The making of corny subtitles

The Malcolm Gladwell Book Generator may not be uproariously funny, but after clicking through a few iterations I had to concede that it is at least moderately amusing.

The Generator is, of course, a spoof. You start with the cover of Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and then click on Generate New Bestseller. With each new cover, you realize how tritely manipulative the formula is.

Did I say “formula”? Oops. But yes, that’s essentially what it seems to be: the marketing department‘s (as opposed to the author’s) idea of a catchy title and subtitle. As the Generator puts it in one iteration (pictured above):

Subtitles: How Secondary Titles Inflate a Sense of Importance

Now, as it happens, I have been meditating on this subject in recent weeks because I am, right now, in the process of finalizing a title and subtitle for my own forthcoming book.

We seem to have decided on a title (which I will announce as soon as it is official), but we’re still bouncing subtitles back and forth.

Who is “we”?  Well, we includes me, of course, and my agent, and my editor at Riverhead, and the marketing and publicity departments at Penguin (which owns Riverhead), and possibly lots of other people. Lots of folks in lots of meetings, in other words. Meetings that I don’t get to sit in.

The result is quite interesting. Each “faction”, if I may call it that, seems to have a very different sense of linguistic aesthetics. Or possibly a different sense of strategic objective.

For the record, I am not slagging off the marketing folks — they’re bringing a vital perspective to this, and their suggestions have been good. But authors and marketers do appear to perceive the effects of word combinations in different ways.

So one might speculate, while browsing a book store, which side prevailed in which Title/Subtitle decision on display. There are fantastic titles and subtitles out there. And there are the others.


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31 thoughts on “The making of corny subtitles

    • Well, aside from Gen X’s texting semantics, Gen X is actually just the sort of savvy, cynical, sarcastic demographic that I WOULD like present in those marketing meetings.

      It’s the perspective of the allegedly naive, undemanding and cliche-immune “mass market” demographic that I’m afraid of…..

    • Yes, you’re right. Ideally, I get Gen Xers to sit in the marketing meeting, with Gen Y interns, as they decide how to get Gen W (does that exist? What do you call geezers?) to buy and read my book.

  1. A subtitle for your book. Hmm. Frankly, I prefer In the Wake of Succailure over The Random Ramblings of a Madman because googling the latter shows that the phrase has already been used.

    • Here’s what I always ask myself:

      Why, oh why, oh why, oh
      Why did I ever leave Ohio…

      This is from Bernstein’s Wonderful Town. For some reason, an unusually large percentage of comments in this debate have a distinctive Musical component to it.

      And yes, I happen to be from Vienna, OH.

      BTW, I am holding in my hand a wonderful little book called Playing in the Dark by Toni Morrison, subtitled Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.

      If I were in your publisher’s marketing department, I’d play around with Hannibalness:

      Hannibalness and [something]

    • Well put, Paul. My philosophy exactly:

      Don’t get strung out by the way I look,
      Don’t judge a book by its cover.
      I’m not much of a man by the light of day,
      But by night I’m one hell of a lover.
      I’m just a …

      This is sort of the unofficial national anthem of where I’m from. (I’m from Vienna, Transylvania.)

    • Paul, you may flatter yourself (as I flatter myself) that you “have learned not to trust titles and subtitles nor book covers, all very decieving and irrelevant to the content.”

      But you are deceiving yourself. Your brain is using titles, subtitles and covers (along with reviews and recommendations) to sieve the hundreds of thousands of book options you have, in order merely to allocate your own attention and time to probe deeply into what may or may not be between the covers (ie, “read”) of a chosen book ….

  2. I notice a pattern in book titles:

    The Match: The Day the Game of Golf Changed Forever

    Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World

    Galapagos: The Islands That Changed the World

    Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World

    Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World

    Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World

    For length it is hard to beat:

    The Machine That Changed the World: The Story of Lean Production–Toyota’s Secret Weapon in the Global Car Wars That Is Now Revolutionizing World Industry

    For brevity:

    Fifty Shoes That Changed the World

    • What a devastating list you’ve compiled, Jim M.

      Are there now editors/authors and maketing gurus preparing to drink hemlock (as I would if shown a list such as this with my subtitle on it)? More likely, they’re nudging each other: “good one”.

      I suspect, if I did the work, that I could compile a similar list with the word “surprising” in the subtitle.

      (That’s the word I’m trying to fight right now.)

