-that-summer?from_choice=true ] That broad style of cover (pastel, cartoon-like artwork) doesn’t always use sans-serif fonts but it’s not uncommon [for a 2021 Romance category example see https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/54985743-people-we-meet-on-vacation?from_choice=true ]
Is there a gender dimension? I’m not sure. Romance ends up further on the Fantasy end of the spectrum but many of the sans-serif examples in Fiction are classified as Chick-lit. The issue is complicated by what using a sans-serif font is intended to convey. For science-fiction the implication is modernity. Arguably, I think that is what is going in Mystery & Thriller also. That idea of the present/future is also suggested by examples such as the Dresden Files in Fantasy and other Paranormal/Urban Fantasy works bucking the trend and using sans-serif fonts. Within Romance (and Chick-lit) both the sans-serif fonts and the more handwriting style display fonts also partly suggest modernity (as in a modern urban/suburban setting rather than a historical or exotic setting).
That historical fiction is adjacent to fantasy in its average rating on this scale lends weight to the idea of sans-serif as a means of communicating contemporary (or future) settings. However, Historical has a very broad range and when looked at overtime, there is arguably a trend towards more sans-serif usage. The graph below shows Historical as a category alongside Humour because Humour also has a broad range in the data.
However…we are living in the 2020’s and “Historical” is not an antonym for “Modern”. For example, the 2021 winner in the historical category was Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid. Here is the blurb:
“It’s August 1983, and the Riva clan’s legendary end-of-summer party in Malibu is quickly going off the rails. Taylor Jenkins Reid’s jagged ode to the 1980s explores the combustible nature of family secrets, severe heartbreak, and Too Much Alcohol. Reid has a way with recent history. She won the Historical Fiction category in 2019 for her 1970s pop parable,”https://www.goodreads.com/choiceawards/best-historical-fiction-books-2021
1983 is historical, so are the 1970’s. That doesn’t mean all the sans-serif Historical covers have 20th-century settings, aside from anything else there are serifed fonts that are suggestive of particular 20th-century decades.
Anyway, that’s about as far as I’m willing to go into this rabbit hole…for now!
11 responses to “The sans-serif genre axis part 2”
You’ve discovered the key — thinking up interesting questions. Once you’ve done that, the rest of the post is, dare I say, just engineering.
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That’s a great explanation of what my actual job is that I’ll use it with my boss
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[…] study to show that you can predict the genre of a book by the type face used on the cover. “The sans-serif genre axis part 2”. He’s not high, just his science […]
If you’re going to keep using Goodreads categories, your data is going to be skewed because Goodreads doesn’t make the book covers — publishers do and they don’t code groups the way Goodreads does, though there’s overlap. Goodreads folk will put books in multiple categories as well. You would have better luck going to publisher websites and seeing how they classify the titles there.
But again, you’re looking at mainly time period (setting) and some gender coding. Paranormal romance, for instance, is mostly gender coded woman (not counting gay romances), but the majority of paranormal romance is contemporary set romance and so those titles are likely to get a sans serif font rather than a serif font and a modern/ noir cover treatment.
Jim Butcher’s Dresden series is a contemporary (urban) fantasy story with a man protagonist. So it gets a sans serif font. Paranormal fantasy is one of the synonym names for contemporary fantasy — paranormal fantasy, supernatural fantasy, contemporary fantasy and urban fantasy are all basically the same category — mainly contemporary Earth/alt Earth setting. That’s why the majority of those titles have san serif fonts, especially if they have men protagonists and especially if written also by a man.
Almost all science fiction is set in a contemporary time period, a near future time period or a far future/alt universe time period. And they still code it as men’s fiction. So the majority of the SF titles will get a sans serif, modern looking font. As I said in the other post, alternate history SF or SF stories set in the past might get a serif font. Or if you’re doing something like an Arabian empire in space, for instance, they might give it a serif font to indicate the Arabian aspects.
Chick-lit is a term that developed for life comedies with women protagonists in general fiction in the late 1990’s. It is a sub-genre of ye old “women’s fiction” which is basically all fiction in general fiction with a woman protagonist (telling a woman’s story and assumed to be of interest to mainly women.) Many people assume all chick-lit is the same as romance, but you can do a chick-lit story with no romance as long as it’s a woman protagonist enduring some comic life situations. They are different groups, with some cross-over. However, most of them have central or major sub-plots that are romantic. So chick-lit, right there in the name, is coded women’s fiction. Chick-lit novels are almost all set in the modern contemporary day. So some of them will actually have sans serif fonts. Some of them will have serif fonts to indicate that they are “women’s” books. That’s why they also have the pastel colors and the graphic designs they do. The cartoon graphics came into vogue for the chick-lit titles in the late 1990’s and has remained popular for those types of books. The cartoon graphics indicate the humor while keeping cover art to a minimum.
