Titlenomics, or Creating Best Sellers





The release of “womenomics” (by Claire Shipman and Katty Kay) this month is just the latest example of publishers trying to knock off the title of “Freakonomics,” the best-selling 2005 book by Steven D. Levitt, an economist, and Stephen J. Dubner, a journalist.

Although some critics initially complained about that book’s “annoying title,” “Freakonomics” was an instant success, generating, among other things, a column in The New York Times Magazine, a blog on the Times Web site (freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com), and a planned documentary.

So it’s no surprise that other authors hope to benefit from the reflected glory. Last summer “Obamanomics” and “Slackonomics” appeared. This year “Invent-onomics 101” made its debut. And in the fall “Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays” will hit bookstores.

Capitalizing on popular titles has a long pedigree in the publishing industry. A well-turned phrase can give birth to dozens of offspring. Edward Gibbon’s monumental “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” first published in 1776, has inspired variants for more than two centuries. Similarly titled books have chronicled the slide of other empires (the British, Ottoman, Japanese, American, Freudian); institutions (the C.I.A., the Roman Catholic Church, the American automobile industry, Hollywood, The Saturday Evening Post, the British aristocracy, the American programmer) and eternal ideals (truth and love goddesses).

Awkward appendages have been added, as in “Camden After the Fall: Decline and Renewal in a Post-Industrial City (Politics and Culture in Modern America).” Publishers have demoted the phrase to a subtitle (“Chasing Aphrodite: The Decline and Fall of the World’s Richest Museum”). Punctuation has been added — “The Decline (And Fall?) of the Income Tax” — while humorists have intuitively understood its outsize appeal (“The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody”)....


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