I was at work at the bookstore today, doing the things you do at a bookstore – straightening shelves, putting mis-filed books back where they belonged, etc. And I started noticing titles and cover art on many of the fiction books. After I finished the shelves, I opened a box of ARCs (these are “Advanced Reader Copies” of books that come from the publishers to bookstores for, hopefully, favorable reviews.) Not all of them have blurbs or cover art, but all of them do have a title. So it got me to wondering… what is it that draws us to pick up a book and, perhaps, purchase it?
With ARCs that have no cover art or blurbs, the first thing that has to draw you is the title. So what makes a good title? Shakespeare said, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” The same can be said for books. The text of a book is the same no matter what the title is. But a good title can make or break a book.
Take for instance, the title “Trimalchio in West Egg”. Would you ever pick up that book? I know I wouldn’t. And yet, that’s what F. Scott Fitzgerald called “The Great Gatsby” (among other things – he had several for this story). Or what about “The Sentimental Education of Frederick Henry”? Ever heard of Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms”? (Note: I’ve pasted some others below.)
The point is, the original titles were…uninteresting at best. So what makes a good title? For me, it has to not only convey a sense of the story, but not overwhelm. Once you’ve gone beyond three or four words, you’ve gone too far. Yes, I know there are good titles out there that are longer, but if you look at most books, their titles are short.
A title also has to be intriguing and unique. In today’s world of tweets and blurbs and Google, you don’t want something that is so common, nobody will find it. But not so unique that nobody can spell/pronounce/understand it. There’s a very fine balance that must be achieved for a title to work well.
So, tell me, what are some of your favorite titles? And why do you like them? What drew you to them?
Next week, we’ll talk about cover art.
Other Original Titles:
George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was The Last Man in Europe. And his Animal Farm was going to be Animal Farm: A Fairy Story, A Satire, or A Contemporary Satire
Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises was originally called Fiesta.
W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage was Beauty from Ashes.
Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace was All’s Well That Ends Well. (hmmm – I think Shakespeare might have had an issue with that!)
Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind was going to be Tomorrow Is Another Day OR: Not In Our Stars OR: Tote the Weary Load OR: Bugles Sang True.(Like Scarlett, she really couldn’t make up her mind, I guess).
Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead was originally titled Second-Hand Lives.
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was originally titled simply Atticus.
JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series was originally titled The War of the Ring.
Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front was originally translated Nothing New in the West (a direct translation of the German).
Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter was originally titled The Mute.
John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was originally titled Something That Happened.
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was originally titled First Impressions.
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden was originally titled Mistress Mary.
William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was originally titled Strangers From Within.