Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Titles. Publishers, Please Listen!

Back When I wrote a novella entitled The Chained Karma of the Plutonium Priest—and if that doesn’t draw you, you’re not a science fiction fan. The story was published in Galaxy magazine, but the editor there titled it Plutonium. Yes. Unfortunately Galaxy had serialized one of my novels under the title of Helium, so this was, as it were, in the ballpark. Sort of. Helium, by the way, first saw the light as A Hostage for the Hinterland, my own title for it. No room for a long title? Column-inch-challenged? I shake my head. Plutonium did its magic anyway despite being a nickname. I was nominated science fiction writer of the year; I didn’t get the coveted prize, but I was up there on the stage with two other contenders. Later yet this same novella, genuinely expanded into a novel, not merely bulked up—in effect I wrote a brand new novel with the same plot—saw hardback publication by St. Martin’s Press. But they called it The Karma Affair, hoping to position it as a “cross-over” novel; they put a so-so but mysterious-looking dust jacket on the thing. Now, to be sure, I never wrote anything in science fiction which wasn’t a cross-over book. I’m just not the kind who cleanly fits a genre! Anyway, that book did rather well despite its undistinguished title, enough so that it got translated into a number of languages, including Italian. The Italians, finally, gave it a good title: La Fisica del Karma. This was close to being descriptive of one aspect of the book, as neither Plutonium nor Karma Affair really were. My own title, the best of them all, went to waste. But publishers have this right, you see. They buy the property but reserve the right to butcher the title.

Several incarnations later, now working in reference publishing, I originated a title called Manufacturing U.S.A. Here I got lucky. The deciding personality was Deidra Bryfonski at Gale Research. She over-ruled more junior editors who wished to change the name. No. She went with mine, and MUSA, as it came to be known, went out into the world with the handle that I gave it. MUSA promptly won Best Reference Book of the Year in its category and became the foundation of our company, Editorial Code and Data, Inc. The book is still appearing at two-year intervals, albeit its title now is Manufacturing and Distribution U.S.A., the scope having expanded and also its size; three volumes now. It’s current editor is Joyce P. Simpkin, a young woman but a veteran editor of ECDI. That company name, incidentally, I formed in respectful imitation of what I’d always thought was a great name; I was respectfully using only its rhythm and its honest and direct statement of what the company did: Industrial Light and Magic. ECDI subsequently won several other Best Reference awards as well, and, generally, under Gale, we were and are edited by pros.

Title-inflation is very often a problem nowadays as Chiefs of This and That (Toxic Asset Disposal perhaps) proliferate—but occasionally, if the creator has a knack, title-deflation is something to be avoided. Are you listening out there?


  1. Please change the title of this post to "Author Fails to Understand Superior Publisher Title Insight."

    Thank you.

  2. Well, one advantage of having the titles Helium and Plutonium is that it leaves you all the periodic table in between to expand into.Iridium and Argon can be your next titles.

  3. Tom Lehrer sings the potential Arsen Darnay bibliography:

  4. I loved that Tom Lehrer song, John. You have a good memory. The Periodic Table is a great source for titles, to be sure, Brandon, but it occurs to me, realizing that this is a self-promoting sort of post (why else all those references to awards), my next choice really ought to be Arsenium.

    Have you folks noticed that none of the elemental names are feminine, except, by a stretch, Oxygen? A sharp acid? As a worshipper of the Great White Goddess, I'm inclined to nominate, if only I knew where to apply, Hafnia to replace Hafnium. For starters.