Some of the titles that could have been

One of my habits is, sporadically, to go through old stuff in order to throw most of it away and be reminded of the few nuggets worth preserving.

As I was doing that, I came across a little Post-it note on which I seem to have scribbled, at some point over the past four years, ideas for titles and subtitles for my book, to be discussed with my editor. (As you can see from the older posts with the tag “titles“, it was on my mind for a long time.)

Here are the ones just on that particular Post-it note:

Hannibal and You: Uncovering the mysteries of success and failure in our lives

Reversal: Triumph and disaster in life, from ancient times to today

The two impostors: Tracing the mystery of triumph and disaster from antiquity to our own lives

The Hannibal Archetype: The eternal mystery of triumph and disaster in life

Hannibal’s riddle: The mystery of success and failure in life

When Hannibal met Scipio: The mystery of success and failure in our lives

The Hannibal Challenge

In the end, of course, the publisher chose the title and subtitle you see on the jacket on the right, and at the top of this blog. What would you have chosen?

Hannibal and Me: Title and Date

So I have them: the full title and the publication date.

(In fact, one of you has beaten me to it and found the nascent Amazon entry before I even knew it existed.)


Hannibal and Me: What History’s Greatest Military Strategist Can Teach Us About Success And Failure

Date: January 5th, 2012.

Yes, yes, I know that date seems rather late. What can I do? My publisher tells me that it was strategically chosen as the perfect time for this sort of book. So there.

Regarding the title: It’s quite ironic that my very first post on The Hannibal Blog, all the way back in summer of 2008 (my god, have I been at it this long?!), explained why Hannibal and Me is not the title. And now, it’s … the title after all.

Anyway, I’ll show you the jacket design soon. But feel free to weigh in on the title, from the gut.

I have them: title, subtitle & cover

It’s official. Riverhead today sent me the jacket, ie cover, of my book. This is a big moment for a first-time author.

Alas, my editor pleaded with me not to share it with you yet. A big sales conference is about to happen and a catalogue is being made up, and apparently this sort of thing must be sprung upon certain people as a surprise.

But I will blast it out right here as soon as I get the green light.

In the meantime, you might be asking me whether I am happy with the result. I’m almost surprised to say Yes, even on the first go.

I admit that when I first opened the PDF file, I had whiplash. It was not at all what I had expected.

But then my focus groups went to work: wife, parents, agent, agent’s office colleagues….

And I had to agree with them. The cover — think of it as an aesthetic package of words and visuals — is:

  • simple (a prerequisite in my worldview),
  • bold (some people will love it, others will hate it, which is a good thing),
  • playful and tongue-in-cheek (which is important, because it’s an intellectual book, which might turn some readers off).

As my editor said when we discussed it (I made him expound on every single visual element), it comines “vibrant and subtle,” and is Riverhead’s way of saying “big idea.”

As I said to him in return: I was in charge of providing subtlety and nuance and texture between the covers; so I always knew I couldn’t be the one to deliver the direct, right-hook punch on the cover.


PS: Does anybody have any views on which WordPress themes are particularly elegant for book authors?

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.


Click on the links below* for my other posts on:

The trouble with titles, continued

I’m just finishing Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis, which Baltimore Bookworm already does a great job of summarizing.

Naturally, I’m especially interested in what Haidt has to say, for instance, about the uses of adversity in life (he gives an entire chapter to it), since that fits one of the impostors in my book.

But, since I can’t help but think about book titles these days, which you may have noticed here and here, I found myself lamenting the title that Haidt’s publishers forced on him. The book is not just about happiness, and hypothesis, no doubt meant to sound mysterious, is too academic to hit me in the gut. Instead, it occurred to me, there is a much more obvious title that Haidt’s publisher, Basic Books, could have chosen.

Haidt gives us, above all, a great extended metaphor for our psyche as consisting of a huge elephant  and a little rider on top. Hence the cover image you see here. The elephant is that part of our brain/mind that we’re hardly aware of but that is actually in charge most of the time. The little rider is our intellectual brain/mind, which evolved much later and which does its best to drive the elephant but most often just ends up having to go where the beast goes. In all those cases, the rider’s main skill is to confabulate (Haidt’s word) a story to explain to himself why he, the rider, really wanted to go where the elephant went. You see, he couldn’t possibly admit to himself that he, as mahout, is not in control. In other words, we are great at fooling ourselves. We do things for reasons we barely understand, and then retroactively concoct a logic that makes the action sound plausible, to ourselves and society.

So, if the metaphor was good enough for the cover image, why not for the title? In my opinion, the book should have been called:

The elephant and his rider: What really drives you, and why you lie to yourself about it.

(And, because this is the Hannibal Blog, one more reason why I like the cover image: This is how you must imagine Hannibal’s mahouts riding their elephants across the mighty Rhone river, while under attack from Gauls on the far side. Most of the mahouts drowned. But the elephants, natural  snorkelers that they are, made it across. Having crossed the stream thus, Hannibal was able to take them onwards to the Alps, and then…. well, you know. More about his elephants here.)
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*Why the book does not have a title yet

*Alright, so I’ve given you this teaser about the book, and I had to give the page a provisional title. But Hannibal and me is not actually the title of the book. It turns out that several other authors are already using the and me conceit or some variation of it, so my publishers, Riverhead, pointed out that we’re in cliché territory, which is of course to be avoided.

Nor is my original idea, The Hannibal Curse, the title. It’s been explained to me that American publishers are very wary about any book title that could sound remotely negative, and Curse apparently fell into that category. So no Curses. Hannibal’s Impostor, Eternal Hannibal,… Who knows? Riverhead and I will agree the final title when I deliver the book, in a bit less than a year. As I joked to my agent, Dan Mandel, that feels a bit like agreeing to let the midwife christen your child at birth, but hey, it’s the way the business works. They’re apparently good at picking titles at Riverhead–think A Thousand Splendid Suns and such.

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