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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Gladwell reviews a book: what happens to it?

My wife and I were talking about Malcolm Gladwell’s review of Chris Anderson’s new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price. We were trying to decide whether the review was merely lukewarm or devastating. Here is Gladwell’s last sentence:

The only iron law here is the one too obvious to write a book about, which is that the digital age has so transformed the ways in which things are made and sold that there are no iron laws.

Ouch. That seems to be Gladwell’s way of saying that the book should not have been written, because to be correct it would have had to be too obvious, and to be non-obvious it ended up being non-correct.

(And this in an industry with a preponderance of  inappropriately positive reviews.)

This is of interest to me for two reasons:

  1. My own book will soon come out (no, I don’t yet know exactly when), and I hope to have reviews, and above all good reviews, and simultaneously wonder how I would deal with bad reviews.
  2. Chris is a former colleague of mine at The Economist (he is now editor of Wired), and we are friends. Gladwell, on the other hand, is as close as you get in the writing world to a celebrity.

Chris has already responded to the review, in a remarkably measured tone. I couldn’t help but notice the parenthetical phrase

… Gladwell (who, by the way, I both like and admire, so let’s call this an intellectual debate between corporate cousins)…

The “corporate cousins” reference is to the relationship between the New Yorker and Wired, both of which are owned by Condé Nast. But I couldn’t help but wonder whether the “both like and admire” bit, which is indubitably true, was put there with the subtext “please don’t hurt me even more”.

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Another book on success (Gladwell’s)

I just finished Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers: The Story of Success.

I was just a tad apprehensive when I heard about the book, a while ago, since it is rather close–semantically, if not conceptually–to my forthcoming book. And this guy is, after all, Malcolm Gladwell. But I have to say that I am relieved.

That’s not a verdict on the book’s quality. As usual, readers seem to be split between lovers and loathers. Personally I quite enjoyed Outliers. I read it fast (always a good sign) and became immersed in it. Yes, he rather stretches his point with his “rice-paddy” theory about why Asians are so good at math. But I’ve never been burdened with the expectation that I should agree with a book in order to like it.

No, I’m relieved because it’s such a totally different and non-overlapping approach to “the story of success”. Gladwell wants to dispel the myth of the heroic individual who overcomes all odds and earns success all by himself. So Gladwell chooses stories that make clear how such alleged heroes become successful only because they are embedded into social contexts–ethnicity, class, family, and (notably) age–that give them opportunities and make them thrive. It is a communitarian vision, meant to temper individualism run amok. I have no problem with that.

My book, by contrast, starts and ends with individuals–and in particular with types (or archetypes, if you want to get Jungian). So we experience each individual character, starting with Hannibal, as both unique and universal.

The other difference, of course, is that I am just as interested in failure as in success, since those two scoundrels together are the dynamic duo that Kipling called the two impostors.

That said, Outliers is a good book. It is well written. If I may say so, Gladwell and I have roughly the same approach to story-telling.

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