Sunday, August 05, 2007

Title changes that drive you nuts (or not)



Why do publishers change a book's title when translating or reissuing it? Why does Åsa Larsson's Solstorm become Sun Storm in the United States but The Savage Altar in the United Kingdom? How about The Smell of the Night and The Scent of the Night? Again, same book.

And could political sensitivities lie behind the change in title of Matt Beynon Rees' first crime novel set in the Palestinian territories? The Collaborator of Bethlehem in the U.S. became The Bethlehem Murders in the U.K. (The British edition also changes Rees' name, dropping Beynon.)

Sometimes a change is easy to understand. Fred Vargas' Have Mercy On Us All made a better English title than a literal translation of the French original would have been: Leave Quickly, and Return Late. And Cornell Woolrich's story "It Had to Be Murder" is more easily found these days under the title of the movie that Alfred Hitchcock made from it: Rear Window.


OK, readers, what title changes delighted or infuriated you — or made you scratch your head or roll your eyes?

And here's a special Detectives Beyond Borders quiz: Adrian Hyland's wonderful Australian debut novel, Diamond Dove, will be published in the United States as Moonlight Downs. Why?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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20 Comments:

Blogger Dave Knadler said...

I found it annoying when Ian Rankin's "Fleshmarket Close" was renamed "Fleshmarket Alley" for American readers. That kind of thing is just an insult.

August 06, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I've seen that cited as an annoying title change, but I could guess at the reason for it, and the reason made sense. Non-British readers might not know that close is a British term for an alley or enclosed space. That, in turn, could lead to confusion with close, to shut, or close, near.

August 06, 2007  
Blogger Euro Crime said...

The title change for Matt Rees's book is because - according to this Independent article - "The Bethlehem title was changed for the British market because it sounds more like a mystery story and women in particular prefer that genre to the political thriller."

August 06, 2007  
Blogger Bill Crider said...

Well, it doesn't really bother me, but why was Edward Wright's novel called WHILE I DISAPPEAR in the U.S. and THE SILVER FACE in Britain? I never understand these things. The first Harry Potter title was changed for the U.S., too.

August 06, 2007  
Anonymous krimileser said...

I guess british publishers like titles of their own. Olen Steinhauers books "36 Yalta Boulevard" and "Liberation Movements" were changed to "The Vienna Assignment" and "The Istanbul Variations", respectively. In comparison the american titles are more evocative.

August 06, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks for the comments, and thanks for the article from the Independent. It's interesting that the article says the British Bethlehem title was changed based on market preferences rather than on the novel's contents. From what I've read in articles and reviews, the book has elements of both murder mystery and political thriller. I'll weigh in again once I've read it.

The British titles for the Olen Steinhauer novels, like that of Matt (Benyon) Rees' book, fit the THE+ADJECTIVE+NOUN pattern. Perhaps British readers prefer their titles that way. It's enough to make me want to read Robert Ludlum or at least a list of his titles.

Edward Wright's British title fits the pattern as well. It would be interesting to hear from people who work in publishing on why titles change. Sometimes the reasons are easy to guess, as with Pars vite, et reviens tard becoming Have Mercy on Us All or the "Rear Window" change. (Whether the guesses are accurate is another matter.)

And, as the question of Diamond Dove's U.S. title will eventually reveal, the reasons can be unexpected.

August 06, 2007  
Anonymous LauraR said...

Does Diamond Dove mean something different and rude in US slang then Peter?

Most annoying title change - Amangansett by Mark Mills to The Whaleboat House. This caught me out - fortunately it was only a duplicate library reservation fee of 80p that was wasted, rather than the book price!

Jar City was changed to Tainted Blood - I could kind of understand that, as Jar City might have seemed slightly tasteless to the UK market, since there have been recentish scandals to do with retained organs at UK children's hospitals.

August 06, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Laura, what was the reason for changing the Marks Mills title? The Whaleboat House is not a bad title, but Amangansett is terrific. Is the former a U.K. title, the latter a U.S.? Amangansett would sound more familiar to American ears. It sounds like a word from one of the Indian/Native American languages spoken in the northeastern United States.

I can understand your guess about a change in the title of Arnaldur Indridason's book. Still, it's unfortunate. Tainted Blood is a good thriller title, redolent of menace, but Jar City is even better, all the more menacing because it's so weird. And it's one of the few titles that really hits you in the gut when you realize what it means.

I'm glad you asked about Diamond Dove. The author says its title was changed because of similarity to other titles on his U.S. publisher's list. That publisher is Soho, whose titles include several of Peter Lovesey's Peter Diamond books, including Diamond Dust. Who would have guessed?

Incidentally, I have just found a Web site where an author weighs in on the question of changing titles: http://www.contemporary-nomad.com/?p=516#comments.

August 06, 2007  
Anonymous Karen C said...

Whilst you can "sort of" see the logic behind the closeness of Diamond Dove to Peter Diamond books - it's an argument that just doesn't stack up - isn't there an In the Woods around by Coben at the moment - and there's Tana French's absolutely excellent In the Woods. Plus there are plenty of examples of books with the same / similar names floating around to make the whole thing less about logic and more about whim. And whim and throw-away comments like well "our readers" won't understand what a Close is. Oh for goodness sake....

August 06, 2007  
Anonymous lolarusa said...

I think "Smilla's Sense of Snow" is a wonderful title. In the UK it was titled "Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow". Lame.

