The whole time I was working on my review of “The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls,” I froze whenever anyone asked me what I was reading. Sometimes, I’d just hold up the book and let them try to pronounce the title themselves. Other times, I’d call it “That Riding Camp for Girls Book.”
The debut author’s name? Forget about it. Anton DiSclafani. A bad speller like me didn’t stand a chance.
That got me wondering how publishers evaluate potential titles. Will an unfamiliar word stick in readers’ minds or turn them off? Will a title that’s difficult to pronounce make readers less likely to recommend a book to their friends?
Publishers are usually cagey about letting us see how the sausage is made, but the good people at Riverhead were happy to share details about their process.
Executive editor Sarah McGrath knew just what I was talking about when I suggested that “The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls” was a risky choice. “I actually spent a weekend last summer trying to come up with possible alternative titles,” she admitted. “I couldn’t imagine giving up ‘Riding Camp for Girls,’ so I searched for possible replacements for ‘Yonahlossee.’ I even got out a map of the area where the book was set. But every alternative lacked what is the true appeal of the original title: its unique sense of an intriguing, specific place.”
Also, she quickly found that the name “Yonahlossee” isn’t so foreign around the Blue Ridge Mountains where this neo-gothic takes place. “I found Yonahlossee Road, Yonahlossee Trail, The Yonahlossee Raquet Club, The Yonahlossee Saddle Club, Yonahlossee cabin rentals. There is even, I’ve since discovered, a local Yonahlossee salamander. That’s when I realized how pervasive the word is and how inextricable it is from the region. How could we mess with that?”
Director of publicity Jynne Dilling Martin wasn’t bothered by the title’s mouthful. “The bigger fear among many of our staff was Anton’s name,” she writes. “Not only is it difficult to spell ‘DiSclafani,’ but worse, ‘Anton’ sounds like a man’s name, and this novel is about a girls’ horse camp. Would female readers trust someone named Anton to tell a sexy teenage girl story?”
The publicity team considered printing a big photo of Anton on the back cover. Someone joked that maybe she could “change her first name to something more feminine.” But Riverhead has never shied away from difficult names: Nurudddin Farrah, Maile Meloy, Dinaw Mengestu, Aleksander Hemon, Khaled Hosseini. “So we decided, who are we to turn away from an Anton DiSclafani?”
DiSclafani — whose name comes from Sicily — tells me that even she was concerned that her title “was too long and impossible to pronounce,” but no one ever tried to talk her out of it. Now that she’s on tour, though, the challenge is more obvious. “There has not been one single time when someone has said my name and the book’s name correctly.”
Ironically, her husband’s last name is “Smith.”
But who’d remember that?