Thursday, May 17, 2012

Behind the title of a new book

Forthcoming this fall from Oxford University Press

So you've written a book. What should you call it?

Tough question. Two years ago I submitted a proposal to Oxford for a book titled Computational Thinking.

My editor liked it. (She suggested that I resubmit a proposal for two books, one purely about ideas in computing and the other about how those ideas connect to our everyday lives. She also asked if I would edit a collection of papers on the subject... but I declined both options.) Reviewers also liked the proposal. (Non-fiction is different from fiction; you can pitch a book to an agent or publisher before you've finished writing it. Sometimes before you've written any of it.) But some reviewers argued about the title--there's disagreement among computer scientists about what computational thinking actually is.

Back to the drawing board. My second effort at a title was How to think about computers if you're not a computer scientist. The marketing folks at Oxford hated it.

The third try, a suggestion from my editor, ended up on the book contract. Understanding the computers in our lives. I don't think anyone was really satisfied with that, though.

So I sat down with my wife and brainstormed.

By analogy, the challenge was this. Imagine an alternative universe in which you're looking for a popular science book about biology. You find biographies of Darwin and other famous figures of the past and present; you see books that tell you how to turn on and focus a microscope, and even how to run a DNA sequencer; you come across a wide range of books aimed at professional biologists. No one at the bookstore has ever heard of Stephen Jay Gould, Edward O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, James Watson, or Lewis Thomas, and hardly anyone thinks that it's possible for a book to convey the basic principles of biology to the average, non-biologist reader.

The literature of computing is something like that. There are lots of books about the history and social impact of computing, and about how to use a computer. There are libraries full of deep technical books for computing professionals. But there aren't many books about the ideas behind computers and computing, written in an approachable way. Mine would be a new addition to that tiny handful.

How should the book's title convey what it's about--and what it's notabout? One batch of titles we came up with emphasized the "popular" aspect of "popular science", while de-emphasizing the how-to aspects of computing:
  • Computers for the rest of us
  • A hands-off guide to computers
  • The human element in computing
  • A computer scientist looks at life
  • Computable lifestyles
  • The computable lifestyle
  • A computable life
  • This is not a computer manual
  • About computing
  • It's all computed
  • Computing without computers
  • The ABCs of computing
But none of these quite works, even if I like a couple of them, in the sense that they're too general, or they're a bit misleading about the contents.

The next batch of titles was based on the structure of the book I was writing. I tell stories to convey abstract ideas, real-world metaphors for how computation works. So...
  • The metaphorical computer
  • Computer stories
  • Stories about computers
  • Computers: A bedtime reader
Also less than ideal. The point isn't the stories themselves (which could be about anything, including the history of computing), but what the stories suggest.

The next batch of titles moved away from description to the equivalent of Buy this book
  • Computers: The important stuff
  • Computers: The first book to read
  • Computers: The first book you need to read
  • Computers: What everyone needs to know
  • Computers: The inside story
  • Computers: Behind the silicon curtain
But none of them seem quite right. (In case you're curious, all of these titles have the word "computer" or "computing" in them to help Web search engines find them.)

In the end, we settled on Computing for Ordinary Mortals. It says, "This is a book that anyone might read," and I hope that it also makes a subliminal connection between computers and our lives.

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