Monday, August 08, 2016

What Really Is in a Name?

How likely would you be to pause, looking along the shelves of a bookshop, and cry, 'Oh, I simply must read this!' as you spotted a book entitled Four and a Half Years of  Struggle Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice? I can't say I would, but millions did when it was sold under the title Mein Kampf. (It's hard to say just how many millions, since there has been a German ban on disclosing the figures and even with the new edition publishing houses won't say).

Trimalchio in West Egg: Something That Happened: The Last Man in Europe: A House of Faith. I don't know who it was who persuaded F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh to change them to the rather snappier The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, 1984 and Brideshead Revisited but I reckon those authors owed them a considerable debt of gratitude.

Certainly whoever convinced Tolstoy that despite the fact that the boy got his girl in the end, All's Well that Ends Well wasn't really a suitable title for a book that majored on bloodshed, death and disaster and ended with Moscow engulfed in flames, did a service to the innocent reader who might otherwise have embarked on it in a spirit of cheerful optimism. (Though come to think of it, Shakespeare's so-called comedy of the same name isn't exactly laugh a minute either.)

The factors that most persuade me to buy a book are:
  1. That it's by an author I've read and liked before.
  2. That a friend I trust has recommended it.
  3. That I've read a good review.
  4. That the blurb catches my interest.
Well down the list come the cover – sorry, Rick! – and the title, unless it's one of those very quirky ones like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. In general I describe the book I'm reading by location – 'It's the one lying on the floor by my side of the bed' – if my husband's going upstairs and I want him to bring it down.

However, editors and marketing departments do think the right title is crucially important.

I don't know if other authors find appropriate titles that appeal to their publishers more easily than I do, but considering that these giants of literature most certainly got it wrong I probably shouldn't sulk when what I think is a perfectly appropriate title is rejected. On this evidence, they've probably done me a favour. Probably. Well, you wouldn't expect me to agree totally, would you? I bet Tolstoy muttered into his beard that War and Peace was just a statement of the blindingly obvious.


Vicki Delany said...

I find the cover extremely important in a buying situation. I won't say I've ever bought a book only because of the cover, but an appealing cover will convince me to pick it up and read the blurb, whereas an unattractive cover won't even get me to that all important blurb. Same for title.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

I'm a cover person, too. I love cover art, and look for great covers among the many postcards on conference tables. I pick up books in libraries and bookstores with thought-provoking covers.

But I do spend a lot of time thinking about my own titles because I can't write until I have one that feels right. Still I think my publisher was right when marketing changed my last title from "The Death of the Red Queen" to the snappier "The Red Queen Dies". That said, I have a hard time remembering the titles of books I'm currently reading. It's only the ones that have become my personal favorites that stay in my memory bank.