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Book Titles – (Don’t) Call It What You Like

Since writing about the importance of titles in Being Selective – How do you choose which books to read?  I’ve given this subject a lot more thought and I’m delighted that bestselling crime writer Sophie Hannah has shared her experience of creating great titles with me for this piece.

What makes a good book title?

A good title gives a flavour of the novel’s theme, tone and genre; it sounds interesting, entertaining, possibly intriguing (the last being particularly popular in the UK); it is original, maybe clever and must be memorable.  A great title is often all it takes to make us want to read a book.  It’s an awful lot to ask of a few little words!  A bland or misleading title spells disaster – it won’t get noticed or talked about; it may put people off and if it sounds like something it isn’t, the book risks bypassing its target market altogether.

As an experiment, I looked in the window of one of my favourite bookshops, Daunt Books in Marylebone High Street earlier this week (see photo). Of those I hadn’t already heard of, the title which appealed to me most was Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End (Leif Persson), of which more later.  I haven’t read all the books I mention here, but those I can recommend (not just for the title) are in bold.

The ‘Literary’

I’m drawn to beautiful, poetic titles, both in their own right and because they inspire confidence in the author’s writing.  For me, F Scott Fitzgerald wrote some of the best ever; I love The Beautiful and Damned (even more with the extra ‘the’ that people often mistakenly add to it).  R J Ellory’s A Quiet Belief in Angels, like my favourite from the shop window, is in fact a crime novel with a literary feel.  A new novel I am keenly awaiting is The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman (26 April 2012) –  such a gorgeous title!

The One Worders

There’s something very powerful about a title consisting of a single abstract word:  Freedom (Jonathan Franzen), Disgrace (J M Coetzee), Atonement (and several others by Ian McEwan).  It conveys a sense of drama and belief in the novel’s central idea, at the risk of sounding slightly arrogant.  No problem, I say, as long as the book delivers.  The problem is, the best words have already been taken…

Throw in a nice glass of something chilled and I'm in heaven. Long live Daunt Books!

The Whimsical

I’m not usually a fan of cute and quirky titles, but I suspect I’m in the minority judging by how many books are called The [Something or Other]Club/Society or [Someone’s] Guide to [Something], to give just two examples.  Left to my own devices, I would never have read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which I enjoyed, and I’m excited about A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson (5 July 2012).  This one sounds original, exotic and fun.

The ‘Referential’

Very tricky territory.  Use something overly familiar and you have a cliché; if, on the other hand, the reader doesn’t get the reference, that’s a problem too.  Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry is an adapted line from a Blake poem but this was lost on me – my baffled reaction was ‘Whose?’  I love the novel And Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris, but the title took ages to grow on me.  If you can get over it beginning with ‘And’, it’s actually a pretty ingenious choice for a novel written in the first person plural about the demise of an ad agency; it’s also a quote from the first line of Don DeLillo’s Americana, but I was’t aware of any of those things.  Somewhere in between these extremes, I think Ali Smith’s There But For The is a great title – we know the expression but somehow she adds something by not completing it.

Cultural differences are another reason to tread carefully.  Sophie Hannah’s seventh psychological crime novel Kind of Cruel has just been published in the UK.  I think she comes up with brilliantly cryptic titles but I wanted to find out why most of her novels have a different title for the US edition.  This is what she told me:

“My US publishers think my English titles are too subtle.  Hence my novel The Point of Rescue was published in America under the name The Wrong Mother, and A Room Swept White became The Cradle in the Grave.  The difference in both cases, as you can see, is that the English titles are less revealing and more metaphorical (for example, in The Point of Rescue, you don’t find out why it’s called that until the very end).  Whereas from the American titles, it’s pretty clear that The Wrong Mother is about someone who’s not very well suited to parenting and The Cradle in the Grave is about the murder of a child or children.  I actually don’t mind the double-title effect – now I try to think up both: a US title and an English title for every book.”

I find that fascinating and would love to know what you think, especially if you’re American!

Titles in Translation

As the English language market is one of the biggest in the world it’s a bit ironic that the book I chose from the window, Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End, was originally written in Swedish.  This happens to be a near-literal translation, but it  doesn’t often work out that way.  Louise Millar’s debut thriller The Playdate (26 April 2012) is already on sale in Dutch as Kom je Spelen? (lit. ‘coming to play?’) and the German title is Allein Die Angst, from an expression that translates roughly as ‘the fear alone,’ which has a very different feel.   As it’s a borrowed American term, it won’t need a different title in the USA.

