Shelby Steele: Yes He Can

The gang at Media Matters is excited that they have caught Shelby Steele admitting that the subtitle of his book, A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win (Free Press, December 2007) is wrong to Sean Hannity.

HANNITY: All right, so he can’t win?

STEELE: He can win. I regret that subtitle.

HANNITY: OK.

STEELE: It was an afterthought. And I don’t argue that in the book. He can definitely win. There is a powerful desire in American society today to see someone like him move to the White House.

This admission against interests is right up front, without any badgering on Hannity’s part.

How to explain that Steele manifestly doesn’t believe his book’s subtitle? First, the book was published seven months ago and the title was presumably chosen quite some time before that. Certainly, an Obama victory is much more plausible now that he’s won the Democratic nomination and is ahead in the polls. More importantly, though, Steele probably didn’t pick his own subtitle. Indeed, he almost certainly didn’t in this case since, as he says, it has next to nothing to do with what’s inside the book.

Having spent a little time in the publishing industry as an acquisition editor, I’d say we changed the author’s proposed title about half the time and virtually always changed or added a subtitle. We also commissioned the jacket design, usually without the author’s even having a right of input, let alone refusal. Why? Because the publisher has to market the book and pithy, provocative titles are what grab the attention of those making the decision to carry the books and to place them in prominent places where prospective customers might see and buy them.

Echidne finds the whole process infuriating.

The title of a book should be short and redolent of the main message of the book and the emotions it provokes. It should stick in your memory and make it easy to talk about the book. Subtitles don’t do any of that. They are crutches, added to keep the wobbly main title on its drunken feet, and I resent that very much.

Subtitles are not that common on the covers of most books, but they sure are proliferating on the covers of books about politics. It’s as if readers of political books are expected just to read the subtitle before they go on some pundit show to discuss the book (which they mostly appear not to have read). Or as if readers of political books are viewed as so stupid that the political bias of the book must be condensed into a suitable subtitle.

Unfortunately, it’s a proven marketing technique. All the “How to Blog” and “Social Media 101” sites obsess about writing the perfect post title. Faced with enormous information clutter, those scanning their RSS reader or the hot items page at Digg or Reddit need a shortcut and an attention-grabbing headline makes all the difference. Similarly, a provocative cover makes it more likely that a customer will pick up a book and take a moment to evaluate it. Or, yes, that a radio host will invite the author onto their show to talk about it.

It’s still true that you generally can’t judge a book by its cover. But a bad cover makes it much less likely that people will buy the book.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, Race and Politics, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. sam says:

    Having spent a little time in the publishing industry as an acquisition editor, I’d say we changed the author’s proposed title about half the time and virtually always changed or added a subtitle. We also commissioned the jacket design, usually without the author’s even having a right of input, let alone refusal. Why? Because the publisher has to market the book and pithy, provocative titles are what grab the attention of those making the decision to carry the books and to place them in prominent places where prospective customers might see and buy them.

    Yeah. Reminds me of the cartoon I saw in Playboy years ago. Nerdy-looking guy being told by his editor that that Dash Riprock, tweeds, pipe, dazzling smile and all, would be doing the author’s photo for the back cover of the nerd’s book. 🙂