While writing my very first blurb recently – it was for an old friend’s new book about the creation of America’s interstate highways – I was delighted to discover that this otherwise very strong piece of work had just two weak points. One was the title, The Big Roads, which strikes me as a big snore. The other was the subtitle, a panting pileup of purplish prose: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways.
Suddenly, every time I walked into a bookstore or read a review, I started noticing similarly breathless subtitles. What had struck me initially as an unfortunate decision by the publisher of The Big Roads now began to look like a full-blown trend. Two books in particular fed this dawning revelation – Moby Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost At Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them; and Man Down!: Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt That Women Are Better Cops, Drivers, Gamblers, Spies, World Leaders, Beer Tasters, Hedge Fun Managers, and Just About Everything Else.
After discovering dozens of run-on subtitles, I naturally began to wonder what was at work here. My initial theory was that this sudden gush of wordiness is a natural by-product of book publishing’s desperate times. In a marketplace glutted with too many titles – and in a culture that makes books more marginal by the day – publishers seem to think that if they just shout loudly enough, people will notice their products, then buy them. In other words, the run-on subtitle is literature’s equivalent of flop sweat, that stinky slime that coats the skin of every comedian, actor and novelist who has ever gotten ready to step in front of a live audience knowing, in the pit of his stomach, that he’s going to bomb. But when I asked around, my flop sweat theory started to hold less and less water.
John Valentine co-founded The Regulator Bookshop in Durham, N.C., more than thirty years ago. Since then he has helped build it into a beloved cultural institution in the so-called “Triangle” of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, where there just might be more writers per-capita than in any other place on the planet outside select zip codes in Brooklyn and Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
“I’d say about three years ago I started noticing more words on covers, more buzzwords,” Valentine told me when I dropped by the shop recently. When I ran my flop sweat theory past him, he shook his head. “I think it’s driven by Search – with a capital S – whether it’s Google or Amazon or whatever. A lot of our customers hear about books on NPR, and when they come in the store they can’t always remember the author or the title. The more words a customer might remember, the more keywords we can use to Google it. If a word is rather unique, we’re more likely to find it. With the river of books – with the river of everything – most people want to have more unique words associated with their product.”
Most people, maybe, but not all people. Valentine has noticed another trend running counter to the run-on subtitle. “The converse of it,” he says, “is publishers and authors who feel confident. They tend to go small.” He waved at several examples on a shelf near the front of the store – Cleopatra: A Life by Pulitzer-Prize winner Stacy Schiff; Just Kids by Patti Smith, which won a National Book Award; Frank: The Voice by James Kaplan; Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III; and Life by Keith Richards. It doesn’t get much more concise than that. Maybe It by Stephen King.
And there are exceptions to Valentine’s theory. Simon Winchester, who scored a major hit in 2005 with The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, has just published Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories. Maybe Winchester simply believes in sticking with a winning formula. Tina Rosenberg, who has won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, is out with Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World.
While not overly wordy, Rosenberg’s subtitle falls into what I call the “Tao of How” category – books that promise to show us how the world really works, and how we can use that knowledge to transform our humdrum lives into epic experiences full of bliss, friends, great sex, wisdom and/or bags of money. Recent efforts include Connected: How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think and Do by Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler; and Jane McGonigal’s Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.
While working as an editor at Houghton Mifflin (now Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Eamon Dolan bought the concept that eventually became The Big Roads. Dolan, who has since become vice president and editor-in-chief at The Penguin Press, contends that verbose subtitles have always been with us and probably always will be. He also believes that subtitles have become an especially valuable marketing tool in our digital age, echoing John Valentine’s theory.
“I’d say that subtitles are important enough to the success of a nonfiction book that hardly any such book is published without one,” Dolan said in an e-mail. “Traditionally (and still), the subtitle explicitly states the book’s subject and purpose and implicitly tries to signal who its audience is. In the 21st century, the subtitle has a more pointed intent as well – to offer keywords that might come up in web searches. While we do not design subtitles with this particular goal in mind, it is a use that suggests subtitles are as essential now as ever they were.”