Titles in the Making

As any writer knows, titles are often changed in the process of publication.  Fellow aspiring writer Jackie Buxton recently took the unusual step of consulting the readers of her blog on a dilemma between her original title Glass Houses and an alternative, resulting in a lively debate which you can read at www.jackiebuxton.blogspot.com.   In my case, the entire novel sprang from the title, which came to me before I started writing.  It’s called Nothing Happens for a Reason, or at least I really hope it will be…

Many thanks to Sophie Hannah, whose all-time favourite title is An Instance of the Fingerpost (Ian Pears).

I asked my Twitter followers for their favourites – thanks to Nan Bovington, Kristin Celms, Daniela Sacerdoti, Eva Hudson, Jackie Buxton, Pam Spurr, Carol Lovekin and Cherry Radford for the following great contributions:

By Grand Central Station, I sat down and wept (Elizabeth Smart)

Alias Grace (Margaret Attwood)

This is not Forgiveness (Celia Rees)

Started Early, Took my Dog (Kate Atkinson)

Glasshopper (Isabel Ashdown)

New Ways To Kill Your Mother (Colm Toibin)

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (Maggie O’Farrell)

We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (Philip K Dick) – which became the film Total Recall.  I think I can see why they changed it!

Please share your own favourite book titles, or tell me what you’d have chosen from the window!

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


26 thoughts on “Book Titles – (Don’t) Call It What You Like

  1. My favourite title is also a translated one: “The Darkroom of Damocles” (from Dutch: The Donkere kamer van Damocles), by W.F. Hermans, 1958, English translation 2007. It is a literary classic in Holland, always in print.

    Here is the summary on the dust jacket:

    During the German occupation of Holland, tobacconist Henri Osewoudt is visited by Dorbeck. Dorbeck is Osewoudt’s spitting image in reverse. Henri is blond and beardless, with a high voice; Dorbeck is darh-haired, his voice deep.
    Dorbeck gives Osewoudt a series of dangerous assignments, helping British agents and eliminating traitors. The assassinations, however, begin to get out of hand. And then Osewoudt discovers that his wife has denounced him to the Germans.
    At the end of the war, having survived all its dangers, Osewoudt is taken for a traitor and captured. He cannot prove that he received his assignments from Dorbeck. Worse, he cannot prove that Dorbeck ever existed. When he develops a roll of film that should show a photograph of them together, the picture is a dud.
    The story of Osewoudt’s fateful wanderings through a sadistic universe is tense and thrilling. Is Osewoudt hero or villain? Or is he a psychopath, driven by illusons? The impossibility of ascertaining whether Osewoudt was on the “right” side or the “wrong” side makes this novel as breathtaking now as it was written a decade after the war.”

    Sorry about copying this and not writing my own words. I must re-read this book again. I think that the title is really clever, and it also has the sinister ambience of the story.

    Posted by Tom Voute | March 15, 2012, 11:40
    • Thanks for the suggestion, Tom, I agree that it’s an intriguing title – I’ve only ever heard of Damocles in connection with the sword. The book itself sounds fascinating, and all the better for being unknown to English speakers; I bet not many of us will have heard of it!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | March 15, 2012, 15:14
  2. Loved your post, Isabel, and found the Sophie Hannah stuff re: US titles fascinating (perhaps confirms our (my?)prejudices…)

    Of the titles in Daunt Books’ window (lovely photos, by the way) I was drawn most to The Midnight Swimmer (I think that ‘two worders’ -not counting the ‘the’ – have their place, too..) but that may also be because of the cover – I think its really rare that publishers get right the synergy there should be between the title and the cover….

    Posted by Joanna Elson | March 15, 2012, 11:54
  3. Brilliant post, Isabel! I love the topic of titles: a great title can do so much to pique your interest and a bad title, well, it can almost ruin a thing sometimes. One of my favorite titles of all time (though not fiction so I didn’t provide it earlier) is Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss. It made me love the book before I even opened the cover. I also found Sophie Hannah’s comments very interesting. As an American, it doesn’t surprise me at all that U.S. publishers would want something more concrete, leaving little to the imagination. I usually prefer the English versions myself (I am an Anglophile after all). Again, wonderful wonderful post! I know I’ll be reading it several more times.

