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The story that changed the world

How a subtitle became a bestseller

It's easy to name the elements that can contribute to a book's success: the story, the author, the title. Even the dust jacket can make a difference. But the subtitle?

As publishing sensations go, it's not exactly Harry Potter or ''The Da Vinci Code." But for several years, nonfiction titles containing the words ''changed the world" (or a variation thereon) have become a publishing standby. (See accompanying list on B9.)

''It's been going on for a while now, probably for about 10 years," says Adam Begley, books editor of The New York Observer. ''It's now established that if you have something nobody has ever noticed before, you're bound to get a book contract if you say it changed the world."

Although the phrase isn't exactly uncommon, one book is widely credited with popularizing it, Mark Kurlansky's 1997 bestseller, ''Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World." The success of that book caught the attention of authors and publishers.

''My recollection is that it suddenly popped into my head and everyone liked it," Kurlansky says. ''There wasn't a lot of discussion about it. Of course, it's slight hyperbole, but I like a little hyperbole in a title."

That hyperbole has generated hyperbole of its own. ''Changed the World" has become enough of a publishing convention to have mutated. The subtitle of ''The Measure of All Things," Ken Alder's 2002 book on the origins of the metric system, is ''The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error That Transformed the World." A much sexier variation appears in the subtitle of Holley Bishop's ''Robbing the Bees: A Biography of Honey -- The Sweet Liquid Gold That Seduced the World," which was published earlier this year.

The most dramatic version of ''changed the world" is ''saved the world." Soviet spy Oleg Penskovii, D-day, and the partnership between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill have all saved the world -- as has the mother's milk of Lisa Wood Shapiro, author of 2004's ''How My Breasts Saved the World: Misadventures of a Nursing Mother."

The appeal of ''changed the world" is obvious. The words are simple. They're dramatic. They're intriguing (so how did mauve change the world?). Kurlansky, whose most recent book is ''1968: The Year That Rocked the World," suggests another attraction.

''I am of that '60s generation," he says, ''and for people of my age that phrase 'change the world' has a real resonance. That's probably why it was in the back of my mind. I think it's pretty appealing to change the world."

Kurlansky wishes that the subtitle trend would change, too. ''The problem is that what you want for a title is something different. After 5,000 people have copied 'changed the world,' it doesn't sound different anymore. It sort of kills your title."

Begley agrees. He sees a limit to the appeal of the subtitle and wonders how much longer it can sustain its popularity.

''I've never read a single one of these books," Begley says with a laugh. ''What you need to do is find the book that changed the world -- and publishing. The Gutenberg Bible? That might be it."

What has changed the world?

All these things have, according to the subtitles of books published during the last decade:

Gunpowder ''Gunpowder. Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive That Changed the World," Jack Kelly

Quinine ''Quinine: Malaria and the Quest for a Cure That Changed the World," Fiammetta Rocco

El Nino ''El Nino -- The Weather Phenomenon That Changed the World," Ross Couper-Johnston

Zarathustra ''In Search of Zarathustra: The First Prophet and the Ideas That Changed the World," Paul Kriwaczek

The Jesuits ''Heroic Leadership: Best Practices From a 450-Year-Old Company That Changed the World," Chris Lowney

Coal ''In the Kingdom of Coal: An American Family and the Rock That Changed the World," Dan Rottenberg

The USS Monitor ''The Monitor: The Iron Warship That Changed the World," Gare Thompson

The first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable ''The Cable: The Wire That Changed the World," Gillian Cookson

The 1919 Paris Peace Conference ''Paris 1919: ''Six Months That Changed the World," Margaret MacMillan

Nasdaq ''Nasdaq: A History of the Market That Changed the World," Mark Ingebretsen

Picasso's ''Guernica" ''Picasso's War: The Destruction of Guernica and the Masterpiece That Changed the World," Russell Martin

The compass ''The Riddle of the Compass: The Invention That Changed the World," Amir D. Acze

The color mauve ''Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World," Simon Garfield

The human brain ''Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain -- and How It Changed the World," Carl Zimm

Glass ''Glass: From the First Mirror to Fiber Optics, the Story of the Substance That Changed the World," William S. Ellis

The Twist ''The Twist: The Story of the Song and Dance That Changed the World," Jim Dawson

The railroad ''Hear That Train Whistle Blow! How the Railroad Changed the World," Milton Mel

The birth-control pill ''The Pill: A Biography of the Drug That Changed the World," Bernard Asbell

Greenpeace ''Greenpeace: How a Group of Journalists, Ecologists, and Visionaries Changed the World," Rex Weyler

The sewing machine ''Queen of Inventions: How the Sewing Machine Changed the World," Laurie Carlson

US foreign policy ''Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World," Walter Russell Mead

Food preservation ''Pickled, Potted, and Canned: How the Art and Science of Food Preserving Changed the World," Sue Shephard

The 1999 US women's soccer team ''The Girls of Summer: The US Women's Soccer Team and How it Changed the World," Jere Longman

British science fiction ''SF/UK: How British Science Fiction Changed the World," Daniel O'Brien

The credit card ''The Credit Card Catastrophe: The 20th Century Phenomenon That Changed the World," Matty Simmons

Video games ''The Ultimate History of Video Games: From Pong to Pokemon and Beyond -- the Story Behind the Craze That Touched Our Lives and Changed the World," Steven L. Kent

Doll making ''Dollmakers and Their Stories: Women Who Changed the World of Play," Krystyna Poray Goddu

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