Posted in Reading, Writing

What’s in a Book Title?

(My column for the December 2015 issue of the Tetbury Advertiser)

My special subject: the obvious title

Now that we’ve made it past Halloween and Guy Fawkes Night, I’m spending a little time each day promoting my festive book, Stocking Fillers.

I intended the title to signal that it contains short stories, to avoid upsetting any readers who feel shortchanged by fiction that isn’t in the form of a novel. Only after the book was published did I appreciate the subliminal helpfulness of a title that is also a serving suggestion: “Makes a great, er, stocking filler”, as I have been known to tweet.

At any time of year, the choice of book title is a sensitive issue for any author and a make-or-break decision for publishers, who will spike an author’s preference if it’s not commercial. Not that title is an infallible predictor of sales: Best Seller, by Timothy B Sagges, languishes in obscurity.

Before and After Classics

The Last Man In Europe smacks to me of smug tabloid phraseology, reminiscent of The Sun’s infamous 1992 headline, “If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights”. In 1948, George Orwell’s publishers preferred 1984, which quickly passed into popular culture as shorthand for an oppressive, controlling regime. Yet if a book with that title were published today, we’d assume it was a nostalgic memoir of the year in which Sweden won the Eurovision song contest with a song called Diggi-Loo, Diggi-Ley. Now there’s a title of questionable judgement, unlike their compatriots’ all-conquering Waterloo ten years before.

Which leads us  neatly into consideration of All’s Well that Ends Well, an inappropriately cheery working title for the huge, serious, philosophical tome about the Napoleonic Wars eventually published as Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

photo of robin on a branch
It may not be a mockingbird, but you’ll have to admit a robin is festive (in the UK, at least)

Even the most carefully chosen titles for international classics can cause confusion. Or is it just me? Until I read it for the first time this autumn, I didn’t latch on to the significance of Harper Lee’s title, To Kill A Mockingbird (originally written as Atticus). Then part way through the book, Miss Maudie explains it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird because it does nothing but give people pleasure. It’s thus a symbol of innocence destroyed. Dare I confess that I’d previously assumed a mockingbird to be an annoying parrot-like mimic, an unsurprising target for any short-fused American with easy access to handguns?

Thank Goodness for Book Covers

December coverIt’s not easy to come up with names that work around the world and across cultures. Vauxhall found out the hard way that in Spanish Nova means “doesn’t go”. I discovered too late that in the US, they prefer the term “stocking stuffers” to the one I’ve used for my festive book title. If it wasn’t for its Christmassy cover, they might presume my book is all about legs.

I’d like to thank the team behind the perfectly-named Tetbury Advertiser for another year of dedication, hard work, patience and good humour, and to wish you all a very merry Christmas and a happy and healthy 2016. See you next year!




English author of warm, witty cosy mystery novels including the popular Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries and the Gemma Lamb/St Bride's School series. Novels published by Boldwood Books, all other books by Hawkesbury Press. Represented by Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agents. Founder and director of the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival. Course tutor for Jericho Writers. UK Ambassador for the Alliance of Independent Authors. Lives and writes in her Victorian cottage in the heart of the beautiful Cotswold countryside.

2 thoughts on “What’s in a Book Title?

  1. I find titles so hard – my last book, Letters from a Patchwork Quilt was originally titled Cynara’s Shadow after an Ernest Dowson poem. It’s thanks to one of my beta readers that it changed – and I think her title has hugely contributed to the book’s success. I think my second book Kurinji Flowers suffers because the title is apt but not appealing – I just wish I’d called it The Tea Planter’s Wife!!!!
    I think Stocking Fillers is a great title. And I think your WIP Best Murder in Show. title is a cracker.
    I’m currently agonising over a title for my latest – I have my fingers crossed the beta readers will come up with the goods
    Happy new year X

    1. Happy New Year to you too, Clare – and thanks for sharing your thoughts about titles. I find it so interesting how different authors work with titles. I tend to have mine in my head before I’ve even started writing the book, and I also like having a rough cover design near the start, which makes it seem more real and motivates me to keep going to the end! I think your final choice was spot on for Patchwork Quilt. Although the Cynara reference is spot on (the only context in which I’ve ever heard that name is the famous line “I have been faithful to thee, Cynara, in my fashion”), I’m not sure that many people would know that poem (and I’d forgotten who had written it), whereas patchwork quilts are instantly visual and vivid, and you immediately start thinking “How did the letters get there?” I think “The Tea Planter’s Wife” would have been a good one, as it instantly says so much – whereas I’ve never heard of kurinji flowers and wasn’t even sure if kurinji was the type of flower or the place they grew. Is it too late to change it now – or could you add “The Story of a Tea-Planter’s Wife” as a subtitle, maybe? In any case, this conversation has just earned it another reader – I was just thinking I needed a good, relaxing novel to escape into (I’ve got tons of books in my to-read-and-review list, as ever, but need something I know I will enjoy before starting some of the more challenging reads in my pile!)

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