Choosing Titles: A book by any other name would smell


We all know not to judge a book by its cover. But what about the title?

The first book I ever sold started life as The Pentagon Agency. I wrote the book, submitted it to Nexus and the (then) editor said, “I want this one: but I hate the title.”

This taught me a very valuable lesson about the publishing industry that I would like to share here today. If someone wants to pay you money, and the only thing between you and an advance payment is the title of the book you’re trying to sell: CHANGE THE TITLE.

Not that I’m solely motivated by financial gain. I also like money too.

The title of that book was changed from The Pentagon Agency to The Black Room and went on to be reprinted as a Nexus Classic. I was fortunate that the editor read past the title to consider the work I had submitted. Editors receive so many manuscripts that sometimes they can make the decision to reject on something as simple as an uninspiring title.

Would my first book have been different with the original title? Yes: it would have been an unpublished book. Did the title have any other effect on the content? No. I can say that in all honesty because the book was written before it was submitted. The only thing that was changed after acceptance was the title.

The original title of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 was Catch 18. Peter Benchley wrote The Summer of the Shark, which got changed to The Terror of the Monster, which got changed to The Jaws of the Leviathan, before becoming Jaws. HG Wells’s original title for The Time Machine was The Chronic Argonauts. (Personally I think The Chronic Argonauts sounds like a euphemism for a bad case of haemorrhoids, but I’m not sure that would have discouraged me from buying the book).

Titles can be chosen in one of three ways. Sometimes a choice phrase, or the implication of two or three words together, can spark a whole story idea. In literary terms this is the workload equivalent of a major lottery win. Once a title like that is strapped on a work in progress half the author’s work is done.

Sometimes the title will occur to the author while the work is being written. A choice phrase — either ambiguous, suggestive or compelling — will leap from the page and make itself known as the title. Again, this is a milestone and means that one of the major stumbling blocks in writing a publishable novel has been overcome.

But there are other times when the title can be as much of a struggle as the thousands of words invested in the body of writing and rewriting the story. On these occasions it’s best to find a sympathetic friend or two, bribe them with alcohol, and brainstorm for potential ideas.

Are titles important?

Margaret Mitchell wrote Tomorrow Is Another Day. This same novel was also entitled Tote the Weary Load. And Milestones. And Jettison. And Ba! Ba! Black Sheep. And None So Blind. And Not In Our Stars. And Bugles Rang True. It was finally published, as you’ve probably guessed, under the title Gone with the Wind. It wouldn’t have been a different story with any of those former titles. It wouldn’t have been a different story if she’d elected to call it Scarlet Does The Confederacy (although, to the best of my knowledge, Margaret Mitchell never considered this last option).

But that doesn’t mean titles aren’t important.

Titles are the most basic shorthand for readers and potential readers. Titles indicate whether or not the book is worthy of their interest. Readers of pirate stories would be more eager to read a copy of Treasure Island rather than The Sea Cook (Stephenson’s original title). The former suggests chests of plundered jewels and high seas misadventures. The latter could be a recipe book for halibut.

It’s also vital to choose the correct title so that the literary legacy we leave behind is not littered with badly named works like Alice’s Adventures Underground (the original title for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) or First Impressions (the original title for Pride and Prejudice) or Something That Happened (the original title for Of Mice and Men).

Choosing titles is seldom easy. Choosing the correct title can often be a very hard process. But, in today’s competitive market, the correct title is essential if you want your book to capture the interest of an editor or a potential reader.

Ashley Lister
May/June 2007

“The Write Stuff” © 2007 Ashley Lister. All rights reserved.

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