Stephen Baker

The Numerati
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Marketing a book, country by country

January 16, 2010Marketing the book

About a year ago, a book showed up at my house. It was Die Numerati, the German translation of The Numerati. The cover featured a dark image of swirling sharks. I stared at it, wondering what those creatures signaled. Then I went to the computer and got a translation of the subtitle, Datenhaie und ihre geheimen Machenschaften: "data sharks and their secret machinations."

Oh, I thought. That kind of shark.

German Numerati cover

It's a strange thing to propose a book, sell it, and then watch what happens to it in different places. My book, it turns out, has given me access to a highly focused global laboratory for marketing and design. Each publisher has its own angle, and each version is created with a different home market in mind. "Meet the Numerati," warns the Brazilian edition. "They already know you." The publisher of the British paperback, the Mariner division of Random House, gave it a new and slightly menacing title (They've Got Your Number...). Its U.S. counterpart, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, focuses instead on utility. Its cover blurb from Wired editor Chris Anderson trumpets a "must-read for anyone who wants to understand life and business in the Google Age."

Baker_NUMERATI - U.S. edition

The changes began shortly after selling the proposal, nearly four years ago. The original pitch was for a book called The Age of Numbers. It would describe the analysis of the oceans of digital data we all produce, and how this process would reshape history. I wrote:

Abacus and slate. Numbers and words. It was a neat divide for nearly 3,000 years. But the border between the two worlds is fast vanishing. Mathematicians are gaining the tools to turn the entire universe of knowledge--words, sounds, even images--into symbols. As they do, their domain extends into industries far beyond the ancient divide.

Weeks after Houghton Mifflin bought the book, I got a call from my editor, Amanda Cook. She told me that she had read again through the proposal, and she had a suggestion. "I think the whole book is in Chapter Four," she said. Originally, I had planned to explore much of the world of math. My research would even take me to India, where I would compare how students were learning it there to what my sister was teaching in Portland, OR. But Amanda saw the entire book as "the mathematical modeling of humanity." We could have chapters, she suggested, on how we were modeled and predicted as workers, shoppers, patients, potential terrorists, and lovers. It sounded fine to me--though I was sorry to lose the trip to India.

Amanda went on. "Do you think The Age of Numbers is the best title?" she asked. Clearly, she didn't. My title, she said, was fine for selling the proposal to a publisher, but perhaps too static to attract browsers mulling about a Barnes & Noble store or clicking through Amazon. The Age of Numbers, she said, evoked Greek columns and would likely scare off the general-interest readers we had our sights on.

Instead we settled on The Numerati. It brought to mind a global elite (which readers are said to find appealing), with a hint of intrigue. It recalled the Illuminati of the best-selling DaVinci Code. (Practically anything that connects a book in readers' minds to a bestseller is desirable.)

The British publisher, the Jonathan Cape imprint of Random House, wasn't so crazy about the new title. They finally relented, but insisted on addressing the hot-button privacy issue with the subtitle: "They've Got My Number and Yours."

numerati british cover, hardback Cover draft 100609

During this period, I gave a lot of thought to subtitles. One friend in publishing suggesting incorporating one or two of the following words: Masterminds, Shadowy, Fraternal, New Order, Enlightened, Mystical, Secret. I tried a couple. "Can the Global Math Elite Predict Your Next Move?" or "How a New Order of Masterminds is Mapping Your Next Moves and Changing How You Work, Shop, Vote, and Play..."

But the editors at Houghton chose to omit the subtitle. They feared it might cheapen or pigeonhole the book. To attract readers attention, they designed a shiny white cover with metallic lettering. Half of a worried face composed of math code looked up toward those shiny letters, as if they were wired with secret cameras. The only written guidance came from Chris Anderson's Google quote. To give the book a little viral boost, we inserted some code into the art, and gave a signed copy to the first readers to uncover it. (It was the geo-location of the Starbucks in New Jersey where I wrote most of the book.)

It was last summer that the British surprised me with the suggestion of changing the title. "Weve been thinking carefully about where in the market to place the paperback, in relation to the current affairs and business market that the hardback was aimed at, and we plan to target the popular science market more," an editor wrote...."The title needs to be very punchy to catch the eye of the casual browser. The team here really like the title Theyve Got Your Number, derived from the subtitle to the hardback. If we go with this title, wed need a short subtitle to explain further what the book is about intriguing and urgent enough to make the reader turn over to read the blurb."

I went along. These people know a lot more about selling in books in Britain than I do. But I asked them to retain "Numerati" in the subtitle. Otherwise people might take it for a different book.  They settled on: Data, Digits and Destiny -- How the Numerati are Changing our Lives.

I'm especially curious about the Italian edition, to be published by Mondadori. While "Numerati" is a made-up word in every other language, it actually means something--"the numbered ones"--in Italian. I asked the Italian translator how she was going to handle it. "Since the word Numerati is frequently used in the text," she wrote, "I think they'll keep my translation, which is... no translation at all!"

Whatever works, I say.

Numerati cover Chinese (taiwan)

Spanish cover for The Numerati


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