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Surely you must have heard someone say, don't judge a book by its cover. As it turns out, it's not all bad to judge a book by its cover. According to literary theorist Gerard Genette (1930–2018), the cover and other external aspects of a book provide helpful insights into a literary work. The cover, therefore, is one of the several components that package the book as a whole for a potential buyer. Genette called these elements 'paratext'.

If you have ever wondered about the processes behind the making of a book, you might find the concept of paratext useful. Let's have a look at the definition of paratext and paratextual elements.

Paratext: Definition

Genette discusses the concept of paratext in the book Paratext: Thresholds of Interpretation (1987). The term paratext is a combination of the Greek word 'para', meaning beyond, and the word text, referring to the main body of text in the book.

Paratext refers to the components of a published work other than the main text, for example, the covers, title, frontmatter, blurbs, footnotes, et cetera added during the publishing stage.

While the text is created by the author of the book, the author may or may not have a direct role in choosing the paratextual elements of the book.

In 'Introduction to The Paratext' (1991), Genette argues that the main content of the book, be it a novel, poem, or non-fiction never appears on its own. It is accompanied by elements that, in a way, present the text to the world. These factors, thus, influence the perception and reception of the work.

It is increasingly common in literary criticism to factor in the paratextual features in the analysis of a book. In the case of rare and antique works, the paratextual information can even help to find out the book's author and origins.

As Genette observes, the author of a paratextual message need not always be the author of the book. For example, many books come with an introduction or preface written by someone other than the author of the book. Similarly, different paratextual elements address different types of audiences. While some are intended for the general public, some are for the individual reader, and some are for booksellers or critics.

Paratext peritext vs paratext StudySmarterFig. 1 Old book covers - example of paratext.

Difference between Text and Paratext

The difference between text and paratext can be described in many ways. In literary theory, a text is anything that can be read. By this definition, a text can be anything from a billboard to an award-winning novel.

Roland Barthes (1915–1980) describes the text as an interaction between a work and its reader that creates meaning. According to Barthes, a 'work' is a concrete, physical object that you see in front of you. A text, on the other hand, is more dynamic and not bound by the limits of the book.

The text refers to the part of a book that comes out of an author's creative process. The paratext is added during the publishing stage and even after. There are two parts of the paratext: peritext and epitext.

Paratextual Elements

In Genette's view, paratext is how a fictional or non-fictional text is presented as a book for a potential reader and the public in general.

A simple way to understand how paratextual elements determine the reception of literature is to think about how famous works like that of Shakespeare might be read if you were completely unaware that you were reading Shakespeare.

While the concept of paratext can be applied to many forms of art, it is most commonly associated with books. Books carry multiple paratextual elements. The paratextual features are not mandatory or universal as not all books have all these elements, and sometimes, authors refuse to engage with the public.


Peritext includes elements that surround the main text, such as the foreword, table of contents, index, and source notes, which shape the text in order to make it ready for public consumption.

  • Cover art: the illustration or artwork that appears on the cover of a book.
  • Front and back matter: dedication, acknowledgement, opening information, foreward, and endpapers.
  • Notes: footnotes and other information that is not directly crafted by the author.
  • Blurbs: a short description of a book or film (usually found at the back of a book or DVD) added for promotional and marketing purposes.

Editorial decisions like the formatting or typography of the text also come under the category of paratext. The author may or may not be involved in these decisions.

Typography refers to the way the text visually appears on the page, e.g., the font style and font size.


Epitext refers to the elements related to the book but outside of the boundaries of the book. This may include all conversations surrounding the book, including news coverage, press meetings, promotional events, author interviews, book readings and so on. These may, in turn, shape the way a book is perceived and remembered. Epitext can also influence how likely a text is to be bought and how much attention it may receive.


The commercial culture in the digital age is driven by how we interact with other consumers. Like other products, consumer decisions around books are also influenced by online reviews. It is now increasingly common for publishers to include snippets or ratings from reviews on the covers of reprints. Similarly, reviews might become part of the legacy of the book or the author.

Promotional events

Gone are the days when promotional interviews and events were reserved for high-profile films and celebrities. Depending on their fame, authors now go on extensive, multi-country book tours to reach a wider audience. It is often the case that they might engage in conversations around the book's themes, inspirations, and origins, which end up shaping the public image of the book.

Literary criticism

Although books are rarely considered for academic study or literary analysis of books right after they are published, literary analysis is an important part of the conversations around a book. It eventually establishes the book's and, subsequently, the author's place in the literary canon.

Literary canon: a set of literary works considered to be the best in history.

Genette argued that the paratext functions as an auxiliary to the main text and should be considered a subordinate.

