Authors often gripe about their publishers. Academic authors can be particularly rude about academic publishers who (to generalise wildly) are seldom able to provide the editorial hand-holding or high-profile publicity opportunities some trade houses can claim to offer.
This may all be true, but I want pay tribute to a seldom-praised skill – academic publishers’ cunning choice of subtitles.
I have obviously been aware for years of the habit of giving books and articles attention-grabbing titles followed by subtitles that explain what they are actually about (and feature the key words likely to be picked by search engines). This seems a perfectly sensible way of combining marketing with accuracy, but I can’t claim to have given the topic much thought. It is only recently that another aspect occurred to me: the situation of people reading books in public.
I interview authors and write a good deal about books for Times Higher Education, and these are often at the “human interest” end of the academic spectrum. A recent example was Sex Addiction by Barry Reay and others (Polity Books). This is a sober and well-researched analysis of the whole notion of “sex addiction”, which it essentially argues is a mythical phenomenon (a very academic and useful thing to do).
But it also has a mildly raunchy cover and the title Sex Addiction - and I found myself reading it on the Tube.
If it had been missing a subtitle (or had one like “a self-help guide”) I would probably have died of shame. The dull but respectable “a critical history” did a great deal to spare my blushes.
Something similar applies to Jacki Willson’s celebratory account of burlesque artistes and performance artists who parody and challenge traditional female stereotypes from within. This showcases a cabaret performer dressed as Marie Antoinette on the cover and is titled Being Gorgeous.
Since I didn’t aspire to gorgeousness even at 16 or 26 (and certainly don’t at 60), it is probably an even more implausible book for me to be seen reading – and I did get some pretty odd looks on the Metropolitan Line.
Say what you like about publishers, I will always be grateful to I.B. Tauris for including the reassuringly serious subtitle Feminism, Sexuality and the Pleasures of the Visual, even if the typeface is in pink.