Can a Title Make or Break Your Book?
The sales force at my publisher (Seal Press) thought this title too derivative (the film “Sex, Lies and Videotapes” was still fresh in their minds in 2008). Sales people, back when conventional publishing was the only respectable way, were very important to the success of books. I sportingly went along with the change to Tango, an Argentine Love Story. In hindsight I wonder if I shouldn’t have pushed back.
I still love the cover, the color scheme, design, fonts, the sunbursts that recall the Argentine flag. But in the ten years since my book appeared, I don’t think anyone who read it recalls the correct title. They invariably jumble it up: A Tango Love Story, An Argentinian (I vetoed that form early on) Love, and so on.
A few years before my memoir appeared Marina Palmer published a very saucy memoir, Kiss and Tango. Marina’s book, its cover flashing a sexy leg-wrap around a man, sold better than mine. Marina generously endorsed my book—“The transformative power of the tango embrace beautifully captured.”—when I asked her to. I had enjoyed her book, her slow-building initiation into the quirky tango world, her honest and explicit sexual descriptions. Sadly, she was raked over the coals by other tango dancers (mostly women!) for the latter. I didn’t get it. Her book was as an Argentine reader put it, “fun and entertaining.”
I now think I should have questioned the knee-jerk reaction to Sex, Lies, and Tango. So what if it echoed an old movie, whose plot I can’t totally recall. SL&T is the title of one of 23 chapters in my book. The book covers only the first of my nearly four years living in Buenos Aires. The chapter called SL&T is about my giving in against my better judgment to a persistent tanguero who, it turns out, has lied about his marital status. So that title was not misleading. (Having gotten my sentimental education, the SL&T chapter is followed by one titled Abandon All Hope, You Who Enter Here.) To be sure, the eventual book title is reflective of my overall experience in Argentina. A few throwaway sex-capades aside, my love story embraced the whole culture.
The only way to know if the discarded title would have sold more books is to republish it with that title. Unfortunately many things have changed since 2008 when I actually received an advance for my memoir based solely on a proposal. I had a good track record with Seal Press at that point (and great editor, Brooke Warner). Seal, still a publisher of work “by women, for women” is now an imprint of Hachette.
As for cut lines and subtitles, I have always liked one reviewer’s summation of the book: “Tango is a memoir by a woman who loved, lost, got mad, and decided to dance.” That is a good part of it, but not everything.