In a couple of months I have a book coming out. It’s going to be a cultural history of an idea: the peculiar Christian doctrine called original sin. But I’m still trying to adjust to the title. It’s not going to have the title I chose, the title I had in mind throughout the writing of the book. That was Bad to the Bone: an Exemplary History of Original Sin.
I’m pretty sure that, when I was at the proposal stage, the title sold the book, or at the very least made it a much more attractive commodity than it would have been otherwise. After all, what reasonable American consumer would be interested in a volume detailing the fortunes of an ancient and rather bizarre notion: that we all have contracted or inherited from our supposed First Parents an ineradicable propensity to do the Bad Thang? I mean, don’t you have to spice that up a little — or a lot? And what better way to spice it up (said I to myself) than by an elderly pop culture reference that my fellow Boomers will think hip and with it?
And my publishers agreed — at least until they talked to their sales force. Now, HarperOne specializes in books with some kind of religious or “spiritual” angle, but that doesn’t mean that any particular person who works there is especially religious or even knows all that much about religion. And the sales people’s response to the title was: We don’t get it. What are you trying to say? Are you making fun of the idea of original sin? That doesn’t seem to fit the book. The title seems frivolous. We need to ditch it and replace it with something better — something snappy, something sexy, attention-getting.
Well. I was surprised by this critique: I had figured that if anyone would like the title it would be people who didn’t know (or care) much about old Christian doctrines, especially unpleasant ones. But hey, those people were likely to be more representative of the market than I am. I liked my title, but I certainly didn’t want to torpedo my sales. So I asked them whether they had in mind something that they would like better, something that would meet the sexiness criterion. Their reply: We think you should just call it Original Sin.
Well . . . if you say so. Consider it done.