It’s been verified in the UK that my third book, which was acquired by HarperCollins, will be called The Vienna Assignment—while in the US it’s called 36 Yalta Boulevard.
Anyone who visits these pages knows this is a common story for my books—my own titles are rarely market enough, and when books move into foreign editions the new publishers like to change the names (except Sweden, which has magnanimously made no attempt to alter them)—the most obvious example being France, which is retitling all of them as statements with “comrade”: Dear Comrade; No, Comrade; etc.
My own titles are based on the premise that they should come primarily from the book’s themes, and be able to be understood and interpreted on different levels. Which is why I like my title for my fourth book. Liberation Movements is on the surface a phrase terrorist groups of the ‘seventies used to describe themselves, and is taken from a Baader-Meinhof manifesto quoted in the book. And since the book deals with terrorism, this works. But there is also a musical motif running throughout the book, the storyline constructed in some ways like a three-voiced musical piece; and each character, in his own way, finds some kind of “liberation” by the end. Thus Liberation Movements becomes a musical title.
Despite my excitement, I know—I know—it will be nixed even before it reaches committee. It won’t be replaced by a bad title, no, but not one with this kind of tailor-made resonance.
When title debates first started over my second book, I found myself in New York, up late drinking with the magnificent Ken Bruen. Since I considered myself pretty new to the game, I asked him, “How much of a fight do you put up to keep your titles?” He answered with a quizzical look, so I expanded some. He reached for his drink (I think it was a g&t), took a drag from his cigarette, and said,
“I never let them touch my titles.”
So then I knew—all this rigmarole over my titles wasn’t “business as usual”, the way my publishers were trying to fool me into thinking. This was a ruse, and I was being played for a chump. So with the next book, I said, “You can’t touch this.”
Then I get a vaguely frustrated, but kind response explaining that the PR people are excited about Name #2, and it might cause problems to insist on Name #1—because if you don’t have the PR people behind you, you’re dead in the water. And besides, Name #2 will entice a reader who’s never heard of you before, and that’s what we want, right? We want people to see the title and take it to the cashier. And, well, the PR people have been doing this job for a very long time, and perhaps they actually know their job. Isn’t that possible?
And so I caved, as I always do.
Right now, I’m reading Norman Sherry’s enormously engaging 3-volume The Life of Graham Greene*, in which I learn that with his early books, his titles pretty much never made it through to the end (I don’t yet know about his later titles). Heinemann, his publisher (and publisher of my first two books in the UK), was always nixing his titles and coming up with something else. There’s no sign Greene was upset by these changes—in fact, he seemed to put his trust in the publisher’s decisions. And if that was good enough for him…
All this is just to provoke you to comment with your own thoughts and experiences. I’m curious how widespread these editorial changes are. If I find the world is riddled with them, then it’ll make it easier for me next time round, when Liberation Movements is retitled Action Man #4: Revenge of the Terrible Terrorists!.
*NOTE: Strangely, if you follow the Graham Greene link, you’ll find that Amazon.com only offers volumes 2 and 3 of the trilogy. My observations are from vol 1—1904-1939—which I picked up from Amazon.co.uk. Does someone think American readers aren’t interested in how the great man got his start?
(Originally posted at the Contemporary Nomad)