Do Publishers Always Know Better Than Authors about Titling, and Who Must Give When They Lock Horns?
Deborah Copaken Kogan writes in the current issue of The Nation about being nominated for Britain’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (“My So-Called Post-Feminist Lit Life”). She speaks out against her own mistreatment and silencing at the hands of a major publisher who disregarded her titling advice for three books and went with numbskull titles and cutesy feminist designs. It’s her fourth book, The Red Book, that has been nominated. She doesn’t say whether that was her own idea or not, but it is published by Hyperion.
Kogan’s first book, sold to Random House, was retitled from Newswhore to Shutterbabe. Her second was retitled from Suicide Wood to Between Here and April (“whatever that means,” she notes). Her third book, complete with pink cover because of her being a female writer, was given the title Hell Is Other Parents, a rip-off of a quotation from Sartre of doubtful taste Kogan would never have condoned. “I am told, for the third time, that I have no say in the matter.”
Kogan, of course, is not a scholarly author but she can be seen as a professional or journalistic or belletristic figure. In the scholarly publishing arena, a similar titling disaster has happened to me and my co-author with two of our books and is now threatening to repeat itself with a third.
To recap the last skirmish, my co-author and I suggested for our second study of crypto-Judaism a title of Star, Crescent and Cross: Genealogies of Jews, Crypto-Jews, Muslims and Crypto-Muslims in Colonial America. The publisher brushed this aside as too fanciful and not explicit enough for the scholarly market. The book came out in February 2012 as Jews and Muslims in British Colonial America. A Genealogical History.
Trouble is it was not about Jews and Muslims but persons of Jewish or Moorish ancestry who professed, whether sincerely or not, to be Christian, non-Jewish and non-Moorish. Unsurprisingly, it has not done well either with consumers or reviewers. Most people were expecting to read about known Jews like those who formed New York’s Shearith Israel in 1654 or “real” Muslims like the odd merchant or escaped black slave who practiced Islam in their home country. Instead, we presented Francis Drake, William Penn, the Morrises and Livingstons of New York and Byrds, Lees and Henrys of Virginia. We built a case that Sephardic Jewish families tracing back to pre-Inquisition Spain commanded prominent roles in all the colonies from the beginning.
Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” A crypto-Jew is not the same as a Jew. All Jews may have Jewish ancestry, but not all people with Jewish ancestry are Jewish. And Jewish ancestry does not go away and become insignificant if someone in that line converts and changes the family name.
Such sentiments and distinctions were washed overboard completely in the storm that broke out over our third book, for which we suggested several titles, including the following.
The Jewish Bloodlines of Great Britain (with additional subtitle)
Jerusalem’s Gate: Jewish Ancestry in England and Wales from the Beginning to the Eighteenth Century
The Jesse Tree: Jews, Muslims and the Creation of England
Jews and Jewishness in British History: From King Arthur and the Tudors to Cromwell and Daniel Defoe
With little discussion but rather something more like naked force, the project editor and editorial director insisted and continue to insist on a title I for one frankly cannot live with: Early Jews and Muslims in England and Wales. We have pointed out not only that there are several misnomers and misconceptions in this title but also that it is unimaginative and completely lacking in “sell.”
We have also pointed out that the publisher violates their own rules for titling with the following books in their list:
The English Royal Family of America, from Jamestown to the American Revolution
Michael A. Beatty
Remaking the Middle Ages
The Methods of Cinema and History in Portraying the Medieval World
Andrew B.R. Elliott
Makers of Western Science
The Works and Words of 24 Visionaries from Copernicus to Watson and Crick
The Great Victorian Sacrilege
Preachers, Politics and The Passion, 1879-1884
The Transformation of the South Pacific, 1520-1920
Robert W. Kirk
There were no Muslims anywhere, much less in England and Wales, before the seventh century. Our book starts with the voyage of Pythias in the fourth century BCE and an important chapter concerns the first Sephardic Jews in post-Roman Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries CE. Should one use the term “early” for such a broad and disparate period, a span of over two thousand years? There’s a difference between being iconoclastic and doing violence to historical concepts. Never mind, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead! Faber knows best.
Would be interested in hearing others’ opinions on this disagreement, which is turning into shades of Kogan. Have you had any experiences like this in the publishing world? Do I, after signing a contract, have the right to withdraw my consent to publication of a book with a fatally objectionable title?