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.
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