“Sometimes the author isn’t the only cook stirring the pot…”

A guest blog by Gary Alan Ruse

When the vast majority of people read a novel, they take it for granted that the book in their hands is exactly what the author intended it to be.  Many times it is…but not always!

You would think the creative expression of the writer would be respected and not tampered with, but more often than you realize, publishers, editors, marketing departments and even agents can have a hand in making changes to things as important as the book’s title and characters.  Sometimes it’s an unwarranted intrusion into the author’s domain, but often it turns out to be a good thing.

One early example of such “meddling,” and the one that got me to thinking about this subject and researching it, was Jules Verne’s wonderful novel, “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” and its sequel, “The Mysterious Island.”  Both featured the compelling main character of Captain Nemo.  Originally a European (Verne first wrote of him being a Polish nobleman seeking vengeance against the Russians for killing his family), the man calling himself Nemo (meaning “No Man”) magically became an East Indian, Prince Drakkar, in “The Mysterious Island,” seeking vengeance against the British Empire.  Why?  Because the original books’ publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, asked for that change to be made, since France was aligned with Tsarist Russia at the time and from the French viewpoint, the Brits were an old enemy anyway!  That’s why the movies inspired by both books have depicted Captain Nemo either as European or Indian.  A bit confusing, to say the least.

Another example of the publisher exerting pressure on an author, and a contemporary of Verne at that, occurred when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle grew weary of writing so many Sherlock Holmes stories and decided to kill off his detective hero by having him plunge to his death at Reichenbach Falls, struggling with the evil Professor Moriarty in “The Final Problem.”  Under pressure from clamoring fans, The Strand Magazine persuaded Doyle to relent and bring back his hero, first in “The Hound of the Baskervilles” novel (done as a prequel), and then fully resurrected in “The Adventure of the Empty House.”

In one case when a publisher was being “politically correct,” it was really the right thing to do.  Famed mystery writer Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel later known as “And Then There None” was first published in England as “Ten Little N_ _ _ _ _ s” (I won’t use the “N” word), built around a British nursery rhyme.  When the book was published in America (and other subsequent editions) the title was changed to “And Then There Were None” and the nursery rhyme in the story became “Ten Little Indians.”  That title change was definitely a good move!  And since that novel has had 100 million sales so far, tampering with the title clearly didn’t hurt it.  In fact, I’m sure it helped.

When British journalist turned thriller author Ken Follett’s first novel was published, his title was “Storm Island.”  It was then changed to “Eye of the Needle” and was not only a bestseller that fully launched his new career, it also won the Mystery Writers of America’s 1979 Edgar Award for Best Novel and was made into a motion picture.

A friend of mine who is a successful author of Young Adult novels (a dozen so far!) once mentioned that her publisher had changed all but one of her book titles, so it would seem that the practice is still prevalent even today.  We just aren’t always aware of it.

So the next time you’re reading a book you like and picturing your favorite author diligently typing away at their desk, maybe you’d also better picture at least a couple of other folks standing behind them, looking over their shoulder with eyebrows raised, ready to suggest changes!  It’s just a part of being a writer.

  • Gary Alan Ruse is the published author of a number of novels in the Techno-Thriller, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Mystery genres.  You can visit his website here.

Thank you, once again, to author Gary Alan Ruse for writing another wonderful guest blog for Open Book Society! As always, it is great to read more of what the authors have to say, we never know what interesting facts we can learn from them when we have this opportunities 🙂 especially for those aspiring writers out there.

  • Be sure to read our review for The Cross of St. Anne by Gary Alan Ruse here at OBS.
  • And, to read the previous Guest Blog, Behind the scenes:  A novel is an adventure for the writer, too! by Gary Alan Ruse, head over here at OBS.