SUBTITLE!: The Long, Explanatory, Marketing-Oriented String of Words No Nonfiction Book Can Live Without

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If our Marion Winik had a personal subtitle, readers, what would it be?

For the past couple years, I’ve been looking for a publisher for a memoir of my adventures since my second marriage went bust in 2008. Readers of this column will remember some of these stories — what they lack in romance, they make up in ridiculousness. While most people in my age group date with dignity, judiciousness, and a certain reserve, my approach was more…haphazard, shall we say, and culminated not with a honeymoon but with a two-week stay in Johns Hopkins Hospital. But even my hepatitis C is kind of a funny story.

As good luck would have it, earlier this summer the fine folks at Globe Pequot Press sent me a book contract. My tale of middle-aged hijinks is on its way to bookstores in 2013.

What’s it called? you may wonder. Good question.

My slim volume has had many a working title. It started as Match Dot Bomb, but that was already taken, so it became Little Sweetheart of the Boston Strangler. This was too scary for some, too obscure for others, but Love in the Time of Baltimore was considered too limiting. Dated was oddly negative. The Lives and Loves of Marion W. barely lasted a day; similarly doomed was The Rime of the Ancient Marion.

Fortunately, by the time I found Globe Pequot, I had come up with the perfect thing: The Girl With The Stupid Tattoo. All I had to do was say it and people started laughing. And we could have a cover photo of the stupid tattoo itself: my ex-husband’s initials, bleeding across my shoulder blade in permanent black ink.

Unfortunately, my new publisher told me that we couldn’t use this excellent title because somewhere along the line the Stieg Larsson empire had trademarked not just The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but all possible variations of The _____ with the _____ Tattoo. Damn them.

I spent every waking hour of a week inventing truly terrible titles, from Where the Wild Things Went to Like Chocolate for Elephants, from Fifty Ways To Lose Your Liver to America’s Next Top Role Model. Some were not so bad on their own, but had nothing to do with the book I had written, like What a Big Mouth You Have, Grandma or The Chemo Sutra. Ah, you never know, maybe I’ll use them one day.

Finally I got myself so vermischt I spent a whole morning believing Pollyanna Jones, Ambassadress of Love was the best title ever. Then I came up with Leftovers on Fire — better still!

This was a tough time for my inner circle of friends, who had been abruptly drafted as focus group members and were now bombarded with hourly email updates.

Finally, I hit on something that did seem right: Highs in the Low Fifties. My editor liked it too — though it would need a really good subtitle, she said, so potential buyers would have some idea what the book was about.

Ah, the subtitle. While fiction readers seem to have no problem purchasing novels called things like Disgrace or Portnoy’s Complaint or Catch-22 with no further clues to the content, nonfiction readers expect more. They’re not just going to shell out 30 bucks for a book called The Compass of Pleasure, as my friend David Linden’s publisher explained to him a few years back. Is this book about the Civil War? The lives of polar bears? The German automotive industry? Nonfiction readers want to know before they open the book.

Which is why Linden’s final title was The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good. I call that… informative!

The good news for Linden is that The Compass of Blah Blah sold 80 bajillion copies. The bad news is that this just makes things worse for people like me. By people like me, I mean writers of memoir and personal essay. True, it is nonfiction. But like fiction, our books offer little in the way of concrete benefits and hard information. You read them for the same reason you read a novel — for fun. Because you like to read.

But understandably, publishers want our books to sell in the more reliable way “real” nonfiction does, and one way they try to achieve this is by using real-nonfiction-style subtitles. So, for example, my friend Sue Resnick’s forthcoming memoir is called You Saved Me, Too: What a Holocaust Survivor Taught Me about Living, Dying, Fighting, Loving, and Swearing in Yiddish.

Elsewhere on Amazon, you’ll find Dominique Browning’s Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put on My Pajamas, and Found Happiness. Writer Jen Lancaster has seriously raised the bar with Bright Lights, Big Ass: A Self-Indulgent, Surly, Ex-Sorority Girl’s Guide to Why it Often Sucks in the City, or Who are These Idiots and Why Do They All Live Next Door to Me?

While I may not be a fan of subtitles, it is no surprise that my publisher requires one for Highs in the Low Fifties. At the moment they are leaning toward “How I Stumbled on the Joys of Single Living” which I myself suggested in a moment of weakness — remember, I’m the one who thought of Pollyanna Jones, Ambassadress of Love — and now stand a good chance of being stuck with for all time.

Meanwhile, an even greater potential freakout looms — the cover design. I will have input, I know. You see where that’s gotten me so far. My son Hayes hopped on the Highs motif of the title and suggested a photo of me at the Atlantis resort, passed out in sunglasses, draped over an inner tube, about to go over a huge water slide. Whether this will speak irresistibly to my target demographic remains to be discussed.

More on this later, I imagine.

Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.

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  1. I can’t wait to get my hands on your new book. I love everything you write. You are my favorite author and have been since, “First Comes Love.”
    You make everything alright and remind me to laugh during the difficult times.
    I am going to send your new book to a friend who recently got divorced for the second time.

  2. Ever since your first book, “Telling”, I knew that I would always be loyal fan-on-the-verge-of-groupie. OF COURSE you must print your book signing dates. I’ll be at one one them! If the story behind the title is captivating, I can’t imagine what the book will be like.

  3. I love every one of your titles, Marion. Leftovers on Fire kicks ass. The Browning and Lancaster subtitles–not so much.

  4. Why can’t the subtitle be “Fifty Ways to Lose Your Liver” or “The Next Top Role Model”? Bring back the focus group.

  5. Actually, this is a belated reply to a column of yours from over a year ago, on parenting.

    Enjoyment of your writing is one of not-a-whole-lotta-things my ex and I have in common. I sent these lines to her for emphasis, after I’d sent her a link to the column, with the headline, ‘What A Wise Person She’s Become’.

    “Your inner peace and strength are your child’s greatest resource. This is not bullshit. When you’re okay, they’re okay. All the parenting micro-management in the world doesn’t change the thing that has the biggest effect on your kids: who you really are, in your heart and soul. That is the sky. Everything else is just the weather, the passing clouds.”

    She responded, “That is so weird that you emailed me those few lines, as I was just rereading that very part because it was so powerfully, and yet so simply true. What a gem.”

    Thank you.

    • Thank you so much for telling me about this. I wish I was as wise as I sound. By the way, that piece was titled “Don’t Sweat the Chicken Soup” — probably a hornet’s nest of trademark violations.

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