You, a novelist, say you’re writing a novel. Your friend says they’re writing a book. However, you’re not both necessarily writing the same thing. While the two terms can sometimes be used interchangeably in literature, there are some key differences between what constitutes a book and what constitutes a novel.
Have you ever heard the phrase “all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon?” Or, if you’re not a whiskey fan, think of it this way: all Golden Retrievers are dogs, but not all dogs are Golden Retrievers. The same concept applies to novels and books. All novels are books, but not all books are novels.
Here’s everything you need to know.
What’s the difference between book and novel?
A novel is a specific type of book — one that tells a continuous narrative story with a beginning, middle, and end. To be a true novel, the story must always be fictional. A book can be a novel, but it can also refer to other types of bound and printed material like biographies, history books, cookbooks, and instruction manuals.
We’ll take a deeper look at each one below.
What’s a book, really?
The word “book” refers to any written or printed work, a collection of pages bound together to create some sort of reading material. A book can be any length, any subject, any form.
A book can fill many purposes. You might read nonfiction books to gain knowledge about a particular subject matter. Other readers might want to browse short stories or poetry. You both reach for books.
So long as it’s made up of printed pages bound together, you’ve got a book. (This said, in the modern era, a book doesn’t have to be a physical object. Thanks to digital publishing, a book can also be an e-book, so keep that in mind; for the purposes of this article, we’re considering all written material or written work as books, even if they’re published digitally.)
A book can be a novel, but it can also be so much more. A book might be a…
Short story collection
Travel guide book
The list goes on and on and on. Some books don’t even have any printed words. Sometimes, a book is just a notebook or sketchbook with blank pages, which proves there’s no need for a book to have a specific subject or content for it to be a book.
What is a novel?
Unlike the term “book,” which is a broad and sweeping term that applies to all sorts of printed material, “novel” is a term that applies to one very specific type of book.
A novel is a fictional narrative that tells a story and has a specific word count. A typical novel is usually at least fifty thousand words long. Anything shorter is considered a novella, before you get even shorter, to a novelette, before you get even shorter, at which point you may have a short story.
As a side note, the term “literature” refers to all fictional works, not just those considered novels—but a novel is always a fictional book, designed to elicit an emotional response and of a certain length.
Types of novels
Novels can be further divided down into different genres, including…
But all of these genres share key things in common. They all relate fictional accounts and all meet the word-length requirements for being both a book and novel.
Novel vs. book examples
To further drive these definitions home, let’s look at some examples of books and published novels, and decide what category they fall into: novels or a book of another category.
Examples of published novels
All the novels on this list are fiction, even if they deal with some true events.
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
This example of a fan-favorite novel tells the story of a time-traveling nurse who’s swept away in a tantalizing romance and the political intrigue of 1700s Scotland and England.
Because this is a fictional tale with fictional elements (unless you want to believe time travel is real and we really have an account of main character Claire’s journey backward through time), this fiction book is categorized as a novel.
Babel by R. F. Kuang
This compelling book quickly gained a following for its smart takes on colonialism and racism, but despite its historic and real setting (Oxford University), and despite the footnotes scattered throughout the book that make it feel curiously like a textbook, this is a novel, as it relates the magical story of a handful of students in their own world.
The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory
This book incorporates a cast of very real historical figures, instead of imaginary characters, and follows very real historic events—and, yet, it’s still fiction, still lengthy, and thus a novel. Many historical fiction books include real events and real people, but, at the end of the day, if there’s even an iota of fictional elements within a book, the entire book is considered fiction.
Examples of nonfiction books
These books are reading resources that deal with a specific subject.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
This book has magic, if you believe the title, and it has a story… so is it a novel? Not quite. This non fiction book is, instead of a novel, a memoir with autobiographical elements which follows the author’s journey through mourning following the death of her husband. While the relatable and award-winning tale is easy to follow, with a comfortable narrative structure, it’s all true and non-fiction, so not a novel.
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
While this book is certainly used by quite a large number of novelists, it wouldn’t be considered a novel. Instead, this self-help guide to tapping into your creativity on a deeper level is, in fact, just a book (even if a particular type of book). It’s not a novel.
A Sliver of Darkness by C.J. Tudor
This book is fictional, all the way through. It’s, as a whole, long enough to be a novel… and yet it’s not a novel. Why? Because it’s a collection of short fictional stories instead. A novel will focus on one (or a handful) of stories that are explored from the beginning of the book to the end of the book. In contrast, with a short story collection, each story can stand on its own, without relying on the others.
History books, exercise books, and other reading resources fall into the “book” category.
Novel vs. book: Does the difference really matter?
While you might not think that the difference between book and novel really matters (and, in some instances, like when you’re just chatting with your writer friends, it won’t), if you write books and are pursuing traditional publishing deals, it can be a smart idea to have a handle on these terms and what they do and don’t mean. Knowing the industry’s terminology will put you that much further ahead of the pack in a crowded landscape filled with writers vying for those coveted book deals.