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On the titling of books

November 2, 2011

Forget about judging books by their covers, what about titles? How important are they to you? Do you ever decide to read a book based on the title alone? Do you always (never, sometimes) consider the title when thinking about the meaning of a book?

Title Puzzle Clker M

Titles: They're a puzzlement (Courtesy: M, via clker.com)

It seems to be a fraught issue, this book titling business – and it makes me wonder just what import to ascribe to titles. Who decides on the title? Do authors always have the final say in the titling of their books? Well, no, they don’t … so, how much can/should we readers think about the title when discussing or thinking about the books we read. Is it worth wasting our time bothering about it as, for example, readers did with Wolf Hall. Why, many of us wondered, was Hilary Mantel‘s book called Wolf Hall? I had an answer, and so did others, but is it worth even bothering about if we don’t know whether the author created the title? This may be a bad example though. Hilary Mantel was an established author when Wolf Hall was published, so it’s likely she had more clout in the titling of her book than a first time author has. Hmm, then, how am I to know when an author has chosen the title and when he/she hasn’t – and therefore when it might be worth my while considering the title and when not?

And what about books which are published under different titles in different countries? Think Miss Smilla’s feeling for snow versus Smilla’s sense of snow. This is a tricky one though because, like The outsider versus The stranger, it is a translated book, so there’s a double whammy here. Not only has the title been translated, but it’s then been translated differently. Are these difference due to translation decisions or marketing ones? A better example might be Harry Potter and the philosopher’s stone versus Harry Potter and the sorcerer’s stone. What’s that about*? Marketing, of course. (And, I can’t help wondering whether the book might have met with less opposition in the USA if the title had not been changed to “sorcerer”?) Again, where does this title confusion, oops variation, leave we readers, particularly regarding our wish to understand and analyse what we are reading?

For an interesting discussion of book titling, read Caroline Baum’s article “What it takes to title a book” in the Sydney Morning Herald back in 2003. It answers some of the questions I raise above and gives some great examples, but it doesn’t really consider where the reader sits in all this (except as the target for marketing).

What say you on the book title issue?

* Rhetorical question. Reasons abound, some from Rowling herself, on the internet. My concern is the general issue, not this specific case.

24 Comments leave one →
  1. November 3, 2011 8:23 am

    Titles entice me. Sometimes, I am disappointed, sometimes not. But, unless I purchase a book based on a good review or a writer’s reputation, it really comes down to the title, the blurb or the cover and I wonder if choosing from a lucky dip would be just as effective.
    I always laugh at the memory of stumbling across a book on the library shelf entitled ‘Never Marry a Woman with Big Feet’. For one with a size-ten hoof, the title gave me a chuckle and I thought it would have something light-hearted to say on the matter. Imagine my dismay when I read the advice to young men that they really should not marry a woman with big feet and the list of reasons why. I never showed my husband!

    • November 3, 2011 9:28 am

      Oh, love the lucky dip suggestion Karen. Sometimes we wondered the same about staff selection. After all the time once takes in recruitment it can still be a hit-and-miss-affair and we often wondered if a lucky dip would work as well!

      As for titles … that’s a good story. You can’t always tell from the title whether they are serious or tongue in cheek, eh?

      I almost never choose on title, but that’s mainly because I have such a backlog of recommended books, reading group scheduled books, and gift books that I am rarely casting around for something to read. As a young reader, though, I’m sure titles and covers played a big role in my reading choices (if I couldn’t find any more books by my favourite authors.)

  2. November 3, 2011 12:56 pm

    I did a post about this on my blog recently and I wasn’t so polite as you. I have to admit though that at the time I wrote it I didn’t realise that authors had as little say in the naming of their books as they do. My biggest complaint was the the titles of the American additions always seem so dumbed down and if I were an American I would be pretty offended.

    having said of all that, to be honest, I wouldn’t often read a compltely random book that hasn’t been recommended to me so titles rarely come into my choosing process. There was one recent exception where I bought a book at the Salvos simply because I liked the sound of the title. Can’t remember what it was now….. but it had something to do with African birds

    • November 3, 2011 4:45 pm

      Oh, did I miss that … or did I comment and have forgotten. I’ll go check though as it’s an intriguing topic and one that I think does cause authors some angst.

