short takes

By Its Cover

The Internet and the ever-growing book title
May 15, 2009

Remember when a non-fiction book could get away with a short, ambiguous title? Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion and Ernie Pyle’s Brave Men did not emblazon thesis statements across their front covers. That information was behind the title page.

Compare those titles to a current best-seller like Fleeced: How Barack Obama, Media Mockery of Terrorist Threats, Liberals Who Want to Kill Talk Radio, the Do-Nothing Congress, Companies That Help Iran, and Washington Lobbyists for Foreign Governments Are Scamming Us . . . and What to Do About It. In the interest of space, I won’t cite Dick Morris’s previous work. Suffice it to say that his titles—like those of other contemporary politicians, journalists, and historians—leave little to the imagination.

Peruse The New York Times Best Seller Lists since they first launched in the 1940s and you’ll notice nonfiction book titles have grown longer, more subtitle-laden, and specific. John Sherer of the nonfiction publisher Basic Books explains this trend with the fact that there are simply more books published today. A subtitle helps a book distinguish itself, he says. “There will be hundreds of books about the economic meltdown published this year. Each one has to have a title that’s focused, and an argument that’s clearly laid out.”

Today’s subtitles are stuffed with not just words, but keywords—the kind that are likely to climb their way up a search-engine hierarchy. Topical phrases like Morris’s “talk radio” and “do-nothing Congress” can help a book gain traction among specific online audiences already attuned to those phrases.

This is part of an industry-wide effort toward more sophisticated marketing, says Sherer. The subtitle “does the work”: informing readers of a book’s thesis, and hopefully, selling it. While authors may still write their own titles, most book deals grant publishers final titling rights—and the latter usually tack on the subtitle.

Author Ian Williams has written disparagingly about the “colonization of the book industry.” He claims that “the new rage for explanatory titles is not author-driven.” When his 2004 book Soldier of Fortune became the more tendentious Deserter: Bush’s War on Military Families, Veterans and His Past, he wrote in Spectator magazine that “the publisher left me with the impression this title was based on a straw poll of the sales reps.” The revised title quickly conveyed the book’s ideological slant and captured Web traffic related not only to “soldier,” but also “Bush,” “war,” “military,” and “veterans.”

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Writers may lament the publishing industry’s emphasis on exposition over elegance, but titles have arguably always been shaped by media trends. When title pages first emerged in the late fifteenth century, the “title” included everything printed on the title page. This format encouraged centuries of meandering synopsis titles: Robinson Crusoe’s 1719 title contained an exhausting sixty-five words (since shortened by posterity).

In his book Paratexts, literary theorist Gérard Genette writes that the era of lean titles began as the publishing industry expanded during the nineteenth century, and authors could explain their books outside the title page—in ads, or newspaper reviews.

Alas, Victorian brevity no longer constitutes effective marketing; a sticky synopsis title, however, does. With approximately half a million books published in the U.S. annually and peddled via a slew of Web vendors, today’s titles help a book bubble to the surface of a crowded field.

Chris Anderson’s concept of “The Long Tail” argues that the unlimited shelf space offered by online retailers like Amazon causes consumers to select niche media over general interest. Book titles are following suit, with their focus on penetrating specific audiences online. So if readers are turned off by a prolix book title, it means half the battle is won: at least they found it.

Sacha Evans is a writer in New York.