Historical mysteries/thrillers regularly still have serif fonts. But the bulk of mystery/thrillers are set in the contemporary or almost contemporary time periods and is again often coded for men, so sans serif is the most common type. It is possible that serif is less popular in historical fiction now than it was in decades past. Serif fonts are harder to read, we don’t really use cursive styles for much except signatures anymore, etc., so publisher art departments may be using other techniques for historical fiction instead.
One thing that you might want to do is just do number crunching for fantasy fiction only and divide it up by its sub-categories because the sub-categories are based on setting: historical/alt history fantasy, contemporary fantasy (urban, supernatural, paranormal,) secondary world (epic) fantasy (there are some sec world fantasies set in post-industrial settings so you might need to split them up in post and pre industrial,) dark fantasy, humorous fantasy, futuristic/post-apocalypse fantasy and maybe fantasy horror if you want to cross-reference.
What you should find, if you do that, is that the contemporary fantasies are mainly sans serif, the historical fantasy will have a higher rate of serif, the dark fantasy will be based on time period of the story and how spooky they want to indicate it is with older and/or spookier titles using more serif, the humorous fantasy will be a mix but probably more sans serif, especially if the setting is contemporary, the futuristic/post-apocalypse fantasy will be mainly sans serif like SF, and fantasy horror will be a mix with a decent number of serif fonts but probably not dominant. And the secondary world fantasy will have a higher rate of serif for its pre-industrial worlds and a higher rate of sans serif for its post-industrial worlds, though Victorian lettering will still show up for Victorian-era-ish secondary worlds.
There is actually strategy to these designs, though not always smart strategies. There are trends. For instance, the publishers went through a run of putting skulls on all the mystery covers for awhile there in the 1990’s. A stark white background with a single image was very popular in fantasy covers for a few years in the oughts. You can do entire doctoral dissertations on the use of metallic foil on covers, die cut-outs, 3-d holographic images, blurred photo images and the use of yellow lettering.
One thing that can also screw your data is if the type and/or author status of the title means less chance of cover art being used along with the print. If it’s print only on the covers, there’s less chance that print will be a serif font. They want them to be able to read the title and author’s name. The bigger seller an author gets, the less likely there is to be cover art, since it’s a distraction from broadcasting the author’s name. An exception tends to be SFF because the category markets have the art tradition and people like it. For many types of fiction, they are less likely to use cover art or graphics as opposed to just colors and print.
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Honestly, this is all very much an argument about the exposure of social biases in book publishing companies’ cover design departments when you get right down to it.
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It’s getting better over the years, but it’s a wider social bias in our society that has cover design being done on the basis mainly of the social biases they assume the audience has. That was the argument, for instance, on why a number of covers over the years for stories with BIPOC protagonists were whitewashed with white-ish looking people on the covers. Because the booksellers were sure that covers with say Black or Asian figures on them didn’t sell as well so the publishers complied. That one also is easing out after a lot of screaming. And even though they are a lot better at not doing lady covers for every woman writer than before, they are still pretty sure they can’t get het men to, say, pick up a pink colored book.
For instance, look at this article in The Guardian from 2013 about YA writer Maureen Johnson and other woman authors on how their books are packaged gender-wise. You will notice that the cover of Johnson’s novel shown has serif fonts, even though it is a contemporary setting.
It has changed somewhat over the last ten years, but this goes back to the scientific study that tried to show that literary fiction reading meant open, liberal values — it’s all perception and perceptions vary and change over time. In that case, it may be as they do more “gender neutral” covers that sans serif does get more common across the board because “masculine” coded things are considered the neutral default because we’re still patriarchal and the dominant group is presented as the neutral default. It’s also safer to code covers as masculine with a sans serif font over the “fancier” serif ones if you want (cishet) men to pick up a book. Because girl cooties is still a major thing, sadly.
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I feel like I kind of squashed Camestros’ fun here on data crunching. But I would be genuinely curious to see what areas of fantasy fiction and how much in them have the serif fonts still on the covers.
Not at all! The point is to think about the related questions and delve into the why of it.
“Feel free / To harsh my squee!”
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