The paratext, in all its forms, is a fundamentally heteronomous, auxiliary, discourse devoted to the service of something else which constitutes its right of existence, namely the text.1

Gerard Genette, 'Introduction to the Paratext'

Therefore, the paratext is defined as a set of practices and features that contribute to the discourse regarding a text.

Peritext vs paratext

Peritext refers to all the elements found in a book, including the cover art and other elements that frame the book and its contents for the reader. Paratext is peritext and epitext combined.

Paratext Examples in Literature

The most obvious examples of paratext are book covers. They provide visual cues and sometimes also include comparisons to well-known authors or recommendations from other established authors who have read the book. It is a common practice these days during reprints to add labels like 'international bestseller' to signal the success of a book.

Let's look at three of the most popular books of all time and how they were packaged using paratextual features.

The Harry Potter series (1997-2007)

The logo of the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling is evidently stylised to reflect the fantasy elements in the books as well as their film adaptations.

Paratext paratextual elements StudySmarter

Fig. 2 The Harry Potter logo is stylised to capture the book's theme.

Arabian Nights

Originally known as One Thousand and One Nights, the Arabian Nights is a collection of folk tales translated into English and other languages in the 1880s. It was subsequently translated by John payne (1842–1916) and Richard Francis Burton (1821–1890). Set in the Middle East, the book covers often contain a visual aesthetic known as Orientalism.

Orientalism: a way of depicting the East or the Orient, especially during the colonial era, based on stereotypes. The concept of Orientalism was first discussed by the literary theorist Edward Said (1935–2003).

Wuthering Heights (1847)

Many reprints of the Victorian novel Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte reflect the romantic story set against a Gothic backdrop, often using a silhouette of a house and a tree.

Gothic refers to art, architecture, and literature characterised by darkness, mystery, and horror.

Paratext example book cover StudySmarterFig. 3 Cover art of an Irish translation of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights

Silhouette: outline of an object against a bright background.

Paratext - Key takeaways

  • The term paratext refers to the elements of a book that frame the text within it for public consumption.
  • The concept of paratext was developed by the French literary theorist Gerard Genette.
  • Peritext and epitext together make up the paratext.
  • Peritext includes features like the book cover, title, typography, notes, and index found on or within the book.
  • Epitext refers to the discourse around the book, including book reviews, interviews, and literary criticism.


  1. Gerard Genette, 'Introduction to the Paratext', 1991
  2. Fig. 3 Emily Brontë, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Frequently Asked Questions about Paratext

Paratext refers to all the external elements that make up a published book other than the main text which is created by the author, e.g., cover art, title page, forward, illustrations, footnotes, back cover, and end pages of a book. 

Paratextual elements are used for marketing and promoting a book. These influence how a book is received by the audience. 

Examples of paratext include the book cover, title page, forward, illustrations, footnotes, back cover and so on. 

The paratext is mainly used to package a book in order to promote it and increase its appeal among consumers. It is also helpful in literary criticism to analyse the paratextual elements to understand the book better. 

The concept of the paratext was first discussed by the French literary theorist Gerard Genette. 

Final Paratext Quiz

Paratext Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


What is paratext?

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Paratext is the assorted set of practices and discourses around a text that influence the reception of that text.

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Give examples of paratext

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Paratext includes the cover art, notes, typographic and other editorial choices that take place during the publishing process. 

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Who proposed the theory of the paratext?

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Gerard Genette

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Who is Gerard Genette?

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Gerard Genette was a French literary theorist and critic.

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What are the components of paratext?

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Peritext and epitext

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What is epitext?

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Epitext includes the conversations around a book including book reviews, interviews, literary criticism and so on that come after the publishing stage of a book.

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What is the difference between text and paratext?

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The text refers to the main body of text that directly came out of the authorial creative process whereas the paratext includes the textual features added to the text during the editorial process.

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What is the paratext's relationship with the text according to Genette?

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In Genette's view, the paratext is an auxiliary of the main text.

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How does the paratext help to read a text?

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Paratext works to guide a reader to read the text in a different way. In the long run, paratext is helpful to locate the themes and the genre of a text.

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Who does the paratext address?

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Different paratextual elements address different types of audience. For example, some paratextual features are intended only for the reader, some for booksellers and some for the general public.

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The author has complete control over the paratextual features: True/False

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False. The author might only have limited say in the decisions surrounding the paratext.

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Paratextual elements are limited to the boundaries of a book: True or False?

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False. Paratextual features can exist within or outside of the physical boundaries of a book.

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What is paratext used for?

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Paratext is useful in academic study as well as for marketing and promotional purposes. 

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