      The difference in titles between countries is a fascinating one. I’d like to be a fly on the wall when they discuss it. I love “Miss Smilla’s feeling for snow” … it has a more poetic sound than “Smilla’s sense of snow”.

      And I’m with you, I can’t recollect when I last bought a book on spec that wasn’t one I’d already heard of or by an author I wanted to read more of.

  3. Matthew Todd permalink
    November 3, 2011 3:16 pm

    Michelle Aung Thin wrote an interesting essay about why her new novel is called what it’s called. She was worried that the word Bride would put off all male readers, and imply to female readers a kind of chic-lit romance novel.

    http://wheelercentre.com/dailies/post/ed76a7fe9b16/

    • November 3, 2011 4:54 pm

      Thanks for the link Matt … I’ll go read it. But, you didn’t tell us what her new novel is called! Ah, The monsoon bride. Great article. I love this from it:
      Instead of cutting through entrenched and biased worldviews, I have to take them into account as I negotiate my way through the marketplace. Four years of hard work is at stake. And I am wondering, how do you get in the game without playing the game? How do make sure you are part of the conversation and yet keep your self-respect?

  4. November 3, 2011 9:30 pm

    You know, I would probably say that my strongest response is not to the title, but perhaps that’s silly. I’m trying to think about how I went about picking previously-unknown books when I worked at A&R, and I probably would’ve said that the cover did more than the title, but then again it was the title I saw first on the spine, so that’s probably not right at all! Intriguing…

    • November 3, 2011 10:58 pm

      It is intriguing … and probably hard, really, to pick one factor out of the whole package.

  5. November 3, 2011 10:48 pm

    This article is particularly apt for me this week as the editor I have been labouring with for a while over revisions of my novel tossed in a – And What About The Title? which totally threw me off this week. I have no problem with fixing grammar or repetitions or wonkiness but my title? I read Carolyn Baum’s article and found it equally disturbing to think that some titles were stuck on at the last minute, or thought up by someone other than the author. To me the title embodies the work, and the difference between The Stranger and The Outsider doesn’t really count because neither of them mean L’étranger, or they both do!

    I once bought a book of short stories (Serpent’s Tail) called Come to Africa and Save Your Marriage!

    • November 4, 2011 9:24 am

      Oh great to hear an author’s view/experience Catherine. I can imagine authors feeling like you. You might like to read the article Matthew posted in the comment above. It’s a new author – her first book just out – on the titling of her book and the tension between art and commerce!

      You’re right of course about L’étranger … translated titles are a different ballgame but it is interesting nonetheless. I must say I prefer The outsider, mainly because of connotations, but as you say neither or both are right!

  6. November 4, 2011 12:46 am

    Titles are like book covers to me, a good one will get my attention (equally a bad one will push me away) but it is never the only reason I read a book. I actually like “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” better. From a U.S. perspective, “Miss Smilla” sounds like she is from the South and “feeling for snow” gives the impression that she’s never seen snow before or perhaps has moved north and the book is about Miss Smilla’s time in the Colorado Rockies working at a ski resort or something. A very different book than “Smilla’s Sense of Snow”!

    • November 4, 2011 9:28 am

      Thanks for explaining an American cultural perspective, Stefanie. I take your point re “the South” connotation. I like “feeling” because it seems more subtle, and Miss Smilla offers up a complex array of ideas about the character. Smilla’s sens of snow has lovely alliteration I suppose! Then there’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (here) and, I think for the US, Corelli’s Mandolin. Do you have any explanation for that one?

      • November 5, 2011 2:07 am

        No explanation for Corelli’s Mandolin. The marketers probably had some sort of demographic information on that one that said dropping “Captain” would make the book more appealing to a certain segment of readers.