    Posted by Kristin | March 15, 2012, 12:25
    • Thanks Kristin, great to have your input on that debate as an American, although I sometimes feel you are almost ‘one of us’!! Personally I love it when it’s not immediately obvious what the significance of the title is, and it’s always a satisfying moment when those words crop up in the text and you think ‘AH! So that’s why…’ Once or twice though, I’ve read a whole book and still not understood why the title was chosen – it’s really bugging me that I can’t think of an example. With you all the way on ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’. Genius!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | March 15, 2012, 15:23
  4. I really appreciated this blog and I agree with most everything you said.

    Posted by Cassie | March 15, 2012, 16:30
  5. Excellent post, Isabel and one that is very topical for me at the moment, as I am currently searching for the ‘ultimate title’ for my second novel, LOL. Much like yourself the title of my first book arrived at the beginning, with the idea, and became the working, then genuine title. But my second novel title is proving more tricky – I’ve shelved three already.

    I really enjoyed Sophie Hannah’s piece on the difference between titles of book released on both sides of the pond. I had the pleasure of attending one of her ‘Crime and Curry’ evenings at the Stratford Literary Festival last year and find her work inspirational. As you are aware, I have an American publishing house and mine wasn’t changed – possibly a legacy of signing with an Independent. It is interesting how different countries and cultures perceive word variations, however. Something to definitely bear in mind for the future.

    I agree that titles, and covers too, are instrumental in book sales. They both have the ability to catch a reader’s eye and, if you create the right combination, can make a huge difference to a reader examining your book, or ignoring it.

    Great post. Thanks for sharing:)

    Posted by Jane Isaac | March 15, 2012, 16:57
    • Thanks for this, Jane, it’s always great to hear that people enjoy the posts! Sophie’s comments are proving popular as I knew they would – like you I’ve been lucky enough to meet her and R J Ellory on a Faber Academy crime writing course last year. Yes, I know I don’t write crime but it was still brilliant! Good luck coming up with the right title for #2, you’ll get there in the end. I sympathise though, as my MO definitely seems to be come up with title then write book. Have just got to the point where I’m ready to get going on #2, but the title will remain under wraps until I’ve written it.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | March 15, 2012, 19:24
  6. This is an absolutely fascinating discussion, and makes me think that possibly I could find help here…?

    I have a poetry book, and I’m not sure about the title – at the moment it’s called ‘ut pictura poesis’ – ‘as in the picture, so in the poem’ – because it’s poems about paintings. What do you feel about Latin? Is it off-putting?

    And what makes you buy a poetry book? (if you do buy them, of course…) Often they’re named after one of the poems inside, which gives lots of lee-way, but my poems have titles which are just the artist & the painting…


    Posted by Lynn Roberts - poet, author, reviewer, teacher, academic researcher, art historian | March 15, 2012, 23:46
    • Thanks for your comment, and question, Lynn. I must confess that I am not a poetry buff, although my appreciation of poetry has increased in recent years due to my mentor being a poet (no excess verbiage permitted! She’s been great for my writing….) However, in general, and where prose fiction is concerned, I do have a sense that Latin titles are off-putting for the simple reason that most people’s Latin isn’t up to scratch. I definitely include myself in that, despite being a (modern) languages graduate. I suppose at least with ‘Ut pictura poesis’ it’s not that hard to guess the meaning due to the similarity with the English. I’m sure we would both welcome input from anyone reading this who is better qualified to comment…. My Mum gave me Carol Ann Duffy’s The Bees for Christmas, and she was influenced most of all by the beautiful dustjacket (as was I)!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | March 16, 2012, 11:23
  7. This is a great post, Isabel, not that I feel any better about my ability to choose a title for my own work… Hannah’s comments about the American market are interesting and even though it’s tempting to think we can be more intriguing with our titles over here, it’s easy to be too clever. A title isn’t any good if it only works after the book’s been read (ie bought!) does it?

    Interesting you mention R.J. Ellory’s A Quiet Belief in Angels, it sounds so poetic and yet has a whiff of eeriness – I loved that book and the title. I’ve just bought Bad Signs by Mr Ellory but bought it on reputation rather than title, good as it is, which leads me to think that this title thing is most crucial for first time authors.

