When the title doesn’t match the content – a cautionary writing tale

Over the years I’ve signed an awful lot of publishing contracts. And every one of them has had a clause which reads much the same way. The publisher has full control not just of the appearance of the book but also its title.

It’s done for good reason. An author might well call their book ‘Advanced techniques for J79 combustion chamber thrust diversion and exhaust efflux recombustion’, but (outside a certain group) it’d have the marketing appeal of a dead rat. Throw it across to a publisher’s marketing department, and suddenly it emerges as ‘Bleed and Burn! The Afterburner Story’. Good stuff, and I’d buy that for a dollar.

Actual photograph of a military historian reviewing the book of a competitor. Probably. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205162518

Still, there’s a down-side which I first ran into back in the early 2000s, when I was contracted to write a series of short histories of New Zealand’s ground campaigns of the Second World War. They were explicitly required to be non-technical, for the widest audience. Although I’d used the word ‘land’ in the subtitles – because this is what the books were about – my publisher’s marketing department nixed the idea as too limiting for buyers. I didn’t agree. But it wasn’t my call and, they said, the focus on ground action was obvious – no idiot would imagine it covered anything else, even if the sub-title didn’t explicitly state it. So my wording was changed, and one book came out as ‘Desert Duel: New Zealand’s North African war’, another as ‘Italian Odyssey: New Zealanders in the battle for Italy’.

‘Desert Duel’ was shortly reviewed by the government’s chief military historian and, incidentally, also my former thesis co-supervisor – the top guy in the country, who spent much of his review dwelling on my huge failure to include the the naval and air components of New Zealand’s North African war, as implied by the subtitle. Yup, I was so useless I hadn’t even noticed I’d missed two thirds of the subject. Worse, apparently I couldn’t do arithmetic, or count, or copy data.

Malicious construction of this kind is a well-known invalidation technique in the academy and, of course, both morally and intellectually empty. The allegation also begged questions. Was he claiming the publishers also hadn’t noticed these blatant omissions? Besides, he’d been been my co-supervisor, so if there was anything wrong with my scholarship he had only his own failure as a teacher to blame – every fault he found with me in his field, surely, was proof of how useless he was.

But I’m sure these questions didn’t occur to him as he went out of his way to represent me as inept and worthless in a field where he had every advantage over me from status to income, research funding and publishers – all at my expense as a taxpayer. It wasn’t the first time he’d done this to me, incidentally, nor the last (he was still at it a few months back, over a recent title of mine) – and I still have no idea why.

Still, when both books came out in second edition a few years ago, I made sure they had different subtitles that could not be maliciously construed. You never know who else might be lurking out there, and I’d hate to get on a psychopath’s shitlist for having a qualifying word missing from a subtitle.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2021

12 thoughts on “When the title doesn’t match the content – a cautionary writing tale

  1. Ouch. I knew academia was as full of petty empire builders as every other human organisation, but I had no idea historians could be so…spiteful. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This guy has been writing worth-denial put-downs of my work for 20 years. On no occasion has he ever approached me for a discussion. I had the most egregious (a two-page spread in the New Zealand Listener) read for defamation – for which I had a case – and also have advice on his latest series of outbursts – four separate publications basically presenting me as incompetent in my field and profession, apparently triggered by my most recent publication. All has been done while hiding behind the pretense of ‘review’ and his status as a career public servant tasked with writing military history. It’s trivial to give the lie to his allegations, but I’ve been reluctant to dignify the guy by engaging conduct that – because of its repetition, nature and persistence – presents as malicious. Still, it’s disturbing to be the focus of this kind of attention over such a period, all from someone who’s to date lacked the guts to actually contact me over whatever his problem might be with my existence. It’s the sort of behaviour I’d associate with a mentally disturbed fan, not a professional in the field.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Quick question: has this guy every published anything of his own? I don’t mean reviews but an actual ‘book’?
        Jealousy is an ugly beast, as is envy. 😦

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes, he was employed to do so on salary as an official government historian from 1971 until he retired a few years ago (he’s employed again at taxpayer expense now, writing the official history of the Foreign Affairs department). His publications include the official histories of New Zealand in the Korean war (2 vols), Vietnam (1 vol), the Oxford Companion to New Zealand Military History (editor/contributor), another major work on defence policy for which he was awarded a Litt.D, battlefield guides, the official “WW100” history of New Zealand’s Western Front campaign, many other smaller official works on New Zealand’s military history, including field guides (requiring trips on expenses to research), multiple contributions to the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, he’s the long-standing managing editor for the International Review periodical, etc etc. He got an ONZM for his contributions to New Zealand history in 1997. The bulk was on salary with paid research costs, all at taxpayer expense. He has had every advantage over me in every possible way and yet, for 20 years, has been peddling a relentlessly derogatory narrative relative to my professional competence and quality of scholarship. Once or twice and I’d accept he simply didn’t like a couple of my books. But on the current record of repetitions, all peddling the same line over two decades irrespective of what I write, the excuse of ‘honest opinion’ of my published words begins to run a bit thin. I have no idea what his problem is. He’s alone in doing so, incidentally – and the work he’s been dissing led to my being elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society on merit of my scholarship.


  2. That’s awful. I’m glad you were able to get the subtitles changed. I’m guessing your publisher was more receptive to changing the subtitles given what happened.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Different publisher. The problem wasn’t really with the subtitle but with the sort of people who use it to attack the author. It wasn’t the only time I had that problem. A while later I was writing for Penguin (before the amalgamation with Random House), and they went through a phase of trying to present history as ‘discovering hidden truths’. This led to a book I wrote on New Zealand’s early nineteenth century convicts being described as a ‘hidden’ story, against my protests. It wasn’t, and I got duly roasted by multiple reviewers for being so stupid as to think it was. Except, of course, I didn’t think that at all. I did point it out to my editor when the reviews started coming in.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Ome thesis co-spervisor falsely accused me in public of sleeping with his best friend, a lothario who bragged and lied. The other washed his hands of me when I married the man I’d lived with for my whole adult life. Told me I had no love for science if I loved a man.

    I left academia FAST.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Academia isn’t a pleasant place. What destroyed my faith during the years I spent studying was the blatant corruption – the way some lecturers offered better marks for sexual favours, the way others accumulated in-crowd sycophants and intentionally ran down students who were not the ‘chosen ones’, and the vicious hatred that senior academics had for each other – a hatred driven purely by the idea that status was a zero-sum game, usually defined by the dimension of their publications list. All this at taxpayer expense, of course. I left that university and its ethically empty little world after my first post-grad degree, picked up at another to write a thesis – only to have my main supervisor abscond to CSIS Georgetown and the co-supervisor turn out to be a career public servant with apparent aspirations of academic status, and all the behaviours that went with it. I did finish the thesis, but I am where I am today in spite of, not because of, that university system.

      Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.