      • November 5, 2011 2:15 am

        I like the Miss because it has the feeling of precision — ‘Miss’ is more exact than ‘Ms’ or ‘Mr’ — and simultaneous vagueness and mystery. Why is she a Miss? Why isn’t she married? Does she prefer to be single, or has she been crushed by a history of terrible dates? Has she overcome this history; is she a proud defiant Miss? Why doesn’t she call herself Ms? Is she old-fashioned? (And is she old-fashioned and old, or old-fashioned and young?) And so on, and so on. There is paradoxical ambiguity in a Miss. And the sound is nice too, as you point out — miSS SSmilia’SS feeling for [a beat here] SSnow. Rumty tumty tum.

        • November 5, 2011 7:45 am

          Love your analysis, DKS. it accords very much with mine. It’s a title with some flow to it, a bit languid even. It does feel a little more unanswered as you say – to us anyhow!

      • November 5, 2011 7:39 am

        Yes, I guess that’s it, Stefanie, but wouldn’t you love to hear the discussion. I wonder how much of it is intuitive and how much is based on market research.

  7. November 6, 2011 12:57 am

    What an interesting question and timely for me as I was just thinking about this on the train home last night. I’ve just finished reading a book called Woman with Birthmark by Håkan Nesser (good book) and can’t decide if the choice of title is a lazy one or actually really clever. It is also translated from Swedish so I suppose that could affect it as well.

    I never knew that authors didn’t always get to choose their titles. I pick books usually because they’re recommended or I like the sound of the story rather than by title but I do think about the title when I’m reading it and appreciate something well thought out.

    Having said that I did pick Gilgamesh by Joan London randomly off the library shelf (so glad I did!) and the title of that one did intrigue me right from the start…

    • November 6, 2011 7:55 am

      Thanks Tracey. One of my main interests in writing this post was to do with how much we think of the title when reading … I used to consider it more but knowing that the author may have had little say and/or that when they do it is often more about marketing has made mine wary of placing too much emphasis on it.

      Did the Gilgamesh title appeal to you because of the allusion or because you liked the sound?

  8. November 6, 2011 7:45 pm

    A while back I read a book called Little Bee by Chris Cleave. After I returned it to the friend who lent it to me, I wanted to buy a copy for myself. What a surprise to find the same book under the name “The Other Hand”. I like Little Bee better, probably because I loved the book and that name just stuck.
    I also read a book called Farundell which I picked most of all because of the cover which reminded me of Great Expectations. I was curious to find out more about the book and after I read it, one of the questions I asked the author (in an interview on my book-blog) was why this particular name. She said it was suggested by her publisher and I have to say it fits the book rather well. The original title would have been too general.

    • November 6, 2011 8:20 pm

      Thanks Delia – and welcome – for sharing these personal experiences. I love collecting book “title” stories. I don’t know what the book is about, but Little Bee is a more appealing sounding title to me! Is Farundell the name of a character or place in the book? (I’ll check your blog)

  9. November 23, 2011 9:07 pm

    Titles, like covers are very important. I don’t know about first time authors but I;m willing to bet that established authors choose their own titles. Some are just cheesy like “Never Let Me Go”. I admit to buying books based on the title. I like Vendela Vida’s “Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name” thought I’ve not read the book. Using Wolf Hall was just a cynical marketing move to gets anticipating the sequel. Guess it worked because I’m anxious to read Mantel’s new book. Thanks for the post.

    • November 23, 2011 11:54 pm

      Thanks Kinna, I think you are right that established authors would have much greater control over their titles … some though may be happy to talk it over with their editors/publishers while others probably state what they want and get it (as I think they should)!

      I’m not sure I agree with you re Wolf Hall though. You would have to read the whole book to realise that the title might relate to a sequel and it’s a long read. I think it’s a bit of a play on the Seymour family home AND on the notion of wolves and wolf-like behaviour. There is a statement late in the book “…homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man” so I thought it worked ok. The title made us think, I think!

      I must say I really don’t think much of the title “Never let me go”. His other titles are so much better, this one stands out like a bit of a sore thumb doesn’t it?

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