Sunday, 5 September 2010

A Rose by Any Other Name

Or, How Titles and Subtitles Can Change Everything

Shortly before I left for California, an author came into work to ask if the shop would stock her book. Personal requests like this are not unusual; the books will often be self-published, and one approaches them with caution. There is less of a guarantee of editorial control, and the look and feel of the book is likely to be less slick and have less appeal to most book buyers. As it is all done at the author’s expense, they are unlikely to provide a proof copy for booksellers to read, so it is difficult to get behind the book. Conversations with these authors can be difficult. Usually an author will only turn to self-publishing because has been unable to find an agent or a publisher, and they are understandably very frustrated that they have put so much work in and have not been published, and have since paid for publication but now cannot get shops to stock the book. While it is a difficult situation, the shop has a strict budget and cannot afford to buy books it won’t be able to sell.
However, my meeting with Isabel Losada turned out to be something different. Although neither were in stock, in this shop alone the titles ‘For Tibet, With Love’ and ‘A Beginner's Guide to Changing the World’ had together sold several hundred copies. They were the same book, she said, but the publisher had been disappointed by its sales performance and changed the name, thinking that the “Tibet” in the title was putting people off. This was a mistake. Although rebranding can often be helpful, it is doubly risky. If it isn’t successful, the older brand identity has also been lost, and for nothing. Re-titling the book did not help sales figures, and while bookshops had made ‘For Tibet, With Love’ part of the stock ordered automatically, this did not apply to ‘A Beginner's Guide to Changing the World’. Although the title was later changed back, it was too late. Losada now had to speak to the individual booksellers to try to get them to stock her book.
The incident set me to thinking about the importance of titles. Clearly the publisher felt that the potential gain the new title might bring was worth the risk of making the change. Publishers seem to do relatively little market research, and yet books are clearly aimed at specific markets; this is often reflected with a change in title for international editions of books. John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s book on the 2008 American election bears the title ‘Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime’ in the U.S. edition. The title of the British book, ‘Race of a Lifetime: How Obama Won the White House’, seems more appealing to an audience with less general interest in American politics, as it states more explicitly that it is about the presidential election. Some changes are less easily understood. Chris Cleave’s ‘The Other Hand’ is known as ‘Little Bee’ in America, and one wonders why the change was thought necessary. The change from ‘Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone’ to ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ certainly seemed ridiculous when the film version was made and some scenes had to be filmed twice. Sometimes the difference is counterintuitive: Christopher Hitchens’ ‘God is Not Great’ is subtitled “The Case Against Religion” in the U.K., but in America becomes the rather more inflammatory ‘God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything’. Although this is a more controversial statement to make in the United States than in Britain, the publishers seem to be calculating that it would not alienate anyone likely to buy the book, but rather that they would be attracted by the provocative subtitle. Was this a gamble that paid off? It seems impossible to be able to say for sure. Unfortunately for publishers, it can be difficult to gauge public tastes, and harder still to know why specifically readers respond to some things and not others.

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