Friday, January 11, 2008

An author weighs in on title changes

I've discussed title changes from time to time, those sometimes odd alterations that a book's name undergoes when translated or otherwise crossing borders.

Ian Rankin's Fleshmarket Close became Fleshmarket Alley in the U.S., presumably because American readers might not know that a close was an alley or closed space. Olen Steinhauer's 36 Yalta Boulevard and Liberation Movements became The Vienna Assignment and The Istanbul Variations in the U.K. And Adrian Hyland's Diamond Dove will be called Moonlight Downs in the United States because his American publisher's list already included Peter Lovesey's Diamond Dust.

Matt Rees, both of whose titles were changed for publication in the United Kingdom, says his U.K. publishers thought The Collaborator of Bethlehem sounded more like a thriller than a mystery. The book appears in the U.K. as The Bethlehem Murders. Rees had the following to say about title changes:

"In the U.K., they've also changed the title for the second book in the series, which will be out in February. In the U.S., they're using my original title, which is A Grave in Gaza. In the U.K., it'll be called The Saladin Murders. In this case, it's because the U.K. publisher thought Gaza conjured up an image of news, nonfiction rather than fiction. I came up with Saladin Murders because the
main road through the entire length of the Gaza Strip, along which much of the action of the novel takes place, is called the Saladin Road. It's certainly a bit confusing.

"Now that my novels are appearing in a number of other languages, it's quite difficult to hold the titles in my head, as different countries choose titles which resonate in their own languages. In Italy and Spain, it's called The Teacher of Bethlehem, in German, Dutch and Portuguese The Traitor of Bethlehem."
Excessive newsiness and local resonance: two more reasons for publishers to change a novel's title. What other reasons can you think of for a publisher to make such a change? What is the weirdest such reason?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Blogger Linkmeister said...

The most famous one in recent memory has to be "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" (UK) v. "Sorcerer's Stone" (US).

January 11, 2008  
Blogger Kerrie said...

wasn't it the case with some of the Agatha Christie novels that the publisher who originally published the book did not have the US publishing rights, and would then not release the right for the name to be used?

January 11, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And then there's the Agatha Christie title that was too inflammatory for U.S. publication even in less enlightened times and had to be changed.

I didn't know about the Harry Potter's British title. I've just done some quick and depressing reading about the small controversy surrounding the change. It's a shame the American publisher thought U.S. readers too dumb to understand British usage. I haven't read the book, so I can't judge Scholastic's argument that Sorcerer's Stone more accurately reflects the book's content than Philosopher's. I suspect that here, too, the publisher was afraid readers would be scared off and not get the "philosopher's stone" reference.

Kerrie, I don't know the history of the Agatha Christie titles. It would be interesting to consult someone who knows publishing law. It's my understanding that titles cannot be copyrighted. That is, I could publish a book tomorrow called The Big Sleep or The Da Vinci Code if I wanted to as long as I did not rip off the content of the books. Whether the right to a title is copyrightable with respect to its original work, I have no idea. Perhaps I'll learn a bit of law thanks to this discussion.

January 11, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or maybe I'm confused. Perhaps Philosopher's Stone was the title I had heard. In any case, I had not known that there was a title change or a controversy.

January 11, 2008  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

The Agatha Christie novel that eventually was titled "And then there were none" has had sales of about 100 million and apparently is the best selling mystery of all time.
I can't work out why the Andrea Camilleri book The Smell of the Night in the USA became the Scent of the Night for our delicate British noses.

January 11, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That Camilleri is the one change I don't quite get. Sure, the British are olfactorially squeamish, but to the point of changing a book's title? At least the resulting title sounds good.

January 11, 2008  

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