Friday, February 20, 2015

The Titles That Screamed, or how did paperback originals get their names?

The last eight novels I've read are A Night for Screaming, A Ticket to Hell, Any Woman He Wanted, The Body Beautiful, Brute in Brass, Nothing in Her Way, The Diamond Bikini, and A Touch of Death, in the last of which a character wakes up screaming.

Aside from making me a confirmed fan of Harry Whittington, Charles Williams, and Bill S. Ballinger, the books got me wondering how paperback originals got their titles. Of the eight novels above, five and maybe six have generic titles. As evocative as those titles are, they could easily have been swapped among the books without any loss of effect, or something just as chill-inducing substituted for any one of them. (The two exceptions, with titles that either get directly and specifically at the novel's core or else highlight a recurrent and unusual motif, are Williams' Nothing in Her Way and The Diamond Bikini.)

Today one thinks of a title as personal to the author (or publisher) and specific to the book. Back then, it seems, things were more generic. One could easily imagine a Whittington or a Williams beginning with a title, and writing a book to match. (It may be significant that a number of paperback originals appeared under more than one title. Williams' A Touch of Death, for instance, was also published as Mix Yourself a Redhead, which refers to a minor incident in the book, but which would have made a much better title for one of Richard S. Prather's Shell Scott novels. Could the title have been an attempt to capitalize on Prather's popularity?)

So, readers, especially those familiar with paperback originals and their history, How did these books get their titles? Did their authors take titles as seriously as we take titles today?  Did publishers assign the titles? And which came first, the title or the book?

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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14 Comments:

Blogger seana graham said...

I can't speak directly to your question, but it reminded me of learning at one point that some of the iconic titles of literature were not what the author first intended. I recall that it was standard practice for editors to change the titles of even famous authors's manuscripts. I think it was Henry James and Edith Wharton that were the examples cited. But here is an article I just found of many others, some jawdroppers.

February 20, 2015  
Blogger RTD said...

My small and shallow pool of knowledge (and dim recollection) points to editors as being most often responsible for titles in the early and middle 20th century. But surely someone with a deeper pool will wade in with the real answers.

February 20, 2015  
Blogger Bill Crider said...

I know that pulp editors changed titles regularly and that some writers, like John D. MacDonald, sometimes didn't even know what the publication titles were (and maybe not even the name attached to the story). But I don't know about the paperback originals. I wouldn't be surprised if the editors changed a lot of titles, though.

February 20, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I figured that publishers always had the final say on titles, then as now, but reading these books in a concentrated burst made me suspect that there was systemic difference back then to how titles were bestowed.

I wonder if the (apparent) practice of publishers bestowing titles might be a carryover from the practice of the digest-size magazines of the time, which could, in turn, have been a holdover form newspapers, where editors wrote headlines.

February 20, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

RTD, my pool of knowledge in this area is probably as shallow as yours. I'm just making guesses and posing questions; I know very little about publishing practice back then.

February 20, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Bill, you anticipated one of my questions. I assume practice with respect to titles differed from the paperback original era until now. But I also wondered about these things were done in the pulp era.

I speculated in a previous comment that paperback houses may have thought the way magazine and newspaper editors did, regarding titles as headlines though up on the spot and slapped onto the books.

February 20, 2015  
Blogger Dan_Luft said...

Peter Rabe said that've gave up trying to name his books and that his editors at Gold Medal changed all of them.

February 20, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Aha! And Peter Rabe was a psychologist, too. Perhaps that lend him a degree of patience and understanding of the odd things that happened to titles.

Can you offer any examples of titles Rabe submitted and the titles publishers substituted for them?

February 20, 2015  
Blogger Rick Ollerman said...

Rabe gave up submitting titles after a while and said he didn't even remember them. He said the only title of his the publisher kept was "The Box." Very simple, and my favorite of all his books.

February 20, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And "The Box" is just the sort of title to keep a reader up at night even before he or she opens the book.

February 20, 2015  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

I write hesitantly, for this is far outside of my bailiwick. But just an observation. I just went through a list of 'Great Gold Medal Titles', and my thought was that likely all came from the authors. Either that or they had some pretty nifty editors who were very close readers and knew their authors. On the other hand, the titles of pulp short stories going back to the inception of that form I thought were likely rarely those given them by the authors.

I may be hopelessly wrong here, but my notion is that the later, Gold Medal books, though in a sense formulaic, by no stretch had to follow as rigid a formula as the stories churned out earlier. The more rigidly formulaic, the more likely editors determined title as well as style. The equivalent today, he said with twinkly malice, might be Time Magazine and Reader's Digest.

Just a humorous aside on that last: RD once offered me $2500 for the, ahem, 'reprint' rights to an article; a huge sum for such in the late 70s, akin to the NY Times famous rate of $1 a word for book reviews. Oh, the anguishing! Oh, the visions of that Bang and Olufsen stereo system! But I demurred. The anguish of indecision would have been as nothing compared with that of waiting to see what they'd done to my prose. And likely the title to boot.

February 21, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ha! I have seen statements on the order of anyone who writes for any reason but money is nuts. I guess that did not apply to reprint rights.

Gold Medal and other paperback originals may have been formulaic, to some extent. But this, in turn, makes differences between authors all the more interesting. I'm not ready to hazard conclusions, but it has been interesting to see certain motifs, situations, or phrases turn up in Charles Williams, say, that may not appear in Day Keene or Gil Brewer. I may set down some thoughts on this subject once I've read a few dozen more novels.

February 21, 2015  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

'Twas Samuel Johnson who said that only a "blockhead" writes other than for money, quoted by Boswell. Mind you, if many others had said something akin, especially when dealing with publishers, I should not immediately think them plagiarists. Putting on the mortarboard, however, one rider on Johnson's comment would be that he didn't have to deal with departmental tenure committees. But that is a whole other nest of vipers.

February 22, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No departmental tenure committees? Perhaps he was not even a doctor.

I wonder if the former chain of sex shops called Doc Johnson was a tribute to him. If so, it would ne one of the more charming literary tributes of our or any other time.

February 22, 2015  

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