Dolan doesn’t believe you can judge the effectiveness of a subtitle merely by looking at its length. Some pithy ones are perfect, he contends, while a long freight train can be just as effective. To prove his point, Dolan cites the very different subtitles on two books he edited. “A favorite subtitle of mine right now is the one for Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer – The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. Its lyricism, clarity and faux-grandiosity beautifully and efficiently convey the book’s ambitious scope and endearing tone. Often the author, editor, publisher, et al, brainstorm and/or wrangle at length over titles and subtitles, but these came directly from the author even before the manuscript was complete. And we knew right away that we couldn’t improve on them. Brevity is often a goal in this realm because shorter subtitles enter the mind more readily and are easier to incorporate into a jacket design.”
That said, he added, “Another of my favorite subtitles is an exception that proves the rule. Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis was subtitled Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players. It’s double-wide, to be sure, but it earns every inch of the real estate it takes up. I love how its two halves rub against each other in a way that sparks a reader’s interest. How could such lofty qualities as heartbreak, genius, etc., arise in such a nerdy arena as a Scrabble contest? To me, and to many, many other readers, this has proven an irresistible question.”
That sweaty wrestling match Dolan describes – the author, editor, publisher, et al, locked in a room wrangling over potential titles and subtitles – is familiar to most authors of non-fiction books, and to more than a few writers of fiction. But when Malcolm Jones, a culture writer at Newsweek/The Daily Beast, was getting ready to publish a memoir, the wrestling match was fairly painless. “On my book, we – I think this discussion finally involved my editor, agent and wife – we tried a subtitle but it just sounded like a second title,” Jones said by e-mail. “So we figured we’d label it ‘a memoir’ and let people work it out. This, of course, resulted in the stampede of sales.” The book’s cover is elegant in its simplicity, just the words Little Boy Blues: A Memoir and a photograph of the author at the age of 10 or so, reading a newspaper and pretending to smoke an unlit pipe, the picture of future literary sophistication. It echoes the beautiful economy of the cover of Experience: A Memoir by Martin Amis, which shows the author as a tow-headed pre-teen with a scowl on his face and a cigarette clenched between his lips. That scowl and that cigarette leave no doubt that this is one bad, bad lad.
Why is such gorgeous restraint the exception in contemporary publishing? “I’m tempted to go with your flop sweat theory,” Jones says. “Having made the initial error to publish way more than they should, publishers cravenly attempt at the last minute to adorn their hundreds of titles with some sham distinction in the baseless hope that, yes, this will attract a reader or two. Or maybe some of it has to do with playing to the computer’s power to aggregate. I wish this were more far-fetched than it sounds.”
Which brings us, finally, to Earl Swift, my friend who wrote The Big Roads. He describes the creation of the book’s title and subtitle not as a wrestling match but as a “collaborative process” between himself, his editors and the publishing house’s marketing people. In the end, they agreed on a title that they felt was less opaque and more self-explanatory than the dozens of possibilities they’d bounced back and forth.
“Some publishers go for short titles so that you can stack the words vertically on the cover,” says Swift, the author of three previous non-fiction books. “That allows you to go with bigger type and give the book more visual impact. But some short titles are so obscure or general that they require amplification.”
When it came time to compose a subtitle that would help readers understand what The Big Roads was about, Swift said his main goal was to debunk a common misconception. “I thought we had to telegraph to potential readers that they don’t know the story as well as they think they do. You say ‘interstate highways’ and most people immediately think ‘Eisenhower.’ So I thought we had to signal that the people responsible for those highways are people you’ve probably never heard of.”
And so it came to pass that author and publisher agreed on a subtitle that might have once sounded breathless to me but, on second thought, actually does accomplish what it set out to do. It alerts readers to the fact that our interstate highways did not pop fully formed out of Dwight Eisenhower’s vacuous skull. For that reason, among many others, I hope the book sells faster than Krispy Kremes.
(Image: Untitled from joost-ijmuiden’s photostream)
Parul Sehgal, nonfiction editor at Publisher’s Weekly (and sister of The Millions intern Ujala Sehgal), has been awarded the National Books Critics Circle “Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.” Previous winners include Joan Acocella, Ron Charles, and Sam Anderson. The award was based on her diverse portfolio of work as a reviewer, including a review of Susie Linfield’s The Cruel Radiance, a review of Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life, and her piece on David Abram’s Becoming Animal. Congratulations!