Yesterday I sat down with two clients and their editor for a pleasant meet-and-greet and to discuss their recently acquired work of nonfiction. We talked about the editorial process, the production schedule, cover, interior design and title. The only hiccup arrived when we got to the subtitle. The suggested copy was, in the estimation of the authors, just a little over-the-top. In particular, the subtitle seemed to intimate that the book’s contents would Change Its Readers Lives. Forever.
The authors wanted the offending lines replaced with something a little more modest, less hyperbolic—some phrase rendered in a tone more wry and recognizable. They offered to come up with some alternatives. The editor was amenable, and we all agreed to reconvene our discussion over e-mail, where we could bounce ideas off of one another. I don’t know about you, but I cannot properly consider a title or a subtitle until I see it written down, and I think best alone and in front of a keyboard.
I’ve been mulling over possibilities and I’ve yet to come up with the precisely-right phrase. Subtitles are tricky because they must 1) capture the content of the book and 2) convince a person to buy it. I also I feel a bit conflicted. The reader/consumer/book buyer in me knows better than to believe the overheated rhetoric of subtitles, but 15 years in the publishing business makes me wonder if we are quite ready to dispense with overstatement. More humble assertions like “this book will leave you largely unchanged, albeit with slightly less free time” well, there’s not much appeal in that. What do you say? Would you be as drawn to a book that promised to be only “mildly interesting” or “easy enough to read?” Do you find subtitles off-putting or inviting?
Perhaps it’s just me, but I suspect that these breathless, over-earnest subtitle pledges, calculated as they are, also speak to the secret wish of every reader. The desire to find that magic book—the one that does blow our minds, change our lives, the story, true or imagined, that affects us in some powerful, primal way.