A great deal of what we do is influenced by culture. And a recent comment exchange with Crimeworm (whose blog you really ought to check out!) and Cleo of Cleopatra Loves Books (another blog treasure) has got me thinking about how culture influences things like book titles and book covers.
Culture and language have to be taken into account when a book moves into international markets. Publishers know this too, so sometimes, titles aren’t directly translated from one language into another. For instance, the original title of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was Män som hatar kvinnor – Men Who Hate Women. Those who are familiar with the book will know that that title gets right to one of the main points of the plot. But when the book was translated and prepared for English-speaking audiences, the publisher opted to change the title. That choice had two important effects. One was that the new title was more closely related to the other two titles in the trilogy, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest. That’s one effective strategy for ‘branding’ books.
Another effect of that title change was arguably to give the series a broader appeal. Among other things, Larsson used these novels to comment on Swedish politics, on social issues and on the role of women in Swedish society. While some of his commentary transcends borders, it’s possible that readers from other countries wouldn’t have been as tempted to try those stories if they had seen them as appealing mostly to Swedish readers. The title change also places extra emphasis on the character of Lisbeth Salander. And that switch of emphasis had commercial value as well. Quite possibly international readers found her story and personality more intriguing than the finance and Swedish social class issues that are also prominent in the series.
Culture is of course inextricably linked with language. So when publishers settle on final titles for novels, they also take words and language into account. Obviously that means translating from one language into another. But it also can mean more subtle differences, such as differences among dialects. To take just one example, Ian Rankin’s fifteenth novel featuring Inspector John Rebus was initially published as Fleshmarket Close. But when the US publication option was picked up, the title was changed to Fleshmarket Alley. That’s because in Scotland, a ‘close’ is an alley, but the word ‘close’ isn’t used that way in the US. It was thought that US readers would find it easier to understand the title if the word ‘alley’ was used. Interestingly, some other Rankin titles that would have extra levels of meaning in Scottish parlance were not changed for US audiences. For example, on one level, the title of the first Rebus novel Knots and Crosses is a play on words, referring to the game ‘naughts and crosses’ – the UK name for what’s called ‘tic tac toe’ in the US.
Another important thing to keep in mind about culture is that it is dynamic. Title changes of books therefore sometimes reflect changes in society and its values over time. For instance, one of Agatha Christie’s best-regarded novels is And Then There Were None. Fans will know that this title reflects the story of ten people who are invited to spend some time on Indian Island. One by one, the people on the island are killed, and the survivors have to find out which one of them is the killer if they’re to stay alive. Fans will also know that this book had two other names as well. The original titles were not considered to be offensive at the time that the book was published; and in fact, those original titles were in keeping with an old poem that plays a role in the novel. But by today’s standards, those two titles are considered offensive. This one’s Christie’s best-selling novel, but I wonder what sales might be like if the original titles had been kept.
Sometimes, title changes don’t have as obvious a cultural motivation. For example, Louise Penny’s Dead Cold was published in the US as A Fatal Grace. Agatha Christie’s The Hollow was published as Murder After Hours, and her Five Little Pigs was also published as Murder in Retrospect. There are lots of other examples like this as well. I’m sure that you could think of many more than I could. Sometimes those changes are made because there’s another novel with the same or a very similar title being published in the ‘target’ country. Sometimes it’s because the publisher thinks the new title will ‘stand out’ more. Other times it’s to link a group of novels by the same author (e.g. the ‘nursery rhyme’ theme in some of Agatha Christie’s titles).
The central point of all of this is really that when a publisher is preparing a book for a new market, the main concern is making that book appealing to readeres in that market. In order to do that, publishers choose titles that are likely to stand out in the minds of readers. They also choose titles that ‘brand’ a book or series for readers, and that take into account the culture of the target market. All of those factors play roles in the titles that are eventually selected. They can also mean that the same book has several titles, even in the same language. That can sometimes result in confusion and even frustration, but it probably also means that more books are sold.
The other topic that was brought up in this interesting comment exchange had to do with covers. Why, for instance, are covers for the same novel (same title, even) different between, say, the US and the UK? Why does the same book have two different covers in different editions? Part of the reason may have a bit to do with culture. Each culture, for instance, has different standards for what is appealing/appropriate. But as Cleo pointed out, there’s also the matter of graphic artist or company. Different publishers use different companies or individuals to do the cover art. Those companies or people have different interpretations of the story, and different ideas of what is likely to appeal to readers. And, of course, there’s the important reality of film and television tie-ins. Many cover changes are influenced by those adaptations.
These are just my initial thoughts on the topics of title/cover changes. What do you think? Thanks to Crimeworm and Cleo for the delicious ‘food for thought.’ You’ll want to visit their blogs and see how terrific they are.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from K.L. Dunham and Johnny Mandel’s Don’t Look Back.