August 06, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

You picked an interesting example. First, I agree with you that the U.S. title is wonderful and the U.K. title lame.

In slight defense of the U.K. publishers, the Miss is faithful to the original Danish title. I have no idea which is the more accurate translation of the Danish fornemmelse, but sense so obviously makes for a more rhythmic, better-sounding title in English than feeling that it's hard to know what the U.K. publisher was thinking.

August 07, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Karen, what can I tell you? That's why I said it would be interesting to hear from people in publishing on this matter. At least Moonlight Downs is not misleading, and it sounds pretty good, though not as good as Diamond Dove.

Re close, I was just speculating about what the publisher might have been thinking, not endorsing that line of thinking. I actually like the idea of learning through reading, and that includes enlarging my vocabulary. Still, while I won't say I endorse the decision to change the title, I can at least understand why someone at the publisher's may have brought the matter up.

Ian Rankin is scheduled to appear in Toronto as part of the same reading series that hosted four Swedish crime writers a few months back (http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/2007/04/evening-with-four-sympathetic-swedish.html). Maybe I can ask him then what he thinks of the title change -- or if he thinks of it at all.

August 07, 2007  
Anonymous cfr said...

In the UK, the Coben novel is called The Woods and Tana French's novel In The Woods. I spoke an author a few months back who thought this similarity was unfortunate for a debut "as you wouldn't want to be coming up against a biggie like Coben". But perhaps it works the other way too, when it comes to Amazon searches on book name, providing some more sales?

As for the Mills novel, I stupidly bought two copies on the same day within minutes. My purchase of the price cut Amagansett in hard cover followed swiftly on from a purchase of The Whaleboat House in paperback. I later added to this collection with another Whaleboat House in PB, courtesy of the goodie bag at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival...

August 07, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

You could give away copies of the Mark Mills to lucky friends or readers.

I feel for Tana French and the similarity of her title to Harlan Coben's. But her novel seems to be getting favorable mentions, so perhaps the key to avoiding any problems that might be caused by similarity of titles is simply to write a good novel. And yes, I suppose similarity of titles could cut both ways.

August 07, 2007  
Blogger Olen Steinhauer said...

Speaking as an author, it does get frustrating. I spend a lot of time working out a properly evocative title, then have to go into negotiations with my US publisher about it. Takes weeks, sometimes. When the book moves to the UK, the decision seems to move out of my hands. My impression is that UK publishers are far more conservative about titles (that THE+ADJ+NOUN thing). I pointed out that, because of the web, UK readers are familiar with US reviews, and since I review well, those good reviews should help UK sales. But I was told (I think erroneously) that UK readers only read UK reviews. Not to mention people buying two copies of the same book...

Case in point: Last year, Amazon UK offered two books of mine, when bought together, for a reduced price--36 Yalta Boulevard, and The Vienna Assignment. You guessed it--same books. I have no idea how many they sold before we finally got them to fix it.

August 17, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I hope Amazon UK's flub helped drive your sales up. At least publishers leave short-story titles alone. Otherwise who knows what might have happened to "The Piss-Stained Czech" in the UK?

August 17, 2007  
Anonymous Ed Wright said...

I agree that title changes in general hurt more than help. In the case of mine, 'The Silver Face' was the title I gave my second book. Orion, my British publisher, liked it fine; Putnam, my U.S. publisher, didn't. We negotiated & came up with 'While I Disappear.' In hindsight, I should have stuck to my guns, because the two titles have led to much confusion. But with only one book under my belt, I was trying to be the accommodating author. (It didn't do any good; Putnam, as you may have noticed, is now my ex-U.S. publisher.) At least St. Martin's, my new American home, seems happy with 'Damnation Falls,' the title of my latest from Orion. Stay tuned. . .

October 11, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks for the note, Ed. I wonder if there's any grand unified theory of what publishers are thinking when they change titles. Other than Soho's reason for changing the title of Adrian Hyland's Diamond Dove for U.S. publication, I can't see any pattern that would predict what sort of title a publisher might prefer.

What reason did Putnam give for not liking The Silver Face?

October 11, 2007  
Anonymous Ed Wright said...

As for why Putnam didn't like "The Silver Face," it was years ago & I think I've tried to repress the memory, but it went something like this: They thought the article-adjective-noun word sequence sounded a little traditional & flat (who knows, maybe they'd also have had trouble with "The Maltese Falcon"), & they wanted something more lyrical. My editor suggested "While I Disappear," which is the last line in an old torch song called "Angel Eyes." As I said before, I went along & lived to regret it. Ironically, I actually like the title a lot. It has a sad, poetic touch that fits the novel perfectly. Problem is, my book already had a title, & a pretty good one. I don't like to confuse readers. As Shirley Jackson said, a confused reader is an angry reader.

October 31, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks for the note, Ed. The pattern that seems to be emerging is that U.K. publishers prefer the ADJECTIVE+ARTICLE+NOUN combination for titles. Whether this is good for author and reader is another matter. Your case makes an interesting contrast with Olen Steinhauer's.

I wonder if publishers make their decisions in these matters on anything other than what they think sounds good. Are there schools of thought on this? Empirical research that would suggest preference on readers' part for one type of title over another and whether such preferences change from country? And whether authors tear their hair out having to worry about such things?

October 31, 2007  

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