  3. You might just find a few … hundred:

    Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

    Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives — How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do

    Outrageous Fortunes: The Twelve Surprising Trends That Will Reshape the Global Economy

    The Millionaire Next Door: Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy

    How Not to Die: Surprising Lessons on Living Longer, Safer, and Healthier from America’s Favorite Medical Examiner 

    Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

    The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study 

    Bats Sing, Mice Giggle: The Surprising Science of Animals’ Inner Lives

    Anatomy of the Soul: Surprising Connections between Neuroscience and Spiritual Practices That Can Transform Your Life and Relationships

    Here’s Looking at Euclid: A Surprising Excursion Through the Astonishing World of Math

    Why Mr. Right Can’t Find You: The Surprising Answers that will Change your Life…and His

    Eureka!: The Surprising Stories Behind the Ideas That Shaped the World

    The 150 Most Effective Ways to Boost Your Energy: The Surprising, Unbiased Truth About Using Nutrition, Exercise, Supplements, Stress Relief, and Personal Empowerment to Stay Energized All Day

    American Parent: My Strange and Surprising Adventures in Modern Babyland

    The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread 

    Always Follow the Elephants: More Surprising Facts and Misleading Myths about Our Health and the World We Live 

    • Amazing. Proves my point in this post. And may become EVIDENCE for me to use in subsequent deliberations.

      Is there anybody here who honestly thinks that the “history of a modest bread”, this being the bagel, is not interesting enough, without calling it a “surprising history”? How could the history of the bagel NOT be surprising?

  4. Of course Andreas, titles and subtitles have an influence in our choices, but I do rifle through a few pages and the introduction before buying, borrowing or rejecting a book.
    Remarkable list of titles Jim M. came up with.
    But please don’t drink hemlock, not worth it.

  5. Here’s a wacky thought, if I may. How about not using a subtitle at all? I say wacky because I do realise that the marketing department would never allow a simple title when a title with a subclause would do. Twenty years ago, when I was trying to choose a title for a doctoral thesis, it was already wearyingly commonplace for every title to have a colon in the middle. In reaction to it all I had a one-woman campaign for plain English and settled on ‘Women and the Monastic Life in Late Medieval Yorkshire’ (yeah, catchy, I know). But I did enjoy toying with the idea of calling it ‘Gendered Perspectives on Boreal Medieval Cenobitism: A Prosopographical Approach’. Hope you and your editors reach a mutually satisfying choice, anyway.

    • ‘Gendered Perspectives on Boreal Medieval Cenobitism: A Prosopographical Approach’

      You should win a prize for that one. :):)

      You’ve hereby also proven why subtitles are necessary: Just think of the confusion that would have resulted if you had not specified which approach to Gendered Persepectives on Boreal Medieval Cenobitism you had taken. Large segments of the Cenobitic and Boreal communities might have felt taken advantage of and turned their prodigious energies against you….

  6. When I wrote a memorandum for my now worthless diploma, I titled it very simply:” De la relation entre la socialisation et la sociabilité chez le jeune délinquant”. Not to be repeated. That was in 1961. I was a late bloomer.

    • We would say:

      “How the young criminal became socialized but not sociable.”

      Interesting topic, I might add.

      Title in today’s world: “The social criminal.” or: “The criminal socialite.” Or: “Criminal people skills.”

    • Yes, but “surprising” is replaced by “Rogue” and “Hidden Side”. Would you pick up “Freakonomics: An Economist Explores Everything”? I think not. People want to believe they’re getting secret knowledge, and titles play to this desire.

  7. Of course, everyone – even those who speak the language – find a subtitled flic, more deep and so forth (and “everything written in Latin sounds profound…”:”Hannibal ante portas”).

    Another thing, and I hope your people are thoroughly hip to this, it seems to me that typeface subliminally recommends the intelligence of the writer (it no doubt has something to do with the power of “good taste” and its hidden associative implications).

    Suggested reading:

    P.S. I recommend this out of Tacitus : “They made a wasteland and called it peace.” (although it refers to the later destruction of Carthage after the third war).

    • Very interesting comment about the importance of typeface, Zog. As it happens, my editor and I were just discussing that (and how it connects to all the other visual elements and cues on the cover….)

  8. Marginally on point, I have been trying to to expand my reading and recently bought a noir novel written by some purported enfant terrible of modern literature. I’d never heard of the guy, I was just browsing and saw the book and it looked interesting.

    I started reading it and got confused–it was supposed to be a crime/detective story but there was no corpus delecti, cops or anything. I re-read the blurb more closely–the blurb was actually an advertisement for the author’s first novel, which was the detective story. This, in small print, was heralded as the author’s second book.

  9. Rommel, Montgomery, and Patton fought over roughly the same ground as Hannibal and Scipio. So how are their exploits titled and subtitled?

    In the UK: 

    Masters of Battle – Monty, Patton and Rommel at War  
    Same book in the US:  

    Patton, Montgomery, Rommel:
    Masters of War 

    Are you sure one title (and subtitle) be enough?

    • This sort of thing (UK v US, different titles in different cultures) always fascinates and perplexes me.

      That the Brits, but not the Yanks, would go for “Monty” seems obvious.

      But why invert the order of [names – title] and [title – names]?

      More curiously yet, why replace just one word: “War” => “Battle”?

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