Friday, May 4, 2007

The Name Game: How Books Are Titled

A piece about book titles that ran in fall 2005 in Saturday Night – the second- or third-last issue ever, I think.

Last year, the Toronto publisher ECW Press released an anthology of autobiographical essays by Italian-Canadian women – reminiscent of the Carol Shields-edited Dropped Threads books, but with a more niche appeal. There were launch parties in multiple cities, including Toronto, Vancouver, and Halifax, but the festivities followed a stormy history. Before the collection was even published, several contributors, including the original editor, had pulled out of the project in a bitter fight with the publisher. The issue wasn’t royalties, or some disagreement over the editing of the text, but rather the name of the book.

ECW had come up with Mamma Mia: Good Italian Girls Talk Back, arguing to contributors that it encapsulated the subject matter and created a sense of conflict and drama. But Gina Valle, the anthology’s editor, wanted no part of that title. “I raised it with them the same day,” she says. Valle objected on several fronts: that “mamma mia” played to ethnic stereotypes, that “girls” was demeaning, and that “talk back” implied disrespect for older generations. Over months of to-ing and fro-ing, more than 30 other possible titles were put forth, and one other serious contender emerged: the milder Bravo Bella: Stories of Growing Up Italian. But the publisher’s sales force insisted that Mamma Mia was getting more enthusiastic reaction from bookstores.

So ECW stuck to that one – and also designed a cover showing a woman gesticulating with her hands, further enflaming the stereotype issue. As a result, Valle split from the project, along with about half of the original 20 contributors. One of those who stayed, Maria Coletta McLean, took over as editor and began soliciting new pieces, and ECW published the book in the spring of 2004. Since then, Mamma Mia has gone on to sell close to 5,000 copies – very respectable for a small Canadian press – while Valle has written letters of protest to various funding agencies and media outlets. Says Joy Gugeler, the ECW editor who dealt with the book: “The title was meant to express exasperation on one level, and that certainly summed up everyone’s feelings at the end of this negotiation.”

Of all the decisions that go into publishing a book, the title is one of the most fraught. It must be short, catchy, and memorable, and it has to capture the spirit of the book while also evoking intrigue or tension. At a large house, editors, publishers, sales, marketing, and publicity types might all weigh in on any given book’s title. Art directors, too, pushing for something they can work with visually. And if the book-buyers at major chains aren’t sold, the agonizing continues. But naming a book is an art, not a science, and the process tends to be driven by intuition and superstition. Ask industry veterans what makes a strong title, and their answers tend to fall along you-know-it-when-you-see-it lines. Focus groups or detailed market research? Forget it, there’s no money for that in publishing.

Small wonder that so many books leave a trail of discarded titles in their wake. In some alternate universe, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous novel is known not as The Great Gatsby but as Trimalchio in West Egg, and Joseph Heller is remembered for Catch-18 rather than Catch-22. Michael Ondaatje’s most recent novel was called Pale Flags, not Anil’s Ghost, and Miriam Toews won the Governor General’s Award last year for Swivelhead, not A Complicated Kindness.

Or maybe she didn’t. Back in this reality, after A Complicated Kindness took the prize, Michael Schellenberg, Toews’s editor at Knopf Canada, asked her only semi-jokingly, “Do you think your novel would have won if it had been called Swivelhead?” That early title referred to Toews’ teenage narrator’s watchful gawking, but it lacked, Schellenberg suggests, a certain CanLit gravitas. Several more titles were tossed back and forth, and at one point Toews even suggested Abattoir Life, but she dryly recalls that “everybody at Knopf shot that down pretty fast.”

Still, A Complicated Kindness has been one of the biggest Canadian hits of the past two years, so nobody’s complaining. When a book doesn’t do well, the second-guessing starts. A few years back, Random House Canada published a debut novel by British writer Eleanor Bailey, which Random publisher Anne Collins characterizes as a reader-friendly multigenerational saga. The book was called Idioglossia, a technical term for nonsense babbling, and Collins now believes the title was “completely terrifying” to readers and a crucial factor in the novel’s commercial failure.

In some ways, fiction writers and publishers have it easy when searching for a title: an evocative and not-too-specific phrase will usually do. Scan the season’s big novels – David Bergen’s The Time in Between, say – and you’ll notice that most of their titles sound nice but are essentially meaningless. With non-fiction, there’s more pressure to be clear, there’s the tricky dance between title and subtitle, and there are often more specific marketing niches to consider.

One general principle? As in comedy, incongruity is a plus. “Words that bang up against each other and set off shock waves tend to be good,” suggests John Pearce, a Toronto literary agent and longtime editor, citing John Ibbitson’s fall book about Canadian politics, The Polite Revolution. It’s also a truism that small changes can make a big difference. This fall, authors David Bercuson and Holger Herwig are releasing a book about Winston Churchill’s war conference with Franklin Roosevelt in 1941. Originally it was to be called Christmas in Washington, but that led to some confusion about the book’s identity, says the Canadian publisher, Kim McArthur of McArthur & Company: “Was it jingle jingle, decorating the Christmas tree, or was it Paris 1919?” So the book has now been renamed One Christmas in Washington, in the hope of tilting readers’ perceptions toward the latter.

Paris 1919, in fact, is itself the result of a title makeover. Margaret MacMillan’s book about the Treaty of Versailles was first published in the U.K. as Peacemakers: The Paris Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War – a monicker the author was quite happy with. For the American publication, though, her New York editor “said anything with ‘Paris’ in it sells really well in the United States,” recalls MacMillan, who grudgingly acquiesced. Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World has since become a blockbuster international hit.

Certainly, title talk can incite strong emotions. In Another Life, New York editor Michael Korda relates the story of a terse telegram from Graham Greene: “Easier to change publisher than title.” Since her own split with ECW Press over Mamma Mia, Gina Valle has collected a new anthology of stories covering the Italian immigrant experience across North America, to be published next spring by Fitzhenry & Whiteside.

The title has not yet been determined.


Outtake #1
When there is disagreement, an editor must turn gut feelings into compelling arguments – or bargain for a solution. Last year, Thomas Allen published the English translation of an Alberto Manguel memoir with the tricky title “Chez Borges.” Manguel wanted to call it “With Borges,” but that sounded clunky to Crean, so the two compromised. “It was a tradeoff between him accepting our design,” says Crean, “and me accepting his title.”

Outtake #2
If “changed the world” has a familiar ring, it’s because you’ve probably seen it in other book subtitles. Recycling of title tropes is endemic, from books that promise “a brief history of” something to those that cover things you must see or eat “before you die.” Numbers, too, are always popular in business and self-help books (a la The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). And just as Paris is apparently a magic word, publishers admit to some other truisms: when Random House published Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall’s memoir Down to This: Squalor and Splendour in a Big-City Shantytown last year, Collins took care to keep “Toronto” out of the title, for fear of alienating readers in the rest of the country.

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