What you call your book may be one of the most important decisions that an author will ever make. It will be the first thing that readers see on your book page, it will feature on your book cover and hold centre stage in all your advertising efforts. And yet you may never find out how successful or not your choice has been. Once your book is published then the title is what it is. It’s baked into the whole thing.
On the left you can see one of my favourite books, Pride and Prejudice. It’s a great title but it was originally going to be called ‘First Impressions‘. Would we love it so much if it had been called something else? As it’s undoubtedly one of the greatest novels ever written then, of course, we’d still love it. However, I think that Pride and Prejudice is a really good title and it also quite nicely reflects on the initially prickly interactions between Elizabeth and Darcy. It just adds to the brilliancy of the work.
A book title that immediately caught my attention when I first read it many years ago was The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. Its original title was ‘The Mute‘. I must admit that this is one case where I think the title really sells the book and it does so without compromising its integrity. While the main character, John Singer, is indeed a mute and has problems communicating, the title also applies to other characters in the book who are also drawn as being lonely and isolated.
There are many great examples of original book titles that I think just wouldn’t have worked. For instance –
The High Bouncing Lover (The Great Gatsby)
The Kingdom by the Sea (Lolita)
The Last Man in Europe (1984)
All’s Well That Ends Well (War and Peace)
If you go on the internet you can find many more.
You know when a book title has made it when it become part of the language e.g. Jekyll and Hyde, Don Quixote, Catch 22, and Lolita and 1984 again. Perhaps the greatest example of this is the book on the Left, Psycho by Robert Bloch. I don’t think I’d ever heard the word before until I saw the film in the 1960s but now the word is everywhere.
I guess that everyone has their favourite titles and probably for differing reasons but, in addition to the ones already mentioned, here’s a totally random list of mine that I’ve thrown together in five minutes (in no particular order) –
East of Eden, Ulysses, The Big Sleep, Brave New World, Slaughterhouse 5, A Clockwork Orange, His Dark Materials, Fahrenheit 451, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, A Confederacy of Dunces, Cider with Rosie, The Idiot and, finally, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
So, how did I pick my titles? I don’t consciously choose my titles, they sort of ‘come’ to me. I can mentally juggle a number of titles for a new book but I always know when I’ve found the title. For my first book I was, somewhat pretentiously, trying to find a clever and literary title but got nowhere. It was turning into a major obstacle when I explained my quandary to my son.
‘What’s it about?’ he asked.
‘Well,’ I replied, ‘it starts off where there’s an accident and a body is found in the boot of a car…’
‘Call it that then,’ he said and walked off.
I did and so The Body in the Boot became my first published work. This taught me a lesson; keep it simple and keep it relevant to the story. I’ve usually not had too much trouble in finding the title for my books but a salutary tale surrounds the seventh Mac Maguire mystery.
When I first conceived the story the title also popped into my head – The Match of the Day Murders. I resisted adopting this as the title for two reasons; Match of the Day is a trademark and, as a lot of my books are sold in the US, I wasn’t sure that American readers would understand the premise. I tried and tried for weeks to find a title until it dawned on me that I already had. So, I called it The Match of the Day Murders (hoping that the BBC wouldn’t notice) and put a note inside for US readers explaining that Match of the Day was a football highlights show etc.
My latest book, The Eight Bench Walk, came about because it was a walk that I took every day while in Larnaka, Cyprus. I found a beautiful esplanade that had benches dotted along it at regular intervals that I could rest on and I gradually built up the distance I walked over a matter of weeks. It culminated in my achieving the ‘eight bench walk’. I knew then that I had the title for a book but the story had to be developed afterwards. In fact, I was two thirds into the story before I worked out what the relevance of the title to the story actually was!
I’m now working on the eleventh Mac Maguire mystery and I have no idea what the title will be. But it will come to me.