    Posted by Jackie Buxton | March 16, 2012, 10:06
    • Thanks Jackie. I think we’re all agreed that it’s a very hard thing to get right, partly because people respond so differently. As I said in an earlier comment, I don’t mind at all if the significance of the title is withheld – as long as it’s a great title in the first place and my patience doesn’t go unrewarded. But equally I can understand that many would want to know upfront exactly what it means.

      A Quiet Belief in Angels is often thought to be Roger Ellory’s first novel – it was the one which brought him massive success when it made Richard & Judy Bookclub in 2008. It’s actually his fifth published book, but who knows how much of that success was due to people being attracted by the wonderful title? Thankfully, the novel absolutely lives up to its promise.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | March 16, 2012, 11:37
  8. ‘Jubilee’ was ‘Happy and Glorious’ for years – and right up until it was sent out to publishers. At the time it felt very strange changing it; now I think I was mad to have considered anything else.

    And my own personal favourite book title is: ‘Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf’ by David Madsen, all the more wonderful because the book’s really, really good (with that title, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s all style and no substance, but it’s fab).

    Posted by Shelley Harris | March 16, 2012, 11:11
    • Thanks for that terrific suggestion, Shelley. I’m sure Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf will sell a few extra copies today! Very interesting re the title change of Jubilee – I agree it seems absolutely right for the book you wrote. I also like ‘Happy and Glorious’ very much, but I can see that it doesn’t work as well for anyone not familiar with the words of the national anthem. Those tricky cultural differences again!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | March 16, 2012, 11:43
  9. I really enjoyed reading this post Isabel. I was told by a fellow writer that I was lucky to have my dream titles for both of my novels ‘ Artichoke Hearts’ and ‘Jasmine Skies’ . I hadn’t realised that so many authors are asked to change their titles because of market reasons too. I’m fascinated by how acceptance of certain titles can depend on culture eg America preferences, also how titles change in translation.

    Posted by Sita Brahmachari | March 16, 2012, 12:13
    • Thanks Sita, it really is a fascinating subject where so many factors come into play. You are lucky to have been able to keep your own intended titles, but on the other hand they are beautiful and appropriate to the story, so I bet that’s why!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | March 16, 2012, 13:05
  10. What an interesting post! I missed the twitter discussion on this, but am fascinated by titles and agree that they’re very important. My current favourite is MY DEAR I WANTED TO TELL YOU, which suggested secrets or gossip and possibly a love story. Then I read the blurb which explained that the title comes from postcards that were sent from field hospitals in WW1 to inform relatives that a loved one had been wounded. So it wasn’t quite what I’d first thought but it was still interesting, so I bought it – and loved it. Other favourites include SHADOW BABY, by Margaret Forster, the already mentioned THE VANISHING ACT OF ESME LENNOX (I like names in titles, I think) and Coetzee’s DISGRACE – the most aptly titled novel ever, IMO – its pages just thrum with disgrace. I too would never have read THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY (is that right? It’s so long!) had it not been recommended to me, but I loved it. I didn’t choose from the window, because I’d also be judging by the cover – which is a whole new post, I think. Interesting subject!

    Posted by susan elliot wright | March 17, 2012, 11:31
    • Thanks for that suggestion,Susan, I must say the title doesn’t particularly speak to me so it’s just as well you recommended it. It sounds good. Yes, a blog post on covers does now seem to be in order… glad you liked the post and thanks for reading.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | March 17, 2012, 12:22
  11. This is a great post. I’m a great believer in a good title, it can make or break a book. I think I’m more drawn to ‘The Literary’ and ‘The Whimsical’ from your categories, but there’s a fine line before it gets pretentious. One of my favourites is Jon McGregors ‘If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things’. I also quite liked Nick Hornby’s simple but effective ‘Juliet, Naked’.

    Posted by Cariad Martin | March 19, 2012, 16:28
    • Thanks Cariad, glad you enjoyed it. I’ve loved getting all these great suggestions and hearing what everyone thinks about titles. I agree with you about the Jon McGregor, that’s beautiful. Another one that’s come back to me is The City of Your Final Destination by Peter Cameron, which is superb all round.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | March 20, 2012, 10:23
  12. This is a great idea for a post. I often think about what goes into a good title and almost universally detest the single word title (Jaws being one of the only exceptions). I tend to be a sucker for the poetic or the ones that seem like they are not a book but a five-hundred page college essay.

    Posted by Posky | March 20, 2012, 17:11


  1. Pingback: Book Review – The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman « Isabel Costello - May 10, 2012

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