Graham Harman has an interesting post ‘on book titles and subtitles’ here. He’s talking about the publisher desire for keywords in titles in order to help position them in the market. Fair enough, although it can have some distorting effects.
As for the other titles… well, if you’re not yet a first-time author, be aware that your book contract will include the book title, but it will also call it the “provisional book title.” And they do mean provisional. Publishers, even the very nicest ones, have a way of wanting to renegotiate the title as soon as you’ve delivered the manuscript under the old title.
Absolutely. What I find irritating about the process is not the idea that publishers want a say in the title – like the cover and blurb – but that they leave it so late. It might come as a surprise to some people (it certainly does to publishers) that when I write I am thinking about the title: it’s not some arbitrary bolt-on at the end. Graham provides some interesting background on his titles – my sense is he’s been fortunate in some of these negotiations, or maybe he’s just better at it. Tool Being, Guerrilla Metaphysics and Prince of Networks are all great titles. Here are mine…
Mapping the Present: Heidegger, Foucault and the Project of a Spatial History – I still really like this title. In retrospect, I think ‘politics of a spatial history’ would have been better, but I doubt that would have got through. As it was, I was given what I wanted here – unusual for a first-time author.
Understanding Henri Lefebvre: Theory and the Possible – the contract was signed with something like Henri Lefebvre: A Critical Introduction, which I’m glad we moved away from. (Coincidentally, Andy Merrifield’s book a couple of years later ended up with that title). Continuum were launching a few books as Understanding X. I insisted on the ‘Henri’ because of the potential confusion with other Lefebvre’s, such as the historian of the French revolution, Georges. The subtitle was hard work to get agreed, and wasn’t my first suggestion, but I quite like it now. My initial attempts had ‘politics’ in, which Continuum thought would pigeonhole the book too much.
I also did two books of Lefebvre’s writings with Continuum – Key Writings, which was branded to be like the Bergson collection they did around the same time; and Rhythmanalysis. The actual title of Lefebvre’s book would be Elements of Rhythmanalysis: An Introduction to the Understanding of Rhythms, which Continuum didn’t like. So we ended up with the English book being Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life, but because it included both the French book and some separate essays on the theme, the French book itself was labelled within the book. Therefore we didn’t change Lefebvre’s title, but just repackaged it as part of a larger book. Not a bad compromise.
Speaking Against Number: Heidegger, Language and the Politics of Calculation – I think this was as it always was. I really like this title – the three words in the title are from the three main chapters: Speaking-Rhetorical Politics; Against-Polemical Politics; Number-Calculative Politics, but it also works as a phrase.
Space, Knowledge, and Power: Foucault and Geography – this was what Jeremy and I originally proposed. Ashgate pretty much agreed with our proposal, though I think we had to resist switching the title and subtitle around.
Terror and Territory: The Spatial Extent of Sovereignty. Although I’d used ‘Terror and Territory’ for a journal article, I decided to change the book’s title, and wrote the book with the title as Terror and the State of Territory, which I still think is strong. But Minnesota hated it, and refused to have it. They then proposed Post 9/11 Geopolitics as a subtitle, which I thought was terrible on so many levels, and one that no-one who had read the book could have thought appropriate (but I bet marketing loved it). The title we ended up with, which uses the title of the book’s coda as subtitle, is a bit of a mess, but better than alternatives.
The Lefebvre collection State, Space, World seemed to Neil and me to be sufficient on its own. Minnesota wanted a subtitle, and insisted on Selected Essays, which we thought was tame and dull. We tried to propose Political Essays, but that wasn’t accepted.
And for future ones – Reading Kant’s Geography is nice and simple, and better than Reading Kant’s Physical Geography which was an earlier version. Yes, the latter is more appropriate to the title of Kant’s book, but then the collection is about Kant’s work a bit more generally; and Sloterdijk Now is part of a series called ‘Theory Now’. I think I know what I want the history of the concept of territory book to be called, which is The Geometry of the Political and some subtitle, but I’m not sure publishers will like it; but The Space of the World, while somewhat bold, seems like it will go down well.
As for journal article titles, I have been tending away from subtitles recently, partly because of ‘subtitle letdown syndrome’, which I try to avoid. I can only think of one instance where I was asked to change a title by an editor, and they were right: the revised one we came up with was much better.