Literature and Market Struggling for the Right Title

Literature and Market: Struggling for the Right Title“;
Literature and Market: Struggling for the Right Title“; | Photo (detail): © Frankfurter Buchmesse

Book titles are a delicate matter on which not only authors but also publishers decide. Artistic freedom and the expectations of the trade are often at loggerheads.

Every free-lance journalist is familiar with the situation: you put a lot of thought and effort into the title of an article and find out after publication that the editors have simply changed it. This is a commonplace procedure for editors, and often there are good reasons for changing titles. But sometimes there aren’t.

Writers encounter the same problem, only that with them much more is involved, in the worst case a major oeuvre which, in the eyes of the author, then goes under the wrong title for ever and ever. Usually authors suggest titles, publishers stipulate them.

The magic word is “marketability”, so not only the publisher’s editing but also its marketing department have a say. And controversies arise frequently. In 1966, for example, Suhrkamp publisher Siegfried Unseld wrote to his author Thomas Bernhard regarding the latter’s plan to entitle a novel Verstörung (Gargoyles), which made the publisher “altogether unhappy, and I am even more unhappy about your intransigence about even hearing our other title suggestions. Please do not reproach the publishing house should the book fail to garner the success that the text deserves. It is an excellent text ... but it is extremely unfortunate that your book has a title that will frighten off buyers.”

The author remained intransigent, that is to say, uncompromising, and the book was published with the title Verstörung, albeit to the dissatisfaction of the publisher, who wrote once again in 1968: “It was quite evident to us that a title like that would initially be rejected by the retailers and then by the people who buy books as gifts (which is 90% of all book buyers).”

“Verblendung” and “Verdammnis” were not off-putting

Given today’s book market, is seems considerably more improbable that the author would win through in the face of such differences of opinion. As regards works of fiction, you sometimes even get the feeling that shallower, often quite bland titles are very much on the increase and occasionally seem unintentionally funny. Translating titles into German also seems to present a particular problem, as in the case of the novel The Year of the Rat, by Clare Furniss, published in 2014. German readers were clearly not credited with any knowledge of the Chinese signs of the zodiac, so in German the book is called Das Jahr, nachdem die Welt stehenblieb (The year after the world stood still).

When you look at another book segment – crime fiction – Thomas Bernhard’s title Verstörung seems almost avant-garde today. Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, which includes, under their German titles, Verblendung (2005), Verdammis (2006) and Vergebung (2007), could hardly be said to have frightened off gift-book buyers. It may even have encouraged them, considering that more than 60 million copies were sold worldwide.

Except perhaps for a Swedish crime story, terms to do with death are actually risky in titles. “We try to avoid illness, death or anything offensive,” says Wilhelm Trapp, programme director for fiction at the publisher Rowohlt Berlin. But that’s not always so, as in the case of the author Thomas Pletzinger: for years Bestattung eines Hundes (Funeral of a Dog) was the working title for his 2008 debut novel. Yet death in the title, the death of a dog, what is more, seemed precarious. So together with his editor he thought up dozens of alternatives, a long-list of 80, then a short-list of ten titles, including Langsame Landung, Luas letztes Bier and Heimwehtouristen. At the decisive conference, the head of marketing looked at the list and without hesitation opted for “Bestattung eines Hundes, definitely. People will buy that.”

Some chose to be deliberately curious

For some time now, a prize for the “most curious book-title of the year” has been presented in Germany, and while books like Die Moldau im Schrank (The Moldova in the cupboard, 2011) by Nina Maria Marewski seem to want to compete for it inadvertently, there are also some that deliberately aim to be curious, through their baroque length, for example, as in Antonia Baum’s novel Ich wuchs auf einem Schrottplatz auf, wo ich lernte, mich von Radkappen und Stoßstangen zu ernähren (I grew up in a scrapyard where I learned to feed myself on hubcaps and bumpers, 2015).

Titles are a text genre of their very own. They “open doors to uncharted territories, though only slightly”. This is something that is well known to the guardians of the “Library of Unwritten Books”. In that anthology, published by Piper, you can find out from more than 70 contemporary authors just how amusing, but also unpleasant, the struggle for the right title can be: for example, why Martin Gülich’s novel Die Paarung der Feuerwanzen (Mating fire bugs) finally appeared in 2005 as Die Umarmung (The embrace); how the CDU party-donations affair led to Annett Gröschner’s debut novel, already listed in the publisher’s brochure as Eingefrorene Guthaben (Frozen assets) was renamed Moskauer Eis (Moscow ice, 2000), or why Monika Rinck’s wonderful suggestions for a title for her first volume of poetry – Würfeln mit Cowboys, Goodbye, Heuschrecke, Elektroholunder or Regen, dechiffriert (Playing dice with cowboys, Goodbye, grasshopper, Electroelderberry, Rain, deciphered) – were all rejected in favour of Verzückte Distanzen (Ecstatic distances, 2004). Librarians and readers can be sure that concealed behind each and every printed title are countless unprinted, rejected titles.