Wither nonfiction book title formats?
May 23, 2007 1:59 PM   Subscribe

When/how did the custom begin of titling non-fiction books according to a few narrow formats, such as "Clever Abstraction: One Specific Interesting Thing, Another Specific Interesting Thing, and A Sleep-Inducing Generalized Thing"

Such as, from Amazon Politics:

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason

American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21stCentury

The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation

This this blog post asks the same question, but about the more common titling convention of "Clever Abstraction: Wordy and Witty Compound Phrase" which I think may be more common within the self-help genre. When did this titling format become fashionable, and how did it get started?
posted by luser to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know, exactly, but I do know that NF editors really like this title format, for sales reasons I believe. I was asked to come up with one like this for a book I'm working on now. And I did... Me, the conformist.
posted by MarshallPoe at 2:12 PM on May 23, 2007

I suspect computer search engines for book sites have contributed to this. It means that the book title has more hot-button keywords in it to be found by someone doing a search, and thus would be found -- and bought -- more often. Or so, I suspect, editors hope.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:22 PM on May 23, 2007

FWIW, this always worked well for me in titling papers for school, also. Gave the paper a cheap facade of teh smart.
posted by everichon at 2:23 PM on May 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

This naming convention packs as much marketing punch as possible beyond actual copyright infringement. Let's break it down:

Clever Abstraction - the actual title of the book. Witty, eye-catching, and hopefully relevant to the content. This is known as "the hook". However, it is usually not very conducive to browsing or indexing. That's where the subtitle comes in.

One Specific Interesting Thing - Usually tells exactly what the book is about. Useful for those people who browse titles in bookstores about One Specific Interesting Thing, or Google One Specific Interesting Thing.

Another Specific Interesting Thing - Same as above, but secondary key word.

Sleep-Inducing Generalized Thing - Last ditch effort to squeeze every bit of indexing power out of the title. Make it general enough to appeal to people who don't know what they are looking for.

This naming convention has been in place at least as long as nonficiton books have been created for bookstores rather than libraries. With the rise of the internet, and especially Amazon and Google, I think this is just going to be the way things are done from now on.
posted by tjvis at 2:27 PM on May 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think calling the third thing sleep-inducing doesn't give it enough credit. In the first and last examples you gave the third items are more of a meta-topic for the books: what the confluence of thing A and thing B says about thing C. In both of those cases thing C also brings some punch to the title and suggest that the book is about Big, Important Ideas.
posted by wemayfreeze at 2:53 PM on May 23, 2007

Having a formula like this for titles is common in academia as well, although the formula varies. See the PhD Thesis title generator.
posted by someone else at 3:05 PM on May 23, 2007

I had a Software Engineering book that followed this scheme entitled "Applying UML and Patterns: An Introduction to Object-Oriented Analysis and Design and Iterative Development".

What struck me as odd was that this was the third edition of the book and it was titled differently from the second edition: "Applying UML and Patterns: An Introduction to Object-Oriented Analysis and Design and the Unified Process".

The first edition was simply "Applying UML and Patterns: An Introduction to Object-Oriented Analysis and Design".
posted by DrSkrud at 3:27 PM on May 23, 2007

What annoys me is the trend of books with titles, subtitles, and sub-subtitles.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 3:33 PM on May 23, 2007

I'm reminded of what they taught in high school for writing essays.

The Five Paragraph Essay: state your thesis with three supporting points, describe each supporting point, and sum it all up with a deductive conclusion that supports your thesis.

(I just followed your rule... weird.)

I think this cognitive trick has been around for over a century, and it's only recently that marketroids are overusing the technique. Something about saying things in threes, and repeating yourself.

On the other hand, I think you may have uncovered a new form of poetry. This could be a western form of haiku, born in Barnes & Noble.
posted by Mozai at 3:54 PM on May 23, 2007

As the author of one of those books, I'd say it's an attempt to possess your pastry and partake of it in parallel. They want a cute title, and they also want the title to be as clear as possible to people who might be buying it. In my case "The Ratings" and "The Book of Ratings" were both rejected as sounding like dry books about the MPAA, so I worked with the editor to come up with something that indicated the book is intended to be funny without actually using the word "hilarious."

Didn't work, by the way. From what I understand, some bookstores shelved it under "reference."
posted by L. Fitzgerald Sjoberg at 4:01 PM on May 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

Another thing is that once you see enough of these titles on the market, you start to (maybe subconsciously) think this is How Things Are Done. So when you produce a book or paper or whatever, you follow the same process of, "I need a catchy title! But then I should say what it's actually about... OK, but now I feel like I need a third item... Perfect!"
posted by SuperNova at 4:25 PM on May 23, 2007

Brenda Wineapple wants to cut out the academy's colon. (Discussion in LH thread.)
posted by languagehat at 5:43 PM on May 23, 2007

This could be a great road trip game. I'm going on a road trip in four days, and if I remember, I'll try it and report!
posted by nax at 7:15 PM on May 23, 2007

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