Getting it Published #4: 2 Chronicles

The title More Tea, Jesus has already attracted a fair amount of comment. I rarely venture near the Authonomy forums (for reasons which will become apparent) but on one of my infrequent visits I noticed that the title has come up for quite a bit of discussion, with many people voicing the opinion that it is a brilliant, eye-catching title which they wish they’d thought of, whilst others state rather bluntly that they are of the opinion that it is a stupid title, one American lady going so far as to repeatedly describe it as a ‘stoopid’ title and, at points of especial agitation, a ‘stooopid’ title. Part of the problem for many people would appear to be that Americans are unfamiliar with the phrase ‘More tea, Vicar?’ and for one person the problem is specifically with the comma. And one man vehemently declares that, however good the book is, he will never read a book with a title like that.

What I’m about to say may surprise all of the above, but I’m going to say it most particularly for the benefit of the man who says he will never read my book because of the title: I don’t much like it either.

Indeed, I actively disliked it initially: it wasn’t my original title, it doesn’t adequately sum up the scale of the issues in the book or the style of the humour it contains, it is not clever and subversive like my original title and it is, let’s face it, a bit twee. It calls to mind village fêtes when the book delves into areas of sexual politics, social inequality, religious fanaticism and, lest we forget, the apocalypse. Albeit in the context of a village which has fêtes.

And there’s the point: a book title, these days at least, is not about summing up the complexity and subtlety of what follows, it is about getting people to look at it in the first place. Whether I like it or not, the superficially cosy setting (and perhaps the witty juxtaposition of the Christ with it) is the ‘hook’ for what I have written.

If you find the title offends you to the extent that you can not read the book, you could always skip the front cover and pretend that it is still going by its original title, which was Mere Anarchy.

It was Scott Pack who said that this was a problem. He said it made the book sound like science fiction. Think of another one, he said. I acknowledged the thought then ignored it, hoping that he might just forget he’d ever had it himself – because I loved the title I had. Mere Anarchy, as well as summing up the conflict between the commonplace and the apocalyptic which is so central to the novel, is a wonderful expression taken from W. B. Yeats’ poem ‘The Second Coming’ – you see, it references the second coming, in a subtle and everso clever way! Clever Lark, clever clever title, and (beating mental fists against an imaginary wall) no I won’t let go of it!

Then I got an email from the Friday Books administrator which said, rather bluntly, ‘what’s the title?’.

Realising that the best way to demonstrate the brilliance of Mere Anarchy was to show how truly terrible the alternatives were, so I hastily bashed out some possibilities. University was good – or rather, bad – training for this: if you were doing a comedy show you would sit in a room brainstorming possible names for two hours and then, having reached a point where all discernment had long since departed the room and settled down for a long snooze, you would plump for one of the ones that seemed either least offensive or most witty. The next day you’d wake up and realise you were doing a show called ‘The Rotation of Horatio Sparkins’ or ‘Now That’s What I Call Prozac’. My God, I was even in a company called Pilgrims Who Jump.

The alternatives to Mere Anarchy that I came up with were indeed, for the most part, truly terrible. I’ve just discovered the very email I sent to Friday Books and can’t quite believe how terrible some of them are. But as it’s a useful exercise in self-humiliation, I shall reproduce the list (which I noted displayed ‘an unhealthy obsession with caffeinated beverages’) here. This is it:

The inconvenient apocalypse
More tea, Jesus?
Sex, tea and judgement day
The day the church noticed God
There’s still time for tea on judgement day
Just a second coming
Jesus doesn’t drink instant coffee
The reluctant bride

At the end of the list I noted: ‘I have my favourites, though none of them are quite doing it for me.’

No kidding?! What baffles me now is which of them could possibly have been my favourites. As lists go, it’s bloody horrible.

The funny thing is, I had incorrectly remembered More Tea, Jesus? as being at the bottom of the list – the final, hastily typed option, the joker in the pack, the worst of the lot (which it demonstrably isn’t). I certainly remember disliking it fairly intensely.

So imagine my surprise when Scott didn’t send back an email which said ‘I realise from your list that Mere Anarchy really is the best title for your book, being as I now see a clever, witty and entirely appropriate summation of its contents. I was wrong, you were right – sorry!’ but instead sent and email which simply said: ‘I like More Tea, Jesus?

I sent a panicky email back pointing out to Scott that he had gone and chosen the worst title of the lot and it didn’t do what the title needed to and really really More Tea, Jesus? was a terrible title. To which Scott responded with a kind but straightforward email explaining that I had written a lovely book but now I needed to just shut up and let them sell it to people.

The important difference between Scott Pack and me in this scenario is that he knows how to sell books and I don’t. And I sort of got it when I saw the cover design – I recognised how it might leap out at people, in a way that Mere Anarchy probably wouldn’t. It’s also fair to say that, during the post-Friday Books trials that were shortly to follow, the manuscript certainly attracted more interest from publishers than it had under the previous title.

In any case, the title Mere Anarchy has now been taken – by Woody Allen, of all people. It’s not a science fiction book and I’m pretty darn sure his book doesn’t contrast the commonplace with the apocalyptic in a way that justifies the appropriation. On the other hand, he gets to write ‘Woody Allen’ on the cover of his book, which probably means a lot more in terms of sales.

Next episode: Lamentations